I didn’t begin my pregnancy journey hoping that it would end with a stay in the NICU. I didn’t aspire to give birth to my twins when they were only two pounds, then to have them immediately whisked away by a team of doctors before I could even lay eyes on them. I didn’t picture the first time I held my boys to be through the sterile port holes of an incubator, where I was only allowed to place my hand on the top of their heads because every other inch of their bodies was already covered with wires and tubes and monitors. I didn’t think I hope my babies end up in the NICU the first time I saw the flicker of two heartbeats on the ultrasound monitor, before I knew that my world was about to turn upside down.
But looking back now, maybe I should have.
The NICU gave me something that no one else could have ever given me. It gave me hope. It gave me patience. It gave me strength. But most importantly it taught me to be a mother.
For 59 days straight I entered the NICU at the same time every morning. I signed my name in the visitors’ log before grabbing a “parents” name tag and placing it on my shirt. I scrubbed my hands with soap for 60 seconds per the instruction sheet taped above the sink, and navigated my way through the sea of incubators and isolettes while simultaneously tuning out the symphony of alarms that were alerting the nurses to episodes of apnea, bradycardia and desaturations. I said hi to each nurse I passed, calling them by name, feeling oddly familiar and distant at the same time, like I had just married into a new family that I had yet to decide if I despised or loved. I said good morning to each of my boys, opening their porthole windows momentarily so they could hear the sound of my voice before closing them back up while I received an update from the nurse on how the night went.
To an outsider, it would seem like my days were exactly the same. But to me, each new day gave me more knowledge, more courage and more strength.
In the beginning I decided to take a back seat approach to caring for my boys. I allowed the nurses to change their diapers, take their temperatures, to move their heads from one side to the other. I said that I preferred to watch, standing at a comfortable distance on the other side of the isolette from the nurse, whispering to each boy that I was so proud of his strength, of his resilience, and of his will to fight a battle not of his own choosing.
But then one day the nurse would not take no for an answer. She made me jump in and take over, telling me that I needed to learn how to become their mother. Although I tried to object at first, she stood right by me, offering encouragement and direction as needed. Initially I was terrified that I was doing it wrong. I was terrified that I would somehow permanently damage the fragile and tiny body of one of my precious boys. But with each diaper that I changed and each temperature that I took, I found myself gaining confidence and I realized that I could actually do this mother thing that seemed so foreign to me.
Most days passed without event (about as perfect a day as you can ask for in the NICU), but the days that I received news from the doctors of a probable surgery, an impending blood transfusion, or a “small” issue with the heart, I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. It was these days, however, where I truly gained strength. Because even though all I wanted to do was roll into a ball and cry, I decided to tackle each obstacle as it presented itself.
I realized that having a breakdown about a problem didn’t actually solve anything, and I often found that my stress-induced sleepless nights were in vain, since most potential problems corrected themselves before any medical intervention was needed at all. And after a few of these false alarms, I found myself not worrying nearly as much. So when small procedures and a surgery did come up, I was actually calmer than I ever would have been prior to our NICU experience.
Through our NICU journey, I learned of a resilience in my boys, but also in myself that I never thought that I possessed. I learned to trust in science, because the medical innovations that exist today are truly remarkable.
Witnessing my children grow from tiny space alien-looking creatures that were barely the size of my hand, to four times their size the day that they were discharged was a very special thing.
While most children are born with the ability to suck, swallow and eat on their own, I had the opportunity to watch my boys fight for breath with furrowed concentration that was immediately followed by relief, as they taught themselves to do something that the rest of us take for granted. Not many mothers are fortunate enough to watch their children attain these types of milestones.
I learned to have faith in God, because even when doctors believed that my boys would not make it, my children continued to surprise everyone by not only surviving, but thriving, convincing everyone they met that miracles were possible.
But most importantly, I learned to have faith in myself. I am much stronger than I ever imagined possible, and through our time in the NICU, I was able to become the mother that I never thought I could be.
Kate Smyres lives in San Diego with her husband, twin boys, and two dogs. She works in advertising at The Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @katesmyres.
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