I knew these “life lessons” in my head before my NICU baby, but I truly knew them in my heart afterward. The NICU became the fertile soil in which these seeds–these three lessons–were planted and became deeply rooted deep within me.
1. Things don’t always go as planned. And that’s okay.
I am a planner by nature. It’s always been difficult for me to let go of expectations. My first son was a late-term preemie and was in the NICU as a “feeder/grower” for three weeks. I was expecting to not have a another NICU baby the second time around. I had fantasized what it would be like to enjoy first time cuddles in the hospital bed together as a family and go home together as a family. That was not to be our story. In the operating room, right before my c-section one of the nurses said to me, “Honey, you can make all the plans you want but there is Someone upstairs pulling all the strings.”
I held on to her words as my son was swept away to the NICU and his medical complications unfolded in the hours and days following his birth. Hopes of family pictures and going home together were replaced by hopes that he would survive long enough to leave the walls of the hospital one day. Things don’t tend to go as expected in the NICU. The most natural things–eating, breathing, pooping–become the most complicated things. They can lead to a diagnosis and dictate the timing of a discharge.
The more I began to let go of my expectations, the more able I was to accept the reality of my son’s condition and the timeframe within which he would stay in the hospital. Acceptance did not happen instantly and without a lot of grieving of what could have been. Grieving helped me let go of my plans and embrace the beauty in the unexpected. Slowly, I discovered the beauty in the differences and special needs of my NICU baby. Even though things didn’t go the way I planned, it didn’t take from the value of my son or the deep love I had for him.
2. People want to help. So let them.
In addition to being a planner, I tend to be pretty self-sufficient. My well-thought-out plans include ways to take care of things that involve not needing help. The NICU, by its very nature, required me to have help on all fronts. Help from nurses and doctors. Help from family and friends. Help with mundane household chores, even with time sensitive matters I couldn’t attend to at that time.
We were fortunate enough to have family and friends take care of my oldest son while we were in the NICU with our youngest. We had people scheduled to come hold my NICU baby, while we were at home with his brother. And it goes on and on. People brought meals, groceries, mowed our lawn, and cleaned our house.
We are interconnected as humans and limited in our ability to handle it all. Asking and accepting help does not show weakness, but strength. Later, one friend–who is on a different, yet similar journey told me–“One day you’ll be able to give back.”
I’ve learned allowing someone to help, helps them do something tangible when they otherwise feel helpless to your hurt. Rather than think you are putting someone out, allow them into this experience with you. You never know what lessons they may be learning themselves.
3. Anything becomes normal if you do it long enough.
As much as I wanted a “normal delivery” I began to realize there’s no such thing. That’s why as women we want to hear each other’s birth stories. There are no two the same. There are no two NICU stories the same. There is something unique in each and every one. Therefore, there is no such thing as normal. Only what you make of your circumstances, becomes your normal.
Allowing myself to live with the reality that we would not look like a normal family–specifically taking a baby home with a feeding tube–I began to settle into our routines and embrace them for what they were. Uniquely ours. And to us, it eventually felt normal.
Our homecoming day was delayed and involved complicated care upon returning home. It was anything but normal, but it was special and sweet in its own way. Our way.
Take the lessons you learn in the NICU to heart. You are walking on fertile soil in the NICU. A difficult place from which empathy and compassion for one another can grow.