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Dear New NICU Mama…

The Creative Mama welcomes Samantha Nelson with her story.

SNelson/ The Creative Mama NICU series/ image by Jessica Strom

all professional images in this post by Jessica Strom Photography

Dear New NICU Mama-

I imagine you’re reading this because you’ve just found yourself thrown into a whirlwind birth and you’re feeling a little alone. First, you need to know that you are not alone. There are many that have walked this road before you. If I could go back and tell myself some things, as well as impart to you the things I learned on my own journey, it would look a little something like this…

Let go of all expectations. I am a planner. I hate when things don’t go according to plan. You can go ahead and laugh because I’m sure you know by now nothing about having a NICU baby is according to any sort of “plan!” This journey has been good for my heart, though. I’ve learned to just let things come as they do, and be as they are. The NICU nurses commented many times about how “ok” I was. I kept telling them – I could be really upset. Nothing went the way I wanted it to. But being upset would not change anything. This past year I’ve been surprised and excited by each little thing my son has learned and done – simply because I had no expectation that he ever would!

Bring in a NICU photographer. Our maternity photos were scheduled for two and a half weeks after I delivered. I contacted our photographer after delivery and let her know we’d need to cancel. She generously offered to instead come in free of charge and take some photos of us in the NICU. I had no idea what a priceless gift they would be. To have another set of eyes on us as a family and on our preemie gave us images we couldn’t have imagined. The photographer came on day 13, the very first day that our little guy wore clothes! He was so smiley.

SNelson/ The Creative Mama NICU series/ image by Jessica Strom

Go easy on yourself. The overwhelming guilt I felt due to my son’s early and traumatic delivery was something I didn’t expect. I kept telling myself it was my body that failed him; my placenta that malfunctioned and left him without oxygen. But the reality is, things happen. New NICU mama, this is your journey now. Placing blame doesn’t change a thing, so try to take each day as it comes and celebrate the little things. Be open with someone you love about how you’re really doing.

Ask questions if you don’t understand or agree with something. While you may not be able to do many of the normal “mom things” – you are still the mom. Take in as much information as you can and advocate for your baby.

Make a connection with someone in the NICU. For us, there were two nurses with whom we really connected. They were a tremendous help in supporting us as a family. Maybe another family with a baby who shares a room with your baby can be a source of comfort and strength. Connections will go far in helping you feel less alone in this journey.

SNelson/ The Creative Mama NICU series/ Jessica Strom Photography

Step away from the NICU every once in a while. This may sound like the last thing you want to hear, but you need it. Our NICU didn’t have the option to room-in with our baby, so we went home each night. Even so, we took a day here and there where we would go out to dinner. Be us. With a completely unexpected delivery, we needed a moment every once in a while to recharge, regroup, and relax.

Designate someone who can communicate with others when they ask what they can do. People genuinely want to help, but if they haven’t experienced NICU life have no idea what that looks like. Have someone set up a meal train for you where others can bring you home cooked meals. Between pumping every 2 hours around the clock and driving 30 minutes each way to and from the NICU twice a day, there was simply no time to think – much less cook us a meal.

Save your spouse’s time off for when you come home. In the NICU you’ve got lots of hands. Your baby has a large medical team there to care for anything you’re not able to handle. While you will likely have recovered from the delivery by the time your baby does come home, there’s still a huge adjustment coming! You may find an extra set of hands more helpful when you’re home on your own.

Pump if you can. I could not hold  my son for 6 days or breastfeed him for 5 weeks. I could not change his diaper, give him a bath, or anything else… but doing something tangible like providing milk for him helped me immensely.

Write things down.  If journaling or writing helps you cope, try keeping some type of log, even just lists of things that happen each day.  Since most of our family and friends lived 500 miles away, I kept a blog while we were in the NICU. I love looking back on those entries even now and remembering all the details I surely would have forgotten!

I hope you find the love and support you need during this trying time, and that pieces of the lessons I learned when I was in your place will help you cope a little better.  Most of all, I want you to know that you are not alone.

