The Hubs owns a 1966 Mustang. It’s the first car he ever bought, and he got it from the original owner, a little old lady who still had the original owner’s manual when her kids helped her sell it. If you’re not a car person, let me explain why this is worth writing about: Mustangs are classic cars, and people who love them REALLY love them, and having an old one is super cool to other car people. We rarely go out and about in the Mustang, especially since having kids (dude, it only has lap belts, it’s that old), but when we do, if we see someone else in a classic car, they usually do a little nod to say “Nice car, man” and we do the nod back. It’s like we’re part of a secret club of people who own awesome cars.
Being a parent of a kid who’s spent extended time in the hospital is kind of like that. Only, it’s a club nobody wants to join. And instead of recognizing each other by our sweet rides, we recognize each other by this look that’s there in our eyes. I’d describe it as a mix of pain and barely suppressed panic that you can see flickering out of them when they talk about their kids, particularly their kids’ health.
It’s sometimes a jarring experience for me when I meet another hospital parent, if I’m not expecting it. One time I was talking to a friend whose son had been hit by a bicyclist while in a crosswalk and hit his head on a curb. When I asked how he was doing, BAM, there was that look in her eyes. That’s when I realized how serious the accident had been (naïve me had figured a bike couldn’t do that much damage, but, duh, it can). I went home and said to The Hubs, “She had that Hospital Parent look.” And he knew just what I was talking about.
Recently, one of The Hubs’s friends had a kid wind up hospitalized for a serious medical issue, the kind where there are tense moments with respiratory specialists and doctors working frantically. He took the parents some food at the hospital, and then he texted me to say “They have that look.” And of course, I knew just what he was talking about. And I knew The Hubs was probably reliving all the trauma we had experienced with the NICU. It’s hard for me to describe what it’s like to see your kid in a hospital bed, even now, 6 years later and a long time since we’ve had any hospital visits. Panic, and pain, and guilt, and helplessness…it’s a horrible cocktail that leaves a horrible scar. And although we moved forward, and we have a healthy kid and not a fragile preemie anymore, we still have the Hospital Parent look when we talk about The Boy’s birth.
That’s partly why I don’t talk much about this stuff anymore. I used to, when it was still really raw and I needed to process my feelings. Back then, I felt a need to educate the world about prematurity and what the NICU is like. Now, I tend not to, unless I meet someone with Hospital Parent eyes, because honestly? It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting trying to help the world understand that type of pain, because I end up reliving it in order to explain it. And reliving it is extremely unpleasant. But Hospital Parents don’t need it explained to them. Hospital Parents lived it themselves. You don’t have to explain why you have PTSD to them. You can just say “Downton Abbey set me off last night” and they say “Fucking PTSD. You OK?”
But, I also feel like we’re all better parents when we understand each other’s truths. And sometimes that means reaching out to people who don’t have that look behind their eyes, and saying, “This is the truth of my life” and listening to the truth of their life. So, that’s why I’m writing about this today–telling you the secret “handshake” of the secret club that none of us ever wanted to join, that I sincerely hope no one will ever have to join again. I hope you’ll share your truth in the comments, and I’m going to start writing more about the truth of my experiences with prematurity and the NICU. Stay tuned!
9 thoughts on “Hospital Parents”
Unfortunately I am part of that club too. My first-born had a stroke either in utero or during delivery (she was pre-term). She only spent 3 days in the NICU, but those were the longest three days of our lives. I couldn’t even look at the other parents in the NICU though. Here was my pre-term baby, but she was still 7.5 pounds. And she wasn’t in the incubator. And she was “cleared” three days later. (11 years later and many trips to the neurologist–she seems to be completely “normal.”) My heart goes out to other club members who have had it so much worse. Thank you for sharing your story.
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I have a friend whose baby was in the hospital for close to a year. He is now 15 and each time he as much as sneezes she can get a little panicky. I can totally see why. There is a sort of PTSS that happens when we go through something traumatic as a parent. I think it’s so important for parents to share their experiences so that others know they are not alone. Thank you so much!
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Seriously, The Boy had a fever this week and both The Hubs and I were jumpy. He’s fine, it’s just a cold, but it’s really easy to get scared when you’ve seen your child stop breathing, even if that happened a loooooong time ago. (Love your blog, BTW!)
