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When Life Feels Hard and Unfair: 4 Lessons That Helped Me Cope

“Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” ~William James

Two years ago, I gave birth to my second daughter via a planned C-section at thirty-seven weeks.

My first daughter had been born via emergency C-section after seventeen hours of unmedicated labor. I had very much wanted a natural, intervention-free birth. Due to a number of issues, the surgery was so complicated that I was told it would be dangerous to ever go into labor, much less have a natural birth ever again.

Of course, this was devastating for me.

Still, I went into surgery on the morning of my daughter’s birth with hope and excitement. My second pregnancy had been extremely difficult and I was glad for it to be over. I was still heartbroken that I would never get the chance for a natural delivery, but at the same time there was a piece of me that was a bit relieved the decision had been taken away from me.

My second C-section proved to be even more complicated than my first. The surgery went at a snail’s pace as the doctors tried to navigate the extensive scar tissue created by my first C-section. The spinal anesthesia made me unable to feel myself breathing even though I was breathing just fine, and I panicked and repeatedly questioned whether I was suffocating and going to die.

Still, pictures of me and my daughter in the recovery room right after the birth show me smiling in a highly medicated but contented glow.

It was a few minutes after those pictures were taken that the nurse noticed there was something wrong with my newborn’s breathing. It was labored and staggered. The medical team decided that they would take her to the NICU to make sure everything was okay.

In my post-surgical stupor, I didn’t think much of it. I figured they would observe her for a few hours and she would be back in my arms by the time I made it out of recovery.

I was wrong.

My daughter spent the next ten days in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) with a diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension secondary to transient tachypnea. She was kept alive by various tubes and machines, and I got a crash course in C-PAPs, oxygen monitor readings, and feeding tubes.

I wasn’t allowed to hold her for the first five days because her situation was so precarious and unstable.

I knew it was extremely serious when her NICU roommate, a baby born three months early, was wheeled to another room because my daughter was going into crisis every time someone turned on a light or spoke too closely to her.

It killed me to watch her covered in tubes and machines, unable to hold her, much less breastfeed her. I stood by, helplessly pumping milk every three hours and putting her life in the hands of the NICU nurses, who were clearly angels sent directly from heaven.

I struggled with massive guilt that my body had failed me in my first childbirth experience, leading to the mandatory early C-section and all of its complications for my second daughter. I also felt guilty every time I left the NICU to spend time with my older daughter and every time I left my older daughter to go to the NICU.

I was angry. Angry that this happened. Angry with myself for not appreciating how much worse it could have been when I was surrounded by parents and babies who would be spending months, not days, within the NICU’s walls.

Despite the severity of her condition, my daughter’s story was one of mighty strength and resilience, and she left the NICU with no lasting complications—a major blessing for any NICU baby.

My story was one of lessons learned: how to forgive myself, how to let go of what I want to be and embrace what is, how to truly live in the moment, and how to practice unconditional gratitude. Most of all, I discovered new depths to the meaning of the word love.

Though it took me spending ten days with my daughter in the NICU to learn these lessons, they are universal and certainly don’t require a crisis to integrate them into even the most mundane aspects of our lives.

I share them with you in the hopes that if you’re dealing with pain in your life, you will bring to it the knowledge that while the pain may be unavoidable, the suffering is always optional.

Here’s what ten days in the NICU taught me:

Focus on the present.

For several days, my daughter’s condition seemed to get progressively worse before it got better.

This made it very easy for me to get lost in a never-ending maze of what if’s, each more terrifying than the next.

And yet, when I forced myself to focus on the moment, somehow things were always manageable.

Yes, she was hooked up to a lot of scary and unpleasant machines, but she was surrounded by a nest of soft blankets, and for all she knew, she was still in the womb.

Yes, she turned blue when she cried, but the nurses and doctors always got things stable quickly, and with no drama. They knew what they were doing and I knew I could trust them.

I learned quickly that the future was a place where the worst loomed both possible and probable. The present was a place where my daughter was safe, loved, and receiving some of the best care the world had to offer.

If you find yourself in the middle of a crisis, you probably feel like you’re trapped in a whirlwind that’s pulling you in so many different directions, you’re having a hard time figuring out which way is up.

Instead of picturing yourself as powerless against the chaos of the situation, try thinking of yourself as the eye of a storm. While chaos may reign around you, the present moment is always manageable.

Remember that while the future seems scary with all its unknowns and possibilities, the future also doesn’t exist yet. All we have is this moment. And in this moment, there can be peace.

Gratitude is always an option.

When you’re in a place like the NICU, it’s not difficult to embrace gratitude. Everywhere I looked were babies and their families in situations far more dire than ours. I met parents who would be in the NICU for months, who had years or possibly lifetimes of lasting effects of premature birth and other complications to deal with.

