Monday, November 30, 2015

How to Love a NICU Baby (and His Momma)

Premature babies don’t cry. At least mine didn’t. They make a labored grunting sound that seems sweet at first, but then you learn that it’s because they are gasping for air to fill their under-developed lungs. And that is anything but sweet.  I’ve never forgotten that silent operating room where I welcomed my twin boys into the world eight weeks early. In the fast-moving moments of their early and unexpected arrival, I held my breath in fear over the unknown path that lay before me. Premature babies don’t cry, but their mothers make up for it.

I’ve stood in a dark neonatal intensive care room with a fellow mom, as we stared at our tiny babies. She preparing to leave to go home, me preparing to stay there for the next five weeks. Our babies weren’t leaving, she just couldn’t afford to stay in the hotel next to the hospital any longer. Life and death are happening in the NICU—life is sustained by faithful doctors and nurses, and death is always around the corner as fragile babies fight to survive in a world they weren’t meant to enter just yet.

Loving premature babies is a pro-life issue.

It might seem strange to fold a discussion about premature babies into one on life.  But they are linked. Today marks the end of Prematurity Awareness Month. Unless you know someone who has passed through the NICU, or passed through the NICU yourself, you might not even know that this month of awareness exists. But it’s a vital component to our discussion on the sanctity of life. For a long time 24 weeks has been the big milestone for viability. If you can carry your baby until then, your baby has a much greater chance of survival. After 28 weeks the long-term effects of prematurity aren’t as severe. Babies born after 34 weeks often cannot be distinguished between babies born at term by the time they reach their first birthday. Medicine has come a long way in how it cares for tiny babies. And here is where the pro-life argument is strengthened. The irony of these life-sustaining measures is that doctors and nurses are daily working tirelessly to save the lives of babies that are legally considered life unworthy of protecting. Every day, doctors and nurses use their skills to heal and care for babies that are legally unprotected while inside of the womb. In some states a 24-week baby can be aborted, but in all states a 24-week baby is given a chance at life if born.

But the reality that all lives matter goes beyond just the babies in the incubators, though they absolutely matter. Like abortion is not just a tragedy against an unborn baby, so a premature baby is not separate from a mother who loves him or her. In some cases, babies are in the NICU because of something the mother has done or because the mother does not care about the baby, but in other cases the mother is deeply impacted by the separation from her baby. As one NICU nurse told me on a particularly difficult day, “you aren’t meant to be separate from them yet. It’s okay to feel the pain of that separation.”

As Prematurity Awareness Month comes to a close, how can we as Christians love both the premature babies and the mommas who yearn for them? Here are a few ways:

Hold the babies: There are a variety of reasons a baby may not have parents visiting. Sometimes it is because the parents live far away or need to go back to work. Others it is because the parents have done something to contribute to the baby’s prematurity and therefore don’t (or aren’t allowed to) visit. Many hospitals allow for volunteers to hold the babies that are well enough to be touched. Physical touch for a premature baby is a life sustaining measure. All of the wires, incubators, and tubes in the world can only do so much to recreate the womb for a baby who is not supposed to be outside in the world yet. Physical touch, while it seems small, is actually a very helpful and purposeful way to honor the life of these tiny babies.

Love the mommas: The separation the mother feels is unnatural to her. It feels like a part of you is missing. Pumping in a sterile hospital room, transporting milk to the hospital every day, separation from your baby (or babies), medical terminology you aren’t familiar with, and recovering from a physically traumatic event all contribute to emotional and physical fatigue. There is so much unknown. Will my baby survive? Will he have long-term health problems? Will I be able to care for him if he does? Our church provided meals for us the entire time we were driving back and forth to the NICU, and arranged for transportation for me to get to the hospital every day since I was unable to drive. This transformed my experience and gave me the energy I needed to care for my babies. But even as I type this I recognize there is a lot of privilege that is wrapped up into my NICU experience. I didn’t have to go back to work. I lived near the hospital. I could afford to stay at the hospital if I wanted to. I could even afford to eat lunch at the hospital if I stayed later than I anticipated. I had insurance that provide a hospital grade pump for me. I am married and didn’t walk through the difficulty alone. Prematurity is often tied to poverty, and it is a vicious cycle. From the chance to receive good prenatal care to the care needed after hospital discharge, pregnancy alone is overwhelming to someone living in poverty, and adding a premature baby to the mix only heightens that feeling. As Christians, we could do a lot to bolster our argument for the value of all life by loving pregnant women well (especially those in poverty) and loving mothers of premature infants well (especially those who feel all alone).

