Supporting single parents in NICU

Premature baby and mother hands

Throughout my pregnancy, I hung onto the hope that things would be easier once I had my baby. It wouldn’t be so odd to be single with a baby – there’s loads of single parents, right?! Since L arrived, I’ve felt much more comfortable about my single parent status. People are too busy fussing over how cute he is (or usually how small he is…) to care about my significant other. I surround myself with mums on maternity leave, not a partner in sight as the paternity leave ebbs away. Sure, I can’t join in the mother-in-law outrage but we spend far more time moaning about our lack of sleep anyway.

But I hadn’t expected the in-between world of NICU. No longer pregnant, but not able to take my newborn baby home. The NICU bubble isn’t designed to be compatible with single parenthood. The basis of family-centred care in the NICU is 24/7 access for parents. Parents. Plural.

I had no idea how NICU worked as I’d been too traumatised the evening before L’s arrival to listen to the nurses scrambled to my bedside to brief me on their secret world. I broke down in tears and they were quickly whisked away. Several hours after my c-section, my mum wheeled me down to L’s incubator. A few minutes after I had seen my son for the first time, a nurse told me they’d make an exception for my mum on this first occasion. My head was spinning – I couldn’t do this on my own!

Once I had some time to gather my thoughts, I realised that the NICU norm was 24/7 access for the mother and the father. There was a separate hour visiting slot on weekends for grandparents and siblings. I liaised with the nurses and my mum was granted parental rights to visit L at any time, but I had to be present. I felt grateful for this and didn’t test the boundaries of her pseudo-parental role until we were moved to SCBU. I was too overwhelmed to argue my case for the support I needed. I hope I will never encounter NICU again and certainly not as a single parent. But if I did my time again, I would’ve ensured that I had the same support as every other mother on the unit. If you are a single mother on NICU, here are my suggested things that you expect as support from the unit [based on the policies at my NICU – other NICUs have less/more strict terms]:

a named person with equivalent parental responsibilities: after negotiation, my mum was allowed to visit L whenever I was present. It wasn’t too difficult to achieve this and my mum was named on our contact forms as the ‘other’ parent. It was made very clear to me that my mum was allowed in as my support and not in her own capacity. Although I didn’t realise this at the time, it placed a huge pressure on me. Like all NICU parents, I was paranoid about becoming ill and being unable to visit. If I fell sick, L wouldn’t have any visitors. An agreement that my mum could visit independently would have eased the pressure on me and perhaps would have allowed me to have a break. I can’t imagine not spending every day at the hospital, but it would have been nice to have spent some evenings resting knowing that L was in the company of his grandmother.

I had never envisaged a situation where I wouldn’t be able to care for my baby after his birth and luckily I wasn’t in that situation. But I know many other preemie mums who were in ICU themselves after their early delivery. I wish I had put a disclaimer in my maternity notes that my mum should be granted all parental rights in the event I was incapacitated. I couldn’t bear the thought of L being in NICU all alone if I had also been unwell following the c-section.

physical contact for the other person: I was given an almighty telling off when I asked my mum to help me change my 2lb baby’s nappy in the incubator. I was scared, not quite sure how to lift his wires without hurting him, but wanting to show the nurses I could do it myself with a little family help. Only parents can touch the preemie. But I knew once we were discharged, my mum would be the other person cradling L. As L became stronger, I was increasingly frustrated that he wouldn’t recognise my mum’s touch.  I asked several nurses if she could touch L but the answer was always only parents could touch the baby. It was a ridiculous application of protocol – why would L’s biological father, who hadn’t spoke to me during my entire pregnancy, be allowed to waltz in and pick up the baby in the place of my mum who was by my side throughout? I plucked up the courage to raise the question during the consultant round, much to the indignation of the nurse on duty. The consultant agreed immediately that my mum could touch L, as she was my partner in NICU for all other purposes.

