When Life Feels Hard and Unfair: 4 Lessons That Helped Me Cope
“Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” ~William James
Two years ago, I gave birth to my second daughter via a planned C-section at thirty-seven weeks.
My first daughter had been born via emergency C-section after seventeen hours of unmedicated labor. I had very much wanted a natural, intervention-free birth. Due to a number of issues, the surgery was so complicated that I was told it would be dangerous to ever go into labor, much less have a natural birth ever again.
Of course, this was devastating for me.
Still, I went into surgery on the morning of my daughter’s birth with hope and excitement. My second pregnancy had been extremely difficult and I was glad for it to be over. I was still heartbroken that I would never get the chance for a natural delivery, but at the same time there was a piece of me that was a bit relieved the decision had been taken away from me.
My second C-section proved to be even more complicated than my first. The surgery went at a snail’s pace as the doctors tried to navigate the extensive scar tissue created by my first C-section. The spinal anesthesia made me unable to feel myself breathing even though I was breathing just fine, and I panicked and repeatedly questioned whether I was suffocating and going to die.
Still, pictures of me and my daughter in the recovery room right after the birth show me smiling in a highly medicated but contented glow.
It was a few minutes after those pictures were taken that the nurse noticed there was something wrong with my newborn’s breathing. It was labored and staggered. The medical team decided that they would take her to the NICU to make sure everything was okay.
In my post-surgical stupor, I didn’t think much of it. I figured they would observe her for a few hours and she would be back in my arms by the time I made it out of recovery.
I was wrong.
My daughter spent the next ten days in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) with a diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension secondary to transient tachypnea. She was kept alive by various tubes and machines, and I got a crash course in C-PAPs, oxygen monitor readings, and feeding tubes.
I wasn’t allowed to hold her for the first five days because her situation was so precarious and unstable.
I knew it was extremely serious when her NICU roommate, a baby born three months early, was wheeled to another room because my daughter was going into crisis every time someone turned on a light or spoke too closely to her.
It killed me to watch her covered in tubes and machines, unable to hold her, much less breastfeed her. I stood by, helplessly pumping milk every three hours and putting her life in the hands of the NICU nurses, who were clearly angels sent directly from heaven.
I struggled with massive guilt that my body had failed me in my first childbirth experience, leading to the mandatory early C-section and all of its complications for my second daughter. I also felt guilty every time I left the NICU to spend time with my older daughter and every time I left my older daughter to go to the NICU.
I was angry. Angry that this happened. Angry with myself for not appreciating how much worse it could have been when I was surrounded by parents and babies who would be spending months, not days, within the NICU’s walls.
Despite the severity of her condition, my daughter’s story was one of mighty strength and resilience, and she left the NICU with no lasting complications—a major blessing for any NICU baby.
My story was one of lessons learned: how to forgive myself, how to let go of what I want to be and embrace what is, how to truly live in the moment, and how to practice unconditional gratitude. Most of all, I discovered new depths to the meaning of the word love.
Though it took me spending ten days with my daughter in the NICU to learn these lessons, they are universal and certainly don’t require a crisis to integrate them into even the most mundane aspects of our lives.
I share them with you in the hopes that if you’re dealing with pain in your life, you will bring to it the knowledge that while the pain may be unavoidable, the suffering is always optional.
Here’s what ten days in the NICU taught me:
Focus on the present.
For several days, my daughter’s condition seemed to get progressively worse before it got better.
This made it very easy for me to get lost in a never-ending maze of what if’s, each more terrifying than the next.
And yet, when I forced myself to focus on the moment, somehow things were always manageable.
Yes, she was hooked up to a lot of scary and unpleasant machines, but she was surrounded by a nest of soft blankets, and for all she knew, she was still in the womb.
Yes, she turned blue when she cried, but the nurses and doctors always got things stable quickly, and with no drama. They knew what they were doing and I knew I could trust them.
I learned quickly that the future was a place where the worst loomed both possible and probable. The present was a place where my daughter was safe, loved, and receiving some of the best care the world had to offer.
If you find yourself in the middle of a crisis, you probably feel like you’re trapped in a whirlwind that’s pulling you in so many different directions, you’re having a hard time figuring out which way is up.
Instead of picturing yourself as powerless against the chaos of the situation, try thinking of yourself as the eye of a storm. While chaos may reign around you, the present moment is always manageable.
Remember that while the future seems scary with all its unknowns and possibilities, the future also doesn’t exist yet. All we have is this moment. And in this moment, there can be peace.
Gratitude is always an option.
