During my son’s first few days of life in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), a hospital chaplain came by his bedside to pray with me. As a physician, I looked at his progress in the NICU scientifically and doubted that the chaplain could say anything that I didn’t already know or reassure me beyond what his doctors already had said. But, there was one line in her prayer that made me cry– that deep, ugly cry of a mother’s breaking heart.
“May he reach his developmental potential, whatever that may be.”
I had spent the prior seven months of my pregnancy making promises between myself, God, and the medical establishment. You know, telling myself things like not eating deli meats or unpasteurized cheeses would protect my baby from harm. I avoided all caffeine, despite working 80-hour weeks. I drank a lot of water. I took prenatal vitamins. My doctors reinforced these behaviors at each prenatal visit and reassured me that things were going perfectly. I performed these pregnancy commandments like a penance for anything I may ever have done wrong so as to achieve the ultimate goal of a healthy baby.
Having a preemie made me question all of this. I looked at myself and outwardly for someone or something to blame for why my pregnancy went off course. Then the chaplain reminded me that there was a chance that he wouldn’t reach his developmental potential. That not only did I have to worry about the here and now of his NICU course, but that one, five, or ten years from now I may still be dealing with the consequences of his prematurity. After meticulously planning my life’s course, the future seemed so uncertain.
My initial cry came from fear of the longevity of this issue, but then I embraced the beauty of it. I could not control who my son would become by eating the right foods or avoiding certain chemicals. We were not playing a game where a high earned score resulted in a better prize. He would become whomever he may be with my guidance and nurturing along the way. This was his life, not mine, and I was there to help him live the best one he could. That is the best thing that I could ask, or pray, for and what any parent should dream.
As the NICU became a more distant memory and my son reached his second birthday, we were thrilled to see his developmental progress. His Early Intervention therapists declared him fully caught up with his peers and we left all traces of his prematurity behind us. A tremendous sense of relief washed over me, but I could not help but remember the chaplain’s prayer. My work was far from over and helping my child reach his potential in life meant more than getting him to some goal that society told me was “normal” but rather accompanying him on his journey to finding himself. I would foster his passions, nourish his body, protect his innocence, and inspire his mind until he reached his potential, whatever that may be.