10 Things I Learned About Life Through My NICU Journey
I believe in every person’s life they may encounter an event or people that shape who they become. Some of these experiences may even make them feel as though they are two different people: the person before that event and the person after it. This may be especially true for people who have experienced some type of trauma. For me, that life-shaping experience was my NICU journey. From the first day I stepped into the NICU, I knew I had become a different person. I literally felt an immediate change. I was bombarded with an array of emotions. I felt fear, happiness, sadness, and most of all anxiety about all of the unknowns. My experience forced me to take off my rose-colored glasses and embrace a new reality. It provided me with a new understanding of life.
Here are 10 things my NICU experience was able to teach me about love, life, and the NICU journey:
1. A Mother’s Love Is Unconditional
In the beginning, I was so scared to love my baby. When I looked at her my heart broke. It broke because I felt like I had failed the one person in life I was never supposed to fail. It broke because I knew she would have to endure so much pain in the coming months in order to survive. Most of all, it broke because I was scared that even with everything they were doing to help her live, there was a possibility she might not survive. As scared as I was, I still loved her from the very moment I laid eyes on her. I knew that even if this experience was going to break my heart into a million pieces, I still couldn’t help but love her because my love for her was unconditional.
2. NICU Milestones Mean So Much
With every NICU milestone it meant progress. Although NICU milestones weren’t like the typical infant milestones of smiling, rolling over, sitting up or crawling, they were even more significant because they meant that my 1-pound baby could survive in the world outside of my womb. Quinn had to learn to breathe on her own, eat on her own, and maintain a body temperature. All of these things were not only steps toward going home, but steps toward survival. Events like wearing clothes all of a sudden had life-changing significance and were truly something to celebrate.
3. Life Is Fragile
This is a lesson I learned the very first day I stepped foot in the NICU. I realized very quickly that although my baby was fighting, we were in a very critical period. Her little body was not yet ready to be part of this world, and she certainly would not have survived without the life saving interventions she received. Quinn was able to overcome her prematurity, but the experience still taught me how close we teetered on the line of life and death. This realization has made me appreciate the gift of life that we were given, but also is a constant reminder of how fragile life can be.
4. Strangers Can Sometimes Become Family
To work in a NICU you need to be a special kind of person. I found myself handing over the care of my extremely sick baby to people who were complete strangers. Ironically, they didn’t feel like strangers for long because the NICU became a second home. During the course of our NICU stay, the NICU nurses and doctors were the ones I often found myself looking toward for reassurance that Quinn was making progress. I will never forget the kindness my NICU family showed me during the most difficult time of my life.
5. Life Does Not Always Have to Go as Planned to Be Wonderful
In the beginning, I mourned everything I lost when I had a preemie baby. I didn’t get to see my baby when she was born, and instead of cuddling and loving on her, I had to watch her struggle to survive every single day. At first, this made me resentful. I wondered why couldn’t it just be as easy as it was supposed to be? After a while, though, I began to let go of that resentment and embrace our NICU life for what it was. I realized that life does not always have to go as planned to be wonderful, and despite the difficulty involved in the NICU journey, there is also so much beauty in watching your child grow from a fragile tiny baby into a thriving, healthy infant.
6. It’s OK to Feel Sad
Having a baby who is not healthy causes an array of feelings. Loss, fear and sadness were on the top of the list of the many emotions I was feeling after I had Quinn. I was struggling, but I didn’t want to look weak in the face of adversity. Instead, I internalized so many of these feelings and never expressed how I really felt. Eventually, after opening up about what I had gone through emotionally, I realized it is OK to feel sad about what you have lost.
7. Connecting With Others Who Have Experienced What You Have Is Essential
I found that after I came home from the NICU, I felt a little lost and isolated. I missed my NICU routine, but most of all, I missed talking to others who could understand my experience. Luckily, I had Sam to talk to about my NICU journey, and because of that support, “From Mini to Moose” was born. Connecting with the NICU community is essential for parents to celebrate, understand and talk about the trauma they have experienced. I truly feel that without these essential connections I would still be struggling daily with what I experienced.
8. NICU PTSD Is Real
Although I already wrote a whole blog post on this, I think it’s important for other NICU parents to understand that NICU PTSD is a real thing. Many NICU moms not only experience a traumatic birth, but then have to endure the unknowns of the NICU. Whether a NICU parent faces loss, a long NICU stay, lifelong medical needs for their baby or just a few day stint in the unit, having a baby that isn’t healthy is traumatic on all levels. I truly encourage all fellow NICU parents to realize that it’s OK to feel changed by these events, and sometimes it’s essential to seek help in coping with the trauma you have gone through.
9. Just Because You Take Your Baby Home Doesn’t Mean You Are OK
Looking back, my experience with postpartum anxiety most certainly did not end with our departure from the NICU, but actually became exacerbated by having to leave my safety net. Honestly, I feel like it was more than a year before I started to feel like myself again. Even now, more than two years later, an event or a story can still trigger bouts of severe anxiety. For example, just during this post, I cried when writing about the unconditional love of a mother. Luckily, I feel as though I now have the wherewithal to cope with my experience in a healthy way. It’s important to give yourself the time needed to heal from your experience and to realize that just because you have brought your baby home, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your emotional scars have healed.
10. Giving Back Helps You to Heal
“From Mini to Moose” has become my outlet to channel my emotions from our journey in a positive way. Whether it’s blogging, creating gifts or participating in a NICU walk, giving back helps you heal. My NICU journey has forever changed me, and I’ve learned many things through that experience — apparently 10 things in particular. I truly believe it is so important to give your journey purpose, and by giving back, you give that experience a positive purpose. Take the time to pour your energy into places that help you connect, give back and celebrate your journey in a positive way. It can help you and a future mom just like you just beginning her own NICU journey.