Nothing can truly prepare you for becoming a mother, but when your baby is born premature the dreams you have of cradling your new baby, of introducing them to the world, are shattered within a matter of moments.
I know this all too well, after my waters broke without warning at just 30 weeks.
Born ten weeks early, I had no idea that my maternity leave would begin the very next day.
That couldn’t be right, could it? Yet there I was, beginning my maternity leave sat beside an incubator, trying to come to terms with what had happened.
The reality of life in neonatal intensive care is so very different from what you would expect from the early days of maternity leave.
Lines, monitors and life support machines become the norm and you can wait days, if not weeks to hold your baby for the first time. Every day I had to leave my baby at the unit, travelling home feeling empty and lost.
I would set my alarm as I climbed into bed, ready to wake me throughout the night to express milk for a baby I couldn’t hold. This was my maternity leave.
The world of neonatal care is not a world you would stumble across and parents rarely speak openly about their journey.
After all, how can you explain feelings of grief when your baby is still alive?
How do you describe the isolation or constant worry now that your baby is home? Perhaps that is why when I approached the government to extend maternity leave for mothers of premature babies their response appeared cold and seemed to miss the point.
“We already have one of the most generous maternity systems in the world, with all eligible mothers able to take up to 52 weeks leave and up to 39 weeks of pay.”
This is generous, unless you have spent months of that leave visiting your baby in hospital.
The cost of premature birth can be measured in terms of the financial pressures placed on families; most recent reports suggest it costs in excess of £2,000 for an average NICU stay, but also upon the long term mental health implications for a preemie mum.
Having lived through the experience myself it came as no surprise to me that 40% of NICU mums (compared to those who deliver without complication at full-term) suffer with postnatal depression, and that more than half experience anxiety and report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
As a mother I needed time to bond with my tiny baby at home, time to recover from our traumatic journey and time for my baby to develop and grow before I could return to work.
But we didn’t have the luxury of time – I had to return to work.
With 129,000 signatures on a change.org petition and cross party support to extend leave for parents of premature babies, I welcome the government’s recent pledge to bring in new best practice guidelines for employers at how they can best support mothers return to work following premature birth.
Announcing the guidelines Business Minister Margot James MP said,” I am confident businesses will welcome these new guidelines and act on our advice, but I will of course keep progress under review, and do not rule out legislating in the future if our advice is not heeded.
Working mothers deserve our support, and those who give birth to premature babies should expect nothing less than total backing from their employers”
Whilst the recent announcement from the business minister recognises that the current UK maternity leave system does not necessarily meet the unique needs of families with premature babies, the best practice guidelines won’t meet the gap where families are forced to return to work, making ends meet following the high financial cost of time spent in NICU.
Extending statutory maternity leave and pay would give mothers the emotional and financial support needed at a time of great stress and trauma – in turn leading to better postnatal health, a more positive return to work and better outcomes for babies development.
- Catriona is the mother of two boys born premature and The Founder and Chair of The Smallest Things Charity, promoting the good health of premature babies and their families.