This Mother's Day, Remember The NICU Moms


Last May, when Afton Shaw was 34 weeks pregnant, she came down with several agonizing headaches that were determined to be signs of severe preeclampsia. She was sent to the hospital for an emergency cesarean section, after which her new baby was whisked off to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), while she spent a week in the hospital recovering.

A few days prior to Mother’s Day, she was well enough to go home.

“Leaving him on the Wednesday before Mother’s Day was horrifying. I don’t know how else to describe it,” said Shaw, 34.

On the holiday itself, her feelings yo-yoed wildly. Shaw and her husband brought their two older children to the NICU ― it was the first time the whole family had been together in one room.

“It was wonderful but also heart-wrenching,” Shaw recalled. “I knew I’d have to leave him. It was so hard.”

When a baby is admitted to the NICU for any length of time and for any reason, it can take a toll on parents’ mental health. Around 70% of moms with babies in the NICU develop some form of postpartum depression. And up to a quarter experience at least some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mother’s Day — marketed to American families as an obligatory day of celebration, upon which we spend more than $23 billion a year ― can be fraught for women whose babies are in the NICU fighting for their lives. Every day in the NICU has the potential for emotional turbulence, but health care workers say they see firsthand that Mother’s Day is almost universally hard.

“To not acknowledge the emotional significance of this day would be to do a disservice to our families,” said Dr. Rachel Chapman, medical director of the newborn and infant critical care unit at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

“The experience, particularly for our brand-new mothers, is not anything that anyone imagined,” Chapman said. “It’s not breakfast in bed. It’s not cuddling with your kids. It’s ‘I have to get up and go visit my critically ill baby.’”

Many hospitals have made a concerted effort to be sensitive to that fact. At Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, for instance, staff take photos of all the babies in the NICU and place them in cards in front of their cribs or isolettes, so they are the first thing the mothers see when they come for a visit. Social workers and peer support groups talk about how to handle the emotions of the day.
Chapman said that when possible, staff will also encourage special moments of bonding. For a mom who perhaps hasn’t been able to touch her baby yet, “nurses and staff will say, ‘How can I help you get your hand in there?’” Chapman said. “Or ‘Today is a good day for skin-to-skin.’”

For Sarah Genovese, Mother’s Day 2013 was the first day she was able to hold her twins at the same time, after they’d already spent 31 days in the NICU.

“It was a huge day for us,” Genovese, 37, recalled. “To finally have