By Jon Bennion
Families and friends of preemie parents may never suspect the new mom and dad of a fragile baby may be experiencing an odd feeling as a result of the early delivery. It’s a feeling that usually comes as a result of having committed a wrong – a mistake. I’m talking about feelings of guilt.
In the swirl of emotion that caused unspeakable physical and mental anguish during our 119 days in the NICU, guilt was a regular feeling I experienced as I looked for answers. When my son, Jack, was unexpectedly delivered at 23-weeks gestation, it happened in an avalanche of bad circumstances that flipped my little family’s existence in just a 24-hour period. Once we had gotten past the treacherous first trimester that can often lead to miscarriages, my feelings had shifted away from any trace of anxiousness to pure anticipation. But as I stood within the walls of the NICU staring at the tiny one pound frame of my micro-preemie son, I was left wondering, “What did I do so wrong?” and “I’m sorry I failed you son.”
This may be hard for an outsider to understand. I knew I really hadn’t done anything wrong, and neither had my wife. To be sure, most premature births aren’t the result of negligence on the part of the parents. We saw a few babies in the NICU that appeared to be there as a result of drug/alcohol abuse. Like most parents, however, we were absolutely thrilled to take the progeny plunge and were diligent in our pre-parenting.
As we all know, however, feelings don’t always stem from rationality. Why should someone feel guilt for a circumstance totally out of their control? I don’t know. I can’t explain it. I just know I felt it. I felt sorry for the pain my son was experiencing. I felt sorry every time they had to prick his miniature foot for blood. I felt sorry every time they explained his likely diminished “quality of life.”
Naturally, a primary sense programmed into our DNA as new parents is to protect our children. Fathers especially have an ingrained predisposition to provide, defend, and shelter. As a new father, I felt like I had failed at those things. We know that dads are already slightly reluctant to open up about their NICU experience. It exposes elements of us that society may view as weakness, or outside the mainstream view of males as emotionless brutes. I have a hunch, though, that if more dads fully opened up about their struggles in the NICU with a fragile, new baby, many would say that feelings of guilt would sometimes crop up. I suspect several moms have gone through this as well. Although irrational, it is likely typical.
Like all of the negative emotions that come from the NICU experience (already talked about fear and anger), there is no quick and painless way of casting guilt aside. Honestly, I can still look at Jack, think about all of the pain and struggles he has seen outside the “normal” childhood experience and wish I could have done something to spare him from those things. But I also have the benefit of hindsight – of perspective. Now three years old, Jack is such a happy boy with an unmistakable love for life. Those inexplicable feelings of guilt are overwhelmed by a sense of thankfulness, hope for the future, and probably a deeper love for him than I ever could have had under normal circumstances. I can look through less cloudy lenses and have more peace that not only is there no reason to have guilt, but it can keep me from doing what I want to do for my son – be the best dad for him every day so I never have to say, “I wish I would have done more.”