I hear my son, Mason, say, "Mama, look!" As I turn to look, he jumps off our couch and onto his playmat. "I did it!" he exclaims, then runs into his room, and soon enough, Mason is rummaging through his toys. He'll probably prepare our imaginary ice cream stand and call for me when he's all set. To see him jumping and running to play and hear him asking me if I want "sinkles" (sprinkles) on my ice cream, I can't help but embrace the one constant feeling I've had since our NICU experience three years ago: grateful.

Mason was born at 1:41 pm on August 3rd, 2019. Within minutes after a nurse first placed him in my arms, Mason's entire body turned a deep purple color. My husband immediately found a doctor, and moments later, a team of healthcare professionals came in, gently removed Mason from my arms, placed him in a bassinet, and left with him. The doctor later informed us that Mason was admitted to the NICU, and that was the beginning of the longest week of our lives. 

I was 37 weeks when I had Mason, so he was considered a full-term NICU baby. The doctor told us that Mason's lungs hadn't grown, and they'd have to gradually build his lungs to the health and strength of fully developed ones. There weren't any complications with Mason's development throughout my pregnancy, so I was shocked to hear this news. Throughout the week of our NICU stay, I pumped next to his incubator, sang to him, read him plenty of books, and told him all about our family and friends. Then one day, as I arrived at his NICU station, Mason wasn't in an incubator but was in a clear bassinet without all the wires and tubes. Through my joyful tears, I looked at him and thought, So this is what it would've been like if we had a "normal" post-birth experience. I could swaddle, hold, feed, and change his diaper without having to put my arms through an incubator hole or have any wires readjusted. Mason graduated from the NICU on August 9th, 2019.

How I envisioned becoming a mother changed so unexpectedly, and my path as a parent was altered from the moment we learned that our newborn was admitted to the NICU. I didn't have the chance for family and friends to come to my hospital room and meet Mason. I couldn't have him at my bedside to hold him, feed him, and change his diapers. I came home to an empty bassinet for a week while Mason remained in the hospital. This is not how I imagined entering motherhood, but it gave me the perspective of a NICU parent. For these reasons, I'm beyond thankful to have my now-three-year-old son with me every day as I watch him explore and grow. 

It's not a race to the next milestone. He will get there when he's ready and I'll do everything I can as his mother to support him in the process.

When Mason was two years old, we learned he had a speech delay. Rather than spiral into a panic, I reflected on our NICU experience. I learned to slow down, to accept that I cannot control every outcome in life and that I can be more open-minded to suggestions from the experts, and to speak up when I felt it was necessary for Mason. When we went to Mason's first speech therapy session, I felt more excited and motivated to help him than afraid and upset. I wanted Mason to see that getting help is a step forward and that there's no shame in seeking help. His speech has progressed immensely and we continue to work with him at home. As Mason approaches a milestone and he continues to develop, I remind him and myself, We got through the NICU together. We’ve got this. 

My main takeaway from the NICU is that time is precious, and this is something I keep in mind as a parent. Our NICU experience certainly shaped how I parent even now, with Mason being three years old. Since I didn't have that first week at home experience with Mason, I don't take time for granted. It's not a race to the next milestone. He will get there when he's ready and I'll do everything I can as his mother to support him in the process. I know we'll work through it if we're having a tough day because we've been through even harder days. So as we have our good days with scattered not-so-good days, I'm endlessly grateful for our time together. 

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother’s journey is unique. By amplifying each mother’s experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you’re interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please email [email protected]