THE BLOG
07/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

PBS's 'This Emotional Life': Can Neonatal Intensive Care Hurt Your Bond With Your Baby?

I held my daughter, Twin "A," for the first time when she was more than a day old; my son, Twin "B" another day after that. By then they had become accustomed to the sterile, gloved hands of strangers, NICU nurses who snaked feeding tubes down their throats and threaded IVs into veins no wider than a toothpick. I can't pinpont exactly when it happened, but I suspect it was in these crucial moments after the premature birth of my twins that I began to feel less like a mother and more like a spectator. A complicated pregnancy left me feeling like I'd failed at my first task of being a mother -- keeping them safe and healthy inside of me. And now, in the crazed rush after an emergency C-section, there was no place for the loving touch of their mother in their first moments of life.

It took months for this feeling of detachment to fully evolve, but in the hours after they were born, my maternal instincts were still sharp. I was determined to see them as soon as I could, but I knew that I wouldn't be able to as long as I was tethered to a morphine drip. So I stopped self-administering the drug a couple hours after coming out of surgery. My anger welled when my postpartum nurse protested that I couldn't possibly get out of bed to see my children because I was on morphine. I screamed that if she didn't take my catheter out, I would rip it out myself. Finally, I was allowed to see my children for the first time at 8 p.m., more than 17 hours after they'd been born. This was not the dreamy way I'd imagined my first day of motherhood.

After a tortuous year or so of advanced fertility treatments -- including seven failed attempts, an early miscarriage and more tears than I thought I had in me -- I became pregnant with twins. The first half of my pregnancy was uneventful. But at 24 weeks I had a feeling that all was not well. I comforted myself with the ultrasound I'd just had showing that both babies were perfectly healthy, as was I.

At my next doctors appointment, my fears were confirmed. My cervix was already changing. I was sent immediately to the hospital and admitted. Just over six weeks later I gave birth two of the tiniest babies I've ever seen when my water broke far too soon.

The babies, who weighed in at 3 lbs 8 oz and 3 lbs 9 oz, were immediately whisked away to the NICU. The first couple of hours after their birth was a morphine-deadened haze. I cried at the sight of these impossibly small creatures, each encased in their new plastic homes, separate from each other and from me. This went against everything I'd learned in my years as a labor doula. I knew that the first moments and hours after a baby's birth -- especially one as traumatic as this -- were vital in forming the bond between a mother and baby. I'd had none of that. They'd had none of it. The closest they'd had was my trembling hand pushed through the sides of an incubator to timidly stroke their tiny backs.

I'd spend all day at the hospital with the twins, alternating between holding each one, changing their diapers when I was allowed to, and struggling to breastfeed babies who didn't know how to suck yet. The way my body had prepared for caring for an infant while I was pregnant by waking me every couples of hours was quickly fading while I was away from them and getting an uninterrupted night's sleep. As they grew, my own security in knowing how to care for them seemed to be waning. As they got stronger my maternal instincts were weakening. I couldn't breastfeed them. I couldn't hold them. I couldn't sleep with them next to me. I couldn't learn their natural cues. By the time we got to take them home a month after their birth, I felt clueless

Typical of most new parents, my nights were punctuated by cries and my days were a blur of diapers, the whir of a breast pump, and bottles waiting to be washed. If I got dressed on any given day, it was a success. All the usual stuff. Thankfully, they were healthy and growing faster than expected. But I felt detached. My almost-mechanical care of them didn't even come close to that indulgent, doe-eyed love for a new baby that I'd expected. More times than I care to admit now, I regretted my decision to make these babies that I had so desperately wanted.

For months, I did what needed to be done by rote. Regretfully, the first year of their lives was filled with confusion, anger, unhappiness and above all a sense that this was just not how it was supposed to be. I wanted to coo sweetly to a contented infant. Instead, I cried into the phone to a friend, "I don't know what to do. I don't think they even like me." I'm positive that everyone who has infant twins experiences their fair share of difficulties, but I can't help but wonder what was lost during that vital first month when the three of us lived apart. How different might that first year have been if I'd been able to attach to them in the way that most mothers are able to?

I look back now and wish I was able to live that year again and do things differently. I didn't even feel like a mother until a distinct moment when my twins were 18 months old. Suddenly, it all seemed to fit into place. I knew what they wanted and needed. I knew how to comfort them. I knew how they liked to fall asleep. I knew when they were hungry and what they liked to eat. I remember thinking that, yes, I'd loved them all along, but finally, finally, I liked them. One night, as they lay asleep in my bed, my armed draped over both of them I thought, "These are the babies I always dreamed about. And here they are right now."


Are you a new or expecting parent, or do you know one? Get a copy of the Early Moments Matter toolkit at www.earlymomentsmatter.org and learn about an exciting public service effort to promote early childhood attachment. Help give our next generation the best chance at a life of emotional wellness.

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