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What I Learned in the NICU Made Me a Better Mom

This is something that I actually wrote about two years ago, but I never posted it anywhere because I couldn't quite figure out how to "lighten it up" so that people weren't like, "Oh my god, thanks, Debbie Downer." And then we watched this week's episode of This is Us and I boldly made the proclomation that "I'm not gonna cry at this one this week." Cut to: twelve minutes later and I'm wiping away tears and saying to Ian, "Are you crying, too?" To which he responded, "Um, no. We can't both be criers." (also, if you haven't seen it yet, skip down three paragraphs.)

I disagree. But our short experience in the NICU is part of what helps keep me centered when the exhaustion and exasperation of parenthood takes over. And because of it, I think I've over-stayed my welcome with little Fiona. She literally says, "No kisses, mommy, no kisses" because I'm constantly trying to sneak one in on those cute little cheeks and she's NOT having it.

Anyway. Fiona's not baby Jack and everyone's NICU story is their own. This is mine.

When my second daughter was born, she was silent. She was adorable and tiny and perfect….and silent. Which some people may say is a blessing – a quiet baby! Hooray! But it wasn’t that joyous, or that simple. When I was induced at 37 weeks due to preeclampsia, I was put on magnesium sulfate to prevent seizures or a stroke, both during and after labor. For me, it meant vomiting, severe fatigue, muscle weakness, and feeling pretty terrible overall. But for my six and a half pound little girl, it meant spending the first few days of her life in the NICU.

Her first night, she stopped breathing twice. Or, as they carefully put it when describing it to a hormonal, doped-up mommy, “She forgot to breathe a few times last night.” And since I was bed-ridden for 24 hours post-delivery, due to my own magnesium exposure, I couldn’t even go in and see her, hold her, or know what color her eyes were. I didn’t know what my own daughter looked like and it was literally and figuratively one of the scariest, most frustrating, worst feelings I've ever had.

Finally, though, I was given the go-ahead to visit her the following afternoon. She was in her little incubator, decorated with a colorful nametag, hooked up to so many wires and heart monitors that I didn’t even know how it’d be possible to hold her. But our nurse was a pro and sat me down in a comfortable, padded rocking chair, delicately took our tiny newborn out of her incubator, and gently placed her in my arms. A rush of emotion, love, and warmth came over my body. I was finally holding my baby.

She was also wearing a newly knitted hat that her NICU doctor made for her just a few hours prior. It was something she did for each of her patients and it's now safely tucked away in a keepsake box that I take out and look at every once in awhile. It's my most treasured baby item, hands-down.

And so, for the next 30+ hours, I made frequent visits to feed her, sing to her, hold her, and snuggle her. She was the sweetest little person I’d ever seen and each time I sat down in that rocking chair and got her into my arms, I became more comfortable with where the wires should go, how to keep them from getting caught on the rocking chair legs, and started to know the different nurses and doctors by name. I also started to recognize the other parents in the NICU, hearing bits and pieces of their stories through the curtain dividers, learning that some had been there for weeks. Others would be there for months. And as my husband and I walked in and out every few hours, something became quite clear: we were leaving soon. We would be taking our daughter home sometime that weekend. Her vitals were looking better and better, she was breathing on her own and passing every little newborn NICU test needed to convince the doctors and nurses that she could be left in the hands of her totally clueless parents.

And it became quite clear to us that we were in the minority. There were babies there who weren’t getting their NICU graduation certificates anytime soon; there were some who never would. There were a few moms there who gave me the weary, exhausted smile that comes with new parenthood and collides with the fear and emotional depletion of your baby being in the NICU.

And it changed me forever.

For weeks after getting home, there wasn’t a single day that went by where I didn’t think of the doctors and nurses and parents from that nursery. And as our weeks turned into months, I made a pact with myself that I’d never let that feeling go – not totally. Because I’d already known that motherhood was a blessing, but what I’d previously taken for granted – the way only parents of healthy kids can – is what it truly meant to get to watch your baby thrive and grow and hit their milestones each week, month, year…

No more. I think of my NICU neighbors often, and have sent picture updates to the staff throughout the course of the last two years of my daughter's life. I say thank you. I pinch her chubby cheeks and kiss her chubby legs and breathe her in. And I remember. I remember the first moment I smelled her little head and stared at her through the incubator window. And I remember the moment they told us she could leave and the mixed emotions I felt, other parents wishing us well as they sat in their padded rocking chairs with their babies who weren’t quite ready to graduate.

What I saw over those few days made me a different mom, a better mom, a more present and appreciative mom. The mom who has never and will never say no to “one more kiss, mommy” as I’m rushing out the door to work. The mom who will always try to pick up my baby and toddler when they’re reaching for me, no matter what’s in my hands or how tired I am. And the mom who will never forget the exhausted and weary parents we shared time and space with for a brief, but pivotal, time. They made me a better mom, and I will never forget them.


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