Before I get into this in too much detail, I need to start by acknowledging how lucky we are. I am able to return to work. Do you know what that means? My daughter is healthy enough that she doesn’t require 24/7 home care with community nurses, nor does she require a parent to stay with her (at one point we thought if she makes it home she’d have far too many medical issues to make childcare possible). I am not having to work multiple jobs to cover extensive medical bills (THANK YOU NHS), and I have the luxury of having had time at home with my baby. I am truly lucky indeed.
I’ve always been a ‘career’ girl. As a young teen, Father Christmas would pop Vogue magazine in my stocking and I’d flick straight to the back and look at the multi-million pound apartments listed. “That one”, I said, pointing at the penthouse suite overlooking the River Thames. The problem was, I didn’t know what I needed to do to get there. I went on to do a degree in English Literature, and still hadn’t found “it”. I knew I needed to do something I loved and was good at (in that order). Forget the multi-million pound apartment in London, one year into my degree in The Big Smoke I knew I belonged in the countryside. Hello Cotswold living. But I hadn’t given up on my work vision. Fast forwarded to 2017 and I was in a job I loved, surrounded by great people, achieving great things having proved to the business I was worth investing in. I overworked – not for anyone but for the buzz it gave me. I planned everything, I fussed over details, I delivered projects in record time. My maternity handover was a 10 paged Excel document, colour coded, tabs ordered in priority, and working inter-document links.
So I found it very hard when my baby came whilst I was still at work. Technically, I wasn’t in the office when my waters broke (I’m even more thankful they didn’t break on my daily train commute) – but I still had a working week left to go when my world changed. I couldn’t stop it, I didn’t want to stop it, but it wasn’t on the plan. My body might have decided it was done with work, but my brain wasn’t.
To make things harder, my baby was a bit sick. I say ‘a bit’ because at this time we didn’t know just how ill Clara was, all we knew is she had jaundice pretty bad. She was under photo therapy lights all day, still in the hospital, and all I could do was sit next to her. My newborn was doing what all newborns do, sleep all day, but she wasn’t sleeping on me. She was behind glass. So, I defaulted to my safe space – to work. After all, I still had thoughts left un-penned, emails left unsent. On a Sunday evening, Christmas Eve, I emailed my boss nearly 500 words about a new strategic approach we could take to meet new regulatory recommendations. Clara slept next to me, bilirubin levels hovering just above an acceptable level.
What else was I to do? I was a first time mum, with a baby born in the wrong calendar year (we hadn’t even had Christmas yet!), and my baby was ill. Your body might miraculously know how to birth a baby, but the way you view the world doesn’t change when contractions start. That takes time.
Clara spent two weeks on the maternity ward and in High Dependency Unit, one month in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and 4.5 months on a surgical ward in a children’s hospital.
We’ve been home just 3.5 months. And it’s already time to plan returning to work.
So where exactly do you start? Times that unknown by a thousand when you’ve not had as long as a ‘normal’ mum to get to grips with your new life as a parent. I can’t claim I’ve not had as long as normal mum’s to get to know my baby – I bet you I know my baby far better than some parents do. That’s no knock to other parents – I’ve literally seen Clara’s
insides (the good and the bad) thanks to surgical photography. I haven’t missed a moment.
I think it’s fair to say most women return to work after maternity leave based on financial decisions. To spend most of a year on less than the National Minimum Wage, despite being a full time carer and educator for our next generation, isn’t easy. SMP is, at most, £145.18 a week. Yet Bliss (a charity supporting families with babies born prematurely or sick) reports the cost of a stay in hospital with a sick baby is, on average,
£282 a week. The cost going out, is double what’s coming in. When Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) stops, if you take the last three months on offer, then you’re unpaid entirely. You do the math.
Mental health plays a huge factor. Did you know if you’ve had a premature baby you’re twice as likely to suffer from postnatal depression? It’s not easy to come to terms with the psychological impact a NICU experience has had on you, until it’s had time to sink in. I’ll say more about this in another post, but if you’re reading this because you’ve been on this journey please know you’re not alone. Whilst I didn’t suffer from PND, the anxiety is real. My baby was in Intensive Care because she needed support to stay alive, it’s no holiday resort. You can’t just forget that. But what you can do, is appreciate the simple things every single day. We’ve been given the gift of perspective.
I feel ready to regain ‘normality’ – and for me, that does involve work. It now involves work and being a Mum. And I love that – it’s what I’ve always wanted. I don’t just go to work to get paid – I go to prove to myself time and time again that I can achieve something new if I put the right wheels in motion, that I can change something and prove my hypothesis, I like a challenge. And I’ve had such a beautiful challenge to keep me busy this past year.
Obviously, like most new mums, the fear of not having your baby next to you every day when that’s all you’ve known for so long is so real. I genuinely have had to say to myself at times – school is a legal requirement, this is just practice for that. But it’s harder when you’re a NICU mum. When you’ve been the one to notice your child is unwell, to spot an inconsistency, or prevent a mistake. We reported Clara was very unwell three days before they agreed and found her intestine had leaked inside her as a result of failed reconnection surgery causing sepsis. Numerous times I’ve prevented Clara being overdosed (accidentally of course) with a medication that should have been 0.04 of a milligram, but they’d drawn up 0.4 milligrams – 10 times the amount over what had been prescribed.
Now I get to face ‘normal’ challenges. Like leaving my precious baby in the care of someone else – we have found an incredible childminder so I know Clara will be more than fine. Someone wise once told me this part is so much harder for the parents than the baby! Plus, I see how much she enjoys the company of other children – so this is for her. Other challenges include deciding who gets to do the morning childcare run, seeing Clara’s delightful face over her morning Weetabix, the other person having to rush off to work to make up their hours. Because that’s the person who gets to pick her up in the evening, to wonder how her day was whilst she plays in the bath, the other person still at work. What days do I go back to work? How many?
Some might say wanting to return to work is selfish. But to me – it’s the opposite. I promised Clara she’d have an incredible life if she just pulled through that operation they were about to take her off to (I told her this every time). So going back to work means I can fulfill my promises. Disneyland it will be, at some point.
One of the (many) things Clara’s journey has taught me is love breeds love and strength shares strength. I want to return to work for myself, but also so Clara has two hard-working role models right in her very own home. I know she’s destined for great things, but in the word’s of Sally Ride – “you can’t be what you can’t see”.
So whilst I’m not rushing to go back, I’m ready for it. I needed a plan in place, which is why I’ve spoken to work about my return. But I’m not counting down the days – I’m embracing them. We’re not giving up on adventure now.