I have been watching some friends of mine go through their first pregnancies recently, and it’s brought back a lot of memories of when I was pregnant with my kids. And the lessons that pregnancy taught me, the most important of which was that we don’t really have control over our lives as much as we think we do.

We get to make a lot of choices in our lives, every day. Which shirt am I going to put on? What kind of coffee will I order at Starbucks today? What route will I take home from work? What will I cook for dinner, or will I just order a pizza? What TV show will I watch? We make so many choices that we think we have control over everything in our lives.

But we don’t. And pregnancy, and parenthood, remind us of that every day. Our bodies change when there is a fetus in them. We get morning sickness, and we pee ourselves. We become anemic and our thyroids go wonky and we develop diabetes. Our feet swell and our hips ache. None of these are things we have any control over. They just happen, because we don’t have control over our bodies.

I, like a lot of women, had a lot of plans for how the birth of my first child would go. In no version of any plan I had was there a NICU team present. My body made that happen when it decided it couldn’t carry The Boy to term. I didn’t choose for him to be born the way he was, or to spend the first 9 weeks of his life in a hospital. It was a harsh lesson for me that I didn’t have control over everything that happens to me, and I certainly didn’t have control over what my body did.

When I was pregnant with The Girl, I didn’t make plans about her birth, because I knew that in the end, I wouldn’t have control over what my body did. The best I could muster were wishes, and even those didn’t all come true. There was a NICU team at her birth too, because there was meconium in my amniotic fluid. And although her birth was a much happier experience than The Boy’s was–complete with Frank Sinatra playing, and surrounded by wonderful, supportive people–having the NICU team in the room was not one of my wishes.

When I hear my friends talk about what they want for the birth of their children, about their plans for the birth, my heart drops a little. I hope they will get what they want, but I also know that in the end, it isn’t going to be their choice to make. That c-section may have to happen, no matter how much they want a home birth. They may want an epidural, but labor may move too quickly for it to happen. There may be a NICU team in the room. They might not get to hold their baby right away, or for days. None of these things will be their choice, because they don’t have control over what their bodies do, or what the baby needs. And that’s just the start of the lack of control we have over our lives when we become parents. Nobody chooses to clean up baby puke at 2 AM, it just happens. That’s life.

This is one of the main reasons I believe so strongly that it’s really stupid to judge each other for how things go when we parent, and why mommy wars over the best way to give birth seem particularly absurd to me. Because, in the end, having the birth we want, or having the child we imagined, is not something we have much control over. The best we can do is play the hand we are dealt and hope for the best.

How I Escaped the Cult

Like most moms, I was once in the Cult of Perfect Motherhood. What’s that, you say? Are you shocked to learn I was not born a radical mom who throws off the bonds of society and embraces her failures? Please, girl. It took a lot of shit to get me to where I am now. I started out like a lot of moms, just swimming in that Perfect Motherhood myth until my fingers got all pruney. It was back when I was pregnant with my first born, The Boy. I was one of those people who spent hours, days, weeks, agonizing over what stroller to buy. I researched and read reviews and test drove them at Babies’R’Us. Of course, I was registered at BrU, and man, did I register for a lot of crap. I mean, a LOT of crap. I was sure I needed all of it in order to be a good parent. I mean, having a baby is a lot of work, right? I was going to need a LOT of gadgets to help me get the parenting work done. Like a bottle warmer, and a sleep positioner, and that mega stroller that the infant car seat snaps onto that also converts into a bassinet.

Then everything went haywire. The Boy was born 3 months premature, because my water randomly broke in the middle of an otherwise normal healthy pregnancy. 6 years later, we still don’t know why it happened. I would give anything for it not to have happened, because the NICU is a horrible place. I am not going to go into detail right this minute, but let’s just say, watching your baby laying in an incubator covered in wires and tubes and not being allowed to hold him? Yeah, that’s indescribably horrible. It’s every bit as horrible as you imagine it might be, times a million. My husband and I have PTSD from it, and we have both needed therapy because of the NICU experience.

But as horrible as the NICU was, and as much as I would never wish that experience on anyone, not even my worst enemy, I have to admit that it taught me some things about parenthood that have been valuable to me. I have heard a lot of cancer survivors say that as awful as cancer is, it was also a gift, because it made them value their time on earth more and gave them permission to quit that shitty job or try that thing they’ve been too scared to try. Well, the NICU is like that, except the gift it gave me is the knowledge that I have no control over a lot of what happens to my children. I can do my best and read every book and carefully control every food I eat when pregnant and get great prenatal care, and still something can go horribly wrong for no understandable reason whatsoever. It comes down to this: shit happens, and it doesn’t make you a bad mother. My NICU friends are all good moms. Every one of them. They didn’t bring this awful thing on themselves, it just happened. (Not that I felt like that about myself during the NICU, I had tons of guilt. But therapy helped. A lot.)

Another thing the NICU taught me is that babies don’t need half the crap they sell for babies. I mean, The Boy had tons of medical equipment in the NICU, but when it came to actual baby stuff? He had zillions of receiving blankets, diapers, bottles, and some clothes. He had a pacifier he didn’t want to use. That’s basically it. We warmed his bottles in hot water from the sink in a coffee cup. There was no contraption in the NICU to warm it. Sleep positioner? Rolled up blankets work just as well, and once he was out of the NICU, he didn’t need them anyway. Hell, they didn’t even use baby wipes. They used soft paper towels that you run some water over and wring out. I mean, if a preemie, the neediest of babies, can thrive and grow and triple in weight without a bottle warmer, every kid can get by without one. And if they can get by without one, then why the hell was I agonizing for hours on end about which bottle warmer was THE right one? Why was I spending all my energy on that crap? My husband and I took practically everything off our baby registry when we realized we didn’t need it.

But the most important thing I learned from the NICU is, make friends with the other moms. Let me say that again, because it is really important, I am not kidding you guys LISTEN RIGHT NOW I MEAN IT: make friends with other moms. Because, parenting is hard, and having people you can confide in about how hard it is and what you’re feeling? That is priceless. You NEED people who get what you’re going through and who are going to be able to give you a hug when you’ve had a shitty day as a parent and boost your confidence and help you see you aren’t alone. You need that on the day your kid has to take a trip to the ER because he took a header over the front of his ride-on toy into the TV stand (yep, that happened)–you need someone to say, “Wow, it took 18 months for him to have to visit an ER? You must be doing an awesome job, because my kid fell off the slide and broke his arm waaaaaay younger than that. Scary as shit, wasn’t it? Don’t worry, they get less clumsy as they get older, I hear.” You need someone to empathize and help you realize that you aren’t a horrible person just because something awful happened to your kid. You and they are good people, trying their hardest, and that is the best any of us can do as parents. When you don’t have those people in your life, the Cult of Perfect Motherhood can swallow you whole.

I wouldn’t wish the NICU on my worst enemy. But I am glad that I learned things from that experience, things that have helped me be a happier, better mother.