World Prematurity Day wasn’t a day I ever knew about or had any connection to until I became a preemie parent myself. Having spent 109 days in the NICU watching my son fight for his life, I became aware of the harsh realities of extreme prematurity first hand: the uncertainties and unknowns, the helplessness against being able to protect him and the fierce protectiveness as his mama bear.
Nurses encouraged us to take part in his care and reminded us of how much he needed our love. This was something only we could provide him, something that was essential to helping him grow and thrive. Neonatologists provided us with the information we needed to make complex and sometimes impossibly difficult medical decisions as we hoped we were doing the right thing for our son.
Through it all we heard messages to “stay strong” and “stay positive,” as most NICU parents do. We often heard from friends message of compassion, sharing that there’s no way they could ever get through something like that. Family members complimented us for being so strong and brave through all of this.
One of the most common phrases NICU parents here is, “God/Life only gives you what you can handle. You’re strong enough to handle this.”
But as one of my former postpartum clients put it so perfectly, “I don’t want to be strong.”
Messages and comments like these from loved ones, although well-meaning, can make NICU parents and parents whose preemies are home feel isolated. It makes them feel like sharing any feelings other than stoicism is unacceptable. They start to feel like there’s no space to talk about how hard things really are because everyone around them needs them to be strong.
This loneliness can exacerbate anxiety and low mood, both of which NICU and preemie parents are at high risk for developing anyway.
Working with my clients, the most common wish they have is that people would just listen. Not try to smooth away the rough edges of their reality. Not try to cover up pain with platitudes. Not turn away from them when they want to share the truth.
They want to be heard.
In fact, storytelling can be an incredibly healing experience for NICU and preemie parents. If you are a loved one supporting a family member or friend who is a preemie parent, I encourage you to take World Prematurity Day as an opportunity to ask them their story.
Ask questions. Learn about what scares them the most and what makes them the happiest, because likely, it’s something different than you’d think. Hear how they feel their journey to preemie parenthood has changed them. Enquire about what they’re struggling with even if the NICU days are months or even years behind them. Be inquisitive about what their hopes and dreams are for their preemie. Find out what’s behind that brave mask they show the rest of the world.
There will certainly be those unavoidable moments when you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed by the heartbreaking experience they are sharing with you, those times that you want to “fix everything” yet feel helpless to offer anything of value. It is then when simply offering a hug, handle hold, or letting them know you love them, can provide tremendous relief and support to preemie parents.
Know that while you may never fully understand what they have been through or are going through right now, your ears are so important to their healing.
Understand that we’re not preemie parents because we’re strong. We’re strong because we’re preemie parents.