Laughter’s Medicine

So much of the NICU experience is emotionally and physically draining. For the five months that we had babies in the hospital, the whole world looked grayer, and each morning I woke up with an awful ache in the depths of my stomach. Most days we were fortunate enough to get good news when we arrived at our baby’s bedside, but there was always a lingering fear that today would be the day we’d get The Bad News.

Even the dark days in the NICU are a mixture of good and bad. So, you find out the baby’s O2 levels aren’t good and he’ll have to go back on oxygen. Or the radiologist confirms there is a brain bleed. Or the entire unit is under orders to protect against staph, and you have to don the suffocating, yellow plastic gowns and rubber gloves that officially make the environment feel like a hospital. But, in so much of this darkness, my husband and I found humor. Something to make us smile. Choosing to laugh instead of cry. Seriously, there were times when we consciously made the decision to laugh at something terrible because it seemed like the only positive thing we could do. The alternative was to fall into a black hole of depression, and that alternative didn’t seem helpful to our tiny babies.

Sometimes our jokes were sardonic, sarcastic, and dry. Sometimes they were silly, ridiculous, and juvenile. But, they were one way we learned to cope, and they united us. My frustration at myself in all the ways I felt like a failure only served to divide us. My exhaustion over pumping breastmilk at all hours of the night, his attempts at a work-life balance, my hormonal roller coaster, and his struggle to fix us all–those things divided us. But, our jokes, our chuckles, our smirks, our giggles, they all helped to unite us at a time when we needed each other. Desperately.

We laughed at how J felt like a skinny, squirmy, slippery bullfrog the first time we bathed him. We laughed at how we were the Chart-Checkers because we snuck looks into J’s chart, which is our legal right but also against hospital rules. We still laugh about the time the lactation consultant–bless her heart–grabbed my breast to help me breastfeed, and milk shot clear across the room, splattering against the wall. Our speech therapist, a beaming, radiant, gem of a woman, gave me so many wonderful reasons to laugh. My favorite was when I confided in her that one of my breasts had stopped producing much milk, and the other one was making up for it. Then, I acted like I was bent over under the weight of it, and I limped lopsided for a few feet, which made her snort with laughter.

I needed that. I needed levity in a time of sorrow.

I hope we didn’t disturb anybody. I hope we kept most of our giggles and jokes to ourselves. I hope the other parents didn’t think we were taking the NICU experience too lightly. It was a coping mechanism, to allow a little joy into a place where there isn’t much joy. It allowed a little light into a place where there are so many sweet babies who hear beeps all day but not much laughter.

And even now, at the end of a long day, I try to laugh instead of cry. Sometimes, I’m frustrated, and I let it get the better of me. But, I don’t want to be the overburdened, overstressed, angry mom, and so I’m trying to find the patient, peaceful, joyful side of myself. That’s the woman I want my children to know, and that’s the woman I wanted them to see in the NICU too.

So, on those days when you’re all cried out, when the sky looks dark and the NICU looks darker, try to find something to put a smile on your face. You never know who may need to see that smile. Your husband, your mother, your NICU friend, a doctor, or a nurse. Your baby. Or maybe just you. Maybe it is the one thing that gives you a little push to get up tomorrow and do it all again.

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