This is part two of a four-part series created especially for NICU dads, by NICU dads. Read part one: 10 Things New NICU Dads Need to Know and part three: Micro Preemie Dad Jonathan Hayhurst.
Meet Rad White: NICU dad of boy/girl twins born at 29 weeks and 6 days, author, Aussie and advocate for NICU dads worldwide. Rad started The NICU Beard Club to give other dads just like him the support they needed, but couldn’t find.
NICU dad support: regroup, refocus and reset
What type of support did you receive in the NICU or once you were discharged?
Our children were born in the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. It’s probably one of the most proactive hospitals in Australia when it comes to supporting dads in the NICU.
When my children were born in 2013, there was a dad’s group being run every third week. It was simply a time for dads to get together. To get us into the session, it was pitched to us as an opportunity to ask a medical professional anything about your child. But it was really all about the opportunity to speak with other dads.
At first, I thought it was just going to be some kind of “Make dad cry” attempt at therapy!
However, it was nothing like that and it was very helpful.
I’ve described this dad’s group in the past as like playing a football game: Where you’ve just completed your first half and you go in at halftime, to the dad’s group. In that space, you get to regroup. You get to refocus here, to reset. And then you head back out again for the second half. It was pretty powerful. At the time it seemed good, but in hindsight I can see how super helpful it actually was for us.
Now the group has grown from once every three weeks to once a week, ably led by the NICU consultants.
Few resources available for new NICU dads
What was your experience like as a dad in the NICU?
Well, it was like most dads’ experiences: pretty tough!
The Women’s Hospital did an amazing job in making sure that I was included in what was happening at the time of caesarean birth and to help me make some sense of what was happening. Especially when the children had just been born and were taken into the intensive care unit.
The biggest challenge in going into a NICU was that for some reason in the antenatal classes, premature birth is not spoken about. And this is the part that I really don’t understand. We had twins so our susceptibility of ending up with premature birth and in the intensive care unit was quite high. In fact we deliberately took an antenatal class focused on twins to help us better understand what we were likely to be heading into.
But even in the twins’ class, there was no mention of what to do if we had a premature birth or intensive care admittance.
The overwhelming feelings of helplessness were driven by not knowing about the environment that I was stepping into. I had no idea. There was some well-meaning written material for dads, but it generally constituted about 1% of all the material that was written for mums. There was nothing written by dads for dads.
I realized very quickly after a lot of Google searching that there was nothing available that was dedicated to supporting NICU dads by other NICU dads. All I had were the experiences of the others in the dads’ group. And family were great support, of course. But the NICU is so uniqueIy difficult to explain to people who don’t actually understand what it’s all about and the things you’ve seen.
How did you cope with the circumstances of your child being in the NICU?
I realized I was on my own and had to quickly learn what are the things that I could influence. And like most NICU dads, that meant cares and feeding, as well as my presence, just being with the kids. So while working a full time job, I began to visit the kids for two hours before work in the morning, and then I’d finish work and go and spend five or six hours in the NICU after work.
I’d inevitably try and get kangaroo care, but it didn’t always happen for whatever reason, but where I could get it, I did!
I also consistently read to them. Books, emails, newspaper articles, newsletters. Anything.
I focused on being there for them as many hours a day as I could, doing cares, feeding and reading. I also focused on the people who worked so tirelessly for us and the other parents in the NICU. I always said hello to the nurse on duty and asked how it was going. And I made sure that I was kept up-to-date as best as I could.
There are some things that I stopped doing which upon reflection I now say that it could’ve helped me manage the stresses of the intensive care unit. I’m talking about going to the gym or exercising. I didn’t want to get a message while I was busy doing squats or bicep curls that I’d lost one of my children. I felt like my spare time was their time, and I gladly gave up my hobbies and instead chose to be there for the kids.
But can see now how that approach can have the effect of setting a boat to drift.
To try and counter the lack of exercise, I made sure I parked on the lowest level of the car park. Then I’d walk all the way up to the third or fourth floor. I vowed not to take the lifts, but to take the stairs just to get some exercise.
What did you learn about this experience that you’d like to pass on to others?
Find other NICU dads and share your experiences with them. If you can’t find the support you need, when you need it, then try family or friends. Ask them to just listen.
For any NICU Staff reading this, sometimes you can ask, “How are you telling your friends about this?” and it will subjectively reveal the most important challenge for that Dad.
Announcing NICU Dad Discussions, an all new podcast created for NICU dads, by NICU dads! Listen today!
About Rad White
Rad White is the proud father of boy and girl twins born very premature at 29+6 weeks. He had children late in life at 44 and like most NICU dads was thoroughly underprepared for his NICU experience. But what he did experience changed him, and now he advocates for NICU dads everywhere. You can follow his work through The NICU Beard Club on Instagram (@NICUBeard) or on Facebook at the NICU Beard Club. Rad is also the author of Enter the NICU: When Men Enter the NICU and Play the Quarterback Game of Their Lives.