By Janine Kovac
The first month that my boys were in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit, they were so fragile that they couldn’t be held. They were kept in climate-controlled incubators and hooked up to breathing machines, heart monitors, and IVs. They often forgot to breathe. They were losing weight.
Every morning I dragged myself out of bed and did ten minutes of light stretching (I called it “yoga” but yogis wouldn’t recognize it as such.). I showered. I put on make-up. I dressed in the brightest colors I could find in my closet. I drove my daughter to preschool and then drove to the hospital. In the NICU I’d put my things in my locker in the family lounge, wash my hands, visit the boys. I’d break for lunch. My husband would come to visit the hospital on his way home from work. One of us would pick up our daughter while the other cooked dinner. After dinner one of us would put her to bed while the other went back to the hospital.
I didn’t know it, but I was forming Happiness Habits.
On Day 20, I stretched, showered, and dropped one child at preschool in order to visit my two other children in the hospital—the same way I did every morning. But this time, when I got to the boys’ room the doctor took me aside.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But your babies need surgery to fix their heart murmurs. We’ve scheduled the procedure for tomorrow morning.”
She explained that the twins both had the same condition: a heart valve that needed to be closed surgically. It was a ten-minute operation that the surgeon would perform in the boys’ hospital room. The boys wouldn’t even have to leave their beds.
Often during crises every positive action (such as my Aunt Rita’s thank you gift or different outlook) is like a little string that you weave into your safety net. But then life throws you a curveball (such as the decision to operate on a newborn’s heart) and all the strings break. It feels like there is no support. It’s just you—alone—waking up, taking a shower, applying make-up, and sticking to the routine because you don’t know what else to do. That’s when the Daily Must-Do List becomes its own safety net.
That afternoon I dumped a stack of hospital literature on the dining room table—two consent forms for the anesthesiologist (one for each baby), another two for the surgeon, papers outlining possible risks, legal documents in hospital jargon that reminded me that there was so much outside of my control. But at 4 p.m., none of that mattered. Because it was time to pick up my daughter. At 5 p.m. it didn’t matter because it was time to make dinner. At 8 p.m. it was time to brush teeth and read bedtime stories about princesses. At 10 p.m. I went back to the hospital for my nightly visit. And at 7 a.m. it was time to do ten minutes of yoga.
My routine that I implemented out of a sense of helplessness brought me to a place of mindfulness. That next morning Matt and I went to the hospital early. Michael was prepped for surgery and lying on a teeny, tiny gurney. This was the first time I’d seen him outside his incubator. He was three weeks old. I put my hands on his chest, just the way the nurses had taught me—with a firm touch that is constant but not over-stimulating.
I had intended to split the precious minutes before surgery between the twins, spending an equal amount of time with each baby. But the nurses were having a hard time finding a vein in Wagner’s tiny arm and the surgical team was over an hour late and so I found myself standing over Michael, feeling his little chest rise into my palms with each breath he took, feeling the warmth of my hands grow as if I were wearing oven mitts.
There are moments when you stand next to someone, such as on your wedding day, when there is silence and tension and the air feels full. There is something very satisfying in that fullness, as if the silence is vibrating with music. As if a mother could actually transmit breath to her son through her warmth. As if a son could comfort his mother through his breath. During times such as these, the blessings are the moments themselves—the silence, the peacefulness, the warmth, the comfort, and the love of a mother for her son.
The surgery really did last ten minutes per baby and it marked a turning point in the boys’ recovery. In fact, the twins stabilized so quickly in the days following the procedure that I was able to do something I hadn’t been able to do for three weeks: cradle my babies in my arms. That week I added a new Happiness Habit to my daily routine: hold each boy for an hour a day.
Here is a video of little Wagner reading a copy of Raising Happiness: