Marriage Counseling and the NICU

October 21, 2013

It’s no surprise that having a baby in the NICU can put an incredible strain on a relationship. My husband and I were not strangers to marriage difficulties, having been together for 15 years prior to the extremely premature birth of our daughter. We had weathered many storms, but nothing could have prepared us for the heartbreak and worry that commenced when I was put on hospital bed rest during my 20th week of pregnancy.

During my weeks on bed rest, we were a united force. While we understood the bleakness of our situation, we chose to remain positive. We spent our evenings creating a baby registry, discussing names, and developing plans for what we hoped would be a long hospital stay. We had similar feelings and reactions and we saw eye to eye on almost everything. In the dark moments, the ones where we discussed viability and delivery room resuscitation efforts, we prayed together. Our faith in God carried us through those agonizing conversations that seemed so surreal. As a couple, we were solid and felt totally prepared.

And then it happened. I gave birth at 23 weeks and 3 days. We could no longer live in our world of denial, where we believed we would beat the odds and stay pregnant far longer than any doctor had predicted. Reality struck us hard when we first laid eyes on our precious daughter, her translucent skin and bony ribcage a stark reminder of her precarious gestational age. While we held hands and I silently wept over her isolette, I noticed my husband was dry eyed. I wondered how it was possible for him to not cry. And how could he seem so optimistic about our situation? In the week after her birth I was equally awed and irritated by the emotional strength my husband exhibited. While I struggled to even look at our daughter, my husband was all hands on, even performing the first diaper change!

It became increasingly obvious to me that things had shifted in our relationship. And even though we didn’t argue, tensions were growing as we both relied on different coping skills. I was struggling with the lack of sleep, hormonal fluctuations, and crazy pumping schedule. Our situation was creating a recipe for disaster and we knew we couldn’t afford to let our relationship get in the way of our main focus, our daughter. So, after a visit from our hospital social worker, my husband and I agreed it would be a good idea to call our marriage counselor (who we had seen years ago), before things got any worse.

family picture of kangaroo care

A happy marriage leads to a happy family in the NICU.

It is nothing short of amazing that our marriage counselor, unbeknownst to us, was a veteran NICU parent. As soon as he shared that information with us, I knew we belonged in his office. If anything, he offered us encouragement, something we desperately needed. More importantly, he knew what it was like to be a parent in the NICU. He assured us that seeking outside help was not a reflection of our inability to handle the situation, but rather a way for us to build up our emotional strength. Our appointments were an opportunity for us to share our experience with a neutral person who could help us gain the perspective we needed to be accepting of each other’s unique needs on this crazy journey.

The trauma of our NICU stay did not go away once we brought our baby home. In fact, things were a little rocky for a while as both my husband and I had breathing room to process the events of the last four months of our lives. Plus, new worries and anxieties popped up as we learned how to parent without doctors and nurses at our fingertips. Thankfully, we continued meeting with our counselor for several months after discharge. Working through our emotions together with our counselor significantly decreased our stress levels and helped with our transition home.

Our daughter just celebrated her 3 year homecoming anniversary. My husband and I continue to heal and grow. While our experience challenged our relationship, it definitely brought us together, and made us more resilient as parents. I am so relieved we sought help when we did. I never hesitate to share our experience with other NICU parents. My hope is that they might see how beneficial counseling can be, even if they don’t feel like they need help.