Saturday, June 9, 2012

Gay Parenting in the NICU

The past few days have involved a lot of carrying a screaming, thrashing toddler through the streets of our neighborhood.  Thankfully, she can't fully verbalize her feelings, so the world only hears an angry "MAMAMAMAMA," rather than "This sucks! I want to do it my own self!  Why can't I stay at daycare! You are such an asshole!"  I'm sure that stage will be fun when we get there.  Thankfully, all the neighbors have seen and heard worse.  I saw a teenage girl on our street tell her mom and a cop, "I can do any fucking drugs I want to and you can't stop me!"  Is that what they call speaking truth to power?  There are at least ten kids under five on our block, so there's often a symphony of crying babies and they don't attract much attention.

During our first few months with LB, all of our parenting was conducted in the public space of the NICU.  This experience was not ideal, and only occasionally blissful.  It's hard to parent in public.  It's hard to parent in public under stress.  It's hard to parent in public under stress as a member of a marginalized group.  Lesbian moms in the NICU face specific legal and logistical issues.  In the urban teaching hospital where I had LB, Badger faced no problems related to NICU access.  Badger was able to go to the NICU and hold LB while I was still passed out from the birth.  I'm sure the NICU is used to dealing with diverse structures, and their default seemed to be to allow liberal access.  Despite our good experience, I was very glad that we had consulted with a lawyer with a lot of LGBT experience to get our 2nd parent adoption started.  If we had had a problem, we knew that she was someone to whom we could reach out.  [If meeting with an LGBT lawyer is logistically or financially impossible (and if money is a problem, call around to compare rates and ask about sliding scale fees), at least have the number of an LGBT advocacy group you can contact if you run into serious issues.]  We took all our paperwork to the hospital, but no one seemed very interested in seeing it, and I seem to remember that I had to force someone to take a copy of my advance directive.  If you are lesbian parents who know that your baby is likely to need NICU care, you can request a NICU consult before the birth-both to learn about specific policies, and to get a general sense of the NICU's attitude toward gay parents.  [While I try not to be paranoid and/or assume the worst about people, cases like this one, from NC where only one mom could adopt their child, and when the child was hospitalized the mom who was not allowed to adopt was not allowed to stay alone with the child overnight because she was a "visitor" and not a parent are incredibly distressing.  If we had had to deal with this crap while also dealing with a premature baby, I would have lost my mind.]

LB shortly before she came home
Most of our NICU time was spent doing the same things that straight parents did-crying, holding, staring vacantly, glaring, furtively texting, taking pictures, listening to the nurses gossip, etc.  The unknown is very stressful at the beginning of a NICU stay: will we get a nurse we like and trust, and additionally for us, will we get a nurse who isn't weird with us or freaked out by us?  We never got an anti-gay vibe from our nurses, and some of them went out of their way to make us feel comfortable.  So if no one challenged us, and no one disrespected us, why was it hard to be gay in the NICU?  In part, because it was just one more element of uncertainty in a scary and stressful situation.  Would someone say something offensive (and would I then flip the fuck out)?  Would people see us at our worst and use that image to judge all lesbian parents?  Would people watch our parenting and think we weren't good enough? In reality, as middle-class, educated, married, white lesbians, we were pretty low on the taxonomy of judgement.  It was usually the young, poor, African American and non-English speaking immigrants were occasionally treated with obvious frustration by some of the nurses.  The mildly insensitive comments we got (who is the mom?) came from the med students and younger residents-and I tried to remind myself that we were part of their learning experience.

My advice for parents: figure out who your allies are and ask them for help.  A sympathetic charge nurse or NICU social worker can help you find your way through the NICU.  And if you are too tired to address every problem you encounter, that is okay also.  You can always write a letter after the NICU is over.  Try not to stress and worry, which is pretty much the most useless advice ever.  My advice for health care providers: our primary goal was to have calm and competent care for LB, but the people we really liked made an extra effort to ask us little things like "So how did you guys meet?" or "How long have you been together?"  Normal questions that made us feel comfortable.
If you are looking for resources about the rights of gay families and what you can do to protect your families, these are some groups with more info:
Family Equality Council
National Center for Lesbian Rights
Lamda Legal
It's Conceivable

[Edited due to a serious lack of previous editing.]


  1. I came across your blog with a simple "LGBT parents NICU" google search. Thanks for sharing your story. My wife and I had our little girl on 10/23/14 at 27 weeks due to preeclampsia as well. She is still in the NICU and doing alright (day 66). Thankfully, everyone at the hospital has treated my wife as a parent and she has had full access to our little one. We're very appreciative of those that have paved the road ahead of us! Best of luck to you and your family.

  2. Thinking of you guys and your little girl. The NICU is hard, just hard, but, at least for me, I can now think of that time with love and not a lot of pain. I hope you can bring your daughter home soon and have much love and peace in 2015.