You are allowed to be both—utterly heartbroken and absolutely joyful, completely drained and undoubtedly fulfilled, totally devastated and entirely grateful. Grief and gratitude are not exclusive. They can (and often do) coexist—maybe even more often than we care to admit. 

I did not receive a warm welcome into motherhood. My initiation did not include skin-to-skin snuggles or cutesy pictures with an Etsy-purchased swaddle and a hospital bassinet. It involved several nurses delicately maneuvering tubing and wires to give me my baby. It consisted of scans and imaging and bloodwork. I opened my motherhood chapter with seven weeks in the NICU, caring for a medically-complex preemie. 

Related: I’m a NICU mama

The NICU experience is long and grueling. You are reimagining motherhood, trying to meet your baby’s needs while simultaneously managing your own. Doctors are providing information at hyperspeed, and you are attempting to keep your head above water. You are just trying to survive.

There were many blessings that came from our NICU experience.

You are grieving—processing the loss of your expectations, your dreams. You are mourning the loss of a straightforward birth, a healthy baby and a happy homecoming. Nothing about the NICU is natural. Nothing about the NICU is standard. You are there, in a sterile hospital room watching your fragile baby—wondering how you got there, how this became your story.

The tornado of emotions I felt those first 49 days were overwhelming. We were in the NICU, but we had access to top-notch care. We were not allowed to have family visit the hospital, but we had excellent nurses to fill the void. Our son was diagnosed with an unexpected medical condition, but it was not life-threatening. 

Truly, I could see the silver-lining. There were many blessings that came from our NICU experience, and that was not lost on me. 

But there were times (and still are) when I would feel a wave of grief—a longing for all of the experiences I missed. I mourned the easy, natural newborn snuggles and lamented the long, lazy days at home. I yearned for the breastfed bond and wished for the simplistic pleasures. 

Related: 12 NICU parents on what they wish they knew

And somewhere in the grieving process, I would wonder: “Did this grief make me ungrateful?”

Did mourning the newborn snuggles negate the joy from the first time I held my tube-covered baby? Did lamenting long, lazy days at home diminish the additional time my husband and I spent together in the NICU? Did yearning for the breastfed bond eliminate my gratitude for a healthy, growing babe? 

Of course not. Grief and gratitude are not unique to themselves. They share space, overlapping in even the most unexpected areas of our lives. Together, they form a delicate tapestry of valid, but confusing emotions for you to untangle. 

You can feel both emotions without feeling intimately tied to one or the other.

And the process is often messy because while you try to dissect two very different emotions, you are being fed many conflicting messages. 

“It could be worse.”

“Count your blessings.”

“At least you have…”

You are constantly being told that you have to choose one or the other, that you have to take a side when in truth, you can be somewhere in the middle. You can be caught between two varying extremes. You can feel both emotions without feeling intimately tied to one or the other.

Mama, you can grieve what could have been—what you feel should have been—while still displaying immense gratitude. Do not let the lie that your grief invalidates your gratitude keep you from feeling, and ultimately, from healing. 

Take these moments to process, to untangle your emotions. Healing will come, but you are not yet there. Right now, you are moving forward one day—one minute— at a time. And that is absolutely OK.