Business as unusual.
I’m lucky to do a job that I enjoy. But for several weeks in summer 2019, I ambled through my role in a state of fugue. I can tell you precious little about what I did at work at that time and even less about how often my mind was fully on the task at hand.
The reason, though, is simple: my mind was elsewhere. Specifically, it was in a hospital 25+ miles away. It was with my sons, still wired to their machines. It was with my wife, suddenly walking the parenthood road we’d trodden together, alone. And it was with the nurses and doctors caring for our sons.
Alas, we have bills to pay… and so a month after our boys crashed into the world, I once again showed my face in the office. This is what it’s like to return to work when your babies are in the hospital.
The day I’d dreaded
It always feels like something you’re not looking forward to seems to come so quickly. But four weeks into the NICU experience, I was at the stage where days had blurred into one indistinguishable mass of time. I couldn’t even use my sons’ ages as a yardstick: they were still minus two months old.
Anyway, the day did come – and return to work I did. As I said earlier, I like my job… but I’d never done my job while having two children fighting for their lives.
I didn’t want to be away from them. Sure, I was working to earn money for us to put a roof over their heads and provide for them when they finally came home. If they came home.
But for now, I felt as though I was abandoning them in their hour of need.
I know now that that isn’t true. Yet at the time I couldn’t help my feelings of guilt.
Once pleasantries had been exchanged with colleagues, I soon settled into a routine of sorts, but there was always the nagging feeling that I’d wronged my family by coming to work.
In the majority of cases, dads are the fall guys in the back-to-work scenario – though that’s not always the case. Sometimes, long term illnesses can mean lengthy hospital stays for children of any age, and mums may be forced back to their jobs or risk losing their income.
For neonatal babies, however, it tends to be fathers that have to take their gut-wrenching leave from their babies’ incubator side.
Until you’ve experienced it yourself, there’s no way to understand just how mentally challenging the experience of NICU is. Add in an enforced daily absence of 10+ hours and you have a cocktail for a mental health spiral.
Every day I’d glance at my phone umpteen times an hour. Each morning, my wife would try to recite the words of the doctors on their ward round – twice over, of course – and then provide updates throughout the day. All while bonding with our sons and battling her own emotions.
Having premature or poorly babies is a life-changing experience and one that can have a significant impact on a parent’s health and mental wellbeing.
Returning to work after paternity leave in such circumstances may feel like a burden… because, in many ways, it is. Your new life instantly changes your priorities and outlook. Suddenly, work isn’t quite so important, even though you have a duty to do your job.
How can employers help parents of NICU babies?
There’s an onus on employers to understand this situation much more than they currently do. The Smallest Things charity is running a powerful campaign encouraging firms to become an ‘Employer With Heart‘ and make positive changes for parents who live this turmoil.
I’ve spoken effusively on several occasions about my employer’s compassion during this tumultuous period of my life. Though I’d dreaded my return, the company and my managers bent over backwards to ensure it was as pain-free and seamless as possible.
I’ll run through some of the steps they took, which other dads in this situation may wish to discuss with their own employers, should the need arise.
Extended parental leave
The first two weeks of fatherhood were spent in Sheffield, a city 50 miles from home. As the days passed, the prospect of going back to work crept over the horizon. That was until I received a call telling me I’d been granted a further fortnight of compassionate leave, fully paid.
It may have been a small gesture for the company, but it meant so much to me and my family. I’d been trying to work out the logistics of commuting from the hospital every day and then back again, and this news instantly lifted that weight. By the time my extended leave had ended, the boys had been transferred back to our hometown.
I’d like to see more employers understand the severity of this situation and, where possible, offer additional leave to parents of NICU babies.
Back home… but home isn’t where I work. My company’s office is around 30 miles away (in the opposite direction to the hospital our sons were initially in). That means my working day starts and ends with a minimum 40 minute rush hour drive (often it’s longer – the route regularly throws up some lengthy roadworks or a congested Humber Bridge crossing).
I don’t mind the personal time per sé – it gives me chance to listen to music or podcasts. But when my sons were in hospital, this seemed like time wasted. Time away. Time that could be better spent bonding with my children.
Thankfully, despite not having a set work from home policy at that time, my superiors permitted me to work remotely for three days a week during the boys’ entire hospital stay.
The COVID-19 pandemic force many employers hands in entrusting their staff to work remotely; I’d like to see that extended beyond for parents who are far from home and have sick children.
Another thing my employer is good at is flexibility. We can work a range of shifts (provided core hours are covered), meaning early risers and night owls are catered for. Generally, I tend to favour the early option, as it gives me more time to get home and unwind.
Less so while the boys were in hospital – but still, I thought it best to get it out of the way as soon as possible. The thing is, though, that most of the updates, scans, tests, discussions and decisions are made and taken during traditional business hours.
So even though I was technically closer, I was still missing out. I wanted to be there for my sons, and for me – I needed to know what was going on. Luckily, I was afforded the luxury of even further flexibility, allowing me to pop to the hospital (a five-minute drive from home) when I needed to.
Again, if the working schedule allows, offering the flexibility of hours would be a fairly low-risk strategy for employers, but one that would greatly help parents in situations such as mine.
What support is available for working parents of NICU babies?
The answer, sadly, is: not much.
But things are finally moving in the right direction. In March 2020, after much campaigning from charities and awareness groups, the government announced plans for extended leave and pay for parents of neonatal babies.
Yet so far, nothing has come into force… and may not do so until 2023.
However, attitudes are changing, and some companies have already started to roll out additional paid leave and flexibility for employees who have babies requiring neonatal care.
We’re getting there, but we need to keep the pressure on the powers that be. Click to share this Tweet and show your support.