Interview: NICU Parent & Therapist

Premature baby in incubator.

Below is an excerpt from a conversation with Emily Steele, a board member at Perinatal Support Washington. Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash.

My name is Emily Steele, and I am a NICU mom and a perinatal mental health specialist primarily working with parents with birth trauma and NICU experiences. I have been working with families for over 10 years. Specifically focusing on the birth giver population since returning to work after my own NICU experience. My journey into parenthood started with a 2 lbs 7oz perfect preemie and a 2-month NICU stay. Due to the NICU stay and birth trauma, I experienced PTSD, postpartum depression and OCD. After addressing my own experience with an incredible therapist, I shifted my professional focus to supporting other parents with similar experiences.

The majority of your clients are parents who have experienced or are experiencing the NICU. What inspired that focus?
I had been working with families as a contracted provider with DCYF prior to my daughter’s birth. She was born two months early about two weeks after I completed my graduate program and internship. During our NICU experience, it became very clear how few resources existed at the time for NICU parents, especially around the areas of mental health and parenting children with medical needs. When I returned to my job as a contracted provider, I began working primarily with parents that had NICU experiences or children with medical complexities. I also began building my private practice and completing PMAD and trauma trainings to provide parents with the support that I wish I had been able to access.

What one sentiment is one you share with clients that you find helps them feel less alone? 
It’s okay, and in fact typical, to be in survival mode. Parents put so much pressure on themselves to be strong during their NICU experience. I always want them to know that it is okay to focus on surviving and not thriving. Having a baby in the NICU and leaving them every day is so incredibly challenging. Not to mention there is also the stress that comes from all of the medical conversations, people telling you what you can and can’t do with your baby, not getting the birth experience or baby snuggles you were so looking forward to, etc. The internal and sometimes external pressure to navigate that situation with strength and bravery can already be difficult to manage. Adding the shame of not doing it “well enough” only further contributes to the difficulty. It’s okay if you aren’t at the NICU as much as you would like to be because you are focused on your physical healing. It’s okay if pumping is exhausting. It’s okay if you are grieving the experiences you didn’t get to have. It’s okay to not feel grateful knowing “it could be worse.” It’s okay to feel scared and not brave.

What’s the most common misconception you hear about prematurity or NICU?
The most common misconception I hear is that the journey ends once your baby comes home. The focus when you’re in the NICU is often getting to that beautiful moment when the baby comes home. Often the joy of that moment is followed by a lot of tears and frustration and feeling overwhelmed for many reasons. Regardless of the experience, all preemies will come home with additional appointments and follow-ups to remember at a minimum. In addition, some will have surgeries, some will have feeding challenges and reflux, and some have feeding tubes and/or oxygen. In many ways, the NICU comes home with you, but the support decreases. Parents can feel like their babies aren’t as safe when they aren’t hooked up to monitors, which increases anxiety. Many parents begin to really feel and recognize the trauma they have endured from NICU and the birth. When the part that is supposed to feel easy still feels like a challenge or when grief, symptoms of trauma, depression, anxiety, OCD start to seep in, it can be incredibly hard for parents and the support is needed at that time just as much, if not more than ever.