Finding the gratitude - Holidays in the NICU, 2020 Edition

It’s been quite the year hasn't it?! 


Who knew when we rang the bells and clinked our glasses on 12-31-2019 that 2020 would turn out like this? I can tell you with absolute certainty I did not. It's been a long and stressful 10ish months, and yet I still cannot believe it is November already. 


Typically, by this point in the year I start to get a little pep in my step. Yes, I have a confession to make… I LOVE the Holiday season. I am the person who enjoys hearing the Christmas songs playing in the mall as early as November 1st. I put my decorations up as soon as the plates are cleared from Thanksgiving dinner (extra confession - my tree has been up since Halloween weekend. But don't judge me too harshly this year okay, I needed the Joy). 


Honestly I'm willing to bet there are some of you out there who feel similar to the way I do. It has been such an exhausting year that in some ways we are all looking for anything positive to keep our spirits up. Not to mention each month brings us closer to the end of 2020 where there seems to be some glimmer of hope that 2021 will be just a little bit better (hopefully). 


As hard as this year has been, and as much as I am ready to move into the next with a sense of renewal, I have truly been trying my hardest to find ways to be thankful for what this year has brought me and my family. And this Thanksgiving especially, which will no doubt be different than those in past years, I want to be intentional in taking a pause and giving thanks.


The only other time in my life I struggled to feel grateful for things was during our NICU stay with Wyatt. We weren't in the NICU over the holidays, but the feelings of exhaustion, grief, and isolation feel pretty similar to how many of us may be feeling now in the age of COVID. In fact, many of the things or people I was thankful for then are similar, if not the same as, the ones I am thankful for now. 


For example, our families were a constant source of support during our NICU stay and beyond. We used a family messaging app to keep our parents and other family members up to date with pictures and little memos about how Wyatt's day had been. After we came home and my husband and I both returned to work, our family really supported us in caring for Wyatt until he was ready to start at a daycare. Even to today, we are completely aware of how rare it can be to have the level of support from your family as we have had, and therefore we are exceedingly grateful for each of them. In the days of COVID their support has not wavered. My husband and I are both healthcare workers and so our career lives have been much more stressful than usual. Back in March when the first wave of COVID hit our area, our daycare was forced to close, but given my husband and I both worked essential jobs, we were left in a bit of a pickle with childcare. Our family and friends really banded together to help us out and give Wyatt a a loving and stable environment in a time where the world was turning upside down. So just like in the NICU when we were feeling blessed by our family’s presence, I will be giving thanks for their support and love over the last year too.


Just as our family was there as a sense of support during our NICU stay and now during the pandemic, our circle of friends were also an overwhelming source of love. Many of our friends were also first time parents so having people to relate to was a huge comfort. My family are Christians, as are many of our friends, so having people praying for us during one of the hardest seasons of our lives was a beautiful act of love that we will forever be grateful for. 


Across the world I have seen numerous examples of similar types of acts of love toward those who are working to fight against COVID. I have seen friends delivering groceries to their elderly neighbors, friends raising funds for alternative living quarters for nurses in an attempt to help keep their families safe, families taking in their friend’s children for weeks to months so the parents can man the ICUs and hospitals. Again and again I see and hear reports of people selflessly giving of themselves to help their friends and neighbors. This year I will be giving thanks for those who gave their time and prayers to us in the NICU as well as those who have given their time and resources to those in need this year. 


I know I just mentioned healthcare workers in the line of friendship, but these heroes honestly deserve endless thanks. Through the lens of our time in the NICU I cannot imagine our journey without a single one of our nurses, respiratory therapists, neonatologists, physical/occupational therapists, or lactation care providers. Their willingness to show up every day and literally empty themselves to provide love and care to Wyatt and us is something I will never be able to repay them for. 


Considering the unbelievable environments many of my healthcare worker friends and colleagues are working in now, they all deserve endless thanks as well. They are all exhausted, pouring themselves out for their patients from a completely empty cup, and yet they keep showing up ready to give their all to support their patients and their families through these unbelievable circumstances. And so without saying, they will be at the top of my list this year of people to be thankful for.


Another of the many that I am grateful for this year are for all the ways the experience of a pandemic has created personal growth within me. It's true what they say about being under pressure… it creates something refined and beautiful. The most ironic part is that you don't always recognize it when it’s happening. Back during our NICU stay and in the months that followed it felt like the only progress I was concerned about was Wyatt's. But after time I began to see the ways in which our experience had changed me. Now, since our lives have changed so drastically due to COVID, those characteristics have had more opportunity to grow and develop in the presence of adversity. Things like patience and grace for example. In the NICU I really had to learn patience in the journey from the NICU to home and grace for myself as I learned to be a preemie mom. Now I have had to work to be patient with those around me and patient with our local and national leadership as they do their best to guide us through all the unknowns we face. 


The other characteristic I've noticed being refined in my life has been that sense of grit and strength to just buckle down and do what needs to be done. In the NICU I can remember reaching a point of feeling so defeated that we were there another day. The feelings of bitterness and frustration and anxiety of what the future for Wyatt would look like could honestly just get overwhelming to the point of wishing and praying that it would all just end. Those feelings by this point of the pandemic are pretty darn similar! 


Here we are in month 10 (ish) of various degrees of quarantines, constantly changing rules and regulations, with a sense of anxiety of how long this whole thing may last and more than once I've found myself just wishing and praying for it all to be over. But just like the NICU, I along with many of my friends and neighbors, have somehow found a way to dig down deep and evolve in a way that lets us find the beauty and joy of each moment. And my hope is that you can find a way to do the same, regardless of what season life has you in. 


I think one of the best ways to feel thankful is to take a few moments to slow down and think about the ways you and your family have grown in the last few months. Maybe you're in the midst of a NICU stay, in which case your family may have grown literally and figuratively. Or maybe you've been home from the NICU and you're learning to grow as a family and finding ways to create a beautiful life in the midst of COVID. Either way, there are things to be thankful for in every season of life- we may just have to look a little closer sometimes to see them.


Last but not least, I am thankful for all of you and your families. Thanks for taking the time to read, and may this season be full of thanksgiving and love for you all.


Ashlin 




Ashlin Stecz is a mom to 2 year old Wyatt, a former 29 weeker. She is a radiologist technologist in orthopedic and trauma surgery but also has a passion for supporting women in their motherhood journeys. She is currently working toward earning her certificate as a lactation counselor and plans to continue by completing her IBCLC and in her spare time she loves playing with her son and husband, reading, and completing DIY home improvement projects.