"Look on the bright side!"
A burst of optimism in a time of fear and confusion can be welcome – as long as it comes in the right way, at the right time, and from the right person. But not, for instance, after you say, "My baby was born 10 weeks early and weighs 3.5 pounds. He's in the NICU, and I don't know when he'll be home."
Cheery, off-hand responses can minimize what you're going through in a way that can cut deep. Here are some real doozies our site moms have heard:
"It's so great that your son will stay portable for longer! I wish my kid had been born so small."
"At least you get to go home and sleep!"
"I wish my baby was here already too!"
"At least you don't have to go the rest of the summer pregnant!"
"Well, she looks fine to me."
Try responding: "I appreciate your well-wishes. But actually, this is a very hard time for us."
"I'm so sorry…"
On the other hand, when folks respond to the news of the birth with sorrow and sympathy, that can feel pretty rotten, too. As one mom said, "This was the birth of my child – and I considered it a joyful thing, even though it wasn't perfect."
Try responding: "Thanks. We're hanging in. And we're so happy she's here."
"Oh my God, she's so tiny!"
Given that parents of preemies are obsessed with their baby's daily growth (or, worse, lack of it), drawing attention to a preemie's small size can be especially painful. A parent might be feeling proud of her baby's hefty-for-her 5 pounds – or super sensitive about how little the baby still is. Either way, it's a sore subject for most parents of preemies.
It's also hard because of what those people aren't saying. "For the first two months of her life, I never heard, 'She's so cute!' Only, 'She's so tiny!'" one mom says. "It starts to get to you after a while."
Try responding: "Yes, she is small, for now. We're working on it."
"When will your baby come home?"
When you're in the NICU, it can seem like everyone you've ever met feels entitled to a daily report – with the answer to this one question foremost in their minds. "Many premature babies have long, sometimes rocky courses in the hospital, and it's hard to continually give updates when you really have no idea when your baby might go home," says Jennifer Gunter, ob-gyn and author of The Preemie Primer.
Try responding: "Talking about the future is really hard right now. When we have news, we'll let you know."
"Was it something you did?"
As if the self-blaming voice inside your head weren't enough, people sometimes feel compelled to diagnose the reason for your baby's premature birth. One our site mom reports: "A nutritionist told me I'd had my baby at 34 weeks because I was fat. I about cried."
Another tells us, "My mom implied that my preeclampsia could have been prevented if I hadn't gained as much weight during my pregnancy."
"Guilt is one of the most common emotions parents experience when their baby is in the NICU," says Gunter. "But it's not your fault."
Try responding: "My doctor doesn't think so."
Crickets: When silence is not golden
Saying nothing at all – not calling, not emailing, not offering to help – is particularly painful to parents who are looking for acknowledgment of their major life change, as complicated as it is.
Some people do show up but then don't know what to say. "Some friends and relatives just looked at our 2 1/2-pound son like he was going to die and didn't actually speak about him at all," one mom told us.
Another mom said, "People were afraid to come see me in the hospital. A lot of people didn't even acknowledge my twins had been born until they came home."
Try responding: Send an email: "You there? It's a really hard time right now. I miss you." Or to someone you feel is avoiding your baby: "I know it's scary at first. But this is my baby and I want you to be a part of things."