Traumatic Births Can Be Hard For Dads Too. We Need To Talk About It

Our sons’ premature birth and my wife's anguish sent my mental health spiralling. It’s vital dads like me share how we’re coping, writes Carl MacDonald.
Courtesy of the author
HuffPost UK
Courtesy of the author

It was all so sudden. We’d been asleep for about an hour when my wife went to the bathroom. I barely stirred as she got up, but when she dashed back into the bedroom, I knew something was wrong.

“I don’t want to alarm you, but I think my waters have broken.”

That was impossible, I told her – she was only 27 weeks pregnant after all. But something clearly wasn’t right. We phoned the hospital and were asked to get there as soon as possible.

We were rushed to a delivery room where an army of nurses, midwives and doctors buzzed around, reassuring us as our concern grew.

My wife’s early labour was confirmed, and the contractions quickly became so frequent that it was clear we were soon about to become parents, 13 weeks earlier than expected. Beads of sweat ran down my face as my apprehension grew, and my wife’s panicked expression told me that she was in a similar state of fear.

A few short hours later (though it felt like minutes), our world was turned upside down.

Our twin sons were born 50 minutes apart, each managing a gentle cry before being whisked away and hooked up to machines to support their breathing. Those few seconds were the only time I’d see their faces without tubes and wires for weeks.

“I didn’t sleep that first night. How could I, when I didn’t know if my sons would make it through?”

Later, I stood alone and looked at my sons in their incubators.

“You can touch them”, the midwife told me.

Could I? Of course I wanted to touch them, to scoop them up, tell them everything was going to be okay – but I didn’t know if it would. Their skin looked almost translucent, their tiny frames so fragile. I couldn’t take my eyes off them, but I didn’t feel joy or happiness.

I settled for placing my finger inside the incubator, and it filled their entire palms. There was barely a sign of life until both gently wrapped their fingers around mine – the first signal that they’d have the fight required to get through this.

There was scarcely time to process what had happened before the boys were transferred to a specialist hospital, my wife following in an ambulance and me in tow in the car, bags hastily packed.

Our sons received astonishing around-the-clock care, as machines beeped incessantly. The noises set me on edge, but the nurses reassured me every time.

I didn’t sleep that first night. How could I, when I didn’t know if my sons would make it through?

We were told by a consultant to prepare for “good days and bad days… sometimes in the same day.″ There was a long road ahead, he said, and told us the chances of our children making it were “around 80-90%”. Good odds, sure, but I didn’t like the 20% chance that they wouldn’t survive.

My wife’s complexion changed. I knew I had to be strong to help her through this, yet I was unable to console or comfort her. My loyalties and love were suddenly divided between three people, and I was gravitating towards our sons.

In the first few days, a brain scan showed that one of the boys had a bleed on the brain, which could hamper his development. My wife’s tears were instant, but again I was unable to assuage her devastation. I wanted to – more than anything in the world – hold her and tell her everything would be fine. It broke me seeing her anguish and not being able to summon the ability to soothe her.

Instead, I was frozen. Would he have a poor quality of life? Was he going to die? I left the room and cried uncontrollably.

Courtesy of the author
HuffPost UK
Courtesy of the author

Every day brought new torment; blood transfusions, infections, heart conditions. All while we yearned to just hold them. It was six days before we could have that first bonding experience, restricted to a chair surrounded by wires and tubes.

We struggled to come to terms with our ordeal. A counselling session helped us realise that things were affecting us, while nurses offered support and cajoled us in-between taking care of our babies.

Returning to work was a huge obstacle; I couldn’t bear to not be at my children’s sides. To soften the blow, my employer was understanding enough to offer additional compassionate leave on top of my paternity allowance.

Gradually, our sons progressed. They were transferred back to our hometown, and after nine weeks, we finally took them home. But things didn’t get much easier. The upheaval was replaced by the torture of sleepless nights and accompanying exhaustion.

I was struggling but I knew I had to be strong, so bottled my emotions up, allowing them to fester. People constantly told me how well I was doing, but inside I felt as though I was sinking. One day I suffered a panic attack at work, but nobody knew. I locked myself in a bathroom until I’d composed myself.

“Thousands of men will go through a similar situation; I want them to know that it is hard, and it’s completely normal to be affected.”

At home, my relationship with my wife was fraught. Conversation was almost non-existent, and we blamed one another. Wasn’t this supposed to be the happiest of times? The watershed came when our health visitor suggested we see a doctor. I was diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication.

With the passing of time, I’ve realised that it’s okay not to be okay. Becoming a dad is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, but also the hardest. And, although it’s sometimes felt like it, I’m not alone. I’m one of 200,000 parents to go through the trauma of having their babies admitted to a neonatal unit each year.

I witnessed firsthand how a traumatic birth can affect a mother. Thankfully, my wife is making positive steps each day, and our improving mental health has started to heal the fractures that had crept into our relationship.

And I now know how being thrust into sudden parenthood can affect a father. It’s made me realise that I can’t do everything alone. Thousands of men will go through a similar situation; I want them to know that it is hard, and it’s completely normal to be affected.

My sons’ fight and resilience is what drove me, and continues to do so.

The boys are now thriving and – so far – show little sign of being impacted by their prematurity. And I’m feeling happier and embracing the challenge of fatherhood. It’s still demanding, but it’s a challenge I won’t shirk.

Carl MacDonald is a writer and copywriter. Follow him on Twitter at @cmcopywriting

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