An Open Letter to NICU Dads - Carl's story

For Father's Day, Carl shares his advice and thoughts to other dads who have a neonatal experience.

Dear fellow neonatal dad,

This isn’t the start to fatherhood you expected. It’s not the start you hoped for or perhaps even knew was possible. They don’t advertise it like this, do they? You don’t see it in the movies or your favourite box sets.

I lived this experience once. My twins were born at 27 weeks gestation when I knew nothing about neonatal units or prematurity. The birth started a nine-and-a-half week journey across two hospitals; an experience that tested every fibre of my inner strength. I want to tell you that this is like no other experience in life and that all of your feelings, confusion and emotions are rational, even if they manifest themselves in irrational ways. I also want you to know that, as hard as it may be, there are things you can do to help yourself and your family through it.

You won’t always feel in control during your baby’s stay in the NICU. Like me, you might not deal well with this. You might feel you have to be strong for your family, your partner. But the sad truth is that it’s impossible to be totally in control in this situation. Be kind to yourself.

Seeing your baby wired up to machines, housed in an incubator and covered in tubes is as traumatic a thing as you can witness. It’s unsettlingly hard and can feel alienating. You might think: "how can I bond with my child in these circumstances?" I thought that, too. As tough as it is, I implore you to do what you can to build a relationship. Read stories to your baby, sing them a song, hold their hand through the portholes. Take part in the care routine (changing a nappy side-on with wires in the way is a skill you never thought you’d need), learn how to tube feed. And take part in skin-to-skin contact. Your bond with the baby is just as important as your partner’s.

The whole journey is an exhausting one - physically, of course - but more notably, emotionally. It’s draining to live this life every day. It’s heartbreaking having to go home each night without your baby. You might feel turmoil if you have to go back to work. You might receive bad news during your baby’s stay - I learned my son had a severe brain bleed when he was two days old, a revelation that tore me apart and soured my early days of being a dad. A neonatal stay adds unwanted ingredients to a volatile shaker to produce the most potent cocktail of emotions.

My advice is this: Don’t be afraid to seek (and accept) help. There’s no weakness in needing someone to talk to or a shoulder to cry on. This is the most testing of times, and your emotions will fluctuate wildly. It’s not your fault, and it’s not unexpected. There are going to be tough days - probably many of them. Some tougher than others. It’s not a normal experience, but it’s normal for the situation you’re in.

Speak to friends and family if you can; talk to your partner. Confide in the nurses and doctors if you’re struggling. Access counselling or reach out to charities like Bliss if you think you can't cope. I found the information on the Bliss website really helpful. Ask your employer for support or additional leave if you feel work is beyond you right now. I believe all of these things helped me get through those nine weeks, and I believe they can help you, too.

You might feel wounded right now; that’s totally normal. But like all wounds, this can heal with time. You’ll always have the scars to remember the neonatal journey, but I hope one day that you can come through the other side and look back like I can now.

It might not always seem like it in the next few days, weeks and months. But there can be a brighter future ahead for you and your family.

With warmest wishes,

Carl

Read Carl's blog about lessons learned in the neonatal unit and beyond.