Much love,

A mama who’s been there, done that, and survived to tell you about it!

Samantha Nelson/ The Creative Mama NICU SeriesSamantha Nelson was thrown into the NICU world when she had a placental abruption occur unexpectedly at 31 weeks. Her baby boy had a rocky start, but has been surprising everyone for over a year now with his determination to overcome the obstacles before him. She enjoys spending time with her little family and two dogs at their home in Kansas City. You may connect with Samantha by visiting her blog or emailing her at

The Nelson’s photographer, Jessica Strom, has created A Mighty Heart, a network of photographers offering complimentary NICU sessions in the Kansas City Metro area.


our superstar

In September 2009, I was almost 32 weeks pregnant with our third child when my neighbor, who was a nurse, noticed how swollen my face and legs looked. I had been so busy keeping up with our other two children I had not noticed these changes.  My neighbor asked if I had taken my blood pressure recently and I told her no.  A few minutes later she arrived at my home to take my blood pressure. It was quite high and she insisted that I call my doctor right away.  

I went to the doctor that afternoon and he admitted me to the hospital for a 24 hour urine protein test and observation.  The test results came back indicating I had severe preeclampsia.  I was immediately prepped and put on an ambulance. I was transported to the nearest hospital with an adequate NICU facility.  The doctors were baffled because they said patients usually only get preeclampsia with their first child.  They kept telling me how rare my situation was.

The next hours and days are honestly a blur. The doctors began giving me shots to help develop our daughter’s lungs and began giving me magnesium to treat the preeclampsia. My daughter was born considerably healthy and we were told she would be a grow and feed baby in the NICU. She was breathing on her own and had no medical problems. We were beyond grateful.

In addition to the other medical issues I was experiencing, I developed a spinal headache after my C-section. The doctors treated it in a variety of ways for a few days, until they finally performed a spinal patch, which resolved the issue. Needless to say, these first few days were challenging physically and emotionally. I was healing from being so sick and having a third C-section and our baby girl was in the NICU facility on a different floor of the hospital. So many thoughts were going through my head as I sat in my hospital bed.

This experience really put life into perspective for me in so many divine ways.  When I left my home that morning, I had no idea I would not be coming home for over ten days. I had planned to use the last two months of my pregnancy for organizing, creating a baby space in the room that would be shared by our girls, washing baby clothes, and many other nesting activities. When I left our home that morning, I had none of those things done; in fact, the beds in our house were not even made.  Our house was a disaster.

As I lay there alone in the ambulance, none of those details mattered. Not one of them.  I was praying our baby girl would be born healthy and praying our other two children would understand why mommy didn’t come home that day.  Life began to look very different. I have always been a planner, but this experience reminded me that God’s plans for our life sometime look much different than our own.

The next few days, weeks, and months brought so many uncertainties. I really had to learn to live day by day. I remember when I was well enough to start visiting our baby girl in the NICU my first question was how long would she be there.  The nurses told me that she would likely be there until at least her due date, which was in November. I kept thinking that I would be released soon from the hospital and didn’t know how I would ever be able to manage visiting the NICU and taking care of our other children.  We lived over an hour away and I had a 5 year old and almost 3 year old counting on me at home. I also remember the nurses telling me that our daughter could not nurse until she was stronger and that I would have to continue to pump if I planned to breast feed her. I had breast fed both of our other children and was so sad that I could not do this right away with her. Every day brought new obstacles for us to face.

Each time I entered the NICU facility to visit and take care of our daughter, I saw stories of preemies posted on the welcome board. Some of the stories did not have happy endings and some of the babies never went home. I was reminded to be grateful for each moment.

Two weeks passed and we got to take our baby girl home.  At this time she was nursing, almost exclusively, and had passed all the essential tests to leave. 

