My NICU Babies Safe in Boxes—But They Trapped Me

One mom shares what it was like having premature twins who spent months in the NICU—and the mental, emotional and physical toll their hospital stay took on her.
NICU baby

I no longer remember how many days old the twins were when I saw them for the first time.

I do remember trying to reach down and put my slippers back on when the doctor did the last ultrasound on January 2nd, 2014 and said we needed to take them out to save them. “No… I’m like… barely pregnant…” I was in shock and tried to leave. At just around 25 weeks pregnant I was only in the second trimester. 

I barely remember being on the table for the C-section less than an hour after the doctor read that last ultrasound. I remember my mom holding my head and playing with my hair, that the lights were very bright and that I was very cold. Fear wasn’t even on my radar due to being in a full state of shock. 

When the medications wore off and I woke up two days later, I expected to hear they were dead. I remember being warned that babies as small as they were didn’t have a high chance of survival and to prepare myself. 

In the midst of my unpreparedness, I tried to slow time down. 

I hoped I wouldn’t heal fast enough for them to make me leave the safety of the hospital room. I felt like, if I left, I would have to come face-to-face with the reality that I wasn’t pregnant anymore. If I left, I would have to think about them fighting to live. How could I leave while they stayed? It was paralyzing. 

What I do remember for sure was that my dad had to make me leave my hospital room to meet my daughters for the first time sometime around a week after they were born.

I wasn’t the first or the fifth person to see them. 

Before I ever laid eyes on them, my mother and my sisters did, my dad and his wife did, their biological father did and countless medical staff did. 

The thought of seeing them inside those little boxes and not being able to actually hold them if they were going to die anyhow seemed so much worse than never seeing them at all. Denial would become my best friend if something happened to them. And so, denial started to build walls around me that kept me safe from reality, shock and grief in the same way their incubators kept them safe from the outside world. 

I just wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening and seeing them would make them real. If they were real and I lost them I would have to feel that loss and I knew that would kill me. 

So I let myself be boxed into that hospital room.

What my dad knew was that I needed help snapping out of the shock of an emergency C-section in the second trimester, so he wheeled me out of my room down the long and cold hallways of the hospital. I found myself hoping I would pass out on the way to the NICU so that he would have to bring me back to my safe room where I could pretend I didn’t have dying babies and where they gave me warm blankets and anxiety-reducing medicine to help me sleep. I just wanted to sleep and not wake up until they were better.

nicu babies

That hospital room was the first real, non-metaphorical box I found myself in as a mother, and leaving it was hard. 

When we wheeled into the NICU, I quickly realized that it was just a bigger, louder, more sterile and scarier box; one that you had to ring a bell to be let in past security. I remember it felt a lot like what I imagined prison feeling like—just with tiny, sick babies everywhere. 

Their NICU has 58 beds—and every one of them was full. As we walked into their pod, I noticed there were about 10 other cribs and boxes with babies in them. Mine were in the very back.

The nurse gently reminded me that I was not allowed to intentionally glance in the direction of other babies, for privacy’s sake. Then she gave me a warning that went something like, “I just want to make sure to prepare you for what you’re about to see. One twin is much healthier than the other, and she is a lot bigger than her sister. One twin looks impossibly small, but we’re going to do our best to save her.” 

Then we walked up to the first incubator. 

“Wow,” I mused quietly. “She is impossibly small.” 

“That’s not the small one…” the nurse said. 

At the time, that seemed so unfathomable. Chloe—then known as Twin A—was the smallest infant I’d ever seen. How could the other baby be even smaller

Then she walked me over to Brooklynn… and I felt like I was going to pass out. There was no way she was going to live. I felt it in my bones. I’m very thankful I was wrong.

Eventually, my boxes got bigger. 

I moved out of my hospital room around day 12 and into a room across the street at The Ronald McDonald House, because they weren’t leaving the NICU anytime soon. In that room, I would open care packages from old friends and fold freshly washed baby clothes they sent as gifts, and wonder if they would ever even get to wear them. I would add things to my Target registry since we didn’t make it to the baby shower, and wonder if I could return everything if they died. There were a lot of tears shed over cute baby clothes as I sent the obligatory ‘thank you’ text messages. 

