When Kelli Kelley awoke from her C-section 17 years ago, having delivered her son after just 24 weeks of pregnancy, her husband gave her a Polaroid of their baby. He was tiny, underdeveloped, eyes still fused shut, with translucent skin covered in fine hair, and lying in a sea of medical equipment and lines. To Kelley, he looked like a baby bird. Cut to her first visit to the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU) to meet him: a cacophony of beeping machines, harsh lighting, “space-age-looking equipment,” and hospital smells, with 40 “tiny, alien babies in boxes.” Her son had a whole team of doctors and nurses working to keep him alive, but Kelley felt frightened and alone. Kelley remembers just one support group for parents, with a chaplain. “Sitting with a man in a collar felt more like a memorial service,” she recalls.
Four months later Kelley and her husband brought their son home. He was on a heart monitor and still unable to breastfeed. They lived under a crush of medical bills, and in his first year, their baby underwent three surgeries. Kelley didn’t recognize the toll her son’s ordeal had taken on her until two years later when their daughter was born at 34 weeks with a blood disorder. The family returned to the NICU, and for Kelley, the trauma from both births collided. Kelley was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder; but her son was already five before Kelley finally received a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.