I am fiercely independent. As much as it feels good to help others, I hate to be on the receiving end. It is most definitely a fault of mine that I'm a perfectionist, that I like to do things my way and to my specifications. I've long struggled with delegating. I enjoy the feeling of a job well done and of accomplishing things I hardly thought possible. I am terrifically competitive, with myself, and hardly a day goes by when I really have tackled all the things on the ridiculously long to-do list that I create each day. I have learned to manage these idiosyncrasies...I think. But, what has not gotten easier is asking for help--or even worse needing help. I really am just like my toddler who says "Self!" and pushes my hand away; I want to do it myself.
Here's the thing: You cannot possibly do it all by yourself when you have a baby in the NICU. You can't. You need to simultaneously talk to the doctor about that formula issue and find out the baby's stats for the day from the nurse and hold said baby and take your other child to school and call the insurance company about the ever-increasing bill you aren't so sure they're covering and go to the grocery store and cook food to feed your family and check work emails which has become a career in itself since you've been away and recover from major surgery and pump breast milk like there's no tomorrow.
There aren't enough hours in the day. And if you're exhausted and stressed, you're not able to be as competent in the NICU as you need to be. The terrifying part of the NICU journey for me was never knowing what was around the next bend, so if you show up too tired to function, how will you make some of the hard decisions asked of you?
We were so lucky that even though we have no family in town, my mother and my mother-in-law basically took turns living with us. With M, it was absolutely crucial because we also had a little boy at home who needed attention. There was no way for both my husband and me to be at the NICU together unless we had help at home. Not to mention all the household chores I physically could not do. Our mothers ran our home, from caring for my son to overseeing his therapy and schooling to cooking and cleaning for us. They did everything I could not do, and there really aren't enough thank-yous to ever repay them. EVER!
During our first NICU stay, I struggled to release my control on silly things like how the pantry was organized. During the second time, I was at first too sick and then too tired to care. I finally accepted that whatever help they offered was a blessing of their time and energy; it was a sacrifice for them. Who was I to demand how they organized my pantry? That's like asking for help and then specifying how and when you receive the help. I'm embarrassed that I was ever so thoughtless! And I hope they didn't notice.
To be fair to myself, I was learning how to accept help in a way I'd never needed it before, and I was suffering from the shock of having J at 26 weeks. And I was a new mommy, with all sorts of normal fears and emotions that compounded the stress of the NICU. But, with M, I was different. I was overwhelmed by the kindness and support our mothers offered--for a second time in three years. I was so amazed at the time they gave us--months and months of it. And I was relieved, that I could put some of the day-to-day burdens aside and focus my attention on M and the NICU.
My in-laws currently live with my ailing grandmother-in-law, and I find myself empathizing with both the caretakers and the caretakee. It is challenging all the way around, but what I keep coming back to is this one nugget of wisdom I gleaned from the NICU: Accept help with grace. Help is a gift, and it is a gift that you can pass on to others when it is your turn.
Besides, you never know when you might need help again. Like when you have another unexpected preemie.