The first time I had to leave my son alone in the NICU, it almost tore my heart out. I delayed our departure as long as I possibly could, finding reasons why we couldn’t leave yet. One more lullaby, one more story, one more kiss. I sat in that rocking chair beside him, late into the night, stifling yawns and counting the hours until I knew we would be back.
I walked out of the NICU, my vision blurred from tears, and felt an invisible force pulling me back in. It was as though he and I were tied together and with each step the rope tightened. I avoided eye contact with everyone through the hospital corridors, down the elevator and into the parking garage. I felt as though if my eyes met theirs they would know that just over a week into it, I had already failed as a mother.
I felt like a failure each and every night that I left my son alone in a hospital room. We often drove home in silence. My mind raced with worry. I wondered if he was cold, or crying, or if he felt abandoned because his mother just walked away and left him there. Would he be left with scars because he was left alone in an open incubator night after night?
One morning, I came into his room to find him being rocked by his head nurse. It made me smile to know that he wasn’t alone. That he was feeling human touch and warmth even if it wasn’t mine. As we said our good mornings and got caught up on the overnight activity, the nurse handed me what looked like a large bean bag.
She asked me to pop the bean bag, which almost looked like a two fingered hand, under my shirt while I held him during the day, explaining that it would take on my scent. At night, once I left, they would place it over top of him and the weight of it would make him feel safe and act as my hand on his body, my smell making him feel me there.
It’s very similar to The Zaky, an invention created by a former NICU mom who wanted to provide her baby with the feeling of being held when she couldn’t be there to hold him. They are soft weighted gloves that are being used in NICU’s across the United States. It has been proven that babies do better when they are touched. Kangaroo care is promoted in every NICU. Touch can help reduce pain, regulate breathing and temperature and has been shown to reduce hospital time of NICU babies. The problem is that some parents can’t be there 24 hours a day. That is where the Zaky can have such a huge impact for both baby and mother.
Each and every morning after I was given my gift, I would walk into the NICU and see my son wrapped up tightly in his blanket, placed strategically on his side with his beanbag hand placed warmly over his body. He looked so peaceful and slept so soundly. It eased my guilt, if only slightly, that although I couldn’t be with him overnight, he had some warmth and my scent kept him company. My hope is that he felt me with him, that he didn’t feel abandoned, that he knew even though I couldn’t be there with him in person, my heart and soul never left his side.
“Are you crying mummy?” he asked, slightly concerned and quite curious as to what exactly is making his mummy cry.
We were cuddled up in bed reading, which is one of my favourite family activities. We all get in our pj’s early, find ourselves a comfortable spot on the king size bed and surround ourselves with books or an iPad loaded with our favourite magazines and newspapers and we read.
I had been reading the latest newspaper articles about the police shootings of black men and the subsequent backlash occurring in the United States and my eyes began to well with tears. I read these stories and they cause me to boil over with emotion. I feel angry and so very confused at the why’s and how’s. I feel utterly helpless not having a clue what I, a white middle aged woman living in suburbia, can possibly do but most of all I feel desperately heartbroken. These men are someone’s son, someone’s husband, they are fathers and uncles and brothers. My heart broke as I read the story and thought of this man’s children waking up to the realization that their Daddy wasn’t coming home and I couldn’t hold the tears.
“Yes, Tyson, I’m crying,” I replied wiping away the tears that had begun to fall.
My husband and I decided long ago that we were not going to hide feelings from our children. We both agreed that we wanted to teach our kids to feel because although we all experience a life full of emotion not everyone learns how to navigate the tricky ones.
We learn from a very young age that happiness, cheerfulness and joy make others smile and that sadness, frustration and anger have the opposite reaction. It is not uncommon for people to bury the negative feelings they experience and hide them from the world because those things make the world uncomfortable. They put on a smile each and every day when they walk out the door even though their heart isn’t smiling.
I vividly remember feeling others discomfort and uneasiness with my sadness when my son was sick, not knowing what to say to me or how to react people avoided me, they didn’t look me in the eye and tiptoed around assuming they had the power to prevent my tears.
I have been called “over-sensitive” when I feel hurt or disappointed by someone, dismissing my feelings as though they are nothing more than dust on the floor that should be swept under the rug.
“Now is not the time to cry” “Everything happens for a reason” “Get over it” “You have so much to be thankful for”… all things I’ve heard in response to someone’s real emotion.
Truth is, there are times in our lives when all we can do is cry. We all feel anger, resentment, disappointment, betrayal and grief because we are human and human emotion doesn't come wrapped in pretty bows. These feelings are a necessary part of life; without them we would never know what it’s like to be excited, content, elated or happy.
Who am I to define someone else’s sadness?
My kids have seen me cry. My kids have seen my husband cry. I want my children to be comfortable with their emotions rather than fearing them so I try my best not to hide my tears and we encourage open discussions about how we’re feeling. I hope by seeing us open with our emotions they will learn that to feel is to be human, and that nothing they feel is wrong.
Recently, after an argument, I heard my son whispering a scream in his room. I knocked on his door and asked if I could come in.
“You sound frustrated” I said
He nodded his head yes, his eyes welling up.
“Does that help you feel less frustrated when you do what you were doing?”
Again, he nodded his head.
“Do you think it might help me feel less frustrated too?” I asked
His eyes met mine and I saw relief as he shrugged his shoulders.
So we sat on his bed together and whisper screamed until it turned to giggles.
I want my kids to allow themselves to feel it all, happiness, sadness, excitement, disappointment. Each and every one of their feelings are valid and have a place in their hearts and in their lives.
Life is beautiful and precious but it’s also ugly and painful and raw.
“Are you crying because of what is happening in the United States?” he asked as he pressed his forehead against mine. My son is smart, observant and curious. He craves information and I love that he has a genuine interest in what is happening in the world. He knows when we lie to him and he doesn’t like it. We have talked with him about some of the injustices that are happening in the world without getting into each gory detail but enough that he has an understanding of when something is wrong.
“Yes” I replied as I reached out and stroked his beautiful face, my heart breaking just a little more that while I kiss my son’s head another mother has lost her son in such a horrific way.
“It’s ok to cry, mummy” he whispered to me “This is a really sad thing that’s happening and really sad things deserve our tears” he says.