I was one of those women who just loved being pregnant and may have actually been glowing. Then, my water broke five weeks early. Rather, it exploded as it doused the front seat of our car, leaking down to the toes of my boots while my husband and I drove home from our first parenting class.
Two hours and an emergency C-section later knocked the glow out of me real quick. I caught only a glimpse of my new daughter as she was whisked away to spend the first three weeks of her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
A birth not-at-all according to plan can be expected, but a NICU stay was not remotely part of my own mental preparation for labor or this whole parenting gig. And so I went into the dark, mourning over all the unmet expectations I had for new motherhood. I couldn’t see anything beyond the beeping monitors and the lonely beige chair where I rocked my tiny preemie baby as she was hooked up to tubes that needed rearranging each time I picked her up. When I came home from the hospital with her still in the NICU, I would walk into her room and stare at the empty crib.
I’m lucky, though. I eventually left the hospital with a baby in my arms. Even luckier still, three years later, I had a second, perfectly average, birth story to compare to my first weeks of motherhood spent in that lonely chair. I realized even though it’s hard to see it when you’re in it, a few positives can actually come from having a baby in the NICU.
1. A village of experts at your disposal
Rather than being ushered out of the hospital two days postpartum, you hang around a while. Learning not only about heart rates and oxygen levels but also becoming comfortable with newborn care basics like changing diapers and bathing babies. The NICU staff is a special group, and I still get teary-eyed with gratitude when I think of our favorite nurse. (Esther, we love you!)
2. A bit more sleep
Save for the constant worry, you are not cluster feeding, reacting to every grunt and squirm, or constantly checking to make sure they’re breathing (you’ll do all that later, of course, but right now, the NICU monitors have it covered). You can rest in your own bed as you heal and take some time to wrap your head around what exactly is happening with your baby.
3. Gratitude for modern medicine
You’re beyond grateful you were born in this century, at a time when you and your baby have a chance to thrive. You can’t help but think about the brave women who came before you with identical birthing complications but without the same outcome.
4. Milestones put in perspective
You might celebrate the “first time I breathed on my own” and “first time I ate without a feeding tube” milestones more than the “first time I rolled over” because each one means you’re closer to bringing your baby home.
5. You are already proud of your baby
You wish you could trade places with them but are in awe at what they can endure. With each strength they gain, you gain a little too.
6. Your friends and family shine
You begin to feel thankful. After two days in the NICU, I sent out a “Can you be here tomorrow?” mayday text to my mom who lived across the country. She hopped on a plane the very next day. Friends brought us meals and full bags of groceries, one even offering her guest bedroom because she and her husband lived closer to the hospital than we did.
7. Your partner shines
You are navigating this unknown together. You will both cry and celebrate those small victories. Your partner can help pull you out of the darkness if you let them.
8. You shine
Your mama bear comes out early. As you learn more each day and form a plan with your baby’s doctors and nurses, you become your baby’s strongest advocate.
9. You have a new community
“I’ve been there” from other NICU alums can be a lifeline as you try to process your own feelings. For every “When is she coming home?” question I couldn’t answer from someone who didn’t get it, there was another, “I know this is so hard right now” from someone who understood. You will be that person for a future NICU parent now.
10. You have a new cause
Maybe you’ll feel more connected to the important research conducted by the March of Dimes or to smaller charities founded by NICU loss mamas like Carrie Meghie of the Jackson Chance Foundation or Stacey Skrysak of the Triple Heart Foundation. Maybe you’ll want to find some way to show your appreciation for the hospital and staff who cared for you and your baby. Whatever cause pulls on your heart, you likely now feel deeply invested in the wellbeing of preemie babies (and their families).
But to a mom in the NICU right now, I know these positives are far from your purview. It is so hard right now. I hope you can celebrate those small milestones that are inching your baby closer to home.
And if you love a NICU mama right now, give her a hug and bring her a bag of groceries. Hopefully, she’ll be calling you for advice on breastfeeding and sleep deprivation in no time.