I am a NICU mommy. I am a mama who gave birth to one of the 380,000 premature babies born in the U.S each year.
I am the 1-in-9 statistic. My brave warrior prince, Wilder, was born two months and two days before his due date on a frigid January night in 2014. Nine days earlier, at 30 weeks pregnant, I awoke at three a.m. and, to my horror, discovered I was hemorrhaging. I persuaded my husband to stay home with our two-year-old son, Dash, and took an Uber by myself to the hospital. Twelve hours and two sonograms later, I was placed on full bedrest.
I’m a NICU mama. This is my story.
Despite several miscarriages and complicated pregnancies, I was still completely unprepared and shocked when my OB told us I would have to deliver our son prematurely. I remember so vividly the look of concern on his face as he sat on the edge of my hospital bed and said my situation had taken a serious turn—I was losing too much blood and we needed to deliver.
“But I’m barely 31 weeks,” I cried, looking at my husband’s face as his eyes also welled up with tears. My doctor took my hand and said firmly, “This is what I can tell you for certain: We have an incredible NICU here. He will be in great hands. Also, a baby I delivered at 29 weeks is currently at Harvard.” I let out some combination of a laugh and wail, took a deep breath, and said, “OK. Let’s do it.”
Related: This is birth: A NICU birth story
There is nothing more anxiety-inducing than the sterile white walls of an operating room in the middle of the night. I had been in this exact room two years prior delivering Dash, but this time was very different. You could feel the collective nervousness in the room, even from the doctors, who were trying to stay as calm as possible. When the doctor whispered “Happy Birthday,” I knew our baby was out of my body but I wasn’t sure of his condition. I stared at my husband’s face, frantic for some sign he was OK and all I heard was a deafening silence.
“Is he OK?” I said to my husband, sheer panic in my voice. “I don’t know,“ he said grimly, and I could see his eyes were plagued with fear. A couple minutes later that felt like an eternity, I screamed “Will someone (expletive) tell me my baby is OK, please?” and a doctor shouted at me to stay calm. I heard a suction noise and the smallest, tiniest cry. I looked at my husband and we burst into tears. Our son was alive.
Thus began our harrowing journey of having a preemie. From the second Wilder was whisked away into the NICU and placed into an incubator for 49 days, we were in survival mode. The first time I held him I could not believe how small he was. He weighed four pounds and was 17 inches tall—around the size of a pineapple. He had tubes coming out of his mouth and nose and was hooked up to heart and oxygen monitors. He had an IV in. It was so much more terrifying than I could have imagined. I was hysterical, sure that I would lose him.
His NICU staff, a dream team of the most incredible nurses, were like earthly angels. They immediately calmed me down, dried my tears, made me laugh and reassured me that although he was sick, he was in very good hands. They did not make false promises that he would be OK, but they were confident that his breathing difficulties and appearance were consistent with that of a baby born at 31 weeks. In the NICU, every day a baby was in the womb was considered vital. On the spectrum of sick versus critically sick, 31 weeks in the womb was considered fortunate.
Related: Dear NICU mama—I’m the nurse who sees you, everyday
I learned so much. I learned about intubation, weak lungs, heart complications, feeding tubes and how to read an oxygen machine. Every day a new struggle presented itself and my husband and I had to pray that Wilder would survive. We would vacillate between being terrified and inconsolable and strong and confident that we would get through it. The first time we left him at the hospital to go home I was a wreck. I walked down the hall sobbing and saw my new NICU mommy friend whose baby occupied the incubator next to ours. She opened her arms, we cried together, and she told me to go home and eat lots of ice cream. So that’s what I did.
For the next two months, I had a routine in place and ran on adrenaline. I would wake up, spend time with Dash, and then go to the hospital to cuddle Wilder all day until late at night, only going home to sleep. I made NICU mommy friends in the pumping room, where we laughed, shared our fears and discussed our babies’ ‘accomplishments.’ It was a major day when one of our babies’ feeding or breathing tubes was removed. We were surviving together, working toward one common goal—our babies being healthy enough to come home.
Wilder’s day finally arrived. In mid-March, he felt fresh air for the first time on his little face. I had dreamed of that day and when it finally came, I was terrified. After surviving the NICU, would he survive in the world?
My baby is now 19-months-old. He is beautiful and strong, but it has not been easy. He has a weak immune system and is in physical, occupational and speech therapy. He is thriving, but being born premature means he will need extra help until he is at least three. My journey as a NICU mommy also didn’t end with him coming home. I have suffered anxiety and post-traumatic stress. I worry constantly about his health and well-being.
I blamed myself for not being able to carry him to full term, even though I logically knew it was not my fault. Fertility is mysterious and complex. Like the majority of mommies I met in the NICU, I had no prior health complications my entire life. Yet I was seemingly fragile when it came to pregnancy, and one of the unlucky ones that randomly had a placental abruption. There was nothing I could have done to change it or stop him from being born early, and I am filled with gratitude daily that he is alive.
September is NICU awareness month and that is why I’m sharing my story. I am the proud mommy of a small but fierce NICU survivor, and I am a mommy who survived the NICU experience. I am eternally grateful to the extraordinary team of doctors and nurses in the NICU at Lenox Hill. Walking out of the hospital with a baby is a gift. Walking out with a NICU baby is a true miracle.
Azizah Rowen is a California bred New Yorker, mommy, wife, actress, producer and musician. You can follow Azizah on her blog, The Artist Mommy.
A version of this post was published September 3, 2021. It has been updated.