My experience of being a NICU Dad...
Amy was 30 weeks pregnant when she called me at work to say something wasn’t right and we needed to see our obstetrician. I remember explaining to our crane driver that I needed to leave the job, and he replied ‘well, if the baby comes early, it’ll be ok…you’ll get through it’. But I wasn’t expecting anything to come from this. Amy’s pregnancy so far had been an anxious one and I thought this would just be another small bump in the road.
Our obstetrician sent us to the Women’s & Children’s Hospital in Adelaide for further assessment, and after a scare with the baby’s heart rate (which included alarm bells, a rush of doctors, oxygen and IV lines), Amy was admitted for monitoring overnight. I went home to pack a bag for Amy, thinking that I should probably take the next day off work as I would need to pick her up and take her home. But just 30 minutes after I arrived back at the hospital that afternoon, Amy’s waters broke and she started having contractions. That night, despite the doctors and nurses best attempts to prevent it, I watched my wife experienced labour. I watched her experience the contractions and the pain, just like any other mother to be. But for me, it just didn’t feel real. Looking back, I can honestly say that even at this stage, I was still in a state of complete disbelief and I was utterly clueless as to what was happening. I had no idea about premature birth…it isn’t something they warn you about! I didn’t even realise it was possible that our baby could be delivered this early, and I certainly didn’t think it was possible that he could survive. I just didn’t believe our little boy was on his way.
The next day, things turned bad quickly. One minute we were told Amy wasn’t dilated and we had some time to breathe, and the next the room was full of people and I was shuffled to the back of the room. I was literally thrown a pair of scrubs and as I got changed, I remember looking in the mirror and telling myself to hold it together. I finally realised that this was it…it was happening. In that moment, I thought I was as scared as I’d ever be. But nothing was more terrifying than rushing alongside a handful of doctors and nurses as they wheeled my pregnant wife to theatre, and being told that I couldn’t be in the room. Nothing will compare to that agonising wait in the corridor…not knowing if my child would survive, not knowing if Amy would survive. I’ve never been more afraid.
Only 5-10 minutes passed before a humidicrib came out and I was told to follow. I think I asked the nurse at the time if everything was ok, but I don’t remember getting an answer. We went to NICU where I got my first look at my baby boy, so small and red and fragile. I told someone that his name was James William, and I watched as the doctors and nurses weighed him and measured him. Then they started to apply CPAP and insert IV lines, and all I remember thinking was that they seemed so rough with him. I couldn’t watch. This is when I realised I was losing it, I wasn’t coping. It was emotionally overwhelming and I had to leave. To this day, I wish I hadn’t left and I feel weak for doing so, but at the time it was all I could do to cope. The following couple of hours were a blur…I don’t even remember what I did in that time before Amy woke from her general anaesthetic. Amy’s Mum Robyn was around at this stage, but I don’t even remember what we talked about. I was numb.
Eventually a nurse came and told me that Amy was slowly waking up and I could be with her. All I wanted was for her to be able to meet our little boy. On the way to the postnatal ward, the nurses wheeled Amy’s bed through NICU so we could see James. I was so proud of us, I felt love right there and then. Amy was extremely groggy and struggling to stay awake, so we went up to the postnatal ward where she could rest and recover. It was then that I was told that I wouldn’t be able to stay that night. It went against every natural instinct to leave after everything that had happened. I went down to the NICU and saw James again, and I just stood there and stared. I vividly remember this moment. I could barely see him underneath all the machines and cords. I spoke to him in my head…it felt weird to talk to him out loud, it was so quiet in there. I still didn’t know much about his condition, but I felt sick with worry. And as I left my wife and our new baby at the hospital that night, I felt so alone and so helpless. I drove home in a zombie-like state and hopped straight into bed feeling emotionally exhausted, but I don’t think I slept more than a couple of hours that night.
From that moment on, the days were long and tiring. I had the following two weeks off work, and we spent each day by James’ side at the hospital from 9am until 6pm. We slowly started to form a routine and become accustomed to having a baby in NICU, but it never got easier. Every single time I heard the monitor alarm, my heart skipped a beat. I will never forget that noise. Eventually I had to return to work and this was also extremely hard. I enjoy my job but the thought of not being with James and Amy made me really resent having to work. It seemed pointless and a waste of time when every little piece of me wanted to be at the hospital with my family. These are just some of my worst memories from this time, but saying goodbye and leaving the hospital each night without our new baby was by far the hardest part of our NICU journey. I felt like I was leaving a piece of me behind.
The saving grace for me was the one hour cuddle I got with James each day. Despite my apprehension that the humidicrib was the safest place for him and that I might hurt him, there was nothing better than being able to get him out. In those moments, no matter how brief, I felt like everything would be ok. My first cuddle was particularly special. I remember looking down at James with tears in my eyes and thinking he was so small and so light, but so beautiful. His first bath was also especially memorable and this was something I continued to look forward to – a routine task that parents perform everyday really helped to normalise our situation. And then the day finally came when we were able to walk out of those hospital doors with Jimmy and take him home. It was the biggest highlight of all. I was so proud of him and I was so proud of us, and I finally felt like a Dad.
Being a NICU Dad is unnatural. All you want to do is hug and kiss your baby whenever you wish, but you can’t. All of those fatherly instincts are thrown out the door and you are forced to do things that go against your very nature. It is constant worry about the health of your baby and anxiety over every single monitor alarm. This is something that I wish no parent ever had to experience. It is physically exhausting and emotionally draining, but you still struggle to sleep. The whole time you’re awake you are thinking about the what if’s and the unknown. It’s not something you can ever switch off from. But somewhere amongst all of this, you learn to cherish the small things – those quick cuddles, his finger wrapped around yours, when he briefly opens his eyes. You learn to make the most of every single moment – when he learns new things, when he gains weight and reaches different milestones. Being a NICU Dad is hard, but it doesn’t last forever, and you are not alone.