And one thing I've found out? These relationship challenges don't stop at marriage.
Let's chat a bit about friendships after the NICU. Not every situation is the same, but the more I get to know other preemie moms, and the more time I spend on the opposite side of the NICU, I'm convinced that friendships can be the lifeblood of recovery from such brutal, life-altering events. The more healthy, life-giving relationships you have in your life, the stronger you will be for your preemie. But friendships can also be a source of pain - reminding you that everything has changed and that you will never be the same.
The very minute Jack was born, I was no longer me. I was no longer the Jessi of carefree years, of small, inconsequential problems. When Jack made his early appearance, I didn't care about the same things anymore. How could I? We were on a life and death journey. Our dreams were crushed. This was my new reality. The preemie mom reality.
And in this preemie mom reality, I've had friendships start, friendships remain, and I've had friendships fail.
The other morning I was thinking through the various types of friendships I've had surrounding our time in the NICU and since. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it's a start. Hopefully you will find this list helpful and maybe it will bring some clarity to your particular situations.
1) After the NICU, some friends can't handle it and don't know how to relate anymore. Maybe more correctly "some can't handle you anymore." Maybe this friend knew you when you were carefree. Your whole relationship existed in that realm. Never too deep, but a fun, surfacy friendship. After the NICU, when you need to be serious, when you need your friend to understand, they can't handle it. They don't know how to relate to this new you. It is too much for them. They are not emotionally ready to go there with you. My advice? Say a cordial goodbye, and move on. There may come a time when this relationship can be rekindled, but you don't have the time or energy right now.
2) After the NICU, some friends are negative influences on your life. These are the ones I call the "Debbie Downers". At the moment when you need all the positive, hopeful energy you can get, the negative just starts spewing out. This could be in the form of always producing drama. Of incessant complaining. Of constantly asking for your advice about their problems and never asking you about yours. (This is not the time to take on a project!). Sometimes, the negative manifests itself in jealousy. I wish it wasn't true. But yes, some will get jealous of all the attention surrounding you and your preemie. Without writing paragraphs on how psychologically sick and twisted this is, how insecure it is, I'll just tell you now - let go of the negative in your life. Personally, the one that drove me absolutely nuts and got under my skin? Complaining. I would think - how dare someone complain about their life when my child may die? If you have a friend in your life who is always complaining around you and causing drama, I would say goodbye, and move on. Likewise, if you have mutual friends who continue to give passes to these drama makers, who refuse to see why this is detrimental to your journey, let them go as well. Clean up the negative. You don't have enough time or energy to devote to this. Use your time and energy to give your preemie his best shot at life.
3) After the NICU, some friends are insensitive to your issues. These are the types that never put themselves in your shoes. Maybe they don't have an empathetic bone in their body. Or maybe they are too self-absorbed to see how fragile you really are. They may say and do things that unintentionally hurt you. Sometimes, you need to be completely honest with this sort of friend and let them know how their behavior is affecting you. If they truly want to be in your life, then they will listen. There are genuine people out there who just need a little nudge to start being that steady friend you desire. But insensitivity is too much on an already raw wound. If a friend continues in that insensitivity, say goodbye, and move on.
4) After the NICU, some friends just won't "get it". Many times, this friend needs a Preemie 101 course to get on board. They just need a little education about everything you are going through. Unless you tell them, how will they know? Although this can seem inconvenient (why can't they just understand?), it is worth the effort if you want to save your friendship. And, this is a good chance to see if this friend is intimidated by your new life. You need to know if they can handle this new you. Chances are, you will have to explain RSV isolation over and over again. This just comes with the territory. You will need to let them know that you may not be able to hang out as much (not that you don't want to!). You will have to put in the extra effort to keep your friends in the loop.
5) After the NICU, some friends step it up, learn about the new you, and walk you through it. These are the friends who have been there from the start and are still with you. Hold these ones close. They are your life-long friends who will be there through thick and thin. They are the ones who give you grace for your short fuse, your stress, and your worry. In fact, they worry right along with you, but they will appear very strong for you because they know you need the strength. They will encourage you and find practical ways they can help. They will get you out of the house and plan fun and creative things for you to do together. They are the ones who show up on your doorstep with a cup of coffee, knowing they won't be asked inside. Please don't take these friends for granted. Let them know how thankful you are for all they do.
6) After the NICU, and over time, some friends quit asking, thinking you have it all together. This is the forgetful friend. It can feel very isolating. By all appearances, this friend doesn't seem to mention prematurity anymore. They don't ask you how your child is doing or how you are doing. Like it just went away. They think that the more time you are away from it, the less important it really is. Now, all of us preemie mamas know just how far from the truth this is. Years later, we are still dealing with it. And on top of that, there are the new realities as our kids enter preschool, get new diagnosis', and the like. Reminding the forgetful friend is sometimes all that is needed. I am a firm believer that honesty is the best policy. Just do it gently.
7) After the NICU, some find their kindred spirits... online. Whether RSV isolation pushes us to it, or we can't find local support, the internet is a God-send to preemie parents. Don't shy away from getting to know another preemie parent online. Beyond chatting, messaging, and Skyping, send them a gift on their birthday or their child's birthday. Dream about ways you can eventually meet in person. If you are struggling to find someone who "gets it", who knows what you are going through, this online friend is where it's at.
8) After the NICU, some friendships happen because of similar (but different) circumstances. If you cannot find fellow preemie parents in your area, broaden your search. Just because someone doesn't have a preemie, doesn't mean they can't speak to a specific issue or get the reality of raising a special needs child. This year in particular, I have connected with a couple ladies who are dealing with their own unique set of circumstances, but who understand the highs and the lows of the special needs journey. I have really appreciated my time with them. Getting together for coffee, just to talk through my emotions, has been great. These friendships may have never happened if not for Jack's early birth. And I am thankful for the opportunity to meet new and amazing moms.
9) Your part, after the NICU - Yes, the preemie experience can be very isolating and lonely. In all the hustle of the NICU journey - of bringing your baby home and learning how this new life works - don't neglect your friends. Although you cannot devote as much time and energy, let your friends know you still care about them. Write them a letter, give them a call, send them a text. Make the time to see them, no matter how much of a sacrifice it is and even if it's not very frequent. Ask them about their children, even if it is painful to hear about typically developing kids. If these friends are going to be a part of your life, they will understand your crazy schedule, your moods, and the hurt underneath.
10) Your part, after the NICU - Hopefully by watching and learning how to do friendships after the NICU, you will get the opportunity to be the friend that "gets it." The friend who is there in a positive way, once crisis enters someone's life. Yes, the roles will be reversed. Hopefully you will know ways in which you can be a positive, helpful person in their life. You will know what not to say. You will be sensitive to their situation and you will remember that no matter how many years pass, you will still ask them how they are doing. Hopefully you will be the one who delivers a coffee, a bouquet of flowers, or a hot meal. Hopefully you will be the one who is a shoulder to cry on and the person to have fun with. Pay it forward, preemie mamas.
I could write about this for days. I still may have a few posts about friendship in the works. Just to add things I've forgotten or to clarify. I am by no means an expert in relationships. And yeah, these are my opinions (be gentle with me please!). I haven't always been the perfect example of a friend, but I try. And now that I've been through this, I feel my understanding of the true essence of friendship - of being there for someone when they face a life-altering crisis - has only been deepened and broadened because of having Jack. That little sweetie continues to teach me life's greatest lessons, if I am open to it.