Imagine for a moment giving birth to your baby but instead of having them placed onto your chest, feeling their warm moist skin against yours, hearing their every breath and bleating cry, they are whisked away from you with just a glimpse of their tiny skeletal, pale, lifeless body.
It’s possibly another 8-12 hours before you see them again and this time they are encased in a plastic womb surrounded by a sea of tubes and wires, there is no crying or bleating only the beeping of monitors and the repetitive sound of a ventilator delivering air and life into your baby’s tiny lungs.
Instead of spending the first night of your new baby’s life lying in bed staring at them adoringly and holding them to your breast you spend it sitting beside their incubator longing from the depths of you to hold them, to touch their face, to feel their breath on your skin.
You spend the agonising hours of that long first night full of fear and confusion, loss and sadness and you have so many questions. Will my baby be OK? When can I hold my baby? When can I feed my baby? Is my baby in pain? When can I take my baby home?
As other new mothers leave the hospital carrying their new bundles of joy in their brand new car seats, taking them home to meet their extended families and to be surrounded by visitors and gifts and love, you sit and you stare and you wait.
Then the day arrives that you have been dreading, it’s your turn to be discharged from the hospital. You don’t dress your beautiful newborn in their special ‘going home’ outfit or rush to leave and start your life as a mother at home with your baby because that life is still a dream that you dare not have.
For a mother of a premature baby you must say goodbye to your child turn around and walk out of that hospital filled with a sorrow and a loss and a guilt that you never knew existed.
You leave your soul in that incubator, in that neonatal unit, in that hospital day after day after day. Every second is a torture you feel unable to bare but you continue to put one foot in front of the other in the hope that one day soon it will be your turn to bring your baby home.
For a preemie mum, maternity leave doesn’t begin when your baby is born, it doesn’t even begin when you bring them home, the trauma you have endured takes years to heal. You are 40% more likely to suffer postnatal depression and 50% of preemie mums battle post-traumatic stress symptoms often with no support or acknowledgment.
It can be months after arriving home before you finally feel secure and safe and you start to believe that your world won’t be turned upside down at any moment.
Whilst other mums have been bonding and learning about their babies, enjoying baby classes and play dates you have been celebrating small improvements in oxygen reduction and increases in ml’s being fed through tubes.
A preemie mum’s maternity leave begins months after it legally starts and it is simply wrong. We are robbed of so much, so many memories and so much time and we are tested and challenged beyond belief, surely it is only right that we are given the time we need with our babies once we are home and safe.
It is for this and so many other reasons that I support The Smallest Things campaign to extend maternity leave for premature mothers, if you have been able to imagine even an ounce of the pain, loss, guilt and fear I have described I am sure you will too.