Attachment in the NICU; or Contending with Cuddlers

One of the more confusing yet heartbreaking moments I had when Elliott was in the hospital was when I walked in to see him when he was closer to term, in the PICU,  and just a week from coming home (although I didn't know it at the time);  he was being held and rocked by a hospital volunteer, a "cuddler". Emotionally I felt a burning inside, a proprietary feeling over my son, and the feeling that "I have yet another person I have to ask to hold my son?"

It was a moment I had to analyze later, after I'd gone home, because I felt conflicted about it. After all, how awful for me to get angry or sad because someone else was holding my baby. These volunteers were there out of the kindness of their own hearts, and made it so Elliott could be held even when I couldn't be there. That was a good thing, right? I wanted for him to experience human closeness; if he had been a term baby and able to go home right away I would have been holding him all the time, wearing him, giving him all kinds of physical affection. Wasn't a cuddler, holding Elliott when I couldn't be there, the best possible outcome considering the circumstances?

Cuddling with Elliott

At that moment I realized the extraordinary sense of loss that I was feeling, that many NICU moms feel. Not only had I lost my third trimester, my sense of safety and predictability, and many of the hopes that I'd had in having babies, I was also losing my sense of feeling like Elliott's primary caregiver, like the person he felt most attached to in his world.

Of the many stresses facing parents when their child faces a NICU stay, the notion of attachment, or how you will become psychologically "attached" to your child, may be one of the greatest. It's difficult to imagine what your attachment with your baby will look like when they are inside of a plastic incubator, separated from you, and at times too tiny and medically fragile to hold. It can be devastating, particularly as a mother, to be discharged from the hospital with empty arms (and empty belly), with days, potentially weeks ahead of you, in which you will be separated from each other. Discharge from the hospital can be in and of itself a stressful event for parents, as it symbolizes a descent down the "tip of the iceberg"-- and into an unpredictable future in which your child will be hospitalized, and, in most cases, separated from you.

In the beginning of the NICU experience, it's challenging to cope with the idea that for the next days/weeks/months, you will most likely need to ask permission to hold your baby, you will require assistance and training to complete many tasks (even diaper-changing), you will need to make decisions regarding your baby's health without ever having had any experience with said issues.

All of these things can have the effect of making you feel almost as if your baby isn't yours, but rather a permanent ward of the hospital. It can also make you feel as though you don't play an important role in your child's care, especially when your child is especially medically fragile and reliant on various medical interventions to survive. As such, anger, grief and resentment can sometimes burst out in unpredictable ways, even towards people like Elliott's cuddler, who was giving and kind, but happened to symbolize a whole world of frustration that my baby wasn't home with me.

Parents have reported feeling angry, sad, afraid, anxious, and frustrated, amongst other things. There are many effects that all of this can have on the psychology of parents, but the underlying issue is that having a baby in the NICU feels very different than having a  take-home baby for whom you provide all care, and requires an adjustment of your perception and beliefs. Luckily, finding resources and support can help you articulate the grief you might be feeling, and promote moving forward without that resentment.

We had a few moments in the NICU, and many more after discharge, where I realized that my attachment with Elliott likely wouldn't be damaged by his NICU stay and separation from his parents for three months. The theory behind attachment is that it's somewhat like a dance, and the patterns that you develop in a partnership are important to nurture and repeat over time. The loss of that initial caretaking/parenting experience, in other words, doesn't mean that it will never happen when your baby has to have a NICU stay. But I sure as heck wouldn't have told myself that fact the day I walked in to find my son in yet another (sweet and caring) person's arms at the hospital and was ready to pull my own hair out.

I'm wondering if this resonates with other readers... Did you, in your experience, ever have a circumstance in which you became angry or resentful with someone that in your "logical" mind you were incredibly grateful or happy to have around? Did the NICU experience force you to feel less attached to your baby (at least for the time period in which they were hospitalized)?