Every day there are fragile babies lying in a hospital room somewhere who if they were still in utero are legally allowed to be killed. I’ve seen them with my own eyes and held them with my own hands. The more we advance in our understanding of how a baby can survive outside of the womb, the better our argument against killing them inside the womb gets. The pro-life cause wins when babies live and thrive at every stage—from eight weeks early to five days late. The pro-life cause wins when we acknowledge that pregnancy isn’t just about a baby, but a mother, too. And loving NICU babies and their mommas is a good place to start in practically living out what it means to be pro-life.

****This post is in support of the Evangelicals for Life Conference put on by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (January 21-22, 2016 in Washington D.C.). If you are interested in attending or viewing the simulcast you can register here

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Tale of Four Thanksgivings

That first Thanksgiving was hard, so hard that when I think about it I still feel the pain that flowed through my weary body. I remember how I felt that first Thanksgiving, achingly aware that my body was empty. Empty of a baby that I wanted so badly. Empty of the hope of a baby any time soon. I was surrounded by pregnancy in every sphere of my life, and I could barely choke out the words “I’m thankful” when we all shared our Thanksgiving joy around the dinner table. It felt like a lie. I didn’t know how to be thankful when living felt like death and tears came too easily for my comfort.

Little did I know it would take two more years before I would know the joy of pregnancy again.

I remember how I felt that second Thanksgiving. When treatment was inevitable and I had no assurance I would ever hold a baby in my arms this side of heaven. I spent my holiday battling hot flashes and mood swings in a drug induced menopause all in an attempt to get my body to do what I felt in my heart it was supposed to do—carry and sustain a baby. It was a little easier to say the words “I’m thankful” that Thanksgiving. I had seen God work. I could see, though dimly, that through the dark and heavy clouds of loss and infertility, God was doing something in my sad heart. I just didn’t know what it was yet.

I remember the fourth Thanksgiving, smack in the middle of the baby years with twins, spending many hours pumping and feeding and going to the doctor and therapy. I wondered why after all my longing for a baby God would give me such difficulty with their lives. I wanted ease, not discomfort. I wanted simplicity, not complication. I was so overwhelmingly thankful for every ounce of them, yet I struggled with my circumstances that looked different than I anticipated. Yet still, God was doing something.

Here I am on the sixth Thanksgiving. Lord willing, farther along than I was in the beginning. Still waiting for prayers to be answered. Still battling discontentment with the life I have been given with its mundane struggles, sin, and sorrow, yet daily reminded of the rock solid truth that God is a good and faithful God to his people. He doesn’t leave us. He gives us only good things, even if our definition of good is different. This Thanksgiving, I feel like I am coming to terms with the reality of life in a broken world and I am thankful for it in all its complexity.

I’ve had Thanksgivings of want and Thanksgivings of plenty, Thanksgivings of rebellion and Thanksgivings of restoration. It’s easier to say “I’m thankful” than it was in the beginning, but not because I got what I wanted. These children give me much to be thankful for, yes. But it is more than that. I’m thankful that in my darkness and cynicism and unbelief God did not forsake me. I’m thankful that when I wrestled through the lot he was giving me he still pointed me upward and worked faith into my brittle heart. I’m thankful for years of sorrow and loss, because in the loss of what was most precious to me God was found to be infinitely better than any earthly thing. I’ve learned in the wanting that God shows up, that he can be trusted, and that even when the clouds hang low a break in them is coming.

So I’m thankful this Thanksgiving. As I kiss my boys goodnight and tuck them in bed, I’m so very thankful that they are here with me. I’m thankful for their boundless energy and middle of the night cuddles. I’m thankful for the life they bring to our home that was once so strikingly empty and quiet. But I’m equally thankful that God was here with me as he taught me how to wait on his timetable.