I would walk out the front door of The RMH and sign out on the wall calendar and see, “RIP Angel,” next to a room that used to say, “Visiting NICU,” every day. I would wonder when I would have to write “RIP” next to our room number.

The longer we were there, the more distant I felt from my friends, my family, and the me I was before I was the mom who gave birth to two medical marvels. The longer we were there, the harder it was imagining life outside of the hospital walls. There was no way I could keep them alive at home if the doctors and nurses struggled to keep them alive in the hospital, so I didn’t allow myself to even imagine life outside of the hospital walls.

Eventually, our boxes grew.

It would end up being exactly 100 days in the NICU for Chloe, and 115 days for Brooklynn. For 100 days I spent most of my time alone in a room or alone staring at them while they graduated from tiny glass boxes to tiny little cribs. It felt like we were never going to leave and also like we shouldn’t. 

Before discharging them, the hospital gave classes on the importance of isolating once we got home because it was especially dangerous if micro-preemies caught the flu, RSV or even a cold. 

By day 100 they finally let us take Chloe home on a heart monitor with a list of medications she needed every few hours. I had developed severe anxiety about germs and people being around the twins. The box that had been filling up with fear and anxiety became a box of self-isolation that felt necessary to keep them safe. Fifteen days later we were allowed to pick up Brooklynn, who we hadn’t seen since the day they discharged Chloe because we lived three hours away from the NICU. 

The box I built to keep us safe was destroying my mental health, personality and my sense of self. 

Over the years, I’ve found myself trapped inside other boxes I feel like I can’t leave, like “Special Needs Mom,” “Mom with Postpartum Depression,” “High-Risk Baby Mom” and “Mom Who Can Do It All.” (Spoiler: I could not do it all, but everyone around me seemed to think so, which meant less and less help came.)

I so desperately wanted to be the mom who got to take her babies to Target and wander around while they slept in the buggy. I wanted to be the fun mom and the spontaneous mom. Instead, I was the mom driving two hours in one direction to see specialists multiple times a week. 

All of these boxes taught me a lot—and they also made me forget things.

victoria and her twins

I forgot that, in my free time, I like to read and write. I forgot how happy it makes me to wander around a used book store or a Barnes & Noble by myself. I forgot how good a fresh haircut feels, especially when the hairstylist washes my hair. 

While I’ve been stuck in this box I’ve also forgotten how to ask for help when I need it and not just when I’ve started to drown. I forgot what it was like to make goals for myself as a person and not just goals for myself as a mom. 

I also forgot about those other boxes I felt trapped in whenever things like a pandemic strike, and I find myself feeling like I’m back in the “High-Risk Mom” box, stuck in a living room again with kids I’m terrified will get sick and not survive. 

Every time we go to a specialist or have surgery or have to go to an emergency room I feel the same way physically I felt when they were in the NICU. 

I forgot how to have joy before anxiety and that’s something I am actively working on daily because I don’t want to be trapped in survival mode. I forgot to put myself at the top of my “To Take Care Of” list because if I don’t I can’t take care of them. I forgot that my needs matter as much as theirs do—even though I’ve been conditioned by society to feel like I matter less than them and I should prioritize them above myself 24/7 or I am a bad mom. 

But the days that I’m the best mom are the days I’m not stuck in one of those boxes, the days that I’m not at the very bottom of the to-do list, and the days that I consider my own happiness. 

I used to joke that, as a mom and small business owner, I wear many hats—but I only wear hats on the great days. On the hard days, I don’t wear many hats, I find myself trapped in those many boxes.

They are heavy to carry and hard to breathe inside of—but I find myself trapped inside of them just the same. They are familiar and familiar feels safe even if it isn’t. Lately, I’ve had to put a lot of effort into moving past the walls I’ve built around myself and the boxes I let myself fall into—because, even though they thrived in theirs, I’m not thriving in mine. 

They fought hard to leave theirs, and I owe it to myself to fight hard to leave mine. 

Read more essays and know that you are not alone in your struggles, either. 


  • Victoria Grace

    Victoria Grace is a full-time photographer who wishes she was a writer—so when she gets to write she focuses on sharing her personal accomplishments and struggles with authenticity. When she's not working or writing you can find her deep in the trenches of twin motherhood, traveling when she's able, or most likely at a local Mexican restaurant sharing a bowl of queso with her twins and Nick. Follow Victoria on Instagram. and visit her website.

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