The Unique Trauma of the NICU Dad

“Is he okay?” You ask, as you hear only a faint cry.

You expect a yes or no answer.

“This happens. Actually quite often,” a doctor assures you, as he puts a mask on your tiny human. This mask is continuous positive airway pressure, also known as CPAP.

“He’s so tiny,” you hear someone say nearby. You’re unsure if you’re going to faint or cry. You have no time to think. On one side you’re watching your baby boy fight for air, and on the other side, you’re comforting your confused spouse. Your mind will never quite leave that brief moment in time, even months later.

For about fifteen seconds, the doctor pulls off the mask to allow the baby boy to greet his mother.

Before any emotion sets in, he is whisked away to another part of the hospital: the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, better known as the NICU.

Then you wait. And wait some more. And then you wait for a little bit longer. You and your partner attempt to process, hypothesize, and mostly just worry.

A door opens, and that same doctor who spoke with obscurity earlier walks in, only to provide you with more confusion. He gives you his brief, bleak outlook, all of which he will walk back later in the day.

You and your wife are moved to another room, where your wife will stay for a few days to recover. 

Up on another floor, your child is alone, being hooked up to heart rate monitors, IV fluids, a feeding tube, and CPAP. No mommy or daddy. Just people in scrubs.

That doctor comes back again, this time to tell you that you’re welcome to follow him up to the NICU to see the baby. You’re told that he’s okay and improving, and you momentarily exhale.

The doors to the NICU open. It’s quiet. Very quiet. Eerily quiet. You hear nothing but the sounds of machines and the soft whispers of the many nurses and doctors.

You walk past other families. You never forget the other families you see, because they stare at you with a resentment that you won’t understand until you’re weeks into your own NICU stay. You’re just a fresh face unweathered by the stress and anxiety that comes with your new surroundings.

You finally get to your baby’s station. It’s a small bed with wires, monitors, lamps, tubes. And a baby. A tiny, confused baby.

You exchange glances with your kid, as to assure him that you’re here and it’s all going to be okay. But in reality, you’re not quite sure.

You can’t share this moment with your wife, because she’s on another floor, not quite physically or emotionally ready to go upstairs. 

You take a few pictures. You hold him for a few minutes. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying.

You meet some nurses. Most NICU nurses seem to be from another planet; a planet free from judgement and uncertainty. Only kindness exists on their planet.

Your baby has only been earthbound for a few hours. Reality begins to set in a bit, but only for you.

As the dust begins to settle, you make a few phone calls. You call your immediate family and fill them in on the situation.

No matter what you say, they cannot comprehend your sadness. They will attempt to lecture you about how this is a moment to cherish and rejoice, when all you want to do is cry.

They will never understand, and you’ll have to live with that fact. What they fail to realize is that you – and your spouse especially – were robbed of a joyful moment. 

And you’ll continue to be robbed, over and over again. Like thousands of tiny little paper cuts, each and every day until you bring baby home.

“Can I feed my baby?” Nope, he’s not strong enough yet.

“Can I hold him?” Sure, not without all these wires, though.

“When is he coming home?” We don’t know. Hopefully soon.

Occasionally, a beam of light would settle in on your son’s face. A sign that things will get better. “Baby steps,” you tell yourself. But it’s hard to remember that most days.

The one bright spot is that you’re being told that things are improving. This is not the case for every baby. 

You’ll eventually ask about the silence. Your nurse will tell you that most babies here are too sick to cry. If a baby is crying, that means it is probably close to going home.

You haven’t heard your baby cry. You cry for him. The sun begins to set.

The doctors and nurses change shifts. You sit around, anxiously trying to eavesdrop on their exchanges.

Outside the confines of the hospital, life continues on as usual. A group text informs you that you’ll have the number one pick in your fantasy football draft, an activity you figured you’d be doing with your newborn by your side.

Back downstairs, your spouse recovers from a long, eventful, and traumatic day. You spend some time talking, and attempt to map out the next steps in a long, grueling process that is just beginning to unfold.

You go home for the night, as you have a dog at home that needs feeding. The dog is your only companion for the night.

You’re alone, your wife is alone, and your baby is alone. All in different places.

This isn’t what you and your partner planned.

Part II – Alone Together

Waking up the next day is like waking up from a bad dream, only to find you’re still in the nightmare. It’s an unspeakable emptiness. You walk past an empty nursery you expected to be occupied.

You drive over to the hospital. You ask when he can come home, so your nightmare can end.

“He needs to meet certain milestones,” the doctors and nurses will tell you. You’ll hear these words a lot in the coming days.

He’ll need to breathe on his own without help. He’ll need to maintain a normal body temperature. And lastly, he’ll need to be able to bottle feed.

For the average newborn, these things just happen. For a NICU baby, these are the hurdles they must clear to escape their tiny, vapid enclosure.

Dads – especially NICU dads – are often problem solvers. This is usually your strength, you tell yourself. But nothing in the NICU is in your control. You must cede all control to your little one. What little control remains is in the hands of medical professionals, all of whom remain remarkably calm, cool, and collected.

You’re constantly told to take it easy. You’re told to take some time for yourself, because once your baby gets home, that won’t happen.

