When I remembered newborn NICU days, I could see only tubes. A trauma-colored marker had scribbled spider webs of medical tubing and tape into my memory right over her newborn skin. I couldn’t see her face. I couldn’t see her face. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t clear away the tubes in my mind to remember how her fuzzy hair felt or the way she looked at me. So, I pasted memories of photographs right over the tops of those other memories.
Because, I reasoned, who has time to deal with hard memories when today’s reality demands my attention, my gratefulness?
Those early moments I thought I’d lost—the traumatic birth, the NICU stay, the rare genetic diagnosis, the fight— they overshadowed those mama moments. Of the times I sat and rocked her, it was the yellow gown and the adjusting of the tubes I remembered.
As a mom of a kid with high medical needs—even as a mom of a kid without medical needs—I keep busy going and handling and helping and trying not to over-help. Gotta keep moving. I worry about the future; the past should remain past. Or so I reasoned. I had made my peace with living a life that most of my friends couldn’t understand. I had made my peace with learning there is no such thing as normal. Hard things make us strong, and after all, I had a real, live miracle to watch God develop.
But part of me kept remembering the tubes—always at weird times. Someone said, with that soft smile, “I don’t care what the gender is; I just want a healthy baby,” and the tubes glitched into my mind. Scrolling my social media feed, I landed on a picture of a sweet newborn at home with the family, and the tubes settled like a cloud over my head. At three o’clock in the morning, I turned and tossed and tried to banish the tubes from playing and replaying like a bad song on repeat.
No one told me what trauma would do to my headspace.
So, four years after they whisked my baby up to the NICU and lined her face with tubes, I called a counselor.
That first Tuesday, I sat on the couch with both hands around my coffee and started remembering. Up to that point, I had done a great job of being strong. I had grown protective walls that kept stray feelings corralled so I could be a fierce mama bear. But, sitting in that office, I could be small. I could be unsure. With great effort, I learned how to stop trying how to have it all together.
And so we started our journey back into the past.
Over the course of several weeks, I intentionally put myself back into the places I had tried so hard to avoid going. Slowly, we extracted the scar tissue. Slowly, with the help of my counselor, God healed a place in me that I had chalked up as irreparable.
There was a prayer I hadn’t dared to pray—the prayer I tucked away as a lost cause, because those newborn moments had passed three years ago. I knew I couldn’t have those physical moments back. . So, I buried that prayer because it was about me and my memories, and it seemed like a waste of the Good Lord’s energy to mention it.
So, there it sat, written and buried in my heart—a prayer for a mama who just wanted to remember her newborn’s face, even though that newborn had grown into a smart, spunky toddler with the cutest, chunky-cheeked smile you ever did see.
One Tuesday, my therapist asked me to dive back into the moment that weighed the heaviest. I remember sanitizing my hands as I walked into her NICU pod, knowing full well I wouldn’t be able to touch my baby. She was minutes back from the operating room where doctors had performed a tracheostomy to help my 12-day-old breathe. Until the moment I saw it in her neck, I had never seen a trach tube. I had no idea how it would change our lives, and the unknown loomed heavy as I walked towards her corner of the room. An involuntary sob climbed into my chest, and I gave myself over to it for just a moment. But then I took a deep breath, rolled back my shoulders, and went to face the tubes.
In that memory, I had always seen the tubes. I never voluntarily revisited that memory in its fullness. It only came back in flashes, in broken shards. So to go back in, walk around, take my time…I wasn’t sure I could.
Regardless, we stepped into the hard moment. Slowly, we peeled away the feelings and the walls that kept me from seeing the past with the clarity of the present. The dark trauma of that moment could coexist with all the light that God has brought into our lives since then. Because of then. And, you know? While darkness and light are both certainties in each day, the light always wins.
We peeled back the pain until I remembered her face. It wasn’t an imagined, idealized version of her, but an actual memory of her eyes and cheeks and movement. The tubes were there, but they weren’t clouding the rest of her in my mind’s eye.
It shocked me for a second—did I make that up?
I tried again. Still, I could remember her. There she was in my memory—her wrinkly, soft skin and that too-wise-for-a-baby gaze. I could remember her! Not the trauma around her. But her.
It may seem small, but the Lord restored to me something I didn’t know could be repaired. He read my hidden prayer and showed me He listens to the faintest pulse of my heart—to what I ask, but also to what am afraid to say.
Sometimes, I get caught up in the helping and the going and the trying to handle it all. Sometimes, I find myself balancing a load too heavy, and I imagine that strength is in carrying the load alone. But in the Lord’s upside down economy, grace rules. It is only when I am weak that grace can fully heal the wound. In Paul’s words, “it is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
I learned to set down my heartache at the throne of Jesus. And not just set it down, but dig it out from the place where I’d buried it and allow Him to work grace in my heart. I learned that, sometimes, I need help lifting the weight— from a friend, pastor, support group, or professional counselor. I was never meant to carry it all myself anyway.
So, with some help, I dug it out and put it down. He picked it up. He weaved it into something good.
**Shannon was recently on Episode 53 of the Kindred Mom podcast: Mental Health for Moms. Click over to have a listen!
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Featured image courtesy of Joyful Life Magazine.
Shannon Owen is a Dallas-born Longhorn who loves books. She married her opposite– a Houston native and Aggie engineer who loves nothing better than a good lighting project. She and her husband, Lee, live in Houston and are active members of Houston’s First Baptist. Shannon has a passion for discipleship within the local church, and loves serving with student ministry and teaching Bible studies. She has written and taught for ministries such as Waiting in Hope, Abide, YouVersion, Hope Mommies, and Give Grace. Shannon has two little girls, Avery (8) and Kate (4), who take up the majority of her time with snack requests and messy art projects. You can connect with Shannon on Facebook and Instagram.