Few have had their relationships tested like those who are parents to a child in the NICU. Even the strongest, most resilient marriage can be pushed to the breaking point when your child is fighting for their life. As a mother, you’re going through the hardest thing you’ve ever been through, you’re being tested to your limits every day- and your rock, your confident, the person you GO TO when you need to be supported is going through the same damn thing.
What I have found, is that some days, when you cannot pick yourself up off the floor, your spouse can be there for you. Some days, when they are convinced that this is the end, you can be there for your spouse. And some days, neither of you can muster the strength to be there for the other. It’s hard, but it’s the truth.
I’ve heard a quote that goes something like, ‘how you react in a time of crisis reveals your true character.’ Maybe that’s true to some extent, but I don’t think it’s fair in a NICU situation. How can any man or woman be expected to show only utter strength and resilience when their world is crumbling around them? I think it’s not how you handle it in the moment, but how you handle it in the days, weeks and years to come. Maybe you can’t handle the news that your daughter is on the verge of death with grace, and I think that’s okay. Grief needs to be absorbed, blossom, and turn into something else.
When our daughter was fighting for her life, there were days I didn’t understand my husband. There were days I just wanted to be alone with Holly and not look at another soul. There were days where I would cry in my car by myself. I wish I had understood at the time that my reaction to our daughter’s hospital stay was not the only reaction to be had. I didn’t understand that everyone reacts and copes in their own way, and that included my husband.
What I knew to be true then, and I know to be true now, is that my husband would give his life for our daughter. I know he would have traded places with her in a heartbeat, to take away her pain and suffering and put it on himself. NICU parents do that, by punishing themselves. We push away comfort and relief, like it can make our children better.
My husband always jokes now that people from our NICU probably remember him as the ‘tall, angry guy.’ When we go back, the doctors and nurses always remark how HAPPY he is. He wears his heart on his sleeve, always has. It should never have surprised me that seeing his daughter struggling to survive in a plexiglass box would shake his foundation so roughly he didn’t know if he could go on. But he did, and we did too.
We’ve rebuilt our relationship- it has a different shape and feel now, but it has an even stronger foundation. Instead of growing apart, we are forever bonded by this traumatic experience. Now, when I look at him, he’s the strongest Dad I can imagine, even though our 2-year-old has him wrapped around her finger. Our love isn’t sunshine and rainbows- it’s the kind of love that has been dragged through the mud, been hung out to dry, has fought back, and still manages to be filled with pure laughter and tenderness. He’s amazing, and I ought to tell him that more often.