Separating yourself from your own child feels strange, but it is good advice. You’ll try to spin his time in the NICU as an opportunity to slowly ease into parenting.

But doing so doesn’t come without a sense of grief. You look around at your peers on the unit and realize some aren’t going to be as lucky. Some NICU stays are quick, some are not. Most end with your baby coming along, but others end differently.

Just like day one, the following days are mostly filled with waiting. Waiting for test results, waiting for doctor’s rounds, waiting for the words “everything is normal.” 

Luckily, you hear these three words quite often. Others around you aren’t so lucky, so you try to keep your emotions to yourself.

At this point in the process, your spouse is joining you. Whether coming up from the hospital room at first, or driving along from home.

You get used to a daily routine of visiting the child you made together, staring longingly from a little incubator to keep his temperature stable.

You learn more about your wife in the time you spend in the NICU with her than you ever learned in the years leading up to this point. You knew she was strong, and you’re seeing her strength and resilience in action. You spend countless hours with the baby every day.

You want to spend every hour with him, but this is counterproductive. The problem-solver dad mentality is of no use here. You must let the nurses do their job – a job they do well.

Instead, you spend time with your spouse. Together, but alone, in processing different variations of trauma, juggling the new priorities thrown into your lives. You’ll never feel so alone together.

The sun sets on another day as a NICU parent. 

You wake up yet again to an empty crib, toys unused, books unread, and diapers unsoiled.

You take a deep breath, and do it all over again the next day. And then the next day. Days turn into weeks.

“Baby steps,” you tell yourself again. You roll your eyes, then scream.

Part III – Exit Strategy

You eventually reach a breaking point. You see your baby boy’s improvement daily, but it doesn’t fully match the criteria needed for a smooth discharge. 

You’re moved to a transitional area of the NICU, meant for families with babies near their discharge. Instead, you spend three weeks there. You see the door, but you can’t walk through it with your baby.

Your baby is easily maintaining his temperature and breathing normally. He is mostly eating well.

You’re told your baby must be taking 90% of his feeds from the bottle for his feeding tube to be removed and his discharge to be put in motion.

On top of all this, your doctors and nurses rotate almost daily. Some practitioners are slow and methodical, others are more practical and realistic. You get annoyed by some of them. 

One nurse will say “I can’t remove this tube until Tuesday.” The next nurse will say “alright, let’s take this thing out and see how it goes.” 

Your head spins. “Baby steps,” you tell yourself. Meanwhile, it’s three weeks into this thing, and you’re spent.

You’re no longer easygoing. You begin asking more questions. You complain to the NICU social worker. You complain to your nurses. You begin to become the person you didn’t want to become. You’re fed up. Your spouse is fed up. You want out.

The social worker arranges a meeting with the doctor. Not the one from your kid’s birth, but another one. One who looks only at numbers and not details and nuances. 89.8% is just not 90%, and that’s that.

You continue to spiral further into anger, resentment, and anxiety. You remember the faces of the other NICU families from your first day, and it all makes sense.

You kiss your kid goodnight, get to your car, and scream into the steering wheel before driving home.

There are no timelines in the NICU. You are asked about timelines from everybody. Your friends and family, although well-intentioned, will continuously ask “when is he coming home?”

When you tell them you don’t know, you truly do not know. You ask your doctors and nurses. They will gleefully respond by telling you that your baby will let you know.

You begin to tell the nurses that your baby whispered “take me home,” in his sleep, and to please print out the discharge forms.

Meanwhile, they’ve heard it all before. But eventually the light at the end of the tunnel draws closer, and the train stops at your station to let you on board.

Part IV – The Road Ahead

In a brief moment of naïveté, you think that the show is over once you leave the theatre. But alas, the show has just begun.

However long your NICU stay, there is an indelible mark left on your psyche. Whatever keeps your baby there is the one thing that never leaves once you’re home. 

Your baby’s feeds become a focal point of your daily routine. You constantly criticize yourself. You constantly ask yourself if he is eating enough. You wonder if he’s hungry.

There is also a lingering feeling that there is somebody looking over your shoulder and watching you take care of your baby. It is almost like you’ve never left the NICU and you’re stuck there forever. Even at home.

You call a therapist. You find a psychiatrist. You get help for yourself.

Eventually, you carve out some time for self-care. It comes in short bursts, but you take what you can get.

Your child grows and thrives, but not without a little help. The NICU refers you to a follow-up clinic and an evaluation for early intervention.

Naturally, you provide your child with all the help that’s offered, even if it might not be completely needed.

Time continues to march forward, and you watch your child get stronger. You wait for those milestones, just like you did in the NICU. They come, albeit slowly, steadily, and incrementally.

You avoid too much downtime, because you continue struggling to wrap your head around the trauma you and your family endured together in the months prior. 

Like any parent, you start to compare your kid to others. 

But over time, you learn to stop yourself. Your kid is your kid. That’s it. They are who they are. There’s no right or wrong track.

You’ll eventually embrace the moment. The road ahead won’t seem as bumpy, and you’ll look through the rear view mirror and smile. And your baby will smile back. All will be right.


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