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.

Coping with the "Zen" of the NICU: A Breathing Exercise

Being in the NICU is a swift baptism into a world in which nothing is predictable. My feeling was that once we were used to one circumstance, when the words started to make sense or we felt stable, as soon as we started to feel that sweet pang of familiarity, it quickly vanished into the NICU mire and another difficult circumstance would present itself.

My least favorite phrase of all-time, "it's a rollercoaster" felt like some kind of a sick mockery of the groundless world we had suddenly found ourselves floating in. The first time I heard that phrase was the morning after my son Elliott had had a pulmonary hemorrhage and had to be ventilated. His brother William was found to have a grade four bilateral brain bleed and severe infection, and it was related to us that "the 'honeymoon period' [was] over." Welcome to the NICU.

However apt the rollercoaster analogy, it's incredibly difficult to become accustomed to the monumental shifts and surprises, both bad and good, that happen on a fleeting and frequent basis in the NICU. After some time living in that unpredictable world, I realized that the momentary nature of it, the way that it forces one to be "present" and mindful of each breath that you or your little one(s) take in, has this zen-like quality to it. After all, when your baby is in the NICU you can't allow yourself to think one day ahead, even three hours ahead, without making the mistake of creating a false security that can be shattered with one bad blood draw, one bradycardia event, one bad test result. This ability to be "present in the moment", or mindful, is considered something to strive for in Buddhist meditation and mindfulness theory. The challenge is that it is very difficult to stay present emotionally, especially in easier times, when it's simple to distract your mind with the entertainment and interest of day to day life. The NICU, for what it is worth, oftentimes forces the ability to be present in the moment upon its patients and their parents.  

...the human experience is an experience of nothing to hang on to, nothing that’s set once and for all. Reality is always falling apart. In this fleeting situation, the only thing that makes sense is for us to reach out to one another.
— Pema Chodron, "Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change"

One author whose work spoke to me whilst our family was in the NICU was Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun whose books about coping with suffering proved to be incredibly useful in living through the experience. Her books "When Things Fall Apart" and "Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change" speak to the notion of losing your grounding in the world, and how in losing that, one can find incredible strength in learning how to face your fears, embrace the unpredictable nature of the world around you, grow spiritually, and find commonality with others that face the pain in their lives. In "Living Beautifully..." she wrote, "...the human experience is an experience of nothing to hang on to, nothing that's set once and for all. Reality is always falling apart. In this fleeting situation, the only thing that makes sense is for us to reach out to one another."

Here is a simple breathing exercise/meditation that can help promote calmness, even in difficult times. It is designed to help you learn how to ground yourself, even in times of intense stress. The practice can be useful for NICU parents facing the stress of the hospital, but can also be implemented by anyone facing a traumatic circumstance who feels the need for grounding or feels overwhelmed by their anxiety or suffering. I used to love doing it while I held Elliott skin-to-skin in the hospital, and got so used to the practice that I implemented it at home long after he was discharged. At this point I consider it a tool that I have in facing any kind of stress, and use it whenever I feel a sense of anxiety or overwhelm.

Note: Before beginning, check-in with yourself that you're able to safely do a breathing exercise. Be mindful of how you are feeling, especially towards yourself. It's important to approach a stance of forgiveness and self-love in participating in this exercise. If at any point during this breathing exercise you feel triggered or overwhelmed, stop immediately and take notice of the things around you. Call a nurse, your partner, a family member or a friend and tell them how you are feeling. 

  • Sit comfortably, with both feet on the ground and your back against a supportive chair. Close your eyes. Allow your arms to relax. Allow your body to relax. Become aware of your breath, how it feels. Breathe in to the count of six, and breathe out to the count of six. Count as slowly as you can, and breathe in as deeply as possible and out as slowly as possible. Feel your breath in your lungs, notice it. Relax into your breath.

 

  • Once you have established a slow and steady breathing pattern, if you'd like, you can discontinue counting as you inhale/exhale. Notice your breath, how it feels in your body. If your mind starts to wander, come back to your breath and focus on it. Treat the thoughts that enter your mind as passing. If it's useful, you can name them as thoughts or feelings, notice them, let them pass, and return to concentrate on your breath. Connect with how you feel physically in this very moment. Be present with your breathing.

 

  •  Continue in this manner for as long as you'd (reasonably) like to, but for at least 3-5 minutes. When you stop, notice how you feel. Are there any parts of your body that are particularly noticeable in this moment?  Were there any parts of your body that felt particularly stressed? Were there any thoughts dominating your ability to let go of thinking?

 

  • As you accustom yourself to taking time for this meditation, try to delineate more time for it each day. If you'd like, you can even try doing it while holding your baby. As I said before, I think skin-to-skin contact is preferable just due to the closeness it provides, but it's ok if you hold them swaddled. Make sure that you have the ability to sit comfortably and safely hold your baby. Relax into your chair with them snuggled close to you, breathe in their beautiful scent, and find grounding/love/compassion, even in the groundlessness.

Breathing exercises, as simple as they may seem, have the profound ability to induce calmness and presence, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Although at first it may be challenging to let go of thoughts and stresses, with practice, breathing exercises can promote your ability to be present even in fearful times, can provide you with a sense of connection not only with your baby, but with other parents going through similar circumstances, and can make clear what it is that you can hold onto, even in times where it feels like there isn't anything, that you're floating far away from the shore.

For more relaxation techniques and exercises, check out this PDF from the Trauma Center, or go to their website for this and other resources in coping with trauma.