Being a father is full of highs and lows. No one who has ever been a parent will disagree. If they do they need to write a book for the rest of us to learn from or check themselves in for psychiatric evaluation. Eventually the highs outweigh the lows, but when you’re in the moment of a low it is the worst moment of your life. You know that moment you see in movies when the doctor looks up and says “congratulations it’s a boy”, then asks if you’d like to cut the cord before handing you this squirming, slimy alien looking thing to hold and love? Yeah, I never got that experience.
The moment started at three o’clock in the morning on a cool October day. My wife, who was 32 weeks pregnant rolled over to tell me she was in labor. Even at 3am, my mental clock told me there was way too much time left in the pregnancy for her to be in labor. “It’s Braxton Hicks, go back to sleep” I said. But ten minutes later when she said her water broke, I obliged to take her to the hospital. As we pulled up to the emergency entrance I still didn’t believe we were having a baby. The nurse in registration shared in my skepticism when we went through the information. Heck, we weren’t even far enough into the pregnancy that we had taken birthing classes yet.
The patient transporter took us up to a delivery room to get checked out. I helped my wife into a gown and into bed as an OB nurse came in to see what was going on. I guess a normal husband would have been timing contractions or something like that, but again I was in a mild state of denial. The nurse’s smile left immediately as she lifted my wife’s gown. “This baby’s coming, don’t move” she said as she quickly left the room. Next thing I know the room is flooded with people. Tech’s coming in and out with machines, nurses working with my wife telling her not to push, and everyone asking when the doctor would get there.
Meanwhile, I sat on the couch trying to stay out of the way and calmly filling out paperwork. Everything was happening so fast the thought never crossed my mind that something was wrong. “Honey, what’s your social security number?” “When was your last check up?” After all, giving birth is supposed to take hours so I had time. However, we didn’t have hours. The doctor barely made it. As he came in I don’t remember him saying anything to us. Someone said “push” and there was a newborn baby boy. Start to finish my wife’s labor was under an hour.
Within minutes I was following this thing that looked like a french fry warmer from McDonald’s through back hallways to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I stood, still contemplating what was happening as I watched them place my son inside of the incubator and start attaching things to him. Tubes and diodes connected to big, scary looking machines next to the bed came running out of and from our baby. The nurse began to sound like the adults from a Peanut’s cartoon. “Is he going to be okay? Can I go check on my wife?” was my response. In that moment I had to keep it all together and make sure everyone was okay.
With a healthy, normal delivery the mother and baby are typically discharged within 48 hours. During that time nurses teach the new mom how to hold the baby, breastfeed, and do general care. Afterwards mom and baby get rolled out to their cars by a volunteer, baby snug in mom’s arms, cart full of balloons and flowers. It’s a beautiful moment to watch those new families head off to start a new chapter in life. We didn’t get any of that either.
Despite the trauma, my wife was physically fine. So instead of spending our 48 hours learning how to keep our new creation alive, we sat and watched through glass and did nothing. We couldn’t hold him. We could barely touch him. And before we knew it we were being discharged to go home. No balloons, no flowers, no baby. He was staying for a while. My wife went to say goodbye as I rounded up her things. When she came back our roles had changed. I was sitting in the chair in the corner sobbing. All my bravery getting her through the past two days was gone. As the man of the house I was supposed to do two things: protect and provide. I had failed. I couldn’t protect either of them. I couldn’t take care of my own son. There was nothing I could do but watch, and now because hospitals aren’t hotels I had to do that from a distance. We would have to come during visiting hours like common people. Not as parents. What if he needed me? What if something happened while we were gone? All of it beat me down as I wept, my wife trying to hold back tears of her own as she comforted me.
For any couple who has lost a baby during childbirth or left them in the NICU as we did, you know there is no greater pain you will experience than leaving the hospital empty handed. You’re numb. You’d rather cut off your own limb than do that. As I write this I know there are people who have lost a child who will say “You can’t compare”. And my heart aches for you because you’re right. I’ve seen friends who have lost babies or who have had preemie’s and our hearts break every time. Because we know just how lucky we got.
They were the longest 17 days of our lives. Taking long lunch breaks from work to go to the hospital to visit our son in the NICU; praying he would get bigger, stronger, and healthier. But he came home. It took my wife over six years to even look at baby photo’s of him lying in the incubator where we stood those first 48 hours and wondered if he would be okay. Now, over ten years later, I’m amazed as I sit across from him at the diner table and tell him to chew with his mouth closed and asking how soccer camp went. In no way will I say I’ve been a perfect parent. Being a father is full of frustrations, complications, and heartbreaks. But would I trade any of them?
I know our lives with my son will be full of broken bones, break-ups with girlfriends, and who knows what else that may befall us. I also know that when you start off at a moment like that, where your fatherhood is at it’s lowest, that all the other events will be a welcomed challenge. I spent my father’s day enjoying time with both of my boys. Wondering where the time went and now worrying that it’s going by too fast. To all the fathers out there who have had their worst moments, embrace them and grow. They make us better men, better husbands, and better fathers. If you’ve experienced loss, I’m sorry. I would also encourage you to share you story. Help those of us learn from your pain and wisdom as well. And maybe together all of us can raise up good men together.