At 9:15pm on Thursday October 4th our second daughter was born. She is a little bit early, so she is still in NICU as she recovers from a slightly underdeveloped lung. My wife and I are trying to give her as much skin-on-skin contact as possible, and since we also have a 3-year old at home, we’ve been a bit like ships in the night as we take turns being with each of our daughters.
The NICU experience has placed us in a very strange bubble. We want to do more for our daughter, but all we can do is hold her as much as possible as she sleeps. This results in lots of thinking time. So here, in no particular order, are some of my observations about this experience, mostly written on my iPhone with my daughter sleeping peacefully on my chest.
- I expected the NICU to be a chaotic place full of crying babies and stressed out nurses running around like crazy people. What I found instead is a remarkably and strangely peaceful environment. And it’s all because of the nurses, who carry out their duties with the calm confidence that only comes from years of experience dealing with premature babies and anxious parents.
- Speaking of NICU nurses… Whatever they are getting paid, it’s not enough. I’ve spent many hours in the unit just watching them, and I’ve never seen anyone panic. I am impressed, and grateful for their care and support — not just for our newborn, but for us as well. They are never impatient with my incessant questioning about every little detail of our baby’s progress.
- The lack of paternity leave legislation in South Africa is a disgrace. In fact, there is no such thing as paternity leave. The closest you get is an entitlement to take three days (!!!) of paid “Family Responsibility Leave” when your baby is born. Nothing beyond that, and no help from the government. My employer is being extremely gracious about giving me the time I need to be with my family, but this is still a stress I don’t need right now. Especially since I know how it could be — our first daughter was born in California, where you get 12 weeks paternity leave, and most of your salary is covered jointly between the state and the federal governments. The fact that we don’t have something like that in South Africa sends a horrible message about a father’s responsibility and role in raising a family. And it manifests in things like “Moms & Tots” parking at malls, where dads aren’t even acknowledged. As you can probably tell, I am ridiculously frustrated about this, not just for my sake, but for all dads who have to stress about work when they should be given the time to be with their families for an extended bonding period.
- We have not figured out how to deal with hardship on social networks. As I said in a discussion about it on Google+, I’m happy to post links, jokes, and sunset photos far and wide. But now that I need the community to support us, I’m a lot more hesitant. I traced the root cause of my reluctance to share more openly what’s going on in our lives to the fact that I don’t want to be a downer on people’s timelines. See, if the language of social networks is likes and hearts, doesn’t that guide us to only share the good and ignore the bad? Where is the room to say “Hey, I need help right now” when the nomenclature to respond to that doesn’t exist?
- Related to that last point, I’ve lost my appetite for Twitter, Facebook, and the endless stream of news that keeps coming in. Like when you suddenly realise you’ve been eating avocado all these years but you don’t actually like it. The dichotomy of watching life scroll by on social media while a new human being is trying so hard to get hers started properly is just too much to deal with. I hope my appetite comes back. Because I like you.
- Don’t underestimate the power of shaving and happy socks when you’re having a rough day.
We are confident that our daughter will be home with us within the next few days. But we are part of thousands of families who have to deal with this kind of situation every day — a birth experience that is so completely out of your frame of reference that your mind and body have trouble catching up to reality.
The sun is shining outside and I know things are going to be ok for us. But I’ve also seen unspeakable tragedy during my time at NICU, and I’m writing this to ask that you support those around you when you suspect that they might be struggling. Because chances are that they’re not going to post about it on Facebook.