Being a NICU parent is no joke. I should know; I’ve been one, twice. My first experience was a tragic one, as my premature daughter died hours after birth, and so our NICU experience was also short-lived. But with my son, who was born with persistent pulmonary hypertension, I spent two months practically living inside the hospital where he was being treated. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to endure, watching him through his little plastic box, intubated and sedated, wires coming every which way, in and out of his little body.
I will say this, though: Of all the thoughts I had while my son was in the NICU, it never occurred to me just how much I was learning about myself through the experience. They say experiences shape you — change you permanently, even — and the same can be said of any parent who goes through such an incredibly taxing time as is experienced by NICU parents. I thought that my traumatic birth experiences would be the most difficult thing to deal with, but the time spent in the NICU was just as difficult, and just as traumatic. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, I really did learn a lot about myself. Those of you who’ve spent time in those sterile little rooms with tiny babies battling for their lives can probably relate to many of these points:
You’re Stronger Than You Think
It goes without saying that being in the NICU, day in and day out, takes tremendous strength. It takes courage to face life at your child’s side, to try and keep calm as they are poked and prodded, as their temperatures inexplicably rise, as nurses struggle to find appropriate veins, and as doctors shake their heads at unexpected outcomes. It takes so much strength, and while you may not have realized it, it was there inside you all along. Or maybe it came out of the experience.
You Can Easily Forgo Bathing For Long Periods If You Really Need To
This may seem silly, but you’ll learn that while you may have never gone a day without a shower in your life prior to this, you can just as easily forgo bath time for as long as necessary in order to stay close to your baby.
After Wearing The Same Clothes For Days, You’ll Realize How Little You Actually Care About Fashion
Fashion? What is that? When most of the folks around you are wearing solid colored scrubs, fashion is pretty much the last thing on your mind.
You Have The Ability To Wash Every Nook And Cranny Of Your Hands And Arms In 5 Minutes Flat
Did you know you had this superpower? It’s true. Every NICU parents learns to scrub all the dirt and grime from every crevice in their hands, from underneath every fingernail. And because you’re given a 5-minute timer, you learn to perfect this habit and be ready to run back to your baby soon as you’ve dried your hands.
You Have The Ability To Survive Off The Same Hospital Cafeteria Food For Months
When the NICU is your second home, food becomes nothing more than something to sustain you until the following day. You’ll forget all about the days of fine dining or even of pigging out in your kitchen. Instead, you’ll make the sullen trek to the hospital cafeteria and serve yourself a salad, maybe one of the day’s specials, add a yogurt cup, and try to avoid the employees who already know you and ask when your baby might finally be going home (mostly because the doctors won’t give you a release date and it’s just depressing to talk about).
Your Aptitude For Learning Medical Terms Is Higher Than You Ever Knew
You’ll quickly realize that although you may have flunked high school chem, and although you are more a poet or sculptor or basketball player, while in the NICU, you magically become nearly as knowledgeable about your child’s condition as the entire medical team. Of course, the doctor’s might not be quite so impressed, but like, you don't need her approval — you could totally be a doctor at this point.
You Learn That You Truly Have Absolutely Zero Time For Anyone Else’s Bullsh*t
If anyone so much as tries to send you some kind of drama-filled text message or e-mail while you’re holding your baby’s hand as they fight for their lives, you’ll know that person isn’t worth your time. You’ll finally learn who deserves to be cut loose from your social circle, and you’ll be all the better for it.
...While Simultaneously Learning Just How Wonderful It Is To Have People You Can Actually Rely On
As much as having a kid in the NICU will illuminate the people who really have no place in your life, it will also show you (in sometimes surprising ways) who the absolute best people are. There will be people who message you an appropriate number of times, who call or drop by, even if you can’t greet them, who will bring you care packages and lots of comfort — these are the folks you’ll want to keep with you. You’ll learn this and so much more from them.
You Find That You Can Go Without Sleep For As Long As Necessary, And Much More So Than A Regular Parent Who Actually Gets To Sleep In Their Own Bed
I spent most of my son’s NICU stay sleeping on recliners and later in a sofa bed in his NICU room. Neither was comfortable, especially due to my birth injuries, but I did learn that insomnia was OK for me so long as I rarely had to leave my son.
You Learn How Well You Actually Handle Stress
Maybe you take your child’s NICU stay in stride, or maybe you crumble into a human mess. Either way is OK and understandable and acceptable because the NICU is incredibly stressful. Still, you’ll get through it all somehow.
You Learn How Patient You Can Actually Be
After the 17th time that the doctor tells you they just can’t be certain of when your child is going home, you’ll feel the limits of your patience tested so hard. But you keep on keepin' on anyway, because your patience is the only thing that will someday get them home.
You Realize That You Truly Are The Most Important Advocate For Your Child
While your baby’s medical team are certainly wanting all the best for them, at the end of the day, you are their biggest advocate. When my son’s neonatologist wanted to keep his G-tube in for several more weeks while he learned to bottle-feed better, I called a meeting with his entire team and pleaded with them to give him a few days without the tube so that he might be comfortable enough for his feeds. They were reluctant, but my persistence paid off. And what do you know? He got to come home within 2 days rather than 2 or more weeks like they wanted! While I understood their fears of him regressing, I just had to go with my gut on that one, and it worked. You don’t realize how much of an advocate you are for your child until you’re faced with these tremendously difficult decisions yourself.
And Finally, You’ll Learn Just How Much You Can Actually Love Someone You Barely Know
I loved my son throughout my pregnancy, but my love only grew stronger with every passing day I spent with him, watching him fight and struggle and then seeing him get better and healthier, and finally watching him smile and hearing him coo and giggle. My son is 2 now, but the love I felt for him in those days was just as strong, something I would have never realized was possible prior to having children. And while I’m sure many non-NICU parents feel this, when your baby is literally close to death (in some people's cases), your appreciation of them, your love for them, is just all the more powerful.