NICU parent holding baby's hand
Labor + Delivery NICU Parenthood

Permission to Parent: Why I Celebrate My Son’s Homecoming

By Stephanie Loomis Pappas

It’s perhaps unfair to say my birth didn’t go to “plan,” because, aside from a piece of paper with our pediatrician’s name and my husband’s pager number, I didn’t have a plan.

I didn’t view the birth of my child as that cliched “best moment of my life” that so many others before me have prepared for. I failed to see what was “best” about laying naked on a hospital bed, spewing bodily fluids in front of my husband’s colleagues.

But I wasn’t prepared for how difficult those first eight days would be because, even without a “birth plan,” I was more wrapped up in the vision of a “normal” childbirth than I expected, not in terms of avoiding a C-section or delivering without painkillers, but in terms of the basic steps: go into labor, go to the hospital, deliver baby, take baby home.

I wasn’t ready for go to regular checkup, go to triage, get admitted, get induced, deliver baby, go home alone.

Not the mom

When I took my first one-floor elevator trip from the labor floor to the NICU, I dressed in the skinny maternity jeans, green rain boots, and stolen-from-husband sweater I’d worn to my last appointment. What I wasn’t wearing, due to a nursing mixup, was the bracelet that allowed me into the NICU.

I had just peeked into the incubator to see my tiny baby sleeping in a tangle of wires when a nurse came into the room to escort me out of it: “You’re not a parent.” My immediate breakdown suggested that maybe I was a parent, which was when the nursing staff figured out the mixup and sent me back upstairs for a new bracelet.

I felt a tiny bit better about that experience later that day, when, once I was finally sitting and holding my baby, a nurse coming on shift did a double-take and said “Wow, are you the mom?” Apparently, my outfit and overall appearance were particularly impressive for a woman who’d given birth 8 hours ago. Small victory.

Permission to parent

Although I now had the bracelet to prove I was the mom, my experience of the NICU largely felt like seeking permission. When all of the parents upstairs just got to snuggle their babies into carseats and take them home, we had the “flight plan,” a poster detailing all of the responsibilities parents can take over as their babies’ health improves.

The chart, a version of which is used in many hospitals, is written from the baby’s perspective (“my basic care,” “feeding me,” and “comforting me”), and covers issues from admission to discharge. Each of the chart’s pastel clouds has checkboxes for “parents learning” and “parents ready,” along with a line for a nurse to initial and date upon satisfactory completion.

I’m sure the chart is designed to help parents visualize their children’s progress. It’s certainly a well-intentioned piece of graphic design aimed to help parents of sick babies do something. But for me, the chart was less “flight plan” than “report card.” I felt like I had to prove I was not just a parent, but a good parent, when all of the other parents upstairs just got to take their babies home.

Perhaps that’s why it’s at this moment – 8:32 pm, in my own bathrobe on my own couch holding the baby I’d just been allowed to bring home – that I first felt like a parent.

parent homecoming

I’m sitting on a couch yet to be soiled with spit up or peanut butter crackers, in front of the jogging stroller assembled but not yet used, with hair in the messy top bun that I promise will not become my go-to look in the coming years, enjoying the champagne we intended to drink in my delivery room 8 days earlier.

We of course celebrate my son’s birthday every year. But that day is for him. Eight days later, I take a few minutes to look at this picture and celebrate me and the day I became a parent.

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