Parents of small, sick preemies can, for many reasons, lose each other.
Parents in NICU have a scenario that the normal newborn family, home in 3 days, never has. Because of the construct of the small space for isolette and chair etc., parents come into the unit and the mom absolutely zeros in on the isolette, (Reptilian brain again.). Her body completely fills the space at the isolette and there is almost no way around that. The father sees her back and little else, and again and again, he eventually sits in a chair and reads a book, appearing as uncaring and callous. Sometimes the mother will hand the wrapped baby to dad but it’s still an offering from her, not ownership by him which is a must in a happy partnership.
I would tell this to all the parents of long term little ones and now, fifteen to twenty years later, I’m learning that the majority of our families are still intact so this may be the core problem.
Now for the bad news. The divorce rate in families with long term NICU babies is believed to be 97%. Tulane calls it 100%.
I believe the father as ‘left out’ is the major cause.
There is an easy way around this for fathers and I have seen many do it. They come in alone, often before work for the 6AM bath and feeding. It seems that this experience creates a sustained bonding.
We are enculturated to focus on ourselves with such intensity that everyone else is left out. Intimacy is frightening and humans no longer look each other in the eye. They don’t even look their pets in the eye. It’s too much giving up control and allowing vulnerability. Force yourself to do it. Begin with a child or maybe the cat. Talk to this spirit as independent from yourself. When brave enough, look an adult you love (and trust) in the eyes… it’s a soul to soul experience.
Only the last years in NICU did I begin looking newborns in the eye and talking to them as an adult (and what was looking back at me was very adult… try it.) I’d say to the boys: “You are born onto earth and have parents who are going to give you a great childhood. And you are quite handsome, like your father.” And they smiled!
The notion that newborns smile is gas is complete nonsense, driven by those who have no experience. We in NICU see it all the time and a classic example is the photo called Laughing Premie from Loma Linda.
So, how can parents avoid divorce after NICU:
- Choose a baby sitter. Have the person take a CPR class for infants.
- Include Dad in the daily care of the baby.
- Do not focus completely on the baby. It’s hard on the marriage and hard on the baby.
- Make some feedings by bottle so Dad can see the curve of his baby’s cheek, that beautiful corner of the baby’s mouth where tongue, bottle and cheek meet. So he can feel how strong the baby’s pull on the bottle is.
- Don’t always hand the baby to Dad, he must be a full partner, not a participant. There’s a difference.
- Do not criticize parenting of the other. It turns the critic into everyone’s parent, not a nice place to find yourself.
- Once a month, go to a restaurant with booths (so no one can shout and no one can cry) for a family meeting. Bring notes if you want to. The agenda is to be objective and to answer the question: “How’re we doing?”. This way, gripes don’t ooze out and ruin the time at home. Just put it into the notes and save it for the family meeting. Home must be safe for everyone, always.
- Plan a date. Once a month, every other week, you each plan something very special that will please the other and make good memories. Not a dinner and movie date. Something like sitting on a dock in morning mists, with a thermos of coffee and breakfast treats. Feeding ducks in a rose garden pond. Visit art galleries on a First Thursday. Sit on a bench and guess what passerby’s do for a living. Visit a toy train store. Go to garage sales or a flea market. It need not cost money. The upshot of this is that you know your mate is thinking of how to please you and you are thinking of your mate in positive, loving terms.
- Learn Partner Yoga. Do it with your mate. Do it with your children.
- Become romantic. Set up candlelight dinners.
- Look into your partner’s eyes.