When our son was born at 22 weeks and 6 days of gestation, machines, drugs, and highly skilled medical professionals kept him alive, and we were spectators.
One memory I have of trying to feel useful is when my wife and I stood by our son’s incubator shortly after his birth, Miri asked the nurse, “What’s his blood type?”
“O-Positive,” the nurse said.
Miri looked at me and said, “Ha, ha, I win.”
I smiled. (I’m A-positive.) This was the first remotely humorous thing either of us had said in quite a while. This was not a time to be joking, but we still needed to joke to remain sane. And, Miri had just found out she had done something.
We learned to cherish these moments. Miri could provide milk, which was said to reduce chances of severe bowel problems, although that was obtained through a breastpump, an awful machine that made her wear plastic chest antlers and yanked on her uncomfortably eight times a day. The milk had to be provided through another tube to Gabriel.
I felt even more disconnected, but the NICU did teach me some Dad ways of helping that might be helpful if you’re in a similar situation:
1. If your child is a sexist bottlefeeder, you will become more important. Our son was a sexist, that is, he would drink less from the bottle when Miri was holding him than when I held him. He knew there was a better deal available (the breast) nearby with Miri, even though he was not that good of a breastfeeder. We were trying all manner of techniques to get him to feed himself with his mouth. In the end, we lost that battle and had to get a feeding tube put in for him, but it did give me a sense of urgency when I told people at work I had to leave at a specific time to get to the hospital to feed the baby.
2. If your preemie is a boy, you might be able to notice a few things that your wife and the nurses might miss. For example, one day, during a diaper change, I said to the nurse, “I think his scrotum’s larger than it should be.” She put it on a list of things to check, and it turned out he did have a hernia in his abdominal cavity that was causing his intestines to push down on other areas. This was not life-threatening, but it did turn out to be something that needed to be corrected with surgery.
3. You can be there to listen to the doctor when your wife is overloaded. Twelve hours after Gabriel was born, I was by the incubator with a family friend, showing her the new baby while Miri was in the pumping room. A new doctor came on shift and asked if I wanted to go get Miri before he gave me his “short summary.” I said I thought I could relay the info. His “short summary” was not short at all. It felt like he was reading me the whole Merck Manual of things our child could die of. We did end up liking this doctor pretty well, but we nicknamed him “Dr. TMI” for Too Much Information. I didn’t think Miri needed to hear all of that right then – we were already terrified enough. When I saw her, I just said, “Same stuff the first doctor said.”
4. Kangaroo care with Dad is a different experience for baby than it is with Mom. When placed on Mom’s chest, Gabriel squirmed around for quite a while before falling asleep as he tried to find the milk he knew was there (even though he couldn’t figure out what to do with it). With me, on the other hand, he would be relatively still, stealthily finding an individual chest hair to pull very, very slowly, causing sharp, tiny pain rather like being stabbed by a very, very thin pin. This would last for a short time, and then he would fall asleep.
5. Finding freezer space. Miri’s milk production quickly outpaced Gabriel’s consumption, thus we needed lots of freezer space. We overloaded our own chest deep freeze in about a month, and soon took over freezers belonging to two churches and our parents’ freezer. Thus, Dad can become the chief negotiator for said space, and then the one who comes and gets all the milk when one church is getting ready for its fall food festival and calls you up wanting the space back.
6. Talking with your wife about PTSD. That is, when her stomach does flips when a preemie birth is a plotline on the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy,” or your heart is beating in your neck when you drive past the hospital, you can reassure each other that it’s normal, and will hopefully go away before your child enters college. Maybe.