And then there were the parents whose baby would never get home, whose entire life would take place within the NICU walls.

Gratitude helped me process my guilt and anger. It’s impossible to be angry and grateful at the same time, and so I would spend hours sitting next to my daughter, writing lists of all the things to be grateful for in this situation and imagining that my positive energy was surrounding her and helping her heal.

When you feel like you’re drowning in guilt and anger, take your sense of internal power back by sitting down somewhere quiet and making a list of every positive aspect and every reason to be grateful for the situation that you can find.

You may find that it’s hard to get started, but once you do, I guarantee you’ll find a sense of peace that no one and no situation can take away.

Wanting life to be fair is a major block to peace.

I have never suffered from the delusion that life is fair, but even as an adult, I have occasionally suffered from the delusion that it should be.

My daughter’s time in the NICU freed me of that childish fantasy.

I quickly realized that as long as I believe the universe is doing something unfair to me, I am giving away my power. And when I give away my power, it’s not the universe that’s being unfair to me, it’s me that’s being unfair to myself.

I couldn’t change the fact that I was a mom with a baby in the NICU. What I could change was the kind of mom I was going to be for my daughter when she needed my presence and my peace, and not my indignation and my anger at the world.

Was I going to be a mom who fell apart when something happened that I felt was unfair? Or was I going to be a mom who felt her feelings but didn’t allow them to determine her ability to be her best self in any given moment?

The choice was always mine.

As easy as it would be to feel powerless and therefore become powerless, I knew that this time, the stakes were too high to do that. My daughter needed me and I needed me to be the best version of myself.

Fairness is a fluid thing, and I came to realize that I had the power to stack the “fairness” greatly in my daughter’s favor by letting go of “unfair” and empowering myself with thoughts of love and gratitude.

If you feel that something unfair has happened to you, ask yourself these questions: Do I want to use my limited energy resisting reality, causing myself pain in the process? How could I use that energy in a more constructive way?

You may be surprised at what you come up with.

We can’t always see the whole picture.

As painful as it was to watch my daughter struggle physically and not be able to hold her or comfort her in any real way, I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t say for sure this experience wasn’t intentional from the perspective of her soul.

Who was I to say that her soul didn’t pick a body that needed intensive care for the first ten days of its life on purpose because it had a larger plan that I had no capacity to understand?

The truth, I realized, was that I couldn’t possibly understand how the universe works and why seemingly bad things happen to innocent people. I could say for sure that all of the difficult, challenging, and painful experiences in my life—this one included—had ultimately made me a stronger, wiser, and more peaceful person.

So how could I see my daughter’s experience as all bad?

If you’re struggling, consider the possibility that you don’t have all the information needed to make an accurate judgment of the situation. Realize that there might be more to it than meets the eye. This doesn’t require you to hold the same spiritual beliefs I hold; it just means considering that sometimes life’s hardest struggles end up being blessings in disguise.

If you’re like me, doing this will help you to look at the situation with less interpretation and indignation; with less inflamed thinking and aversion. In other words, it will give you more peace, and with peace comes your ability to be present with the ones you love.

Sometimes you have to let go of what you wanted so you can focus on doing what’s needed—and so the pain can let go of you.

I wanted to love my newborn my way: by holding her in my arms, cuddling and kissing her, and feeding her from my breast.

These were not the ways that she was able to receive love in her first days of life, and so I needed to let go of my desires and focus on the ways I could love her given the present circumstances: by pumping milk for her to receive through a feeding tube, touching her arm with my finger, praying for her, and giving her unconditional loving energy.

Loving my daughter without boundaries, without my own preconceived notions of what that love should look like, required keeping my heart open at the exact moment I wanted to close it. I wanted to prepare for the worst, to problem-solve and plan. I wanted to control the situation in any way I possibly could.

But I also realized that doing this would cause me to dissolve in a puddle of fear; to close myself off to the opportunities that existed right in front of me, in that moment, to love my daughter.

And so for her sake, I learned to surrender in order to keep my heart open and keep her surrounded by the presence of love.

If you find yourself clinging to how you wanted things to be, ask yourself if this is limiting your ability to do what’s needed. Your current situation might not be what you wanted, but it’s more likely to improve if you accept what is, show up fully, and do what you need to do to be your best self regardless.

As I write this today, my daughter’s second birthday, I share with you the lessons I believe she came into this world knowing: that love, truth, peace, and inner happiness are always available to us no matter what happens in our lives.

What have the painful or traumatic events in your life taught you?

About Amy Beth Acker

Amy Beth Acker, LCSW is a counselor, coach, and writer for perfectionists who are ready for their lives back. She teaches overwhelmed women to connect with themselves at a deeper level, find clarity, and change unhealthy thoughts and life patterns. For more of her writing, to learn more about her services, or to schedule a free consultation please visit amybethacker.com.

