klapthornMy husband and I were packing up the diaper bag, getting ready to leave our visit with the gastroenterologist. We came for advice on how to help our son Charlie grow and gain weight; he had been born small – just over 1 ½ pounds. As the doctor was exiting the room, he stopped, turned to us and said “You’re doing a really good job.”

My heart swelled; any parent appreciates such thoughtful words. I held onto them tightly for days, repeating them over in my head. It was true, I thought. Despite the difficult year we just endured, we really were doing a good job. Thankfully, we weren’t doing it alone.

Nearly four years earlier, my husband and I welcomed our first child, a healthy baby boy named Sam. We soon felt the weight of anxiety that descends upon most new parents. We were nervous and overwhelmed, but it didn’t take long for us to feel supported. Friends and co-workers dropped off casseroles. Family members offered advice and gave us the opportunities to clean, shower, and rest.As we progressed through Sam’s first year, we grew less anxious and more confident. We added a caring pediatrician and a wonderful babysitter to our support network. When we decided to grow our family, we felt prepared.

With my second pregnancy came surprises (“You’re having twins!”), concern (“You need to see a specialist”), and fear (“Things are not going well”). Just 28 weeks into my pregnancy, I delivered two tiny baby boys. Nathan arrived first at just under three pounds and was immediately surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses. Charlie arrived a minute later; both boys were rushed out of the delivery room.That night in a postpartum recovery room, I felt alone. Our network of support was absent and had been replaced by a blur of unknown faces. We were bewildered and lost.

The first few times I visited the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), I was careful to stay out of the way. I stood back from the incubators where the boys lay hooked to ventilators and monitors. I was careful not to touch and not to question.

It was the nurses who drew me in.

The NICU nurses showed me how to lay a comforting hand on an impossibly small body in an incubator. With their guidance, I mastered the skill of changing a diaper without tangling the monitor leads, and learned how to hold a not yet two-pound baby on my chest. The more I learned, the more confident I became. NICU nurses, I came to understand, do not care for babies – they care for entire families. They built me up when I felt hopeless and helped me find reasons to celebrate, even on the difficult days. I began to feel like a mother again.

The twins were split up after two months. Nathan came home, but Charlie was transferred to another hospital. We logged nearly 100 days of commuting between house and hospital before we had both sons at home. In addition to friends and family, we welcomed into our home nurses and a very patient woman who trained my husband and I, despite our looks of panic, on how to use Charlie’s at-home oxygen equipment. We proudly showed up at our pediatrician’s office with two baby carriers, an overflowing diaper bag, a full canister of oxygen, and an apnea monitor. It was all I could do not to shout “We made it!” as we fumbled into the waiting room.

During their first year at home, we discovered Help Me Grow, Ohio’s early intervention program. Having a therapist come to our house to assess the twins’ progress and teach us how to help them grow and meet milestones was invaluable. We set goals as a team and worked together. Nathan and Charlie grew stronger and healthier each week.

Having a premature child opens you up to an entirely new world of worry. There is no parenting book to prepare you for the sleepless nights anticipating the next challenge. But I am grateful for a community of amazing people and services that is ready to help when that next challenge appears.