Of course, every premature experience is different, and from what I can gather, because of several factors, our experience was different in many ways from most. But, my guess is, most parents of former preemies will be familiar with a lot of what I'm about to tell you.
Having a premature baby, especially a micro-preemie is unlike any other new-parent experience. There is no way that I can fully describe to you so that you could completely understand, and there's certainly no way for anyone to prepare you for such an experience.
With a normal, healthy, full-term birth (in the US), usually the mother is holding her baby within seconds of delivery, the father is not too far behind, and both mom and child are home together within a few days. It used to be that the baby was taken to a nursery and kept apart from the parents for much of the first few days, but now most newborns are allowed to be kept in the same hospital room with both parents until they are released to go home. This, as they say, is how God created everything to work in a perfect world.
Most people who have never experienced being parents/family of a premature baby are still able to recognize and even empathize with the feelings of fear and frustration involving an extended stay of a newborn child in a hospital. Certainly, most parents can especially imagine what it might feel like to have a critically ill baby and to not be able to take your newborn home within the first few days.
What most people are unable to relate to, however, is the stunted sense of bonding with your newborn that comes with ICU's, incubators, and fragile bodies. For me, and even more so for Tricia, the feeling and realization that, "this is OUR baby girl" has been a very slow but certain process.
Because I have never experienced a normal, healthy pregnancy and birth, I can't really compare our experience. But, from what I have been told, the bonding process, while a lifetime in the making for any parent/child, is usually fast and secure when you're able to hold, feed, clothe, etc. your newborn within days, if not hours of birth.
My first experience with my new daughter was spent in a small, very warm and muggy ICU room. To get to the room, I needed to check in at the front desk in the waiting room. The nurse in the back had to give her OK. I had to wash my arms from the elbows down, making sure I wasn't wearing any jewelery on my hands and wrists. I had to put a blue, cotton gown on. I had to be sure that I turned my cell phone off. Over the next 4+ months, I had to do all of this every time, before even entering the NICU.
Once I arrived in the hallway outside of the room where Gwyneth spent her first week, I had to exchange my blue gown for a bright, yellow gown. I washed my hands again before putting on a pair of gloves, all the while trying to stay out of the way of the nurse (who was very friendly and capable) I had just met.
My first view of Gwyneth was, of course, through the glass of her incubator. She was already hooked up to what seemed like a hundred different wires and tubes. As I've mentioned before, the wires and tubes didn't bother me as it was something I was used to seeing with Tricia, but it is still an abnormal experience for any new parent. The ultraviolet light was on, and she had a small, black mask over her eyes She was lying on a blanket, naked except for the preemie diaper which was easily two times too big for her, very wrinkly and very red. Several machines were beeping, keeping close track of every vital sign imaginable.
The nurse was busy attending to all of the tubes and wires, changing a diaper and watching the monitors closely. The incubator had to be kept very warm and very humid, making it difficult to get a good view of Gwyneth through the condensation on the inside of the glass.
The only contact I was allowed those first few days was to gently touch her with my gloved hands.
All of these things basically left me with a feeling of detachment. I knew in my head that this was my daughter, but without being able to touch and hold her and do all of the other things that I would have expected under normal circumstances, it was hard to have that same knowledge in my heart. It almost felt as if I was simply looking at somebody else's baby, or even looking at a strange animal through a pet-store window. There was certainly the joy and pride of being a father, but it was very subdued...not so much because of her or her mother's health, but because I simply could not do the fatherly things that my natural instincts were telling me I should be doing.
The only thing that I could really do that felt semi-normal was to take a lot of pictures. Here is the video I posted at the end of that first day.
("Miracle" by the Foo Fighters)
I'll post more about this later. For now, if you want to get a better idea of what those first few days were like, go back and read some of my posts from early January.