When my sons were born – 13 weeks ahead of schedule – I had no idea what the hell was going on.
All I knew was that this wasn’t normal… and that was soon proven to me. After nine weeks on the neonatal units at two different hospitals, this is what I learned about how dads can be affected.
It’s normal to be fearful
Make no mistake: NICU is a scary place. When your child is wired up to machines, it’s hardly an enjoyable start to parenthood.
It’s perfectly normal to be scared, particularly in the early days when your child’s outlook might be on a knife edge. In fact, I’d be surprised if any parent who went through the neonatal journey wasn’t a little fearful.
With every beep, every bit of bad news, every setback, I felt the fear coursing through my veins.
There’s also the fear of the unknown. If like me, your first experience of parenthood leads you to NICU, it can be petrifying – often because you have no clue what’s going to happen and what’s coming next.
You may feel stressed
Actually, you will feel stressed. I’m nearly certain of it.
There’s so much information to take in, so many different terms and words you’ll likely never have heard before. There are strict hygiene regimes and security protocols to remember. You may even have to travel out of your hometown to a different city or town, just to visit your child.
All of this while you try to bond with your neonatal baby.
If you feel yourself becoming stressed, remember that it’s normal. Take a few minutes to yourself – outside in the fresh air if possible. I would often take a quick walk out of the hospital grounds if I felt myself getting uptight, which usually helped.
You’ll probably be anxious
I know of few (if any) other life events that bring about as much anxiety as becoming a parent. When it happens in such traumatic circumstances, you might well find yourself feeling even more anxious.
Anxious of what’s to come, of what the immediate and short-term future holds, your thoughts are never away from your child. I found myself worrying – especially in the early days – as doctors explained the long road to discharge.
And it wasn’t just anxiety about my sons that held me back; I also felt anxious around other people. Generally speaking, I’m pretty quiet around people I don’t know, and the thought of meeting new people fills me with dread.
While my wife found some solace and support in speaking with the other parents on the neonatal unit, I was hampered by the stresses of the situation and had to avoid communal areas to save myself from chest-tightening panic attacks.
You might feel helpless
It’s weird how quickly you can love a human being. Seconds into their lives, I knew that I would do anything for my sons.
Yet in NICU, I felt as though there was nothing I could do. When I walked in and saw nurses tending to our boys, I felt completely and utterly helpless – as though this incredible privilege of being a dad had been snatched away.
Often, I’d stand at the incubator side feeling dejected and useless. I’d try and telegraph thoughts and questions through the plexiglass:
Is there anything I can do? I’m sorry I can’t make everything better.
As time moves on, you’ll become more involved in your child’s care and that’s when you start to feel more like a parent.
Sometimes you feel hopeless
Sometimes the neonatal journey makes you lose all hope.
The scan results might come back with a problem. Your baby might need their oxygen support increasing. They might get an infection. You might have to wait an hour or a day to hold your baby.
One of the quotes that sticks with me was from the very first day we were in NICU. A doctor told us:
There’ll be good days and bad days… sometimes in the same day.
Ne’er a truer word spoken.
The key – and it’s hard, I won’t kid you – is to try and focus on the positives, and see the negatives as little bumps in the road.
It’s often confusing
NICU is a confusing place, there’s no doubt.
Why on earth has this happened to you? Why couldn’t it have just been like in the movies?
You may even feel a tinge of resentment that you’re in this position. I know I did. Hell, I still feel a hint of envy when I see people give birth to term babies and happily head home the next or even the same day.
Then there’s the confusion around your baby’s care.
Sometimes you can hold your baby, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes a nurse will tell you to do something one way, then the next day another nurse will show you a different way.
As if that isn’t enough, there’s also the acronyms, the neverending medical terminology to try and wrap your head around.
(The abbreviations and terms heard on NICU are probably a post for another time, but as a starting point, this video offers a decent overview. It’s designed for NICU professionals, but could be helpful for parents, too):
You can feel like an imposter
Your child is fighting for its life. Medical professionals talk in a seemingly alien language everywhere you walk. Machines buzz, beep and whirr. You don’t belong here… or so you think.
All I could believe was that there was no way I should’ve been in the same postcode as this machinery keeping my sons alive.
When nurses started to explain how to help out with the boys’ care routines, I had to stifle my laughter.
You want me to change that nappy? With all those wires in the way? You’re actually trusting me do that?
Of course, as time wore on and I became more confident, I learned to trust my instincts and voice my opinions.
Have faith in your ability to be a parent, no matter how strange the circumstances may feel. As the nurses regularly reminded us: “they’re your babies!”
You get up, you get dressed, your head spins, you eat breakfast, your head spins some more, you go to the ward, you see your baby, you speak to the doctors, you help with the cares, you speak to the nurses, you talk to your baby, you help with the feeds, you nip out and shovel in some lunch, you come back to the ward and do it all again, you have an hour or two of skin-to-skin, you help with the feeds again, you promise the nurse you’ll have an early night, you read your child a book, you say goodnight, you hear them whimpering in their incubator, you come back and sit by their side until they’re sound asleep, you wait a little longer in case they wake up again, you finally tiptoe out of the room into the darkness, you get in your car, you drive home in a daze, you order a takeaway, you eat in robotic silence, you go to bed, you drift in and out of sleep, you wake in the early hours, you phone the NICU, you ask if everything’s okay, you’re relieved to hear everything’s okay, you don’t believe the nurses, you wake your partner to tell them everything’s okay but you don’t think it is okay but that’s just what they told you, you go back to sleep, your partner goes to the loo, you hear your partner phoning to check if everything is okay, your partner stirs you to tell you everything is okay, you go back to sleep, you wake up, you get out of bed…
It’s a new day. Time to do it all over again.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. The NICU life is an exhausting life. The above is half tongue-in-cheek, but not too far from the truth.
My only advice is that you should get as much rest as you can. You won’t want to leave your baby, but try and get some balance and recharge the batteries while you’re still able to.
Because hopefully one day in the not too distant future, you’ll be taking your baby home with you. That’s when you’ll know real exhaustion.
Being affected is normal
All of this to say… it’s entirely normal to be affected by the neonatal journey.
Having a premature baby is the biggest shock to a system I’ve ever experienced. It’s properly hard. It’s draining, confusing, stressful, scary… it’s every emotion in the world rolled into one.
In that first fortnight or so, I think I cried every day. Mostly tears of pain, confusion and helplessness – I was sinking. But, unbelievably, there were occasions where my wife and I cried tears of laughter.
We laughed at nothing and everything, at the ridiculousness of our situation. We felt bad for laughing when our sons’ lives were hanging in the balance. I’m glad we did, though. It kept us going, and kept our morale just above the waterline of eternal unhappiness.
Every dad – every parent – will handle the NICU journey differently, but please don’t ever feel alone. Help is at hand – use it if you need it.