NICU Wisdom: Lessons I Never Asked For

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I often comment that our son’s sudden and unexpected arrival at 32 weeks, and our subsequent time in the NICU, was our first lesson in parenting. Nothing ever goes as planned.

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That’s a tough lesson for a perfectionist mama like me. My water broke on the eve of my baby shower. Twenty hours later, I gave birth to our son two months early, at 4 lbs. 11 oz.

Confronted with the anxiety and stress of a premature infant, I learned that in life difficult things happen. You can’t worry them away and you can’t always be prepared.

Thankfully, despite his premature arrival, our son was born healthy. Our NICU stay was focused on giving him time to develop in a safe and monitored setting while learning how to best care for such a little guy. It was an intense time filled with worry and anxiety, but also an opportunity to connect with our son and learn what he needed most from us.

Even knowing that big picture our son was okay and would be okay despite his impatient arrival, it did not shield me from experiencing emotions ranging from stress, anxiety, sadness, anger and guilt.

I sincerely hope no one reading this spends time in the NICU, but if it does become a part of your parenting journey, I hope these lessons provide some small amount of reassurance.

When confronted with a NICU stay, you lose the opportunity to take your child home as planned. It’s painful to go home without your baby. There’s just no way around that. Walking into my house after being discharged from the hospital and seeing our empty bassinet was raw and painful. No amount of reassurance that my son was being cared for and where he needed to be made me feel better in that moment. I wanted him home with me. Now.

Reflection on this difficult time helps me recognize lessons amongst the pain.

I learned to be patient and use the resources available to us from the NICU team. NICU nurses are warriors. Yes, warriors! They are fierce allies during an uncertain time. They know how to care for you and your baby. I am forever grateful for the warrior nurses who were constantly by our side. They knew the ins and outs of caring for a preemie, and we learned from their wisdom. Although it wasn’t an education I would have asked for, my husband and I were experts of our son in ways we never could have mastered as new parents by the time we arrived home.

I learned to be patient and accept help. Despite my son’s arrival in September, I hardly noticed the leaves changing color. My life existed inside the walls of the NICU. I left only to pump, run down to Papa Joe’s at the hospital, and occasionally sleep and shower (dry shampoo was my friend). I stepped out of my life and its responsibilities the moment our son arrived. I had no choice but to accept help. The best help was not the help offered but the things people just did. My mom showed up and cleaned and grocery shopped. A friend left a cooler of food on our doorstep, including pre-made dinners and individually wrapped sandwiches we could take on the go. Friends collected the baby shower gifts and delivered them to the house. Our friends and family were a step ahead of us, anticipating our needs. They provided help I did not even know I needed during that time.

I learned to focus on the things in my control. Faced with uncertainty and worry, I did not know what to do. My immediate relationship with my infant son looked different than what I had anticipated. I could not immediately breast feed or hold him. He needed time to develop and grow. But I could pump and provide milk. So I pumped. And pumped. And pumped. I pumped so much we had an extra freezer delivered to store milk in our garage! I dedicated myself to what I could do, and I learned to do what I could in whatever way my son needed.

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Looking back now as I parent our active four-year-old boy, I hardly see the tiny baby he was. Yet the lessons learned in the NICU stay with me.

Although I never asked for them, nor would I have chosen to learn these lessons the way we did, I realize the NICU instilled valuable wisdom in me that I will carry with me as I parent through the years to come.

 

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Hi! I am Kristine, mama to two spirited, creative and fiercely independent toddlers. I am also a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders and a mental health advocate. I have not yet found the solution to “mommy guilt” nor struck the elusive work/life balance, but I love what I do and am learning to embrace where I am now. I don't believe parenting is possible without a village of love and support, and I am eternally grateful for mine. I do my best to sweat once a day, breathe deeply, and connect with those I care about most. I can never get enough coffee or Anthroplogie. I believe strongly in collaboration and surrounding myself with strong women, which has led me to this latest blogging adventure with Detroit Moms Blog. I look forward to sharing and learning with you!

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