It’s something that most new parents have to address – When is the right time to return to work? How will I make this work? Will they be ok with someone else? What if it doesn’t work?
For some of us, returning to work represents the opportunity to reclaim some normality and control in our lives. It represents time spent that doesn’t include dirty nappies, boobs or bottles, endless baby talk and a level of chaos only new parents can appreciate. For others it’s a time of anxiety and stress about leaving the baby in the care of others, the fear of being separated from our little human can be overwhelming for many of us too. From all my conversations and experiences with new Mums and Dads – regardless of what side of the fence you are on – these are all normal reactions.
But for parents of premature babies, returning to work represents a whole different set of challenges and considerations.
Firstly, most premmie parents have used up the majority (in some cases all) of their maternity/ paternity leave before the baby even comes home from hospital. The financial pressures of finding ways to ensure you can be at home with them post discharge can be extremely stressful for families of premature babies. Additionally, many of us premmie parents are advised to keep our children out of day care for the first 2 years unless absolutely necessary – A very difficult request indeed.
I know for us personally, living in Sydney at the time, the prospect of being a one-wage family under these circumstances was incredibly daunting. In fact, in order to keep our 24-weeker out of day care we moved interstate to Queensland where we could more easily afford to be on one wage. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it felt like the only viable option to keep her out of care.
And just because your prem is out of hospital, it doesn’t mean they are in the clear and life is easy. Madeleine was still on oxygen, a 24-hr breathing monitor, she had a hole in her heart and showed signs of low tone and developmental delays. The reality of a 24-weeker prem at home is certainly not the “bringing your baby home” fairytale you see on the movies or read in Mummy blogs. We were delighted to be coming home, don’t get me wrong, but home didn’t mean easy and stress-free by any stretch. Leaving the “comfort” of 24-hr medical support and monitors was an adjustment to say the least.
And then there’s the medical expenses!!! O M G, the medical expenses! There are the specialist appointments, the scans, the ultrasounds, the x-rays, the [crazy expensive] compounded pharmaceuticals. In the first year alone, Madeleine was under the care of a paediatrician, cardiologist, physiotherapist, ophthalmologist, ENT specialist, endocrinologist, occupational therapist and a speech pathologist. There was one evening my husband and I sat down to ‘add’ it all up, just out of interest, but it got to the point of ridiculous very quickly and we just thought ‘maybe it’s better not to know’
So, like most of us, we had no choice – returning to work was our only option. I used all my long-service leave (how lucky I was to have this I know), every last annual leave allowance I had and in the end, 6 months after Madeleine was home, I returned to work. We moved to Queensland, downsized our “lifestyle”, my husband quit his job and became a stay at home Dad. We are lucky in so many ways to have been able to do this and keep Madeleine out of care for those first two years. A very significant financial impact but we thought the benefits far out-weighed the net dollar loss.
If I’m truly honest with myself, returning to work was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I had been Madeleine’s main point of advocacy the entire time she had been on the planet. There was nothing I didn’t know about that baby girl. I knew every little gesture, I could tell instantly that her breathing was laboured or if something wasn’t quite right. Not being this person for her anymore was a greater adjustment than I had anticipated. And, in truth, as time went on it didn’t get easier for me. It’s a very odd thing as a Mother to have to ask others how your children are. Thankfully my husband is an incredible and capable father and he gave our little girl the best love and care we could’ve have wished for. AND she flourished in that first 12-18 months. We had no hospitalisations for opportunistic infections, she was off her oxygen support sooner than we expected and she was closing those developmental gaps. We were lucky, I know this. We were told to expect 4-5 hospital stays that first year due to her Chronic Lung Disease alone, and we had none (I still can’t believe it).
Finally, a month or two before her second birthday Madeleine went to day care. It marked one of the most significant milestones we had achieved (and as premmie parents we all know there’s a few milestones that are up there). It was quite simply one of our biggest achievements as parents – sending her to ‘school’; a normal everyday thing that many (understandably) take for granted. As I watched our little person grab her ‘big girl bag’ and put on her hat, I was filled with the most intense feeling of gratitude. It wasn’t that long ago that I genuinely did not think we would ever get to this point. From a tiny 609 grams to this independent little girl – we did this, she did this. I’m often in awe of her and how far she’s come, but in that moment it was profound.
So, on reflection, although at times it’s still difficult for me to accept that I’m the one who needs to work, the reality is that our situation continues to contribute to Madeleine’s development, and I’ve accepted that this is my role in all of this (well mostly anyway). She’s a well-adjusted (almost) 3-year-old now and although we still have loads of appointments and assessments, she is doing great. Daddy is still at home with her on the days she’s not at ‘school’ and we continue to be amazed at what she is capable of.
Everyone’s situations are different, I know this, and this is by no means a recommendation but just a [my] viewpoint on the reality and challenges of returning to work after having a premature baby. Wherever you are on this journey, there’s no right or wrong way – There’s just your way.
Like all things related to being a premmie parent; It’s not easy, it will change you but it’s so worth it!
With love to all our premmie families, forever changed.
For my darling girls, all three of you.