“It’s the most… wonderful time… of the year!”
While this traditional line conjures up feelings of warmth and nostalgia, for many the holidays can also be the most painful and confusing time of the year. This is particularly relevant for families who have/had babies in the NICU. The mixture of hope and loss, joy and stress, can cause a roller-coaster of emotion that leaves us wondering – what’s wrong with us, why can’t we just have our holly, jolly Christmas?
Being prepared and planning ahead of time can provide significant relief. Here are some ways to consider not just surviving, but thriving, during the holidays this year:
1. Expect ambivalence. Ambivalence is defined as the state of having simultaneous and contradictory feelings toward something. It is entirely possible, and in fact common, to both long for the holidays and dread them at the same time. To feel joy and grief within moments of each other. This whiplash of emotion can surprise and confuse us.
The holidays do bring great happiness – family, celebrating what we’ve been given and gifting others, imagining how the world ought to be, the meaningful pause for faith traditions. But this same season highlights profound loss in these areas as well – loved ones we’ve lost, family relationships that are strained or severed, financial stress, the stories we still hear on the news regardless of the time of year.
It is a sign of health as a human being, not madness or being a Scrooge, to be able to acknowledge and sit with contradictory emotions. In the very same way we learn to hold both hope and loss as part of the hour by hour experience of the NICU, we can embrace both as part of the experience of the holidays. Be kind to yourself by expecting to feel a wide variety of emotions and not judging your ambivalence.
2. Establish new traditions. The birth of a child often prompts the process of considering new traditions for the new nuclear family unit. Bringing a baby home from the NICU can fast track this process as the holidays per usual may not even be feasible. For example, you may need to limit exposure to people and outings for your medically fragile infant. Though this may cause some distress, many former NICU parents report this first holiday – quiet, simple and small – to be one of the sweetest they remember. Consider allowing the quiet of this year foster dreams and conversations about the years to come.
Use this season to dream with your spouse about what you’d like the holidays to look like moving forward. How did each of your families celebrate growing up? What traditions would you like to carry over? What are some traditions you can establish specifically for your new family? What makes sense for who you are as a couple, who your child is and what they need?
3. Create appropriate boundaries. In the same vein as establishing traditions, first holidays as a family unit provide ample opportunity for setting appropriate boundaries. Boundary setting refers to any action or communication that defines the limits of where a person (or in this case, a family) ends and another begins. For example, suppose the tradition has always been to open presents at Aunt Ruth’s after a candlelight Christmas Eve service. Enter new baby (medically fragile or otherwise), nursing mother, freezing weather and new sleep schedules. What takes precedence? Participation in the old tradition or caring for your new family and establishing your own? Use the opportunity as parents of an infant to establish now what will work for your family. Aunt Ruth’s late night gathering will not get any easier with toddlers and preschoolers so act with courage these first years rather than keep quiet in hopes of pleasing everyone else.
Setting boundaries is sometimes met with push-back from family and friends. Be prepared for this possibility by collaborating with your spouse or a trusted friend who will support you through potentially difficult conversations. Push-back is strongest when boundaries are initially set and enforced so be patient and hold strong. Over the years, friends and family will gradually learn to ask what works best for your family instead of thinking of you as part of their family unit first. And Aunt Ruth’s party may be the perfect gathering when you have teenagers who want to sleep late one day! Remember, decisions are made and evaluated based on the season in which your family finds itself. The holidays provide ample opportunities to strengthen your boundary muscles – use them and let the patterns and results flow over into the rest of the year.
4. Simplify. Focus on what matters most. How do you decide which traditions you want to carry on and which you want to create? Which events to attend and which to skip? Where to spend money this holiday? Talk with your spouse about what matters most to you as a couple and a new family. Is it quality time together? Connection with family and friends? The chance to thoughtfully give and receive? A time of reflection on your faith tradition? Having come out of the NICU experience, remember and focus on what became clear to you as important during that stay – when the chaos and distraction of daily life dissipated and what mattered was obvious. What can you bring to the holidays out of your NICU journey?
Hold these one or two values in mind as you make decisions regarding your time, money and energy this season. Evaluate those decisions through the grid of your values. You will be spared much frustration by focusing on one or two areas that mean the most to you. Let go of creating the perfect holiday environment and experience and find deep joy by connecting to what really matters to your family.
A Licensed Professional Counselor, Jen Simmons graduated from Covenant Seminary with her Master of Arts in Counseling and Master of Arts in Theology. Her professional experience includes over 15 years of conducting individual, marriage and group therapy with a wide array of populations and presenting issues, both chronic and highly acute. These settings include a college campus, not for profit counseling practice, community mental health agency, and hospital settings. Jen lives in central Austin with her husband, their two school-aged children, and 2 dogs who could use some serious canine therapy.