The first time my mum held L was a beautiful moment. She couldn’t believe quite how tiny he was, despite seeing him nearly every day for the last 4 weeks. But the moment was ruined somewhat by one of the large bulky privacy screens surrounding us, incase other parents saw and wondered why I had special treatment. This made me feel as if we were doing something wrong. Single parents should not be made to feel guilty for wanting another pair of (non-parental) hands to help out.

no questions: I haven’t seen L’s medical notes, but I assume there would’ve been clear instructions that his father was not involved in his care. Despite this, I got asked several times by different nurses if he had been in contact or if he was planning to meet L. How long we had been together. Did he live in the same city as me? Yes, I know we all like to have a gossip and as far as I could tell, I was the only single parent in our NICU. But there is a time and a place.

respect: This may have been me with a chip on my shoulder, but I often felt like I was treated differently to some of the couples on the NICU. When dads turned up at the end of the day, chairs were pulled up and updates were given to the other parent. My mum would often have to hunt down a seat and would not really be acknowledged in the same way. I was talked down to when I disagreed with a care plan or course of action. I made to feel like I was a silly teenage single mum rather than a professional woman. I once overheard the nurses talking about a surprise for the dads on Father’s Day – a card or something with the baby’s prints. I spoke aloud and asked if L could have something addressed to his grandad. They seemed shocked that I had overheard (it was in the middle of the quiet ward, I was the only other parent) and said it was supposed to be a surprise, rather than reassuring me that L wouldn’t be left out.  If situations arise that shine a light on a parent’s single status, nurses could consider the best way to address it with the parent.

The loneliness that a single parent will feel in NICU is inevitable, despite the best intentions and support from staff. There were many nurses who did provide me with support and kind words when I had to answer questions about L’s father. But the NICU environment could be made more sympathetic to single parents, with some minor tweaks and a little thought.

A diary: the single mum on Mother’s Day


05:30 – thanks to daylight savings, the time has magically changed to 06:30! Not that I have had the inclination to change any of my clocks of course. Although I’m as tired as ever, I consider this a success as technically I’ve had a lie in.

06:50 – can’t ignore L’s protests any longer so we get out of bed. No breakfast in bed for me and no card waiting to be opened. Usual morning routine of Little Baby Bum and finding a small window of time to eat my breakfast. Make L’s breakfast.

07:30 – still getting L to eat breakfast.

07:45 – give up after 2 bowls of porridge and a slice of toast thrown at me.

Blur of time, nappy changes, boob and random crying until 09:30 – find some time to scroll Facebook while L is occupied. Cute statuses from people wishing their mums a good day. Some poignant statuses from those who have lost their mums or children. But mainly lots of statuses showing how thoughtful partners have been in helping their children spoil their mums. Lie ins, breakfast in bed, presents bought with pocket money…and the mums with children too young for the concept seem equally spoilt.

10:00 – my own mum arrives with a lovely card ‘from’ L and some Mummy branded goodies. I love her and the gesture but I feel guilty that she’s made more of an effort than I have for her! It may be my first Mother’s Day, but she’s my mum too! But guilt is an everyday occurrence anyway, so I try and move on.

11:30 – we finish a weekly food shop together (no other time to manage the shop with L in tow) and he kicks off halfway around the store, so I take him to the car. He feeds and then throws up all over my seats, door and my clothes. Spend 20 minutes shivering from stripping off layers and mopping my child and car.

12:30 – we go for lunch at a local club and are thrilled with the scenery from the restaurant. Lots of families in the room; we are the only women dining without extended family around. There are flower presentations galore. L refuses his food and is grumpy, so we take it in turns to eat. No chance of either of us having a relaxing meal as there is no-one else to give the mum and grandmother a break. Eventually L falls asleep in his pram and we can eat our dessert in unison.

13:30 – I break my Slimming World allowance to eat a cake and immediately feel guilty. My mum chastises me and reminds me that it’s Mother’s Day, I deserve a treat. Says who?!

