The Silent Struggle: Mental Health and the NICU

In becoming parents, we oftentimes accept the silent assumptions that are made by our culture of what that's supposed to look like. An "ideal" parent, for example, seems to live in a blissful state of sacrifice, made happy by the sheer existence of their child, doing their best to take on their responsibilities according to whatever parenting technique may be in vogue at the time (see the book "Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" for some great writing on this subject).

Cracks in our ability to do that, made visible in mixed company or in the necessary public outings we sometimes have to make, can be harshly judged by strangers and other parents alike, as if our take on parenting is expected to be at top notch regardless of our surroundings or the context. Paradoxically, depending on your audience, different values will be upheld, and surprisingly, people oftentimes feel little need to censor their comments

The NICU parent, by virtue of their baby's traumatic entrance to the world, has a unique set of expectations placed upon them, in addition to a unique set of stresses. I remember when my son had terrible colic symptoms after discharge, which caused him to cry for numerous hours a day every day for months, of feeling like I wasn't grateful enough to have him home, that I was taking his health for granted, that I shouldn't feel depressed or anxious because, after all, he was out of the NICU. What else could possibly be as serious as that?  The depression, the haunting memories of the NICU that often flared up over the course of his entire first year-- how could I let those things overshadow the fact that he survived, that he was with me, that at any moment I could hug him? The fact that we were on quarantine to prevent infection, keeping us away from any kind of meetup groups or any kind of regular support from other parents didn't help matters much.  The guilt and shame that had accompanied his NICU stay carried on throughout his first year, in the form of my own expectation for myself that I should be happy and grateful, that struggles with emotional challenges were selfish or pointless. 

The NICU parent has to contend with the very real effects of trauma long after the discharge paperwork for their baby is signed. It's suspected that a staggering number, between 21-23%, of NICU parents have symptoms of PTSD. It's been found that amongst NICU dads, late-onset PTSD is common, cropping up sometimes as long as 6 months after the baby is home from the hospital (as a result, PTSD amongst NICU dads is underreported and difficult to measure). For moms and dads, untreated emotional trauma can wreak havoc on their ability to connect with their child or with each other well into the first few years of their child's life, and sometimes beyond. The very harsh experience of witnessing your child fight for their life can have profound influence on one's emotional health, and too often, no space is made for parents to grieve the experience, to put a name to what they lost, and to integrate that into their lives. Compounding that experience is the fact that NICU parents also have to deal with the very real threat that their child may have disabilities or health issues related to their prematurity or the medical issues that led to their NICU stay. 

As such, the NICU parent is not only held up to the expectation to be blissfully happy with their circumstances (sometimes, as it was in my case, by themselves), but they're contending with very serious, very real issues due to the fact that they were faced with an unpredictable, challenging, and in some ways emotionally devastating circumstance. With an implicit cultural assumption that parenting should be a joyous thing, too often we are silenced, and prevented from speaking to the struggles we may be contending with privately, afraid of the dark shadow that something like "mental health" might cast over our experiences. 

In resisting this silence, it becomes evident how powerful it can be for NICU parents (and parents in general!) to speak to the struggles they've had in parenting after discharge, to give a voice for others who may be too frightened to express it. In honor of Mental Health Awareness week, I'd like to make this a safe space to share your struggles as a parent, where you've gotten to with it, and if there has been any thing that's given you reprieve. Have you connected with other parents yet? How have you healed from your NICU experience? How would you like to see things change for others struggling with the same thing?