Friday evening, during the 6:30-7:30 shift change, Anna and I attended a NICU parents' support group, convened by one of the Child Life Specialists, partially at our behest. Okay, more than partially. We pulled her aside one afternoon and asked about NICU support services, or the lack thereof. During our brief stay at Seton Main immediately after Frankie was born, I familiarized myself with the hospital's NICU, naively assuming I'd be spending a good deal of time there over the next couple of months. One of the first things I noticed was the ubiquitously posted flyer advertising a support group for parents with babies in the NICU. There was a photocopy of the flyer in the elevator, one on the corkboard near the Nurses' Station in the Labor & Delivery Unit, and several more along the way to the NICU on the 8th floor. I must have seen it dozens of times before Frankie arrived, but it wasn't until afterward that I finally gave it a second thought. When I did, a shiver of dread ran through me. I've never been a fan of support groups; not because I've actually participated in one, but because I haven't. The words conjure a collage of stereotypical images: the hopeless meanderings of the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest; the pathetic collections of similarly afflicted individuals come together to display their suffering for the vampiric pleasure of Edward Norton's anonymous narrator in Fight Club; the comically tragic clientelle of TV's Dr. Bob Newhart. Even the oddly heroic recovering addicts from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest harbored suspicions about the utility of the group hug. The point is that I freely admit my opinion of support groups rests upon a purely fictional foundation. As I contemplated the ubiquitous invitation, this is the image that filled my mind. Thanks, but really, no. Shortly after arriving at the NICU in Brackenridge, my thoughts on the subject changed, and one of the first things I noticed was the absence of similar flyers in the hallways around the unit. So, we asked the Child Life Specialist about it, and the short version of the story is that we ended up with this - the first monthly meeting of a support group for parents of NICU babies.
This is the first time in my life that I've endured an ordeal of such magnitude that it actually made me long for the comfort of similarly afflicted individuals. The night we arrived at Brackenridge, I met two couples in the hallway outside the NICU. I haven't seen one of the couples since, but the other has been here slightly longer than us, and their daughter is still a month and a half away from being ready to go home. The husband and I exchange updates regularly. He and his wife introduced themselves to me as I was heading back to Seton Main after getting Frankie settled that first night. They told me about their daughter, introduced me to the couple I haven't seen since, and generally made me feel not quite so alone in my misery. After a week in the NICU, as the emotional rollercoaster began to slow down, I really began to appreciate the comfort I'd found in solidarity with other parents. We were really beyond the point of needing a support group when we suggested it to the Child Life Specialist. It was more of a benevolent gesture, something we thought others might find comforting. We've met several of the families of Frankie's baymates, and discovered that there is indeed strength in numbers. We've all found ourselves in a place we didn't really know existed, and certainly never expected to be. None of us were prepared for this; we're all winging it. And it helps to compare notes. One couple told us they'd had an awful nurse, and had subsequently requested that she not care for their son again. That story emboldened us to take similar action against Hazel. We suggested a parents' support group because we figured it would be a good opportunity to share information, if nothing else. That's what we had in mind.
We were the last of the parents to arrive at the support group meeting Thursday afternoon. We joined the Child Life Specialist, a hospital chaplain, and three mothers, two of whom were accompanied by their own mothers. We were immediately struck by the age difference between ourselves and these other parents. Two of them couldn't have been older than 18, and the third told us she was 20. We'd noticed that the NICU parents seemed to cluster in two age groups, but this was our first time to really interact with our younger counterparts. There was no exchange of information. We did not discuss our problems with particular nurses, or concerns about the care our babies were receiving. There were ice cream sundaes and materials for scrapbooking, and everyone seemed pretty content with those options. I watched the minutes tick away before an hour passed and we made our polite escape. It was not what I'd expected, and I suddenly understood why there hadn't been a NICU parents' support group meeting for several months.
Okay, so that's probably a little unfair. I'm sure there are lots of reasons folks shy away from support groups like this. It might have been a simple matter of irresolvable scheduling conflicts. From 6:30 to 7:30 in the evening, the nurses and support staff in the NICU change shifts. Parents and other visitors are kicked out of the NICU while the day nurses turn their patients over to their counterparts on the nightshift. It's the only opportunity some folks have to eat dinner, or just catch a breath after a long day at their baby's bedside. And it's not like there was a lot of advance notice, so some folks might have already had other plans. Or maybe they just took the flyer more seriously than I did. I mean, it did say there would be sundaes and scrapbooking. None of the support groups in Fight Club had sundaes and scrapbooking, a fact I hadn't considered beforehand. Whatever the reason, attendance at the support group was sparse, and our generational cluster was severely underrepresented.
Maybe that's it. I mean, I didn't even try to start a conversation about any of the topics I'd imagined our "support group" would discuss, primarily because I couldn't wrap my mind around the idea that these gals were actually parents. I can't imagine these two little girls being mothers. Their own mothers aren't helping. One of these mother-daughter couples has been parked across from us in Bay 3 for the better part of a week. When the doctors introduced themselves to the couple on their baby's first day in the NICU, Grandma asked them, "Is this my daughter's fault." I thought I must have heard her incorrectly, as did one of the doctors. She repeated the question, adding, "I mean, did she do something to make him like this." I try to maintain the appearance that I'm not eavesdropping as I eavesdrop on these conversations, but I couldn't resist the urge to see the doctor's reaction. He was astonished by the question, and immediately replied, "Oh no! This isn't her fault. No. Of course not. And you can't..." He cut his admonishment short. "This is not her fault." Since that initial encounter, I've heard Grandma repeat the question at least a half dozen times. I look at her teenage daughter and try to imagine what it would be like to be in her position. I'm 35 and still feel like it's a little too soon to be doing this. I can't imagine what it would be like to have a baby at 16 or 17, when I was young and stupid enough to think I could. I imagine what it must feel like to have your mother continually express doubts about your fitness to be a mother. So, before we were formally introduced during the "support group," I already had some pretty strong preconceptions about those two. I hadn't seen the other mother-daughter couple before now, but they confirmed my impression that these kids are too young to be having babies. Grandma was disappointed that she hadn't brought her scrapbooking materials. "I have lots of scrapbooking stuff, but she didn't tell me I needed to bring them." The Child Life Specialists assured her that it wasn't a problem. There were plenty of scrapbooking materials here, all at her disposal. "But she should have told me." The daughter objected, obviously trying to ignore her mother, but no longer able to restrain herself.
"I did too tell you."
"No, you didn't."
"Yes, I did."
"No, you didn't." Then, addressing this to the Child Life Specialist, "See how she is?" Then, to her daughter, "You're a liar."
Well, fuck you, mom. The daughter didn't say this, of course, but I almost did. This was the exact moment at which I realized I had nothing to contribute to this "support group," and that if I wasn't going to eat a sundae or make a scrapbook, I was in for a long hour. And it was. Interminably slow. I fended off small talk and smiled politely and watched the minutes tick off the clock. The four young mothers in the room may share the common experience of having a baby in the NICU, but as far as I could tell, they come from two entirely different planets. I had no idea how to bridge the distance between us. Fortunately, I hadn't really come to the meeting seeking support, and these new mothers seemed perfectly content with sundaes and scrapbooking.