NICU Families NW
NICU parents are encouraged to practice self-care while their baby is hospitalized but moms and dads deprived of sleep, under extreme stress, and often dehydrated or poorly nourished tend to shrug off these well-meaning reminders— dismissing them as unrealistic, impractical, even insensitive. It’s common to experience guilt, even shame in stepping away from the bedside when your baby is in the NICU— especially when work or family demands have already limited the time available to spend at the hospital.Guilt

In truth, self-care can be practiced anywhere, on any budget, by anybody. But it’s helpful to consider some of the subconscious factors that can create obstacles to effective self-care and why some people may be especially resistant to the practice.

Vu Le, Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps and published Author shares his personal insight into how our upbringing and childhood perceptions of responsibility can support or undermine our efforts to practice self-care. These concepts are especially relevant to parents in the NICU while the very fabric and structure of their growing family is under threat.

The following is an excerpt from Vu’s popular website.

…My parents, for examples, always worked ridiculous hours. They delivered newspapers for the Seattle Times, and on Sundays they woke up at 4am to roll up the papers. They washed dishes at restaurants during the day, and my mother would also sew backpacks late into the night. We moved to Memphis, where they owned a convenience-store/gas-station. They would be there from 7am until 11pm each day (On Sundays, they had a break, only working to 7pm).

…What messages, direct and indirect, did you receive from your parents or other adults growing up regarding self-care? Did their words and behavior signal that it’s OK to relax and recharge, or that you’re failing to meet expectations if you do so? Did you ever get to see your parents take a vacation? How did they behave? My parents’ rare “vacations” were always trip back to Vietnam, and they included a ton of familial obligations such as distributing medicines and gifts to various relatives in different cities. I now realize that they never been on a purely relaxing vacation, and because of that, neither have I.

How has your cultural upbringing influenced your philosophy around self-care? Some of us come from cultures that tell us “Work hard, play hard,” while some of us grew up hearing “Work hard, then work harder.” There are also cultures that have different messages for different genders; for example, telling men that they should relax, while expecting women to clean and tidy or prepare food during down-time. What are the norms for self-care from your cultural heritage?

What responsibilities did you have during childhood, and how have they shaped you now? Did you have the standard chores like washing dishes or taking out the trash? Were you expected to take care of younger siblings or run family errands such as grocery shopping? Did you also have obligations to help with the family business or otherwise support your family financially? How did these responsibilities shape your thoughts and behaviors as an adult?

Did you experience any trauma in your childhood that may be preventing effective self-care now? This is a deeply personal question, so be thoughtful if you are reflecting in a group setting. Some of you may have gone through childhood abuse, neglect, witnessed domestic violence, or forced to take on emotional responsibilities such as playing counselor to your parents, among other things that kids shouldn’t have to endure. These traumas, if unresolved, may significantly block your self-care and may require counseling to work through.

How do your childhood experiences affect the way you perceive other people’s self-care?Do they make you more patient? Less? A while ago I wrote “Your self-care may be holding you back and making people around you hate your guts.” I stand by my point, that the concept of self-care can be taken advantage of. But now I realize that after growing up and only seeing my parents and relatives working and never relaxing, and knowing first-hand that people often lie to avoid work, it does factor into my skepticism of others’ self-care practices.

What messages are you passing on to the people around you, especially kids? Besides thinking about how our childhood and cultural upbringing affect our self-care practices, we should think about how our self-care practices and philosophies may be affecting the people around us, including our kids. I remember one day, my then-2-year-old son Viet walked into the bedroom at 8pm; he had been playing in the living room with his grandmother. My partner and I were both on our bed, each with a laptop. His eyes grew wide. He exclaimed, “Momma’s working? And Daddy’s working?” He looked crestfallen. “Viet’s not working?” He ran and got his educational toy laptop and climbed into bed so he could “work” too. That was the last time we brought our laptops to bed.”


  • Upon reflection you can identify experiences, or subtle messaging you received in your developmental years that has impacted how you interpret the value of self-care.
  • The questions above help shed light on how your partner prioritizes her/his/their self-care.
  • You have parents in your unit (in the NICU) whose upbringing and social influences reinforce a negative perception of self-care.
  • This new insight can inform how you prioritize self-care

We hope this insightful exercise promotes reflection and increased self-awareness, and that with improved perspective you can allow yourself space and time to practice self-care in whatever form possible.