The most difficult job of a NICU parent is that of the mother. While others sleep, she lies awake. While others hug their children, she stares at hers through a plastic box. While others relax, she anxiously awaits the inevitable darkness. For months, she was the closest thing her baby felt to a home. And then, it was all taken away. Mothers in the NICU are heroes without a cape, warriors without a sword. Along with my son, my wife is my hero. But just like any hero, they need someone to pick them up when the task at hand is insurmountable for one person. Enter the NICU dad.
Historically, the father leads his family. He is the craftsman, the fixer, the protector. He ensures that no one even gets close to hurting his family. The twenty-first century dictates the father to be tough as nails with an exterior shell of faux male bravado. The twenty-first century dad doesn’t show emotion, for emotion can be seen as weakness. He says very little, but meticulously ponders more than you’ll ever know. He is tough. He is rough. He is dad.
I was ill-equipped to challenge this perception until I took my first step into the NICU, which is still my second home to this day. The man that walked in that day wasn’t the same one that walked out.
When you’re taught your whole life that being a man means guarding your emotions, the moment you’re presented with a situation of emotional instability you simply don’t know how to handle it. The day my son was born, I wanted to be the happiest I had ever been. When I got that phone call at 25 weeks, saying “You need to get here now. We’re having this baby”, happiness was far from me. How could I be happy when I was absolutely petrified of what was going to happen?
For me, uncertainty manifests itself into anger. I drove 100+ MPH to get to that hospital because I was angry and able to control that particular part of my life at that given time. When I walked into that hospital room and saw my wife’s face, I was angry. I wasn't angry at her, nor anyone else. I was angry that I let this happen, for letting anyone and everyone who counted on me down, including my wife and unborn son. Maybe this perception was selfish, but it's how I felt at the time. My wife was a rockstar at being pregnant and I couldn't fix the one situation where she needed help. I was uncertain of what would happen, so shaking my fists was how I coped. No matter how angry I was, though, I had a job to do. I had to see this through.
I wish I could tell you that being a dad in the NICU isn’t as bad as they say it is…that it’s really just showing up, being present, and then going home. It’s not. It’s mental terrorism on a good day. The prospect of waking up every single day physically makes you ill because you have no idea if, when you lay your head down to go to sleep, your baby will still be on this earth. It’s hard. I know it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I hope it’s the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do. But being dad is only half the job.
Enter the NICU husband. Dads aren’t the only one going through the mud and the muck. Your wife just carried her child for roughly 6 months or more and now she has to face the reality that her pregnancy is over. Women wait their whole lives to get married. Most men hadn’t given it a thought until they were in their twenties. Women think about marriage and having children as little girls. To visualize a single event in your head for your entire life, only for it to arrive and go the opposite of what you had envisioned, is purely, barbarically, awful.
As a NICU husband, the societal expectation is that you are able to protect the unprotectable. Perhaps that isn’t ever said out loud, but it’s the lingering stigma that exists. Men are supposed to be able to protect or fix. So, when they can’t do either, it’s chaotic. Some people base their self-worth on their ability to make their partner happy and protect them. How can that be achievable in a situation like the NICU? There’s no way a NICU husband can protect his wife’s emotions because he simply doesn’t know how to. He’s too busy trying to navigate his own emotions, all while worrying about what’s going to happen to his baby. There is no textbook, no self-help exposé on life in the NICU. You don't even necessarily figure it out. You show up, put all of your strength into prayer, and when you're lucky enough to leave, you walk out with your head held high. Because you were one of the lucky ones.
Enter depression. All this unnecessary expectation creates misguided responsibility. What does this mean? It means, because dads are expected to be the protector, they place it on their own shoulders to figure out a way to protect. It’s an impossible task, really. Any NICU parent will tell you that the only person (other than medical staff) who can dictate a successful outcome is the tiny youngster in the isolette. So, how does this misguided responsibility manifest itself? Depression.
Personally, I hate being in hospitals. I know no one necessarily enjoys spending time in a hospital, but I can’t stand them. They cause my anxiety to get empire state high. So, when I was told the words, “You’re going to be here for a while”, over and over and over and over again, I panicked. I didn’t know what to do, who to consult, or how to act. All I knew was my son was in there and I had to figure out a way to get him out. Only, I couldn’t get him out. I thought, “Well maybe I can help my wife then”, but this was also impossible. So, what could I do? Nothing. This reality was one of the most difficult things to come to terms with. I still don't know that I have come to terms with it.
A loss of control is one of the hardest things people have to deal with. When you’re faced with the prospect of losing it, you panic because it’s all you’ve ever known. We associate our control over situations with being successful. Lack of control is failure. The moment you check in at the front desk of the NICU, you relinquish every bit of control you thought you had. It's depressing.
Depression is wily and it can figure out a way to control you, if you let it. It can affect our mood and our thought patterns. It’s important to remember, though, that we aren’t our thoughts. My son was the most beautiful thing I ever laid eyes on when he was born. I knew that he would be a pivotal turning point in my life and that I needed to figure out a way to keep him here and be his dad. THAT was my job. A couple of months ago, when I almost lost him, I lost myself and lost my way. I forgot how to be happy. I got depressed and was in a very dark place. I knew, though, that every kind of adversity faced is there to teach us something. Our perception is that we need to figure out what we're supposed to learn as soon as possible, but the reality is that this kind of lesson takes time. It takes rewiring the brain to think differently and reroute depression into something that can be used for good. My son's strength and resilience taught me that life is always worth living and that we are only allowed to give up when there is nothing left to give. There's always something to give.
I want to be wholly and realistically raw with the way I feel about prematurity and the NICU. Neonatology is the blessing I didn't know I needed. My son would not be here if it weren't for the judgment, love, and grace of the doctors and nurses who take care of him. Viability for a fetus used to be bleak at 24 weeks gestation. Now, it's a very realistic and achievable goal for this same fetus to live a normal life. Having said that, for whatever reason that none of us know, many of these babies don't make it. It's very sad, but it's the truth. For every NICU success story, there are exponentially more who don't make it. Pray for those families.
That's why it's so important to communicate to your families, to your peers, to strangers, that there are children out there who are fighting every single day and need support. Their parents need our support too, even if they aren't asking for it. Any person who has ever walked into a NICU will walk out a totally different person in the end and that's okay. Chances are, NICU parents won't want to talk about their situation. When you are in the thick of depression and the inescapable reality of having a sick child, you don't want to communicate to others about it because you don't have any energy left. All your energy goes into being there for your child. It may be difficult figuring out how to help NICU parents as a friend, but ultimately being there for them when they need it will speak volumes to them when it's all over.
Lastly, if you are a NICU parent, know that there are resources out there to help you. Talk to someone about your emotions, whether it be your spouse, a social worker, or a counselor. Don't let anger manifest itself into depression. Don't let depression become your only reality. It's important to understand that depression is an illness and, like any illness, it needs to be treated. Don't think of depression as something you have to fight on your own. Asking for help doesn't make you weak. It makes you human. Know that while your baby is fighting and you are fighting for your baby, there are people out there fighting for you. Know that you are loved, you are important, and you are doing an amazing job.