When I found out I was pregnant with twins, I was panicking inside. A multiples pregnancy would be anything but a breeze. At our 20-week scan, my husband and I were told that our baby girl had a life-threatening birth defect that could lead to serious complications like heart failure and even death if left untreated. In addition to interventions during the pregnancy, she would require lung surgery immediately after birth. This diagnosis coupled with the fact that our babies were born at 34-weeks earned us a NICU stay of nearly three months.
I could write a whole book about the trauma of being a NICU mother, but since I tend to be a glass-half-full gal, I want to share five ways being a NICU mom changed me for the better.
I Waved Goodbye to Vanity
Most women get to recover from birth in the comfort of their own home—NICU moms have the honor of doing this publicly. How lucky are we? Walking around the Children’s Hospital every day for three months in my stretchy yoga pants and oversized sweatshirt definitely kept my vanity in check.
On several occasions during my trips to the cafeteria, well-meaning women would ask me how far along I was or comment on my “cute” basketball belly. I smiled graciously, not feeling the need to tell them I had delivered the babies two weeks ago or four weeks ago or whatever length of time had passed.
I Learned to Advocate for My Kids
If you’ve never been inside of a NICU, envision a jungle of cords and feeding tubes, the clamor of every imaginable pitch of alarms, and a palpable feeling of anxiety and uncertainty. Every beep makes your heart skip a beat as you think your child surely must be in some sort of grave danger.
You quickly learn this new language of numbers and alarms so you can be informed about your baby’s health and alert the nurses yourself when something seems off. You get over the awkwardness of feeling like an idiot asking doctors about your child’s prognosis and weighing in on their treatment plan because you’ve spent hours the night before (what’s sleep, again??) researching and who cares if you ask a dumb question when your child’s life is at stake?
I Began to Trust Others
Feeling like a part-time parent is arguably the hardest emotion to deal with as a NICU mom. NICU moms have no other option but to trust others because unless they are superhuman and can spend 24 hours at the hospital day after day, then they must give over control to the nurses and doctors.
I learned quickly that the majority of the nurses cared for my babies like they were their own. From the way they would baby talk with the twins, pat their little butts when they were crying, or lovingly talk about their stool patterns, I knew I could leave for the day knowing my littles were being cared for by the best.
I Became More Patient
Shamefully, I’m the type of person who can’t wait for the microwave to reach its full minute before pulling my food out. But no amount of impatience will expedite a child’s growth, maturity, and recovery in the NICU. My husband and I knew we would be in the NICU for some time due to our daughter’s lung surgery, but our son—our “healthy” twin—was supposed to have a quick stay to work on his feeding and growth.
What we thought would be a two(ish) week stay for him turned into 88 days–12 days longer than our daughter. He took his car seat test (a required exit test for all babies born prematurely) a total of four times. Just when we thought he was making progress, we were back at square one trying to figure out why he was having so much trouble outgrowing his prematurity and feeding difficulties. We learned the hard way that the babies are the boss of their development, and they would show us when they were ready for life outside the NICU.
I Embraced Gratitude
Spending the first three months of your kids’ lives in a hospital is m-i-s-e-r-a-b-l-e. There’s no sugar-coating that. But I learned to be grateful because there is always someone who has it worse. The first mom I met in the NICU had already spent six months there with her little boy when I arrived. She and her family relocated from North Carolina to Philadelphia so that their second baby could get the best care possible.
As I write this now, she is going on a whole year of NICU life. This lovely woman taught me to take pride in the small wins and to just be grateful for getting to watch our babies grow. After all, they are here and they are alive. We are just lucky to be part of their journey.
Surviving the NICU was one of the most challenging experiences of my life, but it was also the most transforming. If you are a current NICU mom (or dad) reading this, my heart is with you. Give yourself credit for doing all you are doing right now. It’s not easy and it’s definitely not fair. But before you know it, your little one will be sleeping under the same roof as you and it will feel like they’ve been there all along. If you know a NICU parent, shower them with your love in any way you can.