Yesterday was Easter, and my husband and I were reflecting on our first Easter as parents.
Our son had been born premature earlier that month and so we spent the holiday alternating between the NICU and the hospital lobby.
I remember that my family came up that afternoon after the extended family get-together, armed with leftovers and a few Easter treats for our little boy.
We sat in the lobby with canned lobby music playing, opening plastic eggs, eating leftover stuffing, and catching up on our family’s news.
It was a hard Easter, because as you may or may not have experienced for yourself – holidays are pretty much irrelevant in hospitals. Sure, they might tape up a few decorations here and there and the calendars will all be flipped to the appropriate day, but everything you know and hold dear about that day will suddenly seem incredibly beside the point. The day will cease to be a holiday, and suddenly, just another day spent wandering between the isolette in the NICU and the stiff plastic sofa in the hospital lobby.
(This isn’t really a post about Easter.)
The morning of our first Easter as new parents, I was in the hospital cafeteria. Breastfeeding moms were given a voucher each day to buy snacks and even though I couldn’t actually feed with my breasts, I did pump. In the face of so many things that I couldn’t do – hold my baby, give him his first bath, take him home – it was the one way I felt useful.
It was the one thing I could do to feel like a mom.
So early that Easter morning, I wandered into the cafeteria to load up on snacks. We were young, broke, and facing a very expensive hospital stay for both me and our son. We didn’t have a lot of cash. I counted on the snacks I purchased with that voucher lasting me the full day. I would usually arrive at the hospital before 10 am and leave sometime between 6 PM and 8.
I couldn’t stay next to my son’s isolette all day, though. All the babies in the NICU were in one large room, with nothing but curtains separating them. Moms were allowed to come in to sit with their babies, pump, check on progress, etc but every so many hours they would ask us to leave for the doctors and nurses to do their rounds. During that time I would either head to the cafeteria with my snacks or find a sofa in the lobby. It was an exhausting time. Without a pillow or blanket or even a care if I drooled, I would prop my bag under my head and fall fast asleep and not wake up until my cell phone alarm clock buzzed.
Then I would drag myself back into the NICU and start the process all over again.
That Easter morning, I was in the cafeteria, getting my snacks, feeling rather numb at this point. I didn’t understand what was happening and it all happened so quickly and unexpectedly that I didn’t even have time to process it all. I knew I was sad. I knew I was tired. But mostly I just felt…numb.
My phone buzzed as I stood in line to purchase my food.
It was a text from someone who had also just recently had a baby. Her baby was full-term and healthy and currently they were both at home. Together.
Her text simply said that she just knew I was going to love motherhood. That motherhood was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
I stared at that text for what felt like forever before quickly deleting it without a response and shoving my phone back into my bag.
At that moment, I did not love motherhood. I didn’t even feel like a mother.
I felt like a woman, standing in a line to buy food with a voucher that I earned simply because I was pumping milk that just went in to a freezer because my baby’s body couldn’t yet process milk, let alone suck and swallow at the same time.
I didn’t know what I was.
Even now, that text makes me mad. It came from someone that I didn’t really talk to, and who certainly didn’t know me anymore. It felt so..so…stupid. Like such a flippin stupid thing to say.
Motherhood is so great! Enjoy your hospital food and baby you can’t touch! Byeeeee.
But here is the thing, and I’ve thought about this a lot in the time since having a premature baby – why was I so bothered by it? Why was I so bothered by people’s inept-but-well-meaning ways of trying to help?
Honestly, we all kind of suck at being the kind of people that other’s really need when things get hard. We offer tired phrases and stupid cliches and offer tips and tricks that they’ve heard a million times before. So yes. We all need to do better in this area. It’s time to tighten up people.
We, the recipient of these dumb platitudes can also do better. People don’t know what to say, this is true. But they say something anyway because they want one thing – they want to help. However misguided. However flippant. However just plain stupid. They. Want. To. Help.
The person who sent the text didn’t know about the vouchers or the daily naps in the hospital lobby. She didn’t know how getting kicked out of my baby’s bedside four times a day made me feel like I wasn’t enough. She didn’t know the doubts I had. She didn’t know how it felt to leave the hospital each night and drive away from my baby. She didn’t know any of these particulars.
Which brings me to this.
That text really bummed me out. Then it made me MAD. Like SO STINKIN MAD. She didn’t get it. She said something stupid. SHE DIDN’T UNDERSTAND MY PAIN.
That was her crime.
But you know what she got right? She reached out.
And I deleted the text.
Here is where I’m at with this incredibly difficult, emotionally charged topic:
People aren’t always going to get my pain. They aren’t always going to say the right thing. They will mess up, just like I mess up when I’m in their shoes. They will offer dumb advice. They will make me feel alone and misunderstood and crazy with their suggestions of “have you tried?…..”
Listen to me people. No one is going to know how to be there for you when the going gets tough because even you don’t know what you need until you are in that situation. And even you are a complete train wreck.
But when people show up and obviously want to help – obviously want to alleviate some of your pain – don’t reject what they get wrong, accept what they get right.
This is not a situation that calls for us to be passive aggressive, angry, or dismissive. This is a situation that calls for honesty. The type that sounds like, “Hey, thanks for the text. Honestly, I don’t love motherhood right now because this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face. I appreciate you reaching out to me, though. If you are looking for a way to help, I could really use help getting rides to the hospital or a few freezer meals for when I get home after a long day of being gone. Thanks again for reaching out.”
We have to meet people half way.
I did that recently with a friend. I was hurting and overwhelmed and her advice kinda made me feel, well, a little more hurt and overwhelmed. And so I almost just said nothing. I almost chose to go into hiding. To lick my wounds in private and re-emerge when my situation changed and we could go back to being friends who just talked about happy sunshine stuff.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I told her how much I valued our friendship. I told her how much I desperately needed a friend. And I told her specifically how I could really use her help.
That friend is truly an amazing person. She listened. She heard me out. She understood my needs and because she genuinely wanted to help – she met me half way.
Sometimes telling people honestly how to help you will mean they will run for the hills. This is ok. This clears all the stupid and insincere people out of your path. So don’t be worried that not everyone will respond by actually becoming helpful. This is not the goal. The goal is to give the tools to the people who are ready and willing to help, and separate them from the rest. Some people really do just say stupid things. Help them get the message that they are stupid and unhelpful.
Peace. Godspeed. Be gone, stupid person.
The ones who stick around and are ready to hear how to help, those are your people. They may not know how to respond right away, but you will recognize them by their willingness to learn. Their willingness to hear. Their willingness to truly help.
We expect so much of people. We expect them to know how to respond to situations we don’t even know how to respond to, and we are living them! But to not let someone in just because they don’t “get it,” robs both parties of an opportunity. An opportunity to have our needs met in a way that speaks love to us. An opportunity to act and do in a situation that otherwise feels helpless.
An opportunity to go through life, together.