Having a baby in neonatal care can be an extremely different experience for mums and dads. Tina Batchelor tells Bliss how when her daughter Flo was born in June 2011, seven weeks early, she and husband Rich had very different experiences .
When Flo was born seven weeks early, weighing just 4lb, I was in a state of shock! I wasn’t ready to have my baby, and felt like the first 24 hours of her life were a blur. I woke up the day after Flo had been born and didn’t even know where NICU was or how to get to my little girl. Rich had spent most of the day she was born in there with her, but I was in recovery for most of that time, and then when I was on the ward I was hooked up to a catheter so couldn’t leave my bed. I remember a mum who had twins on NICU taking me to see my little girl for the first time (well, second, but the first time was a post-general anaesthetic haze) in the early hours of the morning the day after she was born.
Once the realisation dawned that we’d be spending several weeks in NICU, I felt very lonely. Rich had decided to save his paternity leave for when we came home from hospital, so he returned to work when Flo was four days old. Each day, I would generally arrive at the hospital by 9am and would be there until Rich arrived at 6pm, with often no-one aside from the (very busy) nurses to talk to. While family and friends visited when they could, they had work commitments, children to care for and their daily lives to live. It was very hard for them to understand the situation I was in, or what support I needed, and I didn’t know myself so struggled to verbalise what I needed help with. All I actually wanted was company – someone to talk to and a connection with the outside world.
I felt bamboozled by the terms the healthcare professionals were using to explain what was happening to Flo, and I seemed incapable of retaining key information which seemed critical when the doctors were talking to me. I remember several tearful phone calls to Rich during the day while he was at work, trying to relay developments or decisions which needed to be made, which can’t have been easy for him.
I was very involved in all of Flo’s care and very quickly I became quite institutionalised by the routine in NICU. My day had so much structure revolving around trying to breastfeed, cares and expressing at certain times of the day that I became very unreasonable when this routine was disrupted. For example, on the day my father in law drove me to the hospital, but arrived at our house later than planned, meaning we got stuck in rush hour traffic and I missed trying to give the first feed of the day. Even on the day we were taking Flo home, Rich got home from work later than expected, which meant we got to hospital after she was due to be given a feed, and I got irritable.
As with most new parents, I was terrified of bringing Flo home, but more so because I was so used to nurses being there to support me and Flo being hooked up to monitors that warned us if something was wrong (alarms were going off right up until the day we ‘roomed in’!). I’d grown used to the support network of the NICU and the constant presence of doctors and nurses, and was almost scared to leave.
When Flo was born I too was in a state of shock! We weren’t ready to have a baby yet, and had just that morning collected a nursing chair which was still in the back of the car when we arrived at the hospital. We hadn’t ordered a cot, or sorted the nursery out, and the car seat to bring baby home wasn’t in the car.
From the very moment Flo was born, I found that everything was geared towards mum and baby and therefore I felt quite excluded. Actually, even before that. When Tina called the hospital, she was told to head straight to the delivery suite while I parked the car, and by the time I arrived she was already being prepped for theatre. A minute later and she’d have been gone before I arrived. When Tina was rushed into theatre, I was left alone in a room waiting for someone to come back to get me and give me a gown – I thought I would be by Tina’s side during the operation, but that never happened. This was one of the aspects of the birth and of becoming a father that I wanted to happen most and I was devastated that it didn’t. Tina didn’t appreciate the impact of this until some time after Flo was born as she didn’t know what had happened.
There were other examples where I felt quite excluded: In the first few hours after Flo was born, Tina was recovering from a general anaesthetic, so I was the only parent with Flo in NICU. Yet, Tina’s name and ‘Baby Batchelor’ were written on the name label on the incubator, my name wasn’t; Flo needed a vitamin K injection but the nurse queried in front of me whether she could accept Dad’s permission over mums. Other critical decisions, such as whether surfactant could be administered to Flo’s lungs to help her breathe in the first few hours of her life, seemed to need mum’s permission when Tina wasn’t in the position to make them.
It soon became clear that Flo would be in NICU for some time, so I made the decision to return to work so that I could use my two weeks paternity leave when we brought Flo home from hospital. This meant that while Tina was at the hospital every day for four weeks, I wasn’t there to support her and spend time with my new baby, probably at the time when both needed me the most. I was doing a full day at work and then coming to the hospital in the evening (and Flo was often asleep so I couldn’t cuddle her). The small amount of time I spent with Flo in the first few weeks of her life made it hard for me to bond with her in the same way as Tina did.
As it turned out, we were both nervous about bringing Flo home but we didn’t tell each other how we were feeling. We were still dealing with everything in our own way, and I think this caused a huge amount of stress and upset in our first few weeks at home with Flo as neither of us could really understand (or appreciate) how the other person was feeling. Plus, we hadn’t had chance to do all the preparations that most expectant parents do before Flo arrived, so this added to the stress. We’d operated quite separately for the four weeks that Flo was in NICU, so when the time came when we had to care for our little girl together, without the support and structure of NICU – ironically the one place you think you can’t wait to leave – it was a total shock to the system.
Ultimately we both just wanted our little girl to be healthy and happy and wanted to be good parents. Now Flo is three, a typical ‘threenager’, a great big sister to Phoebe, and doing really well. We recently had the good news that a hole in the heart that she was born with has closed up, so the health complications she had from birth are no longer a concern