Why You Can’t Make Friends in the NICU

A bunch of people — this time and last time with our 4-year-old — have asked us if we’ve made any friends in the NICU. “At least you can bond with the other parents… right?”

I’m surprised each time the question comes up — this piece started out as a list of a bunch of questions I’m surprised to hear, but really it’s only this one — so I figured it might be worth writing about it. Incidentally, I know people mean well when they ask it, and I definitely don’t want anyone to think I’m taking offense — I’m not — I’m just surprised it’s something so many people imagine is going on in the NICU.

Because it’s not, or at least not for us. I mean, I suppose I could imagine a situation where I would make a friend in the NICU, but I can also imagine a situation where I can put our garbage out on the street the night before trash collection and not have animals break into the can. I can imagine these things happening, but that doesn’t mean they ever will.

I think I understand why people imagine we can make friends there. We’re all sort of similarly situated, I suppose. We all have babies, they’re all in the hospital, we’re all worried… okay, panicked… stressed… consumed. Maybe we would bond?

But — and it took me a while to come up with examples here, and these aren’t perfect — did you bond with anyone last time you were in the waiting room at a doctor’s office? How about the emergency room? Did you make friends with the woman bleeding from her head? How about the guy with the gunshot wound?

The NICU is not a Mommy and Me class, as much as it may be nice to think that it would be. It is a noisy, pretty unpleasant place to be, filled with small and sick babies — and, you know what, if every baby in the NICU was on the same course, came out the same number of weeks early, had the same trajectory, the same long-term prognosis, then maybe, just maybe, there would be a way to start a conversation.

But I don’t know, looking at the incubator across from ours, if the baby in there is going to be okay. I really don’t. And I don’t know what the parents of that baby do or don’t know about their baby’s situation. And I don’t know who they are, what their life looks like, what they think about being here in the NICU… I don’t know anything, except that their baby is either in a better position than mine, or a worse position.

And if their baby is in a worse position than mine — if there is not necessarily grounds for the same hope and optimism about the big-picture future that we’re hanging onto, to keep us sane and able to go about our lives—I am pretty sure that they don’t want to chat.

Because if their baby is in a better position than mine — 35-weeker, 5 and a half pounds, breathing on her own, just in for 48 hours, rule out infection, likely to be home by the weekend — you know what? I don’t really think I’m in the mood to chat either.

A parent with a baby in a situation like that made a comment to my wife when we were in the NICU four years ago. She looked at our son and said something like, “oh, wow, I’m so lucky my baby isn’t tiny like yours, I don’t know what I would do.”

Well, then… good luck with your 14-pound newborn? I just don’t know the best response to that.

We also ended up getting a little friendly last time with a couple whose baby was born the same day as ours. But their baby had complications that ours didn’t, which made it really difficult for them, especially as our baby was growing and theirs wasn’t. We were discharged before we knew what ended up happening, and we still think about them, and are sad.

Since we’ve been through this before, we probably breathe just a little bit easier than some of the other parents — as I’ve said before, we have proof it can turn out okay, though we also know just how long a road it will be. The grandmother of the baby next to ours was there earlier this week and looked over at me, asked how our baby was doing, and I shrugged and said he’s doing okay for now, I said I hope hers is doing well too. She smiled. When she was leaving, I was holding our baby — she looked over to say goodbye, but did a double-take when she saw the empty incubator.

“Where’s your baby?” she asked.

“I’m holding him,” I said.

“Oh! I didn’t see, he is so small!”

What can I do but nod and smile? I understand. I know he’s small. I know she meant well. But… yes, the defining characteristic of my baby right now is how small he is. I’d like to maybe forget that for a second, at least while I’m holding him.

I think it’s nice for people we know to believe that we are making friends in the NICU. I assume they ask the question in part because they’re hoping there’s some silver lining to an unfortunate situation. You know, I’m sorry your roof caved in, but at least it’s not raining.

So I feel bad when I have to tell someone that we’re not making any friends in the NICU, and that I don’t see how we possibly could. I feel like I’m either making the asker feel bad for thinking we could be making friends, or that somehow they’re judging me for not being able to, for not being better at being in the NICU, more able to be friendly.

Truth is, I don’t think I really want to make friends in the NICU. I’m happy to hear about other people’s NICU stories that are over, that are in the past, that already had an ending — but I have enough uncertainty and stress with our story, that I don’t know that I have lots of room to worry about their baby, too. At least not today. (I would love to worry about non-baby-related problems though — I would love to have a reason to think about anything that isn’t related to babies, so if you have problems that you want to someone to listen to, seriously, let me know. I have lots of time to read e-mails, and would be delighted to help someone else cope with their drama.)

So we’re not making friends, for now, but we are hanging in there. Our baby is doing okay. We are doing okay. And, hey, maybe one day we will make a friend in the NICU — the same day animals don’t break into the garbage — so it’s okay to keep asking the question. I’d much rather that question than no questions at all.

More soon.