I really appreciate this post. You are right, even when you think that you are feeling healed from it all, some tiny little trigger will set you off. This last weekend, my hubby and I went to dinner at my most favorite restaurant. Before we sat down to eat, I used the bathroom. As I was washing my hands, I smelled something painfully familiar. The soap. I’m positive it was the same soap that was used in all three NICUs I have “lived” in. I became overwhelemed with emotions and actually started to cry. I felt shaken and scared all over again. It was very surreal. All throughout dinner, I would get a whiff of that smell and it definitely had an effect on me.
Oh wow Chelsea, that’s happened to me too. They had Ivory soap in the pumping room at the hospital for washing your breast pump parts, and my office used Ivory soap in our break room. I used to always take my dishes home rather than wash them at work because I didn’t want to smell that soap. It’s amazing how it sneaks up on you sometimes, isn’t it?
Reading this has me bawling like a baby.
I was 27 years old when my oldest was born. My mother in law often tells me we went in to the hospital as kids, but came home with scars. It’s true. I received an education in the 21 days we were in the hospital that has marked me forever.
2 days before my son was born we found he had a heart condition that would require an immediate procedure and a few days later, a major surgery. When he was born they had a team on standby. They took him immediately, hooked him up to a ventilator, and allowed us to see him for a couple minutes before taking him for the procedure.
Over the next couple days things got worse. Surgery at 5 days old. We didn’t get to hold him until 9 days old. Finally, on day 21 we were able to take him home.
The saddest part was, we were the lucky ones. We were “in the trenches” with people who were never able to take their babies home. We were in a children’s hospital and saw people come in scared and leave broken hearted.
It’s a haunting experience that stays with you forever. Even thinking of those days chokes me up. A few years later my sister in law was telling us she was so worried about her child having to get her tonsils out. She was confiding her fears about the surgery. Then, she said, “not like what you guys went through, but it’s still scary.” Fear doesn’t always come in different levels. Fear grips a parents heart. I know her fear was equal to mine years ago.
You’re right, it’s the club you never wanted to join, but once you’re “in” you can never leave.
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I should have titled this post Hotel California, because you’re right, you can never leave. And it’s so true about fear not coming in different levels. I keep thinking back to my post about Comparative Pain today.
You know, I had to leave the Boy in the hospital for an extra day because he was so jaundiced. One Day. Just one day. And I felt like they might as well have ripped out my heart. He wasn’t seriously ill. He wasn’t touch and go. He was just yellow and needed the full body bili-light and extra care provided in the hospital that we couldn’t take home with us.
When he was about a month old, a family friend got up to pee in the middle of the night and felt a weird pressure. She delivered her baby girl in the bathroom at 5 months. It all happened so fast and without warning that all she could do was yell to wake her husband. Her daughter spent months in the NICU. I remember thinking about the heartache I felt for that one night and realized that it was nothing compared to the crushing worry and heartbreak that my friend was feeling.
My mom and her mom were very close and went to lunch monthly. Melanie would often go too. After her daughter was born, for at least a year–even after she had been home for months–my mom commented that Melanie just seemed “off, like she wasn’t really there … she was distant.” I knew in my heart that she was still reeling from what was a daily nightmare from all of that. Because even when her daughter was home, ever little squeak, cry, moan, jerky movement, cough or too much silence set off more worry. Was this the next issue? Was she at the beginning of the next crisis?
I can only imagine the feelings that come up again for you and Hubs–and all Hospital Parents–when talking about or to other dealing with the illness of a child. Although time can help to heal those wounds, the scars can be scraped, revealing the raw pain again.
Posts like this are good–especially for people like me. To help understand your journey, to be more sympathetic to those enduring the journey now, and for me to appreciate my own situation. Thank you. As always, I’m already waiting for your next piece!
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It means a lot to me that you liked this post, Jen! You know, I often have friends who have had a brief NICU stay try to say “It wasn’t so bad, yours was worse.” And maybe it was, but that doesn’t mean their NICU stay was good. I always tell them, “Even five minutes in a NICU is horrible.” Because it is, it’s just not a happy place. Having your child taken away, even temporarily, even for a good reason, is AWFUL. But, I think the scars that a long hospital stay, or a life-threatening illness, can leave probably are different. Deeper, anyway.
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