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The Surprising Lessons I Learned In The NICU

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Six years ago this month I was blissfully pregnant with our first child when I spontaneously went into labor just 24 weeks into my pregnancy.

I gritted my teeth and gripped bedrails and flat-out begged my body not to betray me but it birthed her anyhow, delivering my baby into the world all one pound, eight ounces and three and a half months too soon.

We christened her Scarlette a nd even though she weighed less than six sticks of butter she was the heaviest thing on my heart.

We spent one hundred and fifty six days in the neonatal intensive care unit. It changes your life a little bit, if by “a little bit” you mean “utterly and irrevocably.”

For example, soon after we left the NICU I joined a sorority.

So okay, it’s actually a support group for micro-preemie moms. But I prefer to refer to it as a sorority partially because it sounds less traumatic but mostly because our collective introduction to motherhood was one heck of an initiation.

Plus, on Wednesdays we wear pink.

(Just kidding.)

(Preemie moms wear purple.)

The time I spent in the NICU was reminiscent of my very first day of junior high, when I stood pressed up against the lockers and watched everyone bustle past, outside looking in and feeling like I didn’t belong.

I felt the separation acutely there, my daughter encased in a thick, plastic box and me with my face pressed against the porthole to glimpse her miniature form.

I could not touch her.

I could not care for her.

She was thirty days old before I was even allowed to hold her.

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Everything felt foreign, broken, and I could not find where I fit.

I was never the most confident of girls. I pretty much epitomized the definition of “awkward adolescence.” I once bought a book titled How To Be Cool, which tells you just cool I was. The majority of the text encouraged me to “be confident” which was not the most helpful advice when you’re a 13 year old girl with oversized glasses, a habit of being picked last for dodgeball, and who once accidentally dropped a package of feminine products in front of the cutest boy in the seventh grade.

Suffice it to say, confidence was not my strong suit and the circumstances of having a brand new baby in the NICU diminished what little I had. Having a newborn is overwhelming enough, what with that whole thing about how you’re suddenly responsible for an entire human being and all.

It was in 156 days in the NICU that I found my confidence and my calling for the very first time in my life.

As I learned to navigate my newfound motherhood amid tangles of tubes and wire and monitors, I discovered that my greatest asset was simply that I was her mom. That love sustained me through surgeries and setbacks and the seventy-two minutes she spent suspended between here and heaven.

And now? I can do things that I never thought I would be able to do.

I mean, I can convert things to the metric system, despite the fact that I spent all of my school years in American remedial math.

I can put down a feeding tube like a boss.

And I’m not at all afraid to make a decision that goes against the status quo when I know that it is the best thing for my daughter.

It was the NICU that taught me that I had something worth saying. It was the NICU that taught me what it means to be an advocate.

It was the NICU that taught me to live a life drenched in gratitude.

It is etched deep, the way those early days reached down and reprogrammed my DNA so that every next breath is synonymous with thanksgiving.

I’m so grateful for every day that her heart beats here alongside mine on this side of heaven, that we tied a brightly colored bunch of birthday balloons to her door last week instead of releasing them ceremoniously towards the sky.

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It was the NICU that showed me how to uncover hope in the unexpected.

How there is always something to find promise in when you pause to count heartbeats.

That when every expectation shatters, hope remains.

And out of my most broken moment came my calling: the beautiful benediction of passing that hope along.

"I did not want this story. I wanted a fairy tale, with a Once Upon A Time and a They All Lived Happily Ever After.” But even the fairy tales would not exist without the dark places. Beauty without the Beast is just another pretty face. Sleeping Beauty without the spindle is just a story about a girl who takes a ridiculously long nap.

It is our suffering that gives us the greatest opportunity to know the depths of love, and in this way share that love with others.

This is our privilege.

This is our benediction."

– excerpted from Anchored: Finding Hope in the Unexpected

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