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!