What the NICU (and NICU parents) can teach the Resistance

Each new headline hits like a wave — each one strong enough to knock me off my feet, leave me gasping and sputtering in the sand and salt, struggling to regain my footing.  Each one bringing a new and different level of pain, yet this combination of exhaustion mingled with fear and grief feels strangely familiar.  I scan back and quickly find the corresponding memories — of course! The NICU.  (That’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for the uninitiated.) It’s where my twins spent their first four months of life, where I began my journey as a mother, fifteen years ago.

It occurs to me that different as the events of the twenty-four hour news cycle may seem from the world of tiny babies struggling to survive, NICU moms (and Dads) and all special needs parents may have much to teach the rest of us about learning to survive and even thrive under a Trump presidency.  Strengthening our resilience without becoming hardened.  That is the balancing act called for in these challenging times.

So here are some “Lessons from the NICU” translated for a wider audience.

 1.  Look at the baby, not the monitors. Go to the Source

If you’ve never visited one before, you may be unprepared for what a noisy place a NICU can be. In the NICU, babies are constantly monitored for various vital signs. Each measure has its specific range, and alarms go off if the readings go above or below that predefined range. Preemie parents quickly learn to interpret and rely on the feedback from the dazzling amount of information on the monitors, to the point that some not so jokingly request to bring a set home at discharge.

Which is why almost from the beginning, NICU nurses train parents to look first at their BABY when an alarm goes off.

In a time when the free press is under continual attack from the president as “fake news,” where Russian bots are actively working to sow chaos and division, while it seems every day brings new revelations of how the companies we entrusted with our information have abused that trust. It’s no wonder people throw up their hands and say they don’t know what to believe.

But critical thinking is not dead. And it is a teachable skill. It starts with going to the source (or as close to it as you can get) for information on the issues most important to you.

We can train ourselves to do a few simple checks to find out where information comes from and whether it is credible.

Who is publishing the information? What is the agenda behind releasing this particular information and the timing of the release. Speaking of timing, when was the article published? Is this new information? Or is this old news repackaged with a click-bait headline to look new? Does it fit with our real-life experience of what is happening?

2.  Watch her, wait.  See what she does.  Watchful vigilance

This one frustrated me immensely when my own children were in the NICU.  I would be in conversation with the doctors about some condition or other that they had and I would ask, “What do you do for that?”  The response would come back, “Watch her, wait.  See what she does.”

I’ve since come to realize what good advice this is, not only in the NICU, but in almost any fast-moving situation where multiple factors are at play.  Rather than introducing yet more variables into the mix, it takes a fierce combination of patience and vigilance to just stay the course.  Treatments take time.  Allow what you have done already a chance to work.

The thing about this watching and waiting is that it is active.  This is not passive acceptance.  This is staying alert, ready to press the record button or take other direct action at a moment’s notice.

3.  Go get some rest Self-Care is Vital

As new parents of a critically ill infant it is tempting to stay at your baby’s bedside 24/7.  And today’s NICU, with private rooms encourages that. But while a parent’s presence is important, parents need care, too.  As more than one nurse put it “you’ll never have better babysitters than you have right now.”

It’s important to remember in any crisis situation that goes on for more than a couple days that life goes on. If you have other children, they need to get to school, and do homework and have regular meals and bedtimes. Providing that structure for them is helpful for you, too. As we remind each other in most of the resistance groups I participate in on Facebook, be aware of your needs. Tag out when you need to. Then return when you are rested and rejuvenated.

4. Keep to your “normal” routines as much as Possible

Routines provide structure and help us to move forward in our lives. This was especially important for my friends with older children at home who needed their parents and were too young to be expected to understand why their parents weren’t as available as usual while their new sibling was in the NICU.

Routines help us as adults too. While we may keenly feel the chaos of the administration, most of us have jobs or families that need us to be fully present to our own lives.

Compassion, not condemnation 

NBC News published an article recently about an effort at East Carolina University to meet the needs of its students by offering them an “Adulting” course – to teach them what they need to know in order to be self-sufficient adults. See the original article here.

One idea immediately jumped out at me.  The university’s counseling center said in the past they used to see a lot more depression.  For the past few years they have noticed a sharp uptick in the numbers of students seeking help for anxiety.

A lightbulb went on in my head as I read.  I remembered a lecture I heard a few years ago by renowned trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk.  He told the story about a family that underwent a traumatic incident.  There were several children in the family, including a nine-month old baby in the other room.  Years later, it was that baby who was most impacted still with symptoms of trauma, completely undermining our assumption that children aren’t affected by what they are too young to understand.

Today’s college freshman were two- or three-year-olds that their parents scooped up and held close on that day fifteen years ago.  Whether or not they were exposed to the images on TV, they were surely exposed to their parents’ fear and horror.  Such strong emotions in their caregivers cannot help but have an impact on their developing brains.

Is is any wonder then, that they are experiencing anxiety in record numbers?  Or that their parents, faced with their own unconscious anxiety from that day should earn the term ‘helicopter parents’?  A parent’s one basic job is to keep their child safe.  That day every parent watching learned how impossible that job really is.

So what can we do now with this understanding?  Be a lot more compassionate, for one.  If you read the comments to the article, many are filled with scorn for the students for being wimps, for their parents for not preparing them better and even for the school for attempting to address that lack of preparation in a proactive way.

Instead, what if we, collectively could remember how scared we were that day fifteen years ago?  Could we have compassion for these kids who were too little to understand but absorbed the energy of the day anyway?  How about for their terrified parents who understood all too well?  Could we look on their later choices in light of this realization and instead of seeing spoiled entitlement, could we see with soft eyes and realize they were doing the best they knew to do the impossible?

I think we could.