September is a month that brings out boots and scarves, pumpkin spice lattes, apple orchard visits, football, and many other fall activities and traditions. For us, this month also represents an enormous amount of gratitude and blessings for our family. McKinley was born 8 weeks early because I suffered from a disease called preeclampsia. I had an emergency c-section not knowing how things were going to unfold. We were blessed, EXTREMELY blessed to have a healthy 3-pound baby girl who only needed time to grow in the Loudoun NICU. I went into this journey absolutely blind. There was nothing that could prepare myself for an experience like this. First off, I was too sick to visit McKinley in the NICU for the first 24 hours after she was born. When I WAS barely well enough to walk myself in, it took all of my strength and energy to get there. I had almost 40 pounds of fluid on me and was swollen from head to toe. The sights and sounds of a NICU are ones you never forget from the first visit to the last. The beeping of machines. The alarms. The alarms. The alarms. The equipment buzzing. The tiny little babies in incubators. The tubes. The scrubbing of your hands each time you enter the NICU to the point that your hands are practically raw. The kind nurses who put a smile on their faces to greet you and assist you every time you go in. There are so many emotions around the experience that you don't have time to even process them one at a time. I struggled with being on the postpartum side of the birthing inn and hearing all of the babies in their mother's rooms with them, seeing them get to go to their discharge class, and finally getting to take them home. When I was discharged, I didn't get to take her home with me. I had to leave her there. Did it ever get any easier? No, not really. The ups and downs that came with a baby in the NICU made me find strength within that I never knew I had. She suffered from mild jaundice so we were unable to hold her for a few days. Then she pulled her feeding tube out of her nose...twice. Also, meeting with all of the specialists and worrying about the upcoming scans and tests that needed to happen, just in case, made my already horrible anxiety even worse. While all of these things I could never wish upon any new parents to have to go through, I found peace with the NICU nurses that took care of McKinley while we were and were not there. They taught us how to change the tiniest of diapers, how to give her a sponge bath and eventually a tub bath, how to hold such a fragile little baby, just listened as I spilled out all of my emotions and thoughts, and were shoulders to cry on when I needed it the most. We learned to celebrate the milestones both big and small. McKinley graduated from the NICU and came home 3 1/2 weeks after she was born, just in time for Easter. We owe so much to the team of nurses, specialists, and neonatologist who helped McKinley thrive and come home healthy. They are inspiring. It may not have been the ideal childbirth and infant experience, but we truly love our preemie.