I learned so many life lessons that will stay with me forever through this experience. Often during pregnancies mothers tend to get focused on so many things that ultimately matter very little.  We worry about names, the sex of the baby, the color of the nursery; the list goes on. There are so many ways we try to control life with hopes of creating this perfect scenario.  I learned that there is beauty so real and so special in the imperfect and the unplanned.  I learned that God’s greatest gifts for my life are found in His timing.  ”And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”- Philippians 4: 19

Today, our little preemie is four and a half years old and thriving. She lives each day to its fullest and reminds me continually to live for the unexpected. In the NICU her doctor lovingly referred to her as “superstar” and she continues to live up to this name in all she does. 

This article was written by Ginger Unzueta.


After Pain Comes Strength

The Creative Mama welcomes Jessica Irwin with her story.

Let me begin by giving you a tiny bit of background to help you understand where some of my strong emotions stem from. In November of 2012, I learned I was pregnant with spontaneous fraternal twin girls. Fast forward to 24 weeks gestation, I became ill and was sent to the hospital just to receive an IV. At this time I was told that one twin (M) was not growing well. Three days later I lost her. The other twin (Q) was OK, but due to the loss of M my body went into labor at 26 weeks. Despite the doctors’ best effort, Q was born at 26 weeks 5 days by emergency c-section. She weighed 2 pounds 3 ounces. Q spent 122 days in the NICU and underwent hernia surgery at 34 weeks gestation. Through all of this I also had a 2 year old at home.

Jessica Irwin for NICU series The Creative Mama

Honestly, I feel like I could write an entire book about my experience in the NICU, but I’ve decided to focus on the “less obvious” emotions that I struggled with.

The day your baby is born is supposed to be one of the happiest and joyous days of your life. I felt that with my first child. He was a textbook pregnancy and delivery. The day my daughters were born was one of the scariest, saddest, and happiest days of my life. I am still brought to tears when I think of that day – a day when I held my stillborn child yet was unable to hold my living child because she was tethered to so many machines. Also on this day, the strongest emotion I felt throughout our NICU experience started… guilt. Feelings of anger and jealousy also reared their ugly heads in different ways all at the same time.

As a mother I naturally struggled with the events of my daughters’ births. I felt responsible for losing one of my daughters and having the other born 14 weeks early. As a woman and mother, my most important job is to provide for and protect my children. I felt like I had failed my daughters from day one. I now know (after some therapy and conversations with my doctor) that I did everything I could to have a healthy pregnancy. Unfortunately, some things are just out of our control. Is it something I will be able to let go of 100%? Probably not, but I don’t beat myself up like I did before.

In the beginning of our NICU journey, I often felt anger and jealousy. Every time I saw a set of twins, I cried. When I saw two happy parents taking their baby home, while I watched mine stop breathing, I wished so badly to be in their place. As time passed, those moments of anger and jealousy subsided.

The emotional struggles extended into other parts of my life as well. During Q’s stay in the NICU, it was very difficult to balance time with my daughter in the hospital and time with my son and husband at home. When I was with one, I felt guilty for not being with the other. For 122 days, my family was “broken.” My son was too young to visit, so my husband and I would constantly juggle schedules so each of us could visit our daughter daily. We were blessed to live only 15 minutes away from the hospital. However, I met other moms whose homes and families were hours away. My heart went out to each and every one of them, as I couldn’t imagine the additional challenges of distance and absence of family that they had to deal with. While Q was in the NICU we felt we had to be there every day. Deep down I think our deepest fear was that we wouldn’t bond with our daughter the way we did with our son. Would she feel abandoned, lonely?

A year later, I can tell you two things . . . 1) NICU nurses are AMAZING people and I saw with my own eyes how they care for each baby. Can they replace a mom or dad? Of course not, but I know that those nurses held Q while they were charting, and she slept in their arms. As a mom who couldn’t be there 24/7, knowing how much the nurses cared brought me some peace of mind. 2) Q just turned one and she absolutely knows who her mom and dad are.

So all of that guilt and worry I was feeling seems silly now, but in those early days, it was painfully real! Despite having many moments that were not my proudest, I survived. And because I did, I am now a stronger woman.

