The first baby gift I ever received was a brown leather journal. A friend’s mother gave it to me so that I could document all the precious moments of my first pregnancy. I couldn’t seem to find time to write in it. We were in the process of buying our first house and moving from one state to another, and then six weeks later, I had J at 26 weeks.
What was to be a pregnancy journal became a NICU journal.
The opening pages describe J’s birth. His delivery was so unexpected that I needed a way to make my mind believe all that had happened. I had to write it down and then read it over and over again to make it even seem real.
During J’s first two days in this world, when we were at two different hospitals 30 minutes apart, I wasn’t sure I would see him again alive. Journaling was a chance to center all the swirling emotions, a place to gather my thoughts. And it was a safe space, where I could voice my darkest fears, the ones that caught in my throat before I could share them with anyone.
Once I was reunited with J, that leather-bound journal was always in my NICU bag, along with my cell phone, my camera, and my pumping equipment. Each day, I listed his weight and length in the journal, and it became evidence of his progress. Often caught in the tides of the NICU, the ups and downs of good days and bad days, I could look at the black and white numbers on the page and see his slow but steady growth.
Early in our 91-day NICU stay, I had no idea how it would all blend together, but after weeks and weeks passed, I realized that the only way I could ever keep it all straight was to write it down. It was a constant rotation of nurses, nurse practitioners, neonatologists, pediatricians, respiratory therapists, speech therapists, lactations consultants, and specialists. I was often lost in a fog of sleep-deprivation, hormones, and stress, so what began as a way to document the journey for my son transitioned into a master list of who did what with him. My husband and I also had a difficult time accessing my son’s medical records, so my journal became an alternative set of records for us. I didn’t have to ask a nurse the last time the cardiologist visited or the date of J’s upcoming eye exam, because I had those notes in my journal. It gave me a sense of autonomy in a situation where I felt so dependent.
During those months, I struggled with an inferiority complex. How could I be a good mother when I wasn’t really mothering my son? He didn’t seem to need me any more than he needed anyone else. Actually, the nurses were much better suited to caring for him than I was. I was Mrs. Butterfingers every time I tried to change a too-tiny diaper. But, journaling was like pumping breastmilk: no one else in the world could do it like I could. I was the only person who could write messages to that baby and sign them “Love, Mama.” It was a visible reminder of my importance.
After J left the NICU, I stored the journal on the top shelf of his closet. I thought about it from time to time, but for two and a half years, I couldn’t bring myself to open it. I was terrified of the emotions it would dredge up.
Then, M was born at 29 weeks in an even more dramatic fashion than I had J, and my first errand after being released from the hospital was to choose a journal for M. Her birth challenged me to conquer my fear. I wanted to ensure that I didn’t shirk her just because she was my second preemie, so I decided I had to open J’s journal to remind myself what was in it. I cried reading the words of that terrified new mother, but I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as bad as I had feared.
Reading about J’s NICU journey with more perspective, I discovered that his journal was a testament to his steady resolve, something I adore about him. He didn’t get out of the NICU as fast as other babies. He wasn’t the happiest baby or the easiest. But, he overcame each obstacle and challenge with a quiet ferocity. If he ever wonders at his own strength, I will show him his journal. In fact, it’s the parenting ace in my back pocket. One day he will say he can’t do something, and I can show him the evidence that he is capable of anything.
A journal doesn’t have to be a place to dump your emotions. It doesn’t have to be a keepsake or a record-keeper. It can be all those things or none of them. It can be whatever you want it to be, which is such a powerful tool during a time in life when you often feel stripped of power.