After the premature birth of their twins, Jen Hawkins and her husband, Blake, spent exactly three months in the neonatal intensive care unit waiting to bring their babies home. Before her experience, the Southern California–based model and the woman behind the inspiring lifestyle blog Palms to Pines confessed that she, like most of us, had never been to the hospital, let alone the NICU. However, since giving birth to her daughters, Romy and Piper, she's become so much more aware of how common premature births are. (According to the CDC, one out of every 10 babies born in 2019 the United States was born too early.)
Despite being in a position that no parent wants to be in, Hawkins and her husband looked for the silver lining during their months at the hospital. "The perspective that we got from being in the NICU just made us so grateful for every little thing," explained Hawkins. From holding her girls for the first time to changing their diapers, Hawkins's voice is filled with what can only be described as a mother's unconditional love as she looks back on the memories her family made during their time spent in the NICU.
Ahead, the mother of two opens up about her family's experience in the neonatal intensive care unit, including the surprising and overwhelming joy of documenting her daughters' first bowel movements and the indescribable happiness she experienced when she finally brought them home.
On Being Put on Bed Rest
I went in for my regular 28-week checkup and felt fine, but my doctor sent me straight to the hospital because I was starting to dilate, and I didn't even know it. When I arrived, I was immediately put on bed rest, which ended up being two weeks long.
Every day during those two weeks, one of the doctors from the NICU would talk to me about what would happen if my babies were born that day—what they'd look like, which machines they'd be on, and what to expect—which was so helpful because, when the babies came at 30 weeks, I was so much more prepared and less scared than I would have been otherwise.
Before those discussions with the doctor, I really had had no idea what happened in the NICU or what a preemie baby looked like.
On the Most Surprising Thing About the NICU
The NICU is different from any other area of the hospital because you're trying to have this family experience in the hospital. I was surprised at how good the doctors and nurses are at letting you have those experiences.
They try to let you have special moments and they try to make it as comfortable and homey as possible even though it's a very sterile environment. I was really surprised at the caliber of humans working in the NICU. Because their job is just to take care of these very sick, very sensitive babies, but then also to make their parents feel like they're still able to participate and be their parents. Finding that balance takes a really high level of skill from the doctors and nurses.
Being put on bed rest was my first hospital experience ever, but we just had such a positive experience with the hospital and the staff. I have so much of an appreciation for nurses now that I never knew before. I would say, to anyone else with a high-risk pregnancy like me, research your hospital beforehand because that made the biggest difference. A positive attitude also matters a lot and viewing the doctors and nurses as part of your team. They're trying to help you. They want what's best for your baby, too.
On Getting Excited About the Little Things
After Romy and Piper were born, they were in the NICU for exactly three months to the day, and we had all these experiences that you would normally you have at home in the hospital. It wasn't the way that I imagined things would be when I had my first baby, but you just make the best of it.
My husband and I would always try to think of the positives, and being in the NICU made us way more excited about the little things, like holding my babies for the first time. Normally, you get to hold your baby right after giving birth, but I didn't get to hold Romy until she was a day old. Even then, we were allowed to hold her for an hour, once a day, and that was the biggest deal. With Piper, we didn't get to hold her until she was just over a week old.
Changing their diapers for the first time was also the biggest deal. Seriously, I've never complained about a diaper change. One of the nurses even made fun of us because we took a picture the first time that they pooped because they took so long to poop. [Laughs.] But we were just so happy that they pooped! Because we were going through this checklist of milestones that we had to check off before Romy and Piper could leave the NICU—and pooping was one of them.
On Bringing the Babies Home
We waited so long to bring them home, and then we walked in the door and we were like, "Where do we put them? What do we do now?" We had three months of training on how to take care of newborns in the NICU, so we were really confident taking care of them, going home. But being home was so much better than I even thought it was going to be. Just being able to sit on the couch with them without being attached to a machine—and to be in the privacy of our own home and to be able to walk around with them without machines.
When we were in the NICU, it was hard. We were tired all the time, and leaving them at night was the hardest part. I hated when people would say to me, "Oh, at least you get to sleep at night now," or, "You're so lucky, someone else takes care of your baby at night." Because I didn't sleep very well; I was thinking about them all the time. They have cameras in the NICU, so I would sit in my bed and watch them on the camera. I would tell parents who are in the NICU now that it gets better when you bring them home. It's just this feeling of peace, and they're here with me. Who cares if they wake up in the middle of the night, because I have them home with me, you know?
On the Most Exciting Thing About Being a Mom
Watching them develop and grow is the best thing. Every little thing is exciting. Right now, they're figuring out their hands and how to pick things up. I was not the type of person who liked watching babies or kids before, but now that they're my own kids, I could just stare at them for hours. Every little thing is so exciting—watching them taste a new food for the first time or figure out how things work—it's just so fun to see things through their eyes. And then as they get older, I just think it'll get better and better. I'm excited to watch all my favorite old Disney movies with them and stuff like that.
When I found out I was having twins, I was terrified, but the best surprise of all has just been how amazing it is to have two. I don't want to sound cheesy, but everything's double. You have double the love. You have two babies smiling at you. They can interact with each other, which is really fun to watch, and as they get older, I know they'll always play more and more with each other.
It's funny—the whole time we were in the NICU, everybody would tell us that twins never go home on the same day, but Romy and Piper ended up coming home on the exact same day. We always say that they planned it. They waited for each other. Even now, they're not identical, but they got their first teeth within a day of each other. They got their first diaper rash on the same day. They are totally in sync with each other.
Reproductive Health. Premature Birth. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. October 30, 2020.