A good friend of mine just had a son. I will obviously not reveal too many details, out of respect to him and his family. All I will say is that his son had some early complications, and had to spend a few weeks in the NICU. He reached out to me because we went through similar things with our daughter, and I am happy that he did (I am even happier that his son will be coming home soon). Talking with him made me think about how badly I dealt with the NICU.
I talk about the time in the NICU in passing a lot, but I haven’t really written about it. Those who only know me from this site would probably be surprised that in person I am really bad about discussing feelings, or any real emotionally charged topic. I use writing as my main form of emotional expression, and a lot of this post is that. So I’m sorry if it doesn’t read very well, but it’s the best I could do with this topic. There is a point at the end though… I promise.
When my daughter was born, I didn’t know anyone who had been through the NICU. Combine that with the previously mentioned inability to talk about anything emotional, and I just buried the entire experience. Anytime I talked about my daughter’s stay in the NICU, or the fact that I could have lost her and my wife due to complications I would tell the story with the emotional impact of reading a grocery list. It probably took me a year before I really opened up about it at all, and even then it was in bits and pieces.
It wasn’t because I didn’t care. It was because it just hurt too much to even consider the terrible things that could have happened. If we had gone to the hospital even an hour later, we could have had a totally different outcome. If my wife wasn’t so in tune with her body, and wasn’t quickly aware of how wrong things were going, my life would be an empty shell of what it currently is. My first day in the hospital was doctors and nurses coming in my wife’s room and exclaiming how close we were to disaster. I know they thought they were being encouraging or positive, but those “What if’s?” and “Could have been’s…” kept me awake at night in the months following my daughter’s birth. There are still occasional times that they come back.I will sometimes sit with my daughter, or hold my wife and flashes of my world without them brings me to the brink of tears.
Furthermore, as I discussed in an article earlier this year, I had a sense of guilt about the entire thing. A sense that my story wasn’t important, because my daughter and wife both survived and are healthy. We only were in the NICU for several weeks, not months. The only thing we lost was our ability to have more children, and other couples lost so much more. With that etched in my mind, I didn’t feel like I had the right to burden other people with our story. So if people asked, I would give a brief overview, but never really dive into anything specific. This is appropriate with a lot of people, but I did it with everyone… close friends and family included.
Something tends to happen if you don’t elaborate when people ask you about things. They stop asking. Most people don’t want to make you talk about things you don’t want to talk about, and this is especially true of the people closest to you. I think talking about the NICU made me visibly upset, and nobody really wanted to do that. So people stopped asking, and I stopped talking about it at all. Finally, I went and got some therapy about the experience, and I think that helped a little. However, it took me a really long time to get to that point.
I told this story as a request to other dads, and dads-to-be. I don’t know what exactly would have helped me in those first few months. However, I am pretty sure having other dad’s to talk to with similar experience would have been good for me. Dad’s (and men in general) still have a lot of societal norms that dictate the topics we talk about, and when we talk about them. This is changing, but it is far from really changed.
Talk about the hard parts of being a parent. It might be the NICU, or another one of the million obstacles life can throw at you. As dads we need to be there for each other, and realize that parenting is great… but sometimes it’s really difficult. The idea of being helpless is terrifying, and if your child is sick or needs something you cannot provide, the level of helplessness you feel is excruciating. So don’t do what I did. There is probably another dad out there who has been though something similar, and many of them probably would like to help someone else where they can.
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