When you’re in a place like the NICU, it’s not difficult to embrace gratitude. Everywhere I looked were babies and their families in situations far more dire than ours. I met parents who would be in the NICU for months, who had years or possibly lifetimes of lasting effects of premature birth and other complications to deal with.
And then there were the parents whose baby would never get home, whose entire life would take place within the NICU walls.
Gratitude helped me process my guilt and anger. It’s impossible to be angry and grateful at the same time, and so I would spend hours sitting next to my daughter, writing lists of all the things to be grateful for in this situation and imagining that my positive energy was surrounding her and helping her heal.
When you feel like you’re drowning in guilt and anger, take your sense of internal power back by sitting down somewhere quiet and making a list of every positive aspect and every reason to be grateful for the situation that you can find.
You may find that it’s hard to get started, but once you do, I guarantee you’ll find a sense of peace that no one and no situation can take away.
Wanting life to be fair is a major block to peace.
I have never suffered from the delusion that life is fair, but even as an adult, I have occasionally suffered from the delusion that it should be.
My daughter’s time in the NICU freed me of that childish fantasy.
I quickly realized that as long as I believe the universe is doing something unfair to me, I am giving away my power. And when I give away my power, it’s not the universe that’s being unfair to me, it’s me that’s being unfair to myself.
I couldn’t change the fact that I was a mom with a baby in the NICU. What I could change was the kind of mom I was going to be for my daughter when she needed my presence and my peace, and not my indignation and my anger at the world.
Was I going to be a mom who fell apart when something happened that I felt was unfair? Or was I going to be a mom who felt her feelings but didn’t allow them to determine her ability to be her best self in any given moment?
The choice was always mine.
As easy as it would be to feel powerless and therefore become powerless, I knew that this time, the stakes were too high to do that. My daughter needed me and I needed me to be the best version of myself.
Fairness is a fluid thing, and I came to realize that I had the power to stack the “fairness” greatly in my daughter’s favor by letting go of “unfair” and empowering myself with thoughts of love and gratitude.
If you feel that something unfair has happened to you, ask yourself these questions: Do I want to use my limited energy resisting reality, causing myself pain in the process? How could I use that energy in a more constructive way?
You may be surprised at what you come up with.
We can’t always see the whole picture.
As painful as it was to watch my daughter struggle physically and not be able to hold her or comfort her in any real way, I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t say for sure this experience wasn’t intentional from the perspective of her soul.
Who was I to say that her soul didn’t pick a body that needed intensive care for the first ten days of its life on purpose because it had a larger plan that I had no capacity to understand?
The truth, I realized, was that I couldn’t possibly understand how the universe works and why seemingly bad things happen to innocent people. I could say for sure that all of the difficult, challenging, and painful experiences in my life—this one included—had ultimately made me a stronger, wiser, and more peaceful person.
So how could I see my daughter’s experience as all bad?
If you’re struggling, consider the possibility that you don’t have all the information needed to make an accurate judgment of the situation. Realize that there might be more to it than meets the eye. This doesn’t require you to hold the same spiritual beliefs I hold; it just means considering that sometimes life’s hardest struggles end up being blessings in disguise.
If you’re like me, doing this will help you to look at the situation with less interpretation and indignation; with less inflamed thinking and aversion. In other words, it will give you more peace, and with peace comes your ability to be present with the ones you love.
Sometimes you have to let go of what you wanted so you can focus on doing what’s needed—and so the pain can let go of you.
I wanted to love my newborn my way: by holding her in my arms, cuddling and kissing her, and feeding her from my breast.
These were not the ways that she was able to receive love in her first days of life, and so I needed to let go of my desires and focus on the ways I could love her given the present circumstances: by pumping milk for her to receive through a feeding tube, touching her arm with my finger, praying for her, and giving her unconditional loving energy.
Loving my daughter without boundaries, without my own preconceived notions of what that love should look like, required keeping my heart open at the exact moment I wanted to close it. I wanted to prepare for the worst, to problem-solve and plan. I wanted to control the situation in any way I possibly could.
But I also realized that doing this would cause me to dissolve in a puddle of fear; to close myself off to the opportunities that existed right in front of me, in that moment, to love my daughter.
And so for her sake, I learned to surrender in order to keep my heart open and keep her surrounded by the presence of love.
If you find yourself clinging to how you wanted things to be, ask yourself if this is limiting your ability to do what’s needed. Your current situation might not be what you wanted, but it’s more likely to improve if you accept what is, show up fully, and do what you need to do to be your best self regardless.
As I write this today, my daughter’s second birthday, I share with you the lessons I believe she came into this world knowing: that love, truth, peace, and inner happiness are always available to us no matter what happens in our lives.