Sharing Your NICU Experience with Family and Friends

Rarely does anyone tell you during pregnancy that your baby may end up in the NICU. This is a super stressful thing to hear before or after delivery, especially if you have no idea what the NICU is! You may have to figure out how to be a parent in the NICU as you go! 

**NICU Nook’s essential course** helps to eliminate the uncertainty for parents about what to expect in the NICU! Yes, of course, nurses, social workers, and other providers in the NICU will help you understand what the NICU does to help your baby. But, they may not wipe your tears, rub your back, hold you, and hug you as you think out loud or to yourself, “WHY ME?!” That’s what friends and family are for!

The tricky thing we often hear from NICU parents is that their friends and family won’t understand what their experience in the NICU is like. This can make it difficult to be open about your genuine feelings and challenges as a NICU parent! It can feel like no matter what you say, they’ll never quite get it. That may be true, but sharing with friends/family about any life experience isn’t always about having them understand exactly what you’re experiencing. Instead, sharing can be about feeling heard and seen by someone important to you. It can be a way to relieve the intensity of some of your heightened emotions, which can feel cathartic.

You may also experience l unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or complicated feelings, like the envy of your best friend for having a healthy, full-term infant. Or, you may feel a sense of guilt about not being able to take your baby home. This can make it feel even more challenging to share openly with others. And let’s not forget that being a NICU parent can be a full-time job! You may not even have time to wear your heart on your sleeves with friends and family.

However, what we know from research is that internalizing a stressful experience like the NICU - holding it inside and suppressing your emotions - can actually lead to negative health outcomes! In other words, sharing is part of the process of healing from a traumatic experience. Avoiding it will only make it feel bigger and more powerful over you!

So, here are things to consider when sharing your NICU experience with loved ones:

Decide what and with whom to share: 

  1.  Identify what you willing to share. You may need time before you feel ready to share your NICU experience with family or friends. You may be inundated with memories of your birth experience and not want to revisit this yet. This is okay. Or, you may be ready to share your experience. Ask yourself, “Am I willing to share (insert experience)? “What feelings may come up as a result of sharing?”  Can I manage/tolerate those feelings?" Remember, the goal here is not to feel comfortable sharing, because sharing may be in fact be uncomfortable at first. It's about finding what you're willing to share in any given moment.
  2. Decide what you want out of sharing. It is essential to ask yourself before sharing, “What am I wanting?” Do you want advice? Do you want validation? Do you want someone to listen to your experience? Are you hoping to feel a certain way afterward?
  3. Know your audience. Nothing is worse than sharing your feelings and experience with someone who invalidates you, especially in a very vulnerable time of your life. Or sharing your feelings and experience with someone who reacts by one-upping. Ask yourself, “is this a person I feel can give me what I need and want?” “Has this friend/family member been someone safe to share with in the past?” 

How to share: 

  1. Be clear about your needs first. The last thing you may want is advice from your best friend with a new full-term baby about how to manage your anxiety surrounding your baby’s health. So, if you know ahead of time that you don’t want advice, say it! This can seem direct because … well … it is! Your friends and family can’t read your mind and will respond in the way they know how to, which may not be the right way for you. So, be specific about what you’re looking for. If you need someone to simply listen and validate, then maybe that’s what you can identify is important to you. This may look something like…
  • Hey, I really need to vent about what’s going on for me. I want you to listen and I need validation that what I’m feeling is okay and makes sense. I’m not looking for advice on how to make myself feel better.

2. Ask if they’re in a place to really listen. Your friends/family, like you, have their own stressors going on. Make sure they’re in the right headspace to take in what you want to share. The last thing you want is to hear that your loved ones don’t have the capacity to hold your pain after you’ve spilled your heart out. So, find out whether they’re ready and willing to put their own stressors aside and truly be present with you. This might look something like…

  • I realize you have a lot going on. Do you have the time and space to really hear me right now? If not, we can talk another time. Let me know.

3.  Identify where your boundaries are. Your family or friends may push to know more information about how it is going for your baby in the NICU. They may want constant updates. This may remind you of the unknown, which can feel scary. They may also ask many questions about your birth experience. You may feel traumatized and not want to share right away. You may be inundated with texts from your in-laws who want to come visit your baby. This can be overwhelming. So, you may understandably want to set boundaries and say, “no.” That's okay! Only you know what’s best for you throughout your NICU experience. Setting healthy boundaries requires self- and other-awareness. 

First, ask yourself:  “what is my friend/ family member wanting? What may they want to know? What may they want to communicate?” 

 Second, ask yourself “what am I feeling in response to these requests?”  

Third, ask yourself, “what am I comfortable with sharing at this moment in time?” 

With these in mind, setting boundaries can include: (1) stating the context of the situation, (2) expressing how the situation makes you feel, (3) perspective taking, and (4) being assertive of what you want in the future/going forward. 

This may look like: 

  • “When you repeatedly ask me about how my birth went (1), I feel very overwhelmed because I am not ready to share (2). I know you are curious and that your intention is not to overwhelm me (3). In the future, I would appreciate it if you could hold off on the questioning until I state that I am ready to share.” 
  • “When I receive texts from you about your new baby (1), I am reminded of what I didn't have and begin feeling very isolated and alone in my NICU experience (2). I know you are super excited and want to share pictures, but this all is a little too soon (3). I would appreciate it if you could hold off on sharing for a few weeks.”   

In sum, sharing your NICU experiences with loved ones is not to necessarily feel understood by them. If they've never had a NICU baby, they might not fully understand your experience. The goal may be to get things off your chest, feel validated, seen, or heard, alleviate intensity of your emotions, or reach a cathartic experience. You will want to identify what you're willing (may not feel comfortable) sharing, what you want out of the experience, where your boundaries are, and assert them. We know you can do this!

For further tips on communicating your needs with others and asserting boundaries, try out our essential course! We have so many more tools and techniques to share with you!

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