4 Things About Mindfulness Anyone Can Learn from a NICU Parent

The travails of a parent with a baby in the NICU are scarcely describable in language. After what is oftentimes a traumatic birth experience or high-risk pregnancy, parents are thrust into a fast-paced medical world, bamboozled with jargon, major life decisions, separation from their babies, trauma, frequent traveling back and forth to the hospital, interaction with a multitude of strangers regarding the care and survival of their babies, and, sometimes, the isolation that comes with going through an experience quite unfathomable to most of their friends and family. Even if their baby survives the NICU and comes out unharmed, parents are often left to cope with the grief and loss that comes with having their lives upended, all that is recognizable about it stripped away, only the bare bones of their beliefs left apparent.

The experience, suffice it to say, is not something that can be wrapped up in a bow and sold as something that is “inspiring” or positive. It is, however, oftentimes a unique opportunity for parents to discover what it is about themselves that can withstand a traumatic experience, as well as what it is that they will take a stand for in moving forward. Researchers are finding that it's common for individuals who have been through a traumatic experience to find things about themselves that maybe weren't apparent before: appreciations, values, understandings, goals. In discovering these things, individuals can in a sense "reconstruct" themselves after trauma, organizing their lives in a way that honors these discoveries, feels meaningful, and that appreciates the difficulties that they've experienced. 

In going through our own experience and in reaching out to other parents who have gone through it as well, I've found there are some shifts that have commonly taken place among NICU parents. Here are a few incredible things that the circumstance imparts to many that go through it, and that can benefit anyone looking to find mindfulness in their lives: 

1.) Never underestimate the miracle of breath. There is something to be said about seeing your baby struggle to take a breath in the NICU. It washes away all cares about minor matters: things like whether you’re having a boy or a girl, whether your baby is bigger, smarter, more advanced or more beautiful than others, whether you have the perfect products to decorate their room, whether you seem to be the perfect parent or whether you're meeting the unspoken expectations of the people around you. The phenomenon of losing your care for things that really don’t matter in the long run can persist for NICU parents, and all that other stuff? In the context of breath? They lose their importance. Letting those things go can give you the ability to see, embrace and enjoy the “little things” we oftentimes unintentionally take for granted. And it’s breathtaking to witness when you’re able to appreciate it.

2.) Planning for the future doesn’t serve you very well when you’re in the moment. Going through a crisis, one can’t predict the next hour, much less the next week, of their lives. In our day to day life, when things feel simpler, or we feel more “in control”, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the hopes and fears of the future that we hold oftentimes mean nothing in the face of what actually might happen. Letting those go and making a deliberate effort to be present can have a profoundly positive influence on your life. Embracing the unexpected can highlight the beautiful imperfections you may not have noticed in attempting to follow a plan, and can soften the blow of a challenge or disappointment.

3.)  This is water. If you’ve never heard the David Foster Wallace speech, I recommend you listen now. In it, he talks about the importance of setting aside the single-minded perspective most of us hold, of seeing things as how they affect us as opposed to deliberately creating a space for empathy, even in the most banal and frustrating of circumstances. I remember on one of the more terrible trips my husband and I took to the NICU, when William's health had taken a turn for the worst, of driving frantically to the hospital, weaving through traffic to get there as soon as possible, terrified that every moment we were absent was one we had lost forever. But, to everyone else, we likely looked like road-ragers. After that experience, I realized that the anger or annoyance that sometimes sprouts up when you’re dealing with the actions of anonymous others? It’s not worth it, because you never know what someone might be going through in that moment. Practice forgiveness; practice patience. Try to sit with the idea that all of us contend with our own struggles, our missteps and mistakes may just be indicative of the amount of pain from which we suffer. 

4.) Love is stronger than you think. It’s hard to fathom just how strong you are until you are forced into it. NICU parents are swept up into a world that’s as painful and anxiety-provoking as it is miraculous to see their tiny charges thrive. In going through it, one realizes that the love we have for each other is one of the only things clearly apparent, even in the most dire of circumstances. Many parents never could have imagined that they’d be able to manage a life in which their baby’s basic survival could be called into question on a daily basis for weeks on end; I certainly never thought that I could. But in the moment where you think you could lose everything, suddenly what you DO have becomes blatantly apparent, and, surprisingly, you can find beauty, strength, and comfort in even the simplest of expressions of love. Hold onto it as hard as you can, because the magnitude of that love will help you get through almost anything at all. 

I'm curious as to other realizations, values, beliefs or appreciations that other NICU parents may have discovered through their journey? Please feel free to share in the comments section below.