Moms never forget the feelings of anticipation and excitement pending the arrival of our little bundle (or bundles) of joy. But often, almost as if a precursor to how our brains will operate from here on out as we raise our little ones, it’s accompanied by an undercurrent of worry.
What if something goes wrong?
What if my baby comes early?
What if, what if, what if?
For most moms, these thoughts never come to fruition. For others, they do.
Being a mom with a baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit can be a lonely, scary and traumatic experience. But Ashley Ham and Martha Mink, founders of Dear NICU Mama, are using their own experiences to ensure NICU moms in our community have the unique support they need to get through even after they’ve come home.
“I found a lot of articles regarding the ways in which I would struggle, but I didn’t find any articles that honored the NICU motherhood journey or the bravery that exists within each and every NICU mom. It’s one of the core reasons we founded Dear NICU Mama,” Ham said.
Dear NICU Mama is a nonprofit that connects and creates community among moms who have or currently have a baby in the NICU. The program provides a variety of support and advocacy resources through their website and social media pages, including their private Dear NICU Mama Facebook group. The organization’s podcast highlights stories of encouragement from other NICU Mamas from around the country and their monthly support groups provide a touch base with moms from all walks of life. Dear NICU Mama also holds events, from guided meditations to an annual conference that features keynote speakers addressing mental health specific to NICU experiences.
“When you’re in the NICU, the baby is the patient, not you, which can make you feel isolated. The biggest remedy for this is helping mothers out of isolation and into community,” Mink said.
One of the more unique things Dear NICU Mama provides is their Celebration Photoshoots. The team gathers six to seven mothers of past and present babies of the NICU, provides them with styling in partnership with a local boutique and gives them a free professional photoshoot with their NICU graduate child.
“NICU mothers often don’t get to have maternity or newborn photoshoots, and this event gives them that opportunity to heal the wounds of trauma through community and provide validation and support for each woman’s individual journey,” Ham said.
Ham and Mink have their own NICU journeys they’ve worked to heal from.
In 2015, Mink’s son JP was born at 25 weeks. Unfortunately, he only lived for three days after a brave fight. About three years later she delivered her daughter, JJ, at 29 weeks. JJ stayed in the NICU for 47 days. Ham also had a similar experience in 2019, when she gave birth to her son Silas at just 28 weeks. He spent 87 days in the NICU. It would be these experiences that would shape the bond between the two and give them the platform they needed to help other NICU moms.
“Ashley and Silas were in a NICU in Minneapolis several hundred miles away from her home in Fargo,” Mink said. “I had my daughter about 6 months prior and had been following Ashley’s story on social media. I decided to reach out. We met for coffee and within a month we had already devised the founding of Dear NICU Mama.”
The NICU experience is hard and there really isn’t anything a person can do to prepare. Ham and Mink were no exception.
“Obviously, the loss of our son was devastating, but the struggle of having a second baby in the NICU with the fear that she might not come home was incredibly stressful,” Mink said.
For Ham, and likely for all NICU moms, it’s the entire experience in and of itself that was hard.
“Leaving Silas at the hospital each night was one of the most challenging parts. It never feels right to be separated from your baby,” Ham said.
And often, when moms finally do get to bring their baby home, the challenges don’t stop there.
“In the NICU, a mother is in survival mode,” Ham said. “It isn’t until she is discharged and home when she begins to address or have the capacity to address her mental health. I was confronted with PTSD, anxiety and bouts of depression.” In fact, for many NICU parents, these experiences can fall into many different categories of Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs). “I think this is one of the most common misconceptions about trauma, there is no prescribed way for each of us to react,” Mink said. “For me, I faced a mix of postpartum anxiety, PTSD and grief.”
The NICU becomes home to parents and the staff becomes family. Leaving that behind to start life at home, Mink said, can be really scary. But the most important thing is to speak up and reach out.
“When I came home the emotions started flooding. I immediately sought out support from my doctors and a therapist who specializes in Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders. It was a game-changer,” Mink said. “Bringing my scary thoughts into the open gave them less power and took away the shame. This is one of the fundamental reasons we started Dear NICU Mama. We discovered that community could be a formative source of trauma healing.”
For Ham, too, finding community with other NICU moms who “got it” was essential for her in taking care of her mental health. “It wasn’t until I connected with other NICU moms that I truly felt seen and heard. I also found a therapist who specializes in trauma,” she said.
Mink and Ham also learned a lot about themselves and what was crucial in terms of setting boundaries and taking care of themselves and their relationships during this time. Things like communicating honestly with those around them, being involved with their children’s care in the NICU, and scheduling date nights with their significant other helped them cope.
“Friday nights were mommy and son date night. We watched a movie together during kangaroo care,” Ham said. “Because he was born so early, I was also intentional to uninstall pregnancy progress apps and mute social media accounts regarding pregnancy.”
Mink was also intentional about being as involved as possible with her daughter’s care, decorating her space, reading her books, and giving her baths. “It made me feel like her ‘real’ mom, even in a medical environment,” Mink said. “There’s still a long way for society and medicine to go in terms of supporting NICU families, identity and providing support for PMADs, and the realm of birth equity. It’s our mission to help bridge the gap for moms when they come home from the NICU, so they know they are not alone.”
September is NICU Awareness Month, so here are additional resources recommended by Dear NICU Mama:
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Yourself.
The Body Keeps the Score
Widen the Window