Today I got to hold a baby! It was so great. Aren’t babies just the best? This one was teeny tiny and part of a set! My friend Kiley just gave birth to two of the most handsome baby boys I’ve ever seen. Both boys and momma are doing well, but one of the guys needs a little extra attention and care before he can go home. As I visited with my friend and her precious little boys, I was instantly transported back to the Akron Children’s NICU, where our oldest son Theodore spent the first month of his life.
To date, having a baby in the NICU has been the most physically and emotionally exhausting experience of my life. No one should ever have to experience having their baby whisked away from them after birth, and no one should certainly have to experience the gut wrenching pain of driving away from a hospital after delivering your first born – without a baby.
The weeks that followed Theo’s birth were a blur. I would rise early, drive (or be driven by friends and family) 45 minutes to the hospital where he was staying and then spend the next 8-10 hours either sitting by Theo’s incubator, or wandering the hospital when I was kicked out during the rounds staff did ever few hours. I would return that evening, empty handed, continuing to get up every three hours to pump for a baby that was not in his crib.
As hard as that experience was, I’m grateful for it because I’ve gone through something that you truly can’t relate to unless you’ve walked that path yourself. I learned a lot about myself as a person and a mom. I discovered that people really don’t know how to encourage someone in that situation. That isn’t a criticism, people do their best to reach out and be a friend. But unless you’ve been there, it’s simply impossible to relate.
Maybe you have a friend or family member who has a baby in the NICU. Here are a few suggestions on how you can help that persona and encourage them during this difficult time.
1. Don’t say: “Nothing lasts forever.” – I can’t emphasize this enough. I found myself ready to lash out verbally or physically (possibly both) at people who would throw this trite little cliche at me. While this statement was true, I just wanted to scream, “What does that matter? It’s hard NOW!!!” Of course babies don’t stay in the NICU forever, but if you really want to support your loved one, affirm them in the reality that they are currently facing. I wish just once, someone would have come up to me and said, “Hey, I know that this is a really tough thing you are going through. You don’t need to act like it’s easy, because it’s not. It’s ok to struggle, because what you are going through is really hard.”
With everyone coming up to me telling me stupid things like “this too shall pass,” or “hang in there,” or “nothing lasts forever,” it felt like they were telling me that I didn’t have permission to struggle with the reality of my hard situation. Don’t do that to your loved ones. Give them permission to cry, to struggle, to express heart ache.
2. When you visit, don’t come empty handed – living in a hospital is no joke. I mean, if you thought living in your college dorm was bad, your dorm is like the Ritz compared to staying in a hospital. I remember one night, our friend Becka was coming to visit and she didn’t asked if we needed anything, she just said she was bringing food. When she entered bearing Chipotle I thought I would cry. Flowers are great, but Chipotle is where it’s at people. Here are a few other suggestions:
- coffee (hospital coffee is crap)
- toiletries (because no one feels pretty in the hospital.) bring great lotions, chapsticks or shampoos
- gas cards – these were a lifesaver for us, driving 45 minutes one way, several times a day for a month
- comfy but pretty lounge wear for mom. again, because no one feels pretty schlepping through a hospital, especially after giving birth.
- books and magazine, for all those hours sitting by your baby’s incubator
- slippers (for said schlepping)
- anything pretty. I can’t say this enough. hospitals are big, bland, scary and noisy. bring a little love, light and beauty into your loved one’s eye through a gift that is simply nice to look at/smell/wear/etc.
3. Offer to drive your tired and emotional friend/family member to the hospital
4. Offer to come sit with your tired and emotional friend/family member at the hospital
5. If your friend has to stay at home and commute to the hospital, offer to come by during the day while they are gone and stock the fridge, run the vacuum, throw a load of laundry in the wash, or clean up dirty dishes. Everything else gets put on hold while you are waiting on a baby to get strong enough to come home. Give your loved one the gift of checking off some of the normal “to do” items that they don’t have the energy or time to get to.
6. Don’t ask how you can help, just help. This is a big one. Don’t put the pressure on your already over-stressed love one by then also requiring them to figure out what they need (and how they want you to help). Ask yourself what would speak love and encouragement to you in that situation. It may not be perfect, but trust me, the things that you take upon yourself to just do for that person will speak loads of love, even if that act itself wasn’t exactly their style. Trust me, when you are in that situation, no one knows what they need. Because what they “need” is to not be there. But that isn’t going to happen. So don’t ask, just act.
7. Remember that things don’t magically get easier just because you are discharged to come home. Babies who spend time in the NICU tend to come home with a host of difficulties that can make the first year of life hard, especially on new moms. Keep this in mind. Give your loved one some grace as they will inevitable bail out of commitments last minute (or forget all together), have to turn down invitations bc of a fussy or sick baby, and generally struggle to maintain life as they knew it. Continue to reach out, be there, and remember that the tough time won’t last forever, but the special way that you are there for your loved one will.