This week, my youngest child had a cough that started out benign but developed into a hacking cough that woke him up, gasping for breath. For a week straight I held him at night with my shower on, the steam easing his breathing. He never had a fever. He never had any other symptoms.
I remember my first three having similar illnesses as children, but this week of illness nearly broke me for one simple reason: this child was a 37-week NICU baby.
You’re probably thinking to yourself, Isn’t 37 weeks full term? You are correct, it is full term. And if you love statistics, you might know that black boys only do worse than black girls in terms of surviving and thriving in spite of traumatic births.
So when my full-term little black boy was born and soon whisked to the NICU for respiratory distress (and then to a ventilator and 2 weeks of emotional upheaval), I was shocked, horrified, and scared.
And that same overwhelming fear returned every time my baby struggled to breathe this past week.
Every time his body shook with his cough.
Even while he rested and I watched him sleep and counted his breaths.
He’s fine and almost fully recovered, but this week has shown me that I am not over the trauma surrounding his birth. I still have difficulty wrapping my mind around something that makes no sense, even if the outcome was positive. I feel guilty for struggling with something that turned out fine when other people didn’t even take their babies home.
In midnight hours this week, I have cried for my child being sick, for myself for not being able to handle it with my usual grace, and for feeling alone in this battle with my mind and heart.
I think as mothers we expect to be able to handle it all and when we go through such big moments (often alone thanks to this military lifestyle we’ve chosen), we are rocked to our core when supposedly little things trip us up. I didn’t expect a common childhood illness to bring up the pain that I thought I had handled.
But now that I’m on the other side of this brutal week, I have learned a few things about myself, motherhood, and life.
You need someone, another mother, who can walk this with you.
I’m in a different position than most in that if my doctor husband sees someone professionally that needs mom advice (breastfeeding, cloth diapers, introducing solids), he says that they can send me a message if they want. We have limited resources where we are living in Japan, and sometimes a new mom just needs someone to ask a question. This habit of his led to a mom pouring her heart out to me about having a hard transition period postpartum. When she confided in me about those difficulties, I said that she’s only human and needs to surround herself with friends to help her and allow them to help. She’s no good to anyone if she’s not taking care of herself. So if she needed medication, then she should use it; if she needed someone to watch her baby so she can go for a walk, then she should ask.
What developed from a few minutes of “here is my motherly advice” is one of the best friendships I’ve made. She learned to reach out and expand her village, and so did I. She’s not my best friend that I grew up with, nor is she my mother. But she is the person that I ended up messaging in the middle of the night to say that every time he struggles to breathe I see him on the ventilator with tubes everywhere. She was able to talk me through it and remind me of how well he’s doing (minus the current illness) as evidenced by his ability to scream even after coughing because he doesn’t want his diaper changed. Find that person who can be your sounding board and your guide back to reality.
I need the grace I give to others.
Isn’t it so easy to think others need help and not judge them for it, but if I need the same help I think that everyone will look down on me? If I see a scared new mom, I’m the first person to help. Why do I struggle to reach out without feeling like a failure? What has been ingrained in me to make me think that I need to do it all by myself but others need help? It’s frustrating, and I have to stop if I want to be healthy and whole. In my own struggles, I don’t give myself the grace to just not be OK. I need to give myself what I extend to others without hesitation.
My grief surrounding my child’s birth is not unfounded.
This is the hardest thing for me to accept. I think that because things are going well that I don’t have the right to feel that pain. I haven’t fully grieved that situation and the things that followed. Yes, things are better. Yes, he can scream and act like any other toddler, thank God. And yes, I have the right to look back with trepidation and say that was scary and difficult, even as I look ahead with delight.
So with all these revelations, I decided to change some things in my everyday life to help in times of crisis.
I will check in with friends.
Even when the days are busy and nights are long, I will check in to see how they’re doing and to say how I am doing. I will not answer fine if I am not fine. I said it. I will say how I am really doing. Revolutionary, I know.
I will take 30 minutes for myself.
This is a big deal. I have that toddler (currently riding on the Roomba while I type) and 3 other children that get into just as much mischief, but I’ve decided I will wake up 30 minutes earlier to drink my coffee and read my Bible. I currently drink coffee while yelling for them to please quiet down until the caffeine hits my system. It’s not pretty. This has to change so I can recharge and possibly stop yelling to start my day.
Last but not least, I will celebrate life.
Even when things are messy and I’m up all night, I will push forward and celebrate the little things each day. We will use the Roomba as a trusty steed, and hopefully it also picks up some dirt on its path. We will celebrate childhood and the beauty of family. I’m going to write down what is beautiful about the day in case I need motivation the next day. And even if I am not in the place to celebrate, I have some friends that I’m sure can help out. I’m willing to ask for that help.
What this week of childhood illness showed me is that I have internal work to do as a mother and as a human being.
I want to be whole and healthy for myself and for my children. I need little tangible goals to get me there. I’m starting with these three. What do you do to keep yourself healthy and happy?