Jessica Irwin lives in Cincinnati with her husband, 2 year old son, 1 year old daughter and two big, loving labs. She graduated with a Business Administration degree, but found her true passion in Montessori Education. Jessica loves traveling the world and experiencing new cultures, especially the cuisine! She has a great appreciation for photography, delicious food, and good beer! However, the thing that brings Jessica the most joy is her family. You can find out more about Jessica’s NICU experience on her website and this March For Babies page set up for her daughters. Connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.


Loved it! (13th edition)

I love stumbling across beautiful things that are new to me.  This is why I love to read other team members’ “Loved It!” articles.  It’s also why I was so taken with the photography of one of our readers, photographer Kimberly Peck.   The combination of something new (an artist I hadn’t yet discovered) and something familiar (farmland photos that reminded me of home) immediately drew me in.  Don’t miss her strikingly bare photos of the inside of an old farmhouse.  Captivating.

They Draw & Cook features illustrated recipes from artists around the world, like this quirky and delightful breakfast recipe for Avocado Egg Toast.

My newest family approved dinner recipe is Baked Ravioli, shared by What’s Gaby Cooking. It’s definitely getting thrown into the meal rotation.

And I scored several points this month when I made Deep Dish Peanut Butter Pie with Chocolate Covered Pretzel Crust for my husband on our anniversary. Thanks, Yammie’s Noshery. 

Yes, I see I skipped lunch.  You are on your own for lunch, but I want to leave you with a message from Brave Girls Club.  If you are feeling a bit discouraged, take five minutes to listen to Melody Ross read her book, “You Are Going to be Okay.”

Art. Food. Encouragement.

I love it.

This article was written by Clair.




Let Your Child Take Charge with These Fun and Free Weekend Activities

michelle rowe/ the creative mama

The Creative Mama welcomes Michelle Rowe, a child care specialist, with a guest post full of creative ideas for family activities.

Looking for something unique for your family to do this weekend?  Use these activities as springboards for having the kids come up with creative ways that you can spend the weekend together:

Kid’s Date

Let your little one decide how you’ll spend your weekend time together. In addition to seeing how he will fair when he gets to be the boss, you’ll learn about what interests him by paying attention to the activities chosen for the date.

Take a Long Walk

From famous authors who associated their success with planning plots over long walks to walk-talk therapists who find their clients feel more at ease when in motion, walking can release creativity and create more in-depth discussions. Throw on a pair of sneakers and explore your town, a nature trail, or a neighborhood. Not only do these walks spur conversation, but they provide much needed cardiovascular activity.  Don’t forget to let your kiddo be the trail guide.

Produce a Show

Kids love to express themselves and their lives through plays and shows. Engage the entire family in producing and putting on a show. Even if it’s just for the stuffed animals on your daughter’s bed, putting her mind to work in creating a “script” and designing costumes is a low cost, high fun way to spend a weekend day.

Create a Game

Game night is a staple of most families’ recipe for togetherness. Take it a step farther by collaborating with your kids to amend, adjust, or make up a whole new game. Create a board, design pieces, and write down the rules. Encourage fun on the fly by trying to play the game and adjusting or adding rules along the way. Not only does this take the focus off of who wins and who loses, but it provides kids with an outlet to create a game they want to play. 

Make Dinner an Adventure

Set aside a night for adventurous eating. Select a new vegetable, protein, or fruit and let kids help prepare the dish with you. If you have picky eaters, starting off with a pasta base that they can flavor with sauces, seasoning, and cheeses may help ease them into embracing this new adventure. 

Make Art

Engage your children in a new form of art. Paper mache, crochet, and collages are all great, simple forms of art that children of all ages can create. Think outside the box and employ your own skills to help the kids come up with something unique.

Family Mystery Night

The reason mysteries are so popular is because everyone likes trying to solve a good one. Create a family mystery with clues, red herrings, and suspects. A “Who Stole the Ice Cream?” investigation can encourage creativity by letting kid’s critically think about where to go and who to question next. Make a fun prize at the end for when the kids “solve” the family mystery.

Story Night

Kids love telling tall-tales so give them the opportunity to shine. Whether it’s around a backyard fire or a “make believe” one in the living room, gather around and tell your tallest tales. Get everyone in on the action and see who can tell the biggest whopper.

