Three and a half years ago, we bundled our second preemie into her car seat and left the NICU in our rearview mirror. We have since moved to a new state, built a house, and started new jobs. Our kids run and play, and on the surface, they look nothing like the tiny babies they once were. We have traveled years and miles from those dark days. I feel the tug of the future begging me to forget the past.
The truth is that I will carry the scar of that time on my heart forever.
I feel pressure to move on and focus on all the joys in my life, not in the sadness of the past. Some of the worst wounds from the NICU have healed. I am profoundly grateful for the life we have now, a gratitude five months with babies in the NICU and years with kids in therapy only deepened.
In some ways, I have made peace with that time. I no longer jump when I hear an automatic paper towel machine, just like the one in the NICU. Instead, my thoughts go back to all the hours spent scrubbing into the NICU, all the people I met as we carefully washed every crevice of our hands for three minutes. Sometimes, instead of flinching, I even smile at the memories.
I no longer cry when I see pregnant women. I can listen to birth stories without swallowing down bitterness, and I can talk about developmental milestones without defensiveness at our unique journeys. Even though my own birth stories are heavy with sadness and guilt, I can rejoice in the birth stories of others, and I treasure the significance of all the milestones I once took for granted: walking, talking, and eating.
While I used to recoil at the questions that hinted at how I could have prevented my babies’ births, I now accept that my life is full of choices and decisions. I can’t see the full map of my life at one time. This traumatic thing happened to me, twice, and it has forever altered how I see myself and the world around me. But, as time passes, the guilt, the anger, and the bitterness give way to gratefulness, acceptance, and appreciation for all that is beautiful in our complicated lives.
My NICU memories are less vivid, but still they hover all around me, always. Sometimes, I feel that all the people in my life must be tired of hearing about it by now. Life has a way of pushing us onward regardless of whether we’re ready, but my identity will forever be intertwined with being a mother to two resilient preemies. You can never know me, really know me, without knowing these stories, and you can never understand my family without knowing where we have all been.
I am now realizing that the goal is not to move forward and away from that time in our lives; it is to embrace the changes that time wrought on us all. I believe peace for us parents of preemies lies in acceptance, not in forgetting. As mothers whose bodies did not and could not carry babies to full-term, we are in a uniquely guilt-ridden place where we feel that our bodies failed us, where we are bitter for all we didn’t have, and where we see the struggles of our children and feel responsible. We can never undo what has happened to us and to our children, but we can offer ourselves forgiveness, we can support each other, and we can commit ourselves to giving our children all the resources possible to help them live fulfilling lives.
Finding new ways to give back and accepting new challenges as our babies travel away from the NICU does not mean forgetting. How could we not be forever altered? May we always honor the joys and sorrows we found there. But, my hope is that all of us NICU warriors also make peace with what brought us there, what we witnessed, and the pain we endured.
Maybe these are not scars on my heart after all. Maybe they are now the imprints of two tiny faces whom I loved before they were even born months too soon. No matter how big those babies grow and how many other challenges we face as a family, I will carry those imprints on me forever.
There is peace in seeing imprints where I once saw scars.