Having a baby can put a lot of strain on a relationship.
Having a baby in the NICU adds even more strain.
Rarely do couples handle stress the same way, and they may tend to lash out at one another when emotions become too much and bubble over (or explode, in some cases).
My husband and I certainly don’t cope with stressful situations the same way, and having a baby in the NICU proved to be no different. The strain of the situation could have ripped us apart, but we managed to glide through relatively unscathed.
While I am by no means a relationship expert and I cannot promise what worked for us will work for you, here’s what we did to survive our son’s NICU stay.
Recognize and respect your differences.
I think one of the biggest things for my husband and me, was to recognize that we were both suffering, both struggling, both in pain, but we were expressing it and experiencing it differently.
I wanted to be at the NICU every moment of every day, even if all I could do was sit beside my son’s bed and talk to him or crochet or watch him breathe.
My husband got overwhelmed and anxious if he was at the hospital for too long, and he wanted to be productive elsewhere.
I wanted to glue my butt to the chair at my son’s bedside.
My husband wanted to exercise and clean the house.
We were handling our stress differently, and we didn’t understand one another.
I could understand being overwhelmed in the NICU, because it is a lot to take in, but I didn’t understand how he could want to be anywhere but our son’s room. I didn’t understand how he could pop in for 15 minutes and be good for the rest of the day, and sometimes even the next day, too.
I was overwhelmed, too, but I wanted to be there. How else would I understand all the medical terminology? How else would I learn what the machines were for and what the medication did? How else would I learn my son’s quirks and get to see his personality emerge?
It was obvious very quickly that my husband and I were different, and we knew that in order to make it through, we would have to respect our differences and accept that we were processing and dealing in our own ways.
Don’t be ashamed to accept professional help.
Early on, my husband and I knew that we weren’t going to be able to fully support one another, because we didn’t understand one another.
We acknowledged and respected that we were coping differently, but that meant that we didn’t really know how to support one another.
I knew he needed to exercise and to get back to work and a routine, but I couldn’t wrap my head around why and didn’t know how to be supportive.
He recognized my need to be at the hospital, but he felt like it was unhealthy to be there all the time and didn’t know how to support my decision.
On top of being different, we were both dealing with some variety of postpartum depression. Our plates were overflowing, and while friends and family were helpful, they could only do so much.
We sought out a professional counselor to talk to, and we felt like it greatly helped us navigate through our NICU journey.
My husband was very adamant that we needed to get the house cleaned and ready for when our son came home, but I couldn’t have possibly cared any less about the state of our house.
One of the worst arguments my husband and I got in to while Kaden was in the NICU, was about the house.
My husband wanted to clean, but I was itching to get to the hospital for our son’s quickly approaching hands on time. This one was particularly important for me to make because it was bath day, and I loved giving Kaden his bath.
We argued about how I didn’t care about the state of the house, and about how being at the hospital was more important to me in that moment. We disagreed on where our priorities lie, because Kaden was well taken care of, but there was nobody else to take care of our home.
Being less emotional now, I completely understand where my husband was coming from, but in the moment, I was furious.
Later, we came to an agreement.
My husband and I would agree upon and reserve a day/time for cleaning. Should something important come up at the hospital that conflicted with the prearranged cleaning time, I reserved the right to postpone the cleaning session (or at least my portion of it) so I could be at the hospital for whatever event was taking place.
This compromise worked out much better, because I knew well in advance when we were going to be cleaning and getting the house ready for our son’s homecoming, and I was much less anxious. My husband was also happier because we were cleaning like he wanted to, and I was more mentally and emotionally present.
Go on a date.
Being the mom that didn’t want to leave her baby’s bedside; this was a hard one for me.
Looking back, I think it’s important to spend some time with your significant other and to try and relax.
You don’t have to go on a fancy date and get dressed up, but you should do something together, even if it’s just going down to the hospital cafeteria and sitting down together over a tray of hospital food.
My husband and I went out to eat a couple of times together, and we watched a movie together once. We didn’t do anything extravagant, but we spent some time together and did our best to enjoy one another’s company without stressing about our little peanut in the NICU (though it’s almost impossible not to worry about your NICU miracle, stuck in the hospital).
Once, we even just ordered Panera to be delivered to the hospital and we ate lunch together in the lobby, then went back to the NICU.
Don’t forget your significant other in all of the chaos, because that’s the only other person in the world that can relate to what you’ve been through so closely, even if you experience it differently.
Find an outlet for your stress.
My husband is a triathlete, though he started off as a cyclist. Working out was therapeutic for him, and it let him release his pent up stress and anxiety.
Hopping on a bicycle for three hours sounds like it would just add to my stress. I’m not an athlete.
I was fortunate enough to have been put in contact with my hospital’s NICU support group. I was also lucky that my hospital has such an amazing support group, because I’ve heard that not all do.
Going to the support group meetings was helpful for me, because it validated all of my emotions, and confirmed that I wasn’t alone. When I went to the meetings, there would be days where one of the other moms would start talking, and I swore it was as if she took the words out of my head and spit them out of her mouth. I left the meetings feeling lighter and more at ease.
Kaden was discharged over 4 months ago, and I still regularly attend meetings.
Also, setting up this blog was a sort of therapy for me. I was a writer in high school, and I kept some kind of journal for the longest time. Opening up, being honest and raw, and writing out what is on my mind has still been helpful for me. Just because we are no longer in the NICU, doesn’t mean that we don’t face challenges still. I still experience grief, guilt, anxiety, depression, and a slew of other emotions that are generally tied to the NICU and Kaden’s premature birth.
So thank you for taking part in my therapy, and allowing me to word-vomit to you every week.
There is no one magical key to keeping your relationship from falling apart from the stress of the NICU, but I hope that some of the things that worked for me and my husband can help you as well.
Stress is hard on a relationship, period. The key is not letting it cloud your judgement and keeping an open line of communication.
What tips do you have for couples trying to make their way through the struggles of the NICU, or any other stressful time in life?