As you can see, there are many creative ways to spend the weekend with your children. Make this weekend one to remember by trying something new and learning together. Have fun. Be creative. Try out one of these ideas and see what you discover.

Michelle Rowe headshotWith over 20 years of experience in the nanny world as an award-winning nanny, agency director, and parenting author, Michelle LaRowe is considered a leading industry expert. A mom herself, she loves to educate parents and nannies on the importance of quality in-home childcare. Find out more by visiting @eNannySource on Twitter. 


#TCMeveryday April Images

It’s beginning to look a lot like spring!  Browsing through all the #TCMeveryday images it looks like you’ve all had a fun month making the most of warm sunshine, blooming flowers, baseball, spring break road trips and finding a bit of beauty in your everyday.  So many wonderful, colorful images sharing the long awaited signs of spring!

@thewhitekitchenblog        @sewquiltmom      @joymadeit      

@lizzie_jane      @naomiliester      @kellyharper75      

@songbird70      @magandastudios      @hopskip

Our hope with this monthly feature is that you’ll connect with other creative minded mamas, documenting their days.  Remember to tag you images with #TCMeveryday for the chance to be featured each month.  We want to celebrate the wonderful ways you capture this season of life!




Food Photography 101: Styling

Food styling is something that I’ve struggled to learn the basics of over the short time I’ve been food blogging.  Unlike the more precise, technical aspects of photography, like learning to use the manual settings on your camera, food styling relies a lot on gut instinct, practice, and a lot of trial and error.

So, rather than giving you a prescriptive lesson on styling your food photos, I thought I would take you on a journey of what styling looks like on a blog shoot in my little studio. (Hint: get ready for a lot of trial and error!)

I often start thinking about what I want my photos to look like as I’m making (or even before I’ve made) the food I’m going to photograph.  I think about the story I want the photos to tell:  Why have I made this food? When would I eat it?  What would I eat it with?  What feelings does eating this dish invoke for me?

I had already decided, with this pistachio, cardamom and honey granola recipe, that I wanted to convey a warm, brightly lit breakfast: feelings of coziness and relaxation would abound in this series of photos.  I first chose a bowl for my granola – one that, to me, looked down-to-earth and everyday.

Pistachio Cardamom and Honey Granola

You can imagine how the look and feel of my granola shoot would change if I used a more modern, clean-looking bowl and linen, like this:

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

I also started to play around with linens and backdrops.  When starting out with food styling, it’s a great idea to begin collecting some linens, backdrops and dishes that you like.  The fabric store is a great place to get swatches that look like napkins:  I often use quilt scraps in lieu of buying actual table linens.  Antique stores are a goldmine of cutlery and dishes.  Using well-worn, matte cutlery is a trick of the trade:  shiny spoons and forks reflect light, and sometimes even the image of you taking the picture!  Try to look for smaller dishes as well:  I often plate my food on side plates so that I’m better able to get the entire dish into the frame of my photograph.  As for backdrops, I hit up my local hardware store and got some interconnecting wood panelling which I painted different colours.  A few large tiles are a great choice as well, as they can look like a countertop in a tightly framed photo.

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

So, thinking that I definitely wanted to go with my white panelled backdrop, I started playing around with linens.  In the first photo, you can see I experimented with a monochromatic look, using the beige linen.  Then I used my trusty colour wheel and wondered if a blue linen would contrast and bring out the brown in the plate and food.  Still not happy, I changed the entire look, using a large piece of grey tile and a grey linen napkin, and had an aha moment.

What do you think?  Would you have made a different choice?  

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

I usually start with a nice tight shot of the food that I’m photographing.  Then I start adding in various props to richen the photo and help me to tell a story about the food.  Here’s a word to the wise:  many food photographers, when they’re first starting out, get really really close to their food, trying to capture all the beautiful details in the dish.  While this can generate some beautiful images, you want to make sure you back away from your food enough so that your viewer knows what they’re looking at.

