When you first found out you were pregnant, what did you imagine your life would be like? Did you have visions of a round swollen belly draped in the latest maternity clothes? Did you imagine yourself in the last months of your pregnancy putting the final touches on the nursery you’d so lovingly created for your newborn? Had you created a detailed birth plan to share with your doctor/midwife, one in which the end result was a healthy, round bundle of joy?
If you’re like me, you had these visions and more. And if you’re like you’re me, your pregnancy/birth dreams never involved a traumatic birth followed by the uncertain rollercoaster ride of life in the NICU.
But if you’re like me, that’s exactly where you ended up.
When my daughter Andie was born so unexpectedly at 25 weeks, I spent hours of each day replaying the months prior to her birth, trying to figure out exactly what I had done wrong to cause her early arrival. After her birth, every cell in my being was satiated with guilt, shame and fear. It took me years to let go of my vision of the perfect pregnancy, perfect delivery and perfect baby, and many more to finally see her birth for the amazing gift it would prove to be.
When I read Dr. Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, I wanted to stand in the middle of every NICU and pass out copies. The book is not about being a premature parent, it’s about learning to love and accept yourself and the path you are on, so wait a minute, it is a book about being a premature parent!
Brené Brown calls her book a “Guide for Wholehearted Living,” and believes the first step to living Wholeheartedly is learning to love yourself. For me, that meant forgiving myself and no longer carrying the blame for Andie’s early birth.
I’ve underlined so many poignant passages throughout the book that it was hard to choose just a few.
The book opens with the following line: “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.”
Throughout the book, Brené talks about courage – something we preemie parents need a whole lot of to face the daunting task of raising and loving such vulnerable babies. Courage, she says, is “to speak one’s mind by telling one’s whole heart.” I know that after Andie was born, I was so afraid to say how I was really feeling, afraid if I shared my thoughts of uncertainty and failure, I’d only feel more ashamed. Dr. Brown writes, “shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story,” and interestingly, by giving voice to mine, I felt less ashamed and learned that so many other preemie parents felt many of the same feelings.
One of the things I loved so much about the book is how Dr. Brown doesn’t come across so much as an expert, but a friend, sharing many of her own personal stories:
“I’ve always been prone to worry and anxiety, but after I became a mother, negotiating joy, gratitude, and scarcity felt like a full-time job. For years, my fear of something terrible happening to my children actually prevented me from fully embracing joy and gratitude. Every time I came too close to softening into sheer joyfulness about my children and how much I love them, I’d picture something terrible happening: I’d picture losing everything in a flash.”
And one last final favorite passage that really resonated with my experience as a preemie mom:
“Joy is thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions. To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain.”