When I had my baby in 2011, it was a completely bewildering and lonely experience which is so crazy because when you’re in the NICU for weeks and months you’re surrounded by people. Also, I’m a journalist so my natural inclination is to ask a lot of questions. As the doctors ran me in the hospital bed to theatre for life-saving surgery I was asking questions, as they put me under general anaesthetic I was asking questions. “I’m sorry we don’t have time to answer those questions but we will later.” I asked questions every single day in the NICU, but it was never enough.
In a desperate effort to connect with anyone who understood what I was going through I tried to make friends with the other mothers in the expressing room, “How early was your baby? Why did he/she come early?”, even if some of the mothers didn’t want to talk to me.
I am a radio journalist and podcast producer, and I process things by talking, so eight years later I did some major processing by making a documentary for ABC RN’s Earshot program. But I didn’t want it to be just about myself and my baby, Billie, so I reached out to some of the other mums that I had met in the NICU and asked if I could interview them.
The whole project was scary on a professional and personal level. I resisted starting it and the producer would email every few months asking how it was all going? It felt too big. How would I cope? Would I do justice to the other mums’ experiences? Could I be trusted to tell their stories?
But talking to them was such a gift. I cried during every interview, holding the microphone with tears streaming down my face, trying not to make a sound that the audio recorder would pick up. I cried in the library while editing the interviews. I cried every time I listened to the whole piece through, sitting in the ABC studios next to the sound engineer and the producer. It felt good to wallow in the grief, in a way that I hadn’t really been allowed to during the 3 months that Billie was in the NICU. “Just think positive” was the mantra I was told, over and over until I finally asked a counsellor if it’s ok to be sad or scared?
When I approached the hospital to record the sounds of the NICU, the media unit asked if this would be a ‘positive’ story? Well, um, it’s going to be a real story full of tears, and fear and grief, but also laughter and love. I resent the shiny gloss we paint over our experiences. Life is messy and hard, grief is pain on another level and we all experience it, but why are we only allowed to talk about the positive?
Yet on the day I went back to the NICU to record the beeps of the alarms and the burbling CPAP machines, I didn’t cry. I was surprised by this overwhelming feeling of love and joy that came over me, and I had the final line of the documentary. I felt a deep connection to this place, the NICU. Not because my baby is healthy, not because I got to take her home after three months, but because this is where she arrived, and this is where her story starts.
For me the story continues to resonate in a way that is completely unexpected. It’s been shared widely on social media. Friends of friends have commented sharing their own similar experiences and my friends have rung or texted saying they knew the story, but didn’t really ‘get’ it until now. And all I really did was share a story, four mothers’ stories on the radio. That is the power of ‘talking’ to connect people and suddenly, I feel heard. The mums I interviewed are so dear and precious to me. We don’t see each other for months, years even and still we have a deep friendship.”
Listen to Jennifer’s amazing podcast here
Read the online piece here