To the NICU Mom: Stop Trying to be Strong

nicu 2.8.14I wondered, “Who robbed me?” I never asked the question out loud; rather, it was a question I felt deep in my bones.

She came fighting for breath, so we fought next to her. And that lovely, hazy fog of sleepless newborn nights I had expected instead became a sharp-focused sprint to keep her.

All of a sudden, I felt I was living a life meant for someone else. Instead of mama snuggles on the couch, I sat vigilance at the side of an isolette. And, while I was meant to be struggling to nurse, I sat cumulative hours pumping behind a pink and orange patchwork curtain, then learned to draw up that milk with a syringe and feed it through a tube. I learned trachs and O2 sats; I learned fear and prayers and miracles. All the while, I tried to reconcile the life I expected with the one I lived.

I’m telling you this because I think you might feel the same grief of expectations, all while people are telling you just how strong you are. And maybe, this all feels like a little more than you can handle— meanwhile, people try to cheer you up by telling you that God will never give you more than you can handle.

If we were sitting together over a cup of coffee, here’s what I would tell you:

Stop trying to be strong. I know you’re running on adrenaline, trying to pack a medical degree into a few hours’ Google search. I know you’re spinning, spinning, spinning. I remember trying to pack it all down simply because I didn’t feel I had the luxury of being upset. Too much to do, too many people around, too many expectations to balance. Too many scary thoughts to face.

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I thought I had to be strong.

And then I needed to be strong. When I stopped moving, all the what ifs boiled to the top and forced me to wonder whether I could handle this. But, I reasoned, if I couldn’t handle this, who would?

I’d never been needy before. Then, all of a sudden, I needed a lot but didn’t know how or what to ask. But, there were people ready to love me. They weren’t sure what I needed any more than I was, but they came. They sat. They listened. They took care of the things I couldn’t.

So, I remembered my people.

It’s hard to be the one accepting love—we are taught the Christian thing to do is to give love, give love. And that’s true, but what about when you’re in a place where you need something?

Humility requires accepting love. I wanted to be the one who could manage it all—the baby in the NICU, the toddler at home, the crash-course of level 3 nursing skills, and the treats for the school Valentine party. But what I learned working overtime is that weakness doesn’t mean sitting and allowing others to do my work; it means admitting I couldn’t do it all myself. So, I let others do the work that God was giving them—namely, helping me do the things I couldn’t.

Now, not everyone is going to do this well with you. You’re not always going to do this well either. This is a weird season for relationships—people you used to count on might let you down, and unexpected others might show up.

I’ll tell you this—the hardest question to answer in trauma is “What can I do?” The answer I usually gave was, “I don’t know.” The answer I felt was something a little more like, “Can you fix this?”

So, seek grace. Grace for yourself as you react and respond, and grace for others as they learn to love you in trauma. Allow them to imperfectly love you, and ask them to have patience with you in return. Hold at arms’ length the ones who refuse to understand, and lean into the ones who prove true.

And then, seek out the ones who have been there. You might have to expand your circle, so use social media and church and other networks to connect. It helps to have someone who can speak medical jargon and understand the exact emotions that come with words like trach, g-tube, or laryngotracheal reconstruction.

However, even with all the people, some moments left me lonely because they left scars that only I could know.

So, I remembered my God. There was so much that I couldn’t handle, so many unknowns that grew shadows 12 feet tall with spikes and teeth.

It was in the weakness that I finally understood what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

It’s a nice thing to imagine the strength of God; it’s something entirely other when you need the strength of God. It was strangely comforting to think about the oceans, the mountains, the stars at night. Looking up and looking out, I remembered that I am small. Of course my strength is not enough. It was never meant to be enough. Remembering God, I could remember that He has the power to make something out of nothing, and goodness out of hardship.

And just as I learned to let my people help, I learned to accept His power in my life. It took weakness to help me understand that grace is free.

Knowing my God, I could take a step forward into the what-ifs, the scariest of the unknowns. I could know that He would bring us to the other side of whatever time had in store, and that we would be okay. Knowing my weakness, I could fully accept strength.

Here’s the irony: accepting from others, from God, can make you a better giver. When humility forces you to see your own weakness in high definition, you stop giving out of pity and begin coming alongside others in their pain. So, weakness has given me a gift. Weakness broke out the bottom floor of my heart; it gave me depth that allows me to love from a place more authentic, more empathetic than I knew I could feel.

So, my friend, know that you are being given the same strange gift. Embrace the weakness, and I think you will find yourself stronger than you knew you could be.

2 thoughts on “To the NICU Mom: Stop Trying to be Strong

  1. Oh my gosh… yes to all of this!! And I especially love how through going through our own pain we have learned to give “from a place more authentic.” How absolutely true this is. We NICU parents have seen the darkness, we have yelled to the heavens, swallowed back tears as we cancelled the newborn pictures and folded away the cute newborn outfits our babies never got to wear, the guilt for even feeling bad about that when they are struggling to breathe,we have felt the fear that’s all to ready to pounce on you each time the Drs make rounds, but it’s those feelings that drive us to hold each other’s hands and help each other through the other side. …. because there IS another side. This is what you did for me and I hope to do for others❤️. I will always be grateful for those moments you told me it will get easier… moments when I was scared to even leave the house to get prescriptions for my baby… you gave me hope and hope was all I needed. Thank you.

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