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4 Ways the NICU Has Changed Us as Moms

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You make friends when you’re thrown into the NICU life. Not just friends you say hi to in the corridor, though there are a few of those, but friends you tell your biggest fears to, friends you let yourself cry with and friends who one day become life friends. The kind you will always talk to because you now have a bond knitting you together forever.

I’ve made a little group of these friends.  They are the ones I contact in the middle of the night when I’m pumping, or in the middle of the day when I’m panicking. It’s not because we don’t need our other friends, the ones we had before. It’s because we know there’s nothing to explain when we talk or don’t talk. We can say one word and we know.

I was talking to one of these friends today about being home, and she said that one of the hardest things about being home was how hard it was for people to understand that she’s changed. We wear the clothes we used to wear, our hair is tied the same, when we speak it’s the same voice that comes out. But inside there’s someone who wasn’t there before.

So I asked the NICU mums around me to help explain how prematurity can alter your entire being.

1. Patience. This was number one for everyone I asked. We have learned that nothing happens fast, but it’s worth the wait. That in the hospital, as in life, we had to do a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. We are patient with our babies as they learn how to be in a world their bodies were not ready for. As we wait for them to reach milestones, to put on a gram of weight, to eat a little more, to sleep a little less, we are patient. We are patient with our family and friends as they struggle to understand and support us, patient when they disappoint us and patient when we disappoint them. We are patient with the medical team as they ponder what to do, and we go days without a decision or progress as they study and research until they can help find us the most evidence-based way to go. We are patient with strangers and sometimes even people we know when they say things that hurt. And we are patient with ourselves as we ride the waves.

2. Gratitude. We are eternally grateful for the tiniest things. This experience can make you grateful for life in a way no one can understand. We are happy for a breath, a gram, a milliliter. We don’t care anymore when things happen; we just hope they will happen. We don’t care that everything else is a mess because today our baby went to the bathroom on his own without any medication, assistance or prompting. We have all sat on the floor and sobbed because something happened that everyone else takes for granted. We no longer take a second for granted.

3. Trusting your gut. We trust our gut, and we speak up now. To anyone and everyone. If it doesn’t feel right, we say it. Because we know ourselves, and we know our child. We have watched them grow in a way no one else will ever know. In this way, we have learned more about our child than anyone can imagine. So we trust ourselves, we trust others and we trust our babies.

Having a premature baby has strengthened us all in a way that is hard to explain, especially if we spend a lot of time crying, so it might seem like any strength we had must have all been used up. But before this, we didn’t know what we could handle, what we could get up and walk into each day, and now we do. Throw something at us — we will cry, but we will still be going long after you might think we would have given up. We are better people than we were, on the whole. But sometimes we also change in ways that have made us harder.

4. Guilt. As a parent in general, we often experience guilt about every little thing. And for us, we sometimes feel guilty that no matter what we do, we can’t protect our children and keep them safe. Not from the daily things like  bullying and crossing the road. But from death. Before they had even taken one breath, our children had passed so close to another place. This guilt can be overwhelming, even after discharge, because your NICU journey doesn’t end when you go home.

5. Jealousy. This seems to me to be one of the more difficult ones because it’s completely out of our control when it pops up, and for many, it is only ever relieved by hashing it out with another NICU mum. Before I start, the mums I spoke with and I want to say sorry. We are happy for you. Truly. We do not want to take your happiness away, and as cliche as it sounds, it is actually not about you — it’s about us.

We experience jealousy, sadness and on a bad day, a little bit of resentment. For your big, pregnant belly, for your nesting, for your healthy baby, for your breastfeeding, for your trips out of the house with your baby, for your house full of visitors, for your coffee groups and play groups, for the day you say, “Let’s have another baby” and you just do.

I talked to these mums and wrote this all out as another way to offer you an insight into this world. But also as a way to tell others that we know what you feel. We get it. We see you. You’re not “you” anymore, but you’re a new you, and you’re still trying to figure out who that is and how she fits in to this world. Which is why I’m going to end with this statement from one of the most amazing mums I’ve met:

“I don’t know how to express myself to the people who love me, and I just want to curl up in my own little space with my children and shelter them from the world.”

Follow this journey on Charlie and Oliver.

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Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: February 9, 2016
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