By way of adding in props, I started with a latte in an earthenware mug I chose for the way it paired with the brown stripe around the bowl.  The simple addition of a drink to your image is a great first prop to experiment with. (Tip:  because beautifully aerated milk in a latte tends to liquefy again after sitting for a few minutes, I actually did all of my linen and backdrop experimenting, as well as my initial food-only shots, before making the latte.  Timing is everything!)  

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

I didn’t like where I initially placed the mug, so I moved it.  Here’s a lesson in photo composition:  you want to create “movement” in your photo, or a way to cause your viewer’s eye to move across the photo, taking in details as it goes.  In the photo below, my eye starts by looking at the bulk of the granola at the bottom of the bowl, then follows the spoon, arcing towards the top left of the photo before crossing over to the latte and back around to the granola.  In the photo above, I just felt like the photo’s movement didn’t appeal to me as much.

What do you think?  Would you have moved the latte?

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

I chose to make granola for this tutorial because it’s kind of an “ugly” food:  brown, somewhat uniform in appearance – the kind of food that is notoriously difficult to create beautiful photographs with.  That’s why I chose to style this granola in a bowl with yogurt, honey and a sprinkling of pepitas.  A simple jar of granola risks looking a bit drab, but adding green seeds, white yogurt, and caramel-coloured honey creates visual interest as well as telling more of a story about how I would eat the granola.  This scene plants me immediately in an imaginary world where I eat a leisurely breakfast on a sun-dappled table.  (Maybe I could have even added the corner of a newspaper in the photo, to make it look like I actually had time to read the news!)  If the idea of pistachio, cardamom and honey granola wasn’t appealing enough to make me want to try this recipe or keep reading this blog, then perhaps I can captivate my viewers with the imaginary world into which I’ve invited them.  Especially, if they’re like me, they are are actually balancing a toddler in their lap and making a play dough snake with the other hand while shovelling this granola in their faces before rushing the kids out the door.

The most obvious prop in your food styling is always the food itself.  Try saving a few of the individual ingredients for the food you’ve made and place them around the dish as a way to enrich your photo.  This is especially effective if the food you’re featuring is something quite homogenous-looking, like granola, where each individual ingredient isn’t always decipherable in the photo.

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

My next move was to add the jar of granola, to see how that affected the look and feel of my photos.  I started with the jar upright…

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

And then I tipped it over and spilled some, carefully ensuring that the angle of the jar and the spilled granola contributed to the movement of the photo.  See how your eye tracks from the bottom, follows the spoon handle up toward the latte, jumps over to the jar, and follows the granola back down to the bowl?  

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

What do you think?  Do you prefer the simpler photos with just the granola, or the ones with a few other props added in? Usually, in my blog posts, I like a mixture of both.  But some blogs, like Faux Martha, for example, stick to simple backdrops with minimal propping to create beautiful, food-centric images.  Thinking about and responding to the kinds of photos that you like to look at the most is your first step along the way to cultivating a food photography style that is all your own.

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

My next task was to try a few different angles.  Though this isn’t necessarily a food styling technique, trying to shoot from a variety of angles changes the way your props look in the frame, and can create a more interesting image.

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

Which angles do you like best?  

Then, finally, I tried to add a bit of dynamism into my photo by scooping up a bit of granola and yogurt, to make it look like I was mid-way through eating my breakfast.  I tried to add in my hand holding the spoon, but had a bit of a hard time getting the angle right, so I left it as is.  

Pistachio, Cardamom and Honey Granola

And that, my friends, was a wrap.  Though I’ve shown you many of the photographs I took as I navigated the process of styling my granola shoot, I would probably only use two or three in my actual blog post.  

Which photos would you pick?  What would you have done differently?  As you can see, the same person photographing the same granola might make completely different food styling choices.  There’s no right or wrong way to style a food photograph, only your way.

And, because I hope I’ve thoroughly enticed you with these photos, here is the recipe for the granola.

Food Photography 101:  The Series

Part 1:  Lighting

Part 2: Lenses

Part 3: You are here!

 This article was written by Jessie.


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