14:00 – we treat ourselves to an hour in the garden while L has a nap. It is amazing! Sun on our faces, peace and quiet. But we both keep shuffling around and reminding eachother of all the errands we should be getting on with. I get emotional thinking about this time last year, when we also sat in the garden and I worried about whether to get in contact with L’s dad or not. If only I knew what would unfold as a preemie mum.

15:00 – guilt takes over and we sort out L’s newborn stuff to go in the attic.

16:00 – I build L a new highchair to use at my mums house.

16:30 – highlight of the day; L manages to move himself off his mat and change direction. Countdown to crawling! We both coo over him and I couldn’t be prouder.

17:00 – unsuccessfully take it in turns to try and feed L dinner.

18:00 – somehow I manage to eat some food in between playing games with toast to try and coax L into eating. I decide my mum deserves a break so prepare to leave.

18:10 – L does a poo as soon as we step out of the house. Back in!

18:30 – Another attempt to feed L some fruit. He just wants the spoon. I have loads of things to put away, dishwasher and washing machine to unload but I’m drained. I sit and play with L on the mat.

19:10 – L has gone to bed and it’s still light outside!! Thank you daylight saving!! Finally I might actually have an evening!

19:15 – but as usual, I’m exhausted. It’s too much effort to even take my make up off so I retire to bed. I’ll be shocked if I manage to stay awake past 9pm.

But I’ll be even more shocked if you’ve read to the end of this post! I’m well aware this is an incredibly mundane post. A boring chronological account of the daily grind – except today should be a little different, it’s Mother’s Day. I am acutely aware that I am so incredibly lucky to have spent the day with my mum and baby. I really have had a lovely time with them. I’m also aware that Mother’s Day is just a gimmick.

But maybe one day, I will get spoilt on Mother’s Day. The breakfast in bed, the flowers. The energy to spoil my mum too.

Maybe one day.

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Single, Pregnant…oh, and a preemie.

It’s fair to say that my life has changed pretty dramatically over the last year. On 16 November 2016, I discovered that I was pregnant. A week later the baby’s father had blocked all contact with me and I faced the prospect of being pregnant and single. I was TERRIFIED. Surely no-one else had ever been in this situation?!

I was thrilled to discover Christine Coppa’s amazing book Rattled a few weeks later; Christine seemed to be my perfect soulmate, another career woman who had fallen pregnant while dating. She seemed pretty positive about the whole situation and had even gone on a ‘babymoon’ before her bundle of joy arrived. Except Christine had two older brothers who were clearly destined to be the perfect male role models. She had a large circle of friends who showered her with cute baby outfits throughout her pregnancy. My US geography isn’t great, but it seemed pretty simple for her to move back to her hometown and commute back to her old life. Happy days.

Rattled gave me a lot of hope that I could be single and pregnant. And I survived. But I didn’t meet anyone else in my situation. It was the darkest and longest period of my life, where I faced complete upheaval by moving back home away from all my friends in London. But of course, it wasn’t that long. Just as I was preparing to freak out put my feet up for maternity leave, my baby’s movements were reduced. Fast forward five terrifying days in hospital and my baby boy L was delivered by emergency c-section at 30+6. My little 2lb 10oz baby. I had to ride the NICU rollercoaster for six weeks before I could bring him home.

And here I am. Baby L is tucked up in bed asleep. And nearly a year after that pregnancy test, I’m still reeling. My life has changed beyond all comprehension. But I’ve survived! Somehow, it has all worked out. So I want to share my experience with others, if only to make sure that any other frightened ladies who type ‘single pregnant help me!‘ into Google aren’t faced with the same list of random articles (none of which seem relevant – except the excellent articles by Coppa, which do help) or an array of forum posts. The endless forum threads always promise the mum-to-be that things that things will get better – but the control freak in me wanted to know exactly how bad it could get! If you’re single, pregnant and end up with a premature baby, then you’re in for a real treat…(and message me, you mythical creature!)