Finding God in the NICU
BY KELLY SWAN | February 8, 2015
It is an interesting exercise, to apply familiar themes to new experiences,
particularly parenting experiences that were unexpected,
to apply those new experiences to
those times when occasionally, upon hearing a tough or tragic story,
I briefly hoped and prayed and crossed my fingers,
that I would remain unfamiliar with such circumstances
despite knowing that such things happen quite frequently.
Things such as:
NICUs, congenital abnormalities, anesthesia, pediatric surgery, IVs, and on and on….
Six months later,
six months after my fourth baby, my third daughter,
was born and unexpectedly made these things real for me,
I am reminded of myself, a dozen or so years ago, a student at a Jesuit university,
in the early baby stages of the life-long path to understanding social justice, Ignatian spirituality,
and how it all might relate to who I was becoming.
I don’t recall how it came about,
but I do recall a period of time when a certain American big-box chain retailer transformed,
in my mind, from a staple in my young life,
to the poster child of all that could be wrong with how our society treats people.
I recall, at a seminar focused on service and social justice and theological reflection,
asking the blunt and somewhat off-topic question, as 19-year-olds will do,
if God could even be found in this place that I had decided I had a moral obligation to despise.
“Well, of course”
replied the Jesuit leading the seminar.
“God can be found in all things.”
That reply has remained with me as a turning point, moving from a simplistic understanding
to more depth,
that has continued to grow through my angsty “I’m not changing the world in big enough ways” 20s,
into my 30s, when I found myself, unexpectedly,
postpartum, in a NICU, with my fourth baby
who needed two major surgeries in her first eight days of life,
whose first weeks were like nothing I could have imagined.
My thoughts began much like they did all those years ago
“God cannot be here.”
Such a similar anger, at the injustice of the thing.
An instinctive feeling of hatred for the place where the injustice was evident to me,
the unfairness that such things might happen to innocent babies.
And then, in that little whisper from my past,
“God can be found in all things.”
And, of course, I could infinitely list the things, the moments of consolation,
where God was quite obviously present:
That nurse, on my first full day in the NICU with my baby,
who dimmed the lights, had a thousand swaddling methods up her sleeve,
who let me cry, who excitedly pointed out that my baby responded to my voice and my voice alone,
explained what I did not know or understand with such compassion.
Or the nurse who stayed with me
and listened and responded with such empathy and compassion
when “colostomy” became what we were doing tomorrow
and I began to mourn the loss of what I expected:
A May baby, who I’d nurse in the sun on the porch swing
while the rest of my family planted the garden.
And the baby, with big eyes, and chubby cheeks,
who really asked nothing of me but to be present,
to bear witness to her story,
unfolding in a way that both intimately involved me and was completely separate from me.
I found new ways to be a mother in those weeks.
And the painful moments, which in retrospect seem small,
but at the time were such moments of desolation.
The nurse, who, upon my arrival at the bedside of my 24-hour-old baby
who had already had major surgery,
was too tired and busy to help me navigate the IVs and tubes to hold my baby.
I left that night with my whole being feeling empty, my arms most of all.
Or the desk worker who,
during a short window of time when my baby was permitted to eat during those long weeks,
would not allow me in the NICU during a shift change to nurse my baby,
despite directives from the doctor and nurses.
I left that time feeling entirely helpless.
But, the thing is, when you are pushed to view a thing, an experience
in a way that you are looking for the Light,
even the moments, or parts of our world that appear to be full of darkness or adversity,
become spaces where the Light is the opportunity to both feel the depth of sorrow
and to grow,
to learn empathy,
to take the first step to becoming more compassionate, to and for others.
To take that Light, and give it space,
to push out the more simple and easy anger, guilt, despair,
to begin the long, hard work of letting the Light take root,
of becoming one who endured trauma and sorrow and fear to be able to slowly,
more fully make God’s love manifest and evident in both the unremarkable common moments,
and during the times that seem to scream
“God cannot be here”—
In those moments when the sorrowful things that parents experience might come in to my view,
that previously would have caused me
to pause, hope, pray, cross my fingers that such things would never happen to me,
and then quickly make my exit, physically or mentally,
ashamed of the barriers I allowed my fear to make.
To now be present when those moments arrive.
To know that, of course
“God is present in all things.”
In the NICU, in the spaces in our world that foster inequality and injustice.
It is incredible that, sometimes,
the thing we fear and despise the most begins to transform us into who we truly hoped to be.
Kelly Swan has worked for the Ignatian Solidarity Network since 2016, first as communications director, and now as director of advancement. She grew up in West Virginia and is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University. Kelly has worked in parish social ministry, child and family advocacy, community education and organizing, and publishing. She lives in the Cleveland, Ohio area with her children.
Beautiful, Kelly! Proud to call you my friend. Such joy to watch this sweet baby be baptized!
Thanks, Jamie. I can’t tell you how much I’ve tapped into the examples of strength I’ve witness from other mothers. You included. I’m so fortunate to have such an incredible community of women in my life.