Every Disney movie is inundated with life lessons. Whether it’s communicated via a farting warthog, a roaring lion, or a wily meerkat, it really doesn’t matter. The universality of these lessons are meant to portray a simplistic scenario, which you can then use to apply to your own life. Being in the NICU with a sick child is as difficult a test as they come. When you’re there, you have no comparison to base your current circumstance on, as everyone’s path is unique. You are tested in more ways than you could ever imagine, mentally and emotionally. At times, you’ll want to give up as Simba did, but it’s important to remember your place, responsibilities to those who rely on you, and that you are important and needed. Here are six lessons NICU parents can learn from Disney’s The Lion King.
1. The Circle of Life
Disney’s The Lion King provides viewers the usual Disney coming-of-age troupe. To a child, this conveys the importance of finding your own individuality. Simba realizes, after losing his father Mufasa, that he must find his own place in the circle of life. Finding that place is what the whole movie is about. But, what can this same message convey to a NICU parent?
As NICU parents, we often struggle to find our place with our sick children in our circumstance. We feel as if we are responsible for what happened to our child, so we must suffer mentally and emotionally because of it. It’s almost as if we are sentencing ourselves. The truth is, you’re not responsible in any way for the circumstances that brought your child into this world. It can feel contradictory at times, but it’s important to recognize that your place in the circumstance of the NICU is not to be the arbiter of your own self-pity. You’re not sentenced to suffer. Your job is exactly the same, whether your child was born at 25 weeks or 40: to be the parent your child can be proud of.
2. Hakuna Matata
“It means no worries!” It sounds very cliché but, if you let it happen, you can worry yourself sick in the NICU. I know, in my own situation, I used to treat every situation the same regardless if it was or wasn’t the same because I was wiring my own brain to react this way.
The day we almost lost our son, he got very sick. So now, any time my son gets sick, my mind automatically gravitates to that day, like I’m about to lose him all over again. I have to remind myself of the truth: kids get sick all the time. Kids in the NICU are more susceptible to get sick because of their weaker immune system due to being born premature. This isn’t belittling that. But you should also understand, just because your child gets sick, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily dying. All worrying does is borrow the pains of tomorrow by emptying the strengths of today.
For your own mental health, you need to practice the art of worrying on demand. I know I’m not going to be able to tell you not to worry. We’re parents, so of course we’re going to worry. What you should do, though, is understand that it’s okay to be at peace until you’re told by medical staff that you should worry. This is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to learn, being a parent in the NICU. If I worried as much every day as I did the day I almost lost my son, I wouldn’t be the mentally tough and cognizant parent my son needs me to be for him right now.
3. “Remember Who You Are”
I almost lost myself when I almost lost my son. Looking back now, it’s because I was so self-absorbed in depression and my own anxieties that I ever let myself get that close. My obsession with controlling every minute detail in a very uncontrollable environment like the NICU made me forget who I was. This can be very easy to do, especially in a setting that isn’t reminiscent of the happiest places we’ve been in our lives.
You have to remind yourself daily of who you are and what you’re there to do. Understand that losing yourself means your child loses a parent they really need. As a parent in the NICU, it can be easy to let yourself go physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s exhausting being there every day, especially when your child isn’t doing so well. But what they need from you, the only thing you can really control, is your best self. If you’re giving them your best self, you are doing everything in your power to help them get better.
4. Never Fight Alone
When Simba was told by Scar to “Run away and never return”, he was a small lion cub. He knew that fighting Scar alone was an impossible feat. Despite Scar’s ill intentions, this was probably the best advice he could have given Simba, for when Simba left he met Timon and Pumbaa who ultimately helped him end Scar’s reign at the end of the film.
As NICU parents, we don’t know how to help ourselves and don’t know how to help our spouses. We aren’t necessarily supposed to. This is a responsibility we weren’t meant to bear. Being knowledgeable of our own helplessness, though, can also cause us to isolate ourselves. When we isolate ourselves, it can cause our thoughts to darken and aloneness intensifies.
I can’t impress upon you enough the importance of reaching out and talking to someone. Seeing your child in the NICU can scar you emotionally. It can cause normal thought patterns to reroute to darkness. Understand that it’s okay to be too tired to fight. Sometimes we fight until we’re too exhausted to function emotionally. This is when we let our family, our friends, those whom we love, to fight for us. Again, don’t self-sentence yourself to fight alone because you think it’s what you were meant to do. It isn’t and you shouldn’t.
5. Being Scared Is Normal
When Simba and Nala journey to the elephant graveyard, they are surrounded by hungry hyenas. After being backed into a corner and surrounded, they are ultimately rescued by Mufasa. When Mufasa and Simba talk after this, Simba asks his father if kings are supposed to be afraid. Mufasa replies that he was afraid today, after almost losing his son.
As a NICU parent, it is 100% normal to be afraid. With all of the uncertainty surrounding the NICU environment, not being afraid would be abnormal. It doesn’t mean that you are weak and it certainly doesn’t make you less of a parent. It makes you human. But don’t let being afraid of the NICU make you afraid of living. One of the most difficult parts of being a NICU parent is the moment we leave in the evening, knowing our children are staying at the hospital and we are returning home without them. This never gets any easier. It’s important, though, to recognize that it’s normal to live your life without fear when you walk out those hospital doors. Don’t spend your whole time at home tiptoeing on egg shells waiting for something bad to happen. It will only mentally and emotionally exhaust you further, preventing you from being your absolute best self.
When Mufasa and Simba are walking through the pride lands, Mufasa tells Simba that everything exists in a “delicate balance” and this should be respected. Simba responds, confused, and says he thought they ate the antelope, which would mean lions throw off the balance. Mufasa explains, “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass and so, we are all connected in the great circle of life.”
As a NICU parent, it’s important to be respectful of other circumstances around you. Just because your child is ill doesn’t mean there aren’t others who are ill. More importantly, just because your child is well doesn’t mean all the other children are well. This emotional balance beam is difficult to navigate. Some of the days your child makes the biggest strides, you feel as if you’re walking on water. Another family down the hall, though, may have found out they are going to lose their whole world. You will see young people, old people, small people, tall people, rich people, poor people, black people, white people, etc. Be respectful of all people. The NICU doesn’t discriminate based on anything and neither should you. Be a friend, be a confidant to a complete stranger. Listen to what they have to say. Hear a story other than your own and be empowered by their experience. Your conversation might be the best thing they’ve experienced today.