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  • Dee

    Thank you Amy. This article definitely resonated with me as I am going through something similar, but not the same. My husband and I have been trying to conceive for 1.5 yrs now. We are both in our late thirties and while our doctors and fertility specialists do not see anything “wrong” with us, we still have not been able to conceive naturally. We have gone through several rounds of IUI with no success and are now looking into IVF.

    When you are young, you never think that you may not be able to have children when you finally reach that time in your life when it is time to start your family. I struggle month after month with thinking that there is something wrong with me, which may or may not be true. My biggest internal fight right now is learning how to deal with the fact that the doctors are not able to give us answers as to why this is happening and or a guarantee that fertility treatments will work. The lack of guarantee and no concrete answers is leaving me with zero hope. I was never one of those women who had a natural maternal pull to be a mother or dreamed of the day I got to carry my own child. But now that I am faced with the possibility that it may or may not happen, I am crushed. I have the man of my dreams and all we want is to start a family of our own, our family.

    I was able to relate to a lot of what you wrote in the article above, but I would be interested to hear your perspective on how to find hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.

  • Melanie Miceli

    Thank you for sharing your story Amy! I am so happy for you and your family that your little one is so strong and resilient!
    My darkest time was when I was going through my divorce. I had gotten to a point in my marriage that if I stayed, I was going to complete a suicide. I had a perfect husband (caring, loved our daughters, hard working) but I wasn’t in love with him and felt that there was something horribly wrong with me. I got married young because it was the thing to do, it made my parents happy, it made his parents happy and it made him happy. But as the years went by I knew I wasn’t in love with him, I wasn’t even in love with myself, and I had to leave. This event was the hardest, most emotionally crushing, guilt infested decision I have ever made. But it was also the time that I found strength I never knew I had. I needed to go back to school, get a job, support myself and my kids on my own. I had to stand up to my family who didn’t agree with my decision, keep a cordial relationship with my ex husband, be a good mother to my children.
    It was horrible, it was scary and it was incredibly sad. But I wouldn’t go back and change it. It gave me such a well of inner strength that I don’t think any other life decision has ever given me. I know I can handle pretty much anything life has to throw at me (even a future ex-boyfriend who nearly drove me to bankruptcy) and that I can pick myself up and brush myself off and move on.
    There are still times I look to the heavens and go “seriously?! can’t a get just a little break?” but…well…life is life! Things happen that we don’t choose, but sometimes we are chosen for a reason. I hope that through all this I have shown my daughters that they don’t have to settle, they can be independent and make the tough choices that they need to make and be strong enough to survive them. 🙂

  • Kristina McCawley Rivera

    Thank you , this was much needed to read today as I just recently had a miscarriage and have been struggling to understand all of the why’s and dealing with a mix of emotions including sadness and anger I am worrying so much about the future instead of focusing on the moment and allowing myself to grieve thank you for this article as I can relate to it in many ways

  • Amy Acker

    Thank you for sharing your light! It can be such a relief to know that the hard-won lessons we have learned will benefit not just ourselves, but future generations as well. It can also be such a relief to realize that even when we feel at our most broken, our truth will always be perfect, whole and complete.

  • Amy Acker

    I can’t speak to your situation, but I do know the heartbreak, hopelessness and isolation of infertility, as I experienced it with both of my daughters.

    I can only share what helped me get through those agonizing months which was to hold on to the knowledge that my child was out there but just not ready to join me in the world yet. It helped to think of myself as already being a mother, and that the best way to support my unborn, unmet child was to respect it’s soul’s decision to wait until its perfect timing to enter the world and become part of the world.

    In the meantime, I would communicate to her in my heart that I was so excited to meet her and would be here waiting when she was ready to join me and would try to be as patient and respectful as possible of her timing.

    Also, maintaining a daily gratitude journal helped me stay in a positive mindset when I was completely frustrated and hopeless.

    Again, I can only speak for myself, but that is what was most helpful to me every time I felt like I would never be a mother — to tell myself that I was already there, the problem was just that it didn’t look the way I wanted it to yet.

    I would also recommend surrounding yourself with positive, supportive people and taking exquisite care of yourself.

  • Amy Acker

    Thank you for taking the time to share your light amid your grief. I’m so honored to hear my writing brought you a moment of peace and allowing.

  • rt

    Hi Amy and thank you for sharing your story. It was wonderful to know you and your daughter both got through.
    I am currently going through a separation and eventually will divorce but the heart ache I feel having to re-build my life again at 56 really hurts me. And unfortunately since separating I am going through it alone. My family told me it was my problem and my friends chose to no longer keep in contact.
    It’s been very hard to constantly stay strong and keep moving but I refuse to give my life away for another 28 years.
    I was brought up to believe marriage was about my husband’s happiness and life, my children and his parents. My life was owned and I felt it.
    Until I got my wake up call after 25 years of marriage and realized that I had the right to own and live my life.To be happy. So I chose to leave.
    You make many points in your story on trying to see what one should be grateful for during a crisis and I can honestly say as painful as it is and feeling scared about what has happened to my life,I am grateful I got me back. And that’s worth never going back.
    All the best for you and your family.

  • Carrie K

    I really needed this article, thank you, you could have been speaking directly to me!
    Carrie K

  • Kathy

    Thank you so much for sharing what was such a heartbreaking yet ultimately rewarding experience. I have always felt that everything happens for a reason, and sometimes we don’t or won’t ever know ‘the why’. I loved the ‘eye of the storm’ analogy and that is perhaps the best thing I took away from this beautiful article. That is where we need to be in the midst of uncontrollable chaos. And we’ve all been there. I hope I can hold on to some of the wisdom you shared with us, next time I’m in crisis. Again, thankyou for sharing.

  • Dee

    Thank you Amy. Your response was extremely helpful.

  • badhombrebigdo

    What would you know about hard or unfair? Lol…

  • Stephen Scott

    While I agree that you have to face the reality of your situation and try and make the best of it, you cannot just lump everybody into the same basket. In your case, your daughter thankfully made a full recovery; would you have had the same attitude if she ended up as a special needs person like my daughter? I can’t see any blessings in disguise in my situation. As hard as I try to change and accept the facts, regrets, blame, resentment and worries are ever present.

  • Amy Acker

    RT- so glad to hear your experience resulted in your rediscovering your most important asset– your relationship with yourself!

  • Amy Acker

    Thank you, Carrie! So glad it spoke to you!

  • Amy Acker

    Thank you, Kathy. The “eye of the storm” visual is also a comforting one for me!

  • Amy Acker

    Stephen– thank you for sharing your perspective, which I’m sure a lot of readers of my article can relate to.
    It was not my intention in this article to imply that it’s easy or always possible to make the best of every difficult situation, though I can see how it can be read and interpreted that way.
    It is understandable that you feel a daily struggle with regrets, blame, resentment and worry.
    I really can’t say how I would react in any situation that’s not my own, but your assertion that I would probably share the same feelings you have is likely correct, as those feelings are already an ever-present part of my own parenting experience.
    I also wanted to let you know I honor and respect your feedback, and truly appreciate you taking the time to share it with me, as do I’m sure, many other readers who read this and felt the same reaction.

  • Alvin

    Perhaps you have to be in the right state of mind; and to want to feel better or positive.

    For most of these things to work (positive tips- in general).

  • Barry

    Thanks for sharing Amy. I think your 4 lessons are very universal. I know that some might read this and see that you had a “lucky” result with your daughter, but I’m glad you chose to share your story with the world. I think the key thing for readers to understand is that you are not saying they “should” or “have to” do anything. People will naturally feel all kinds of emotions. People get frustrated when they believe that they “should” or “shouldn’t” feel the way they do.

    Now the 3 main lessons I have learned in life are…

    1) “Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.”
    2) “If you realise that you have enough, you are truly rich.”
    3) Ask yourself, “What are you doing right now?” Then do it whole-heartedly.

    And the most important thing to me is not whether these lessons are “right” or “wrong”, it’s whether or not they help to make me feel at peace with the world.

    And the other thing I like to remind myself about the world is that everything changes.

  • Shanker

    I whole heartedly agree with you that getting back yourself is worth any sacrifice and emotional pain. Ultimately, it is our life, and our views that matter most!

  • Shanker

    I appreciate your courage and endurance Melanie. I believe no one can endure long pain without a valid reason. That you keep enduring seperation validates your reason!

  • Amy Acker

    Agreed, Alvin!

  • Amy Acker

    Wow, amazing wisdom here Barry — if you haven’t already, you should think about writing an article on the points you have made here!
    You are so right about the “should” thing — I have seen this countless times with my clients as well as with myself!
    Your life lessons are also so true for me, and I’m sure for many others as well. They are centered around choosing to love what is because doing so brings a personal sense of peace. Reminds me of the Hamlet quote: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Barry

    Thanks for your kind words Amy. I often write things down for myself but I’ll consider writing an article to share with others. Cheers 🙂

  • rt

    Totally agree Shanker,it is our life! We should be living what’s true for ourselves not others. Thank you.

  • RT

    Thank you Amy and that’s the greatest blessing I could of received!

  • Barry

    Hi Amy, I just thought you’d be interested to know that your suggestion to write an article inspired me to start a blog. If you google bazzastotle you should find it. Thanks again for sharing your story 🙂