Parenting in the NICU is intense. While we often focus on the experience of the birthing parent as postpartum doulas, the experience of the partner can be just as much of a roller coaster. Although they didn’t go through the birth process, dads, partners, and other parents are still navigating an unexpected after birth experience, made more difficult with medical concerns, logistical complexities, and lots and lots of big emotions. Plus, they’re doing all this while trying to support their partner and care for themselves.
We connected with Brendan Hilliard, dad and Preemie Parent Mentor with Graham’s Foundation (an organization that guides and supports parents of premature infants) to get his take on life as a NICU dad, supporting partners through postpartum, and what entire communities can do to support NICU families.
Major Care: As a NICU parent yourself, what advice for you have for partners/dads on navigating the NICU experience as a whole?
Brendan: It’s very important to be an advocate for your baby and your partner. Doctors and nurses will be throwing a lot of terms and phrases at you and making plenty of suggestions. Ask questions and keep asking them, especially when you do not understand something. If you have to ask them again to confirm your understanding, do it!
In my case, as a dad with a premature baby you’re not only worried about the health of your baby, but also that of your spouse who may be ill or on a longer road to recovery. You’re also the conduit for providing updates to family and friends, managing their concerns while also trying to be strong for your spouse and keeping yourself upright.
Of course, one more important thing: Celebrate every win.
What advice do you have for dads/partners on how to support a partner through a difficult experience like this, especially right after giving birth?
Our situation was unique because our son was born in June 2020 at the height of the pandemic. In the few days my wife spent in the hospital battling preeclampsia, the hospital’s shifting policies complicated my ability to be with her. One set of rules said I could be with her in Labor and Delivery, but could not in Mother and Baby while she was not in active labor—but once she had the baby I could be in both. The scenario was mind-bending and even hard to explain now.
We lived 40 miles away from the hospital where he was born—our local NICU could not support babies born at his gestational age. She was rushed in an ambulance to a hospital in Chicago. This necessitated an 80-mile drive in and out of Chicago on a daily basis. At the height of COVID, only one parent was allowed in the NICU at a time. This meant that my wife and I spent virtually no time together with our son in the NICU outside of the initial hospital stay, prior to him coming home. Over his 75 day stay, cumulatively, we saw him together 3 times.
My advice: Keep asking questions to medical staff. Try to keep the situation as upbeat as you can for your partner. Do things for them that provide them comfort in normal times or maybe might elicit a positive reaction – like having a favorite food brought to them or to watch a comforting show or movie. As far as logistics or fielding people asking questions – appoint one friend or family member point person – text them exactly what you want said and then have them share that information with all the people you want to provide updates to.
How can partners/dads care for themselves during/after a difficult birth and NICU stay? How about if/when babies come home from the hospital?
I really tried leaning in to try to establish a routine. For me, it was still going to get my daily coffee. It was the one thing during the day I could rely on to be consistent and could count on to be the same every day. It didn’t matter where I was, I had to do that one thing. Whether it was a local place or someplace in the city, I had to have it. I am a big music fan so I listened to new music or my old favorites. I listened to podcasts while my wife was in the NICU with our son on our drives down and I had to wait in the parking garage because of COVID regulations. When the baby came home, I tried to carve out time to read books, to catch up on a TV show or listen to some music when he napped just to get a sense of grounding or normalcy.
Parents’ mental and emotional health can fall by the wayside when they have a premature baby. How do you think our culture/society can do a better job of supporting the mental health of parents who have these experiences?
I feel that our society is doing a better job than ever before in leaning into mental health and wellness in general, but there’s still a long way to go. That definitely changed over the course of the pandemic. Fundamentally, we need to have a baseline paid family/medical leave in the U.S. that also includes mental health support for parents.
It seems like social support for families (like Meal Trains and offers of help) often drop off a bit after babies are discharged from the hospital. What can we do to continue to support families in our communities?
Brendan: It’s hard to say. The NICU experience in itself is already so exhausting. Removing any type of decision-making was immensely helpful for us, I remember. Not needing to figure out what we were eating was very helpful. We’re lucky that both sets of our parents live within a mile of each other so we were lucky to have that type of support. I guess perhaps bi-weekly to monthly check-ins? Talking about the experience? I know, for me, the entire gravity of the situation did not really totally hit me until months later after he’d been home for a while. Constantly reiterating that there is support and someone to help or talk to or to help lead to a professional to speak with (if need be) I think is good, because you’re so focused on this new little person in your life that has already been on such a journey.
Brendan Hilliard is a dad, husband and Preemie Parent Mentor with Graham’s Foundation. Brendan’s son was born at 27 weeks 3 days gestation and spent 75 days in the NICU. Brendan is a writer and marketing specialist and lives with his wife Ali, son Remy and their two dogs Mortie and Stanley.