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Fatherhood in intensive care

My twin boys were born very prematurely at 24 weeks of gestation. Arun spent six months in hospital before coming home. Rohan never made it home, he died after nine weeks.

 

When the boys were in hospital, I spent a lot of time there. More than this, I spent as much time as I could there. In between working and eating I think I spent pretty much every waking moment there. However, it was obvious from very early on that the fathers in intensive care split into two camps. Those that were there and those that we never saw. There were some women who spent the long and arduous hours with their sick babies, pretty much on their own. Some of the fathers when they did appear would stay for a matter of minutes before disappearing again. This made me think about the different levels of engagement that different men had shown in the plight of their children and got me thinking: Why were some Dads just not there?

The first thoughts were practical. Some men had demanding jobs where their employer was less sympathetic than my own and so simply could not spend hours at the hospital. Others may have worked shifts and so found it difficult to be there. Others may have been there in the hours that I was not. I had no other children, but other fathers undoubtedly had brothers and sisters to look after whilst mother was tending to baby in hospital. Even so, I found it difficult to understand why they did not swap places sometimes.

Beyond these practical reasons I think there are more deep seated psychological reasons why some men were absent. A number of friends of mine (all excellent fathers) have reported that they found it difficult to bond with their baby. At first they looked at this alien life-form and didn’t make the connection that this was their own flesh and blood. Mothers and babies do this instinctively. In fact I read somewhere recently that babies do not really understand that their mothers are separate entities from them until they are six months old. The mother-child bond just carries on when they leave the womb. Fathers, however, need to work on getting to know their babies and some of them need to learn to love them. My friends have been split down the middle on this one. Some like me were enamoured with their kids even whilst they were in the womb. Others didn’t form a bond for several months.

However, I suspect that some fathers just didn’t want to hang around the hospital and cluck over their child. In the old days, that was a woman’s job and I think that some men still think this way. A man’s job is to venture out into the world to forage and hunt. Elderly relatives still think like this and I suspect that some men still do. The gender boundaries have certainly blurred but they have not been broken. There are still some unreconstructed men out there and I think they are proud of the fact.

Whilst providing some of the answers, these explanations are too simple. From my own experience there are two more sinister reasons why men were sometimes absent.

To put it simply, the first reason was that we were scared. An intensive care unit is a frightening place. All the horrors that are normally confined to the movies are there in front of you. Children die in these places and anyone in their right mind would be horrified by some of the medical interventions that are made to keep these children alive. I know that it takes a lot of courage to walk into an intensive care unit where your baby is fighting for life. There were numerous times when a small part of me wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else where I did not have to face the stark reality of what was happening to my children. I found it hard to admit to myself that I was scared. The trepidation I felt walking into the neo-natal ward every day never diminished and to some extent I still have it even now. I know what happens there and, frankly, I prefer not to be reminded of it.

Even darker though is the shame that I suspect some fathers felt at having a child in intensive care. Men are supposed to be strong, active and virile. Our job is to further our genes by fathering strong, active and virile children. To my own shame, there was one fleeting moment when I realised that a part of me had not completely accepted the children as my own. This came when their nametags were changed from “Sumner” my wife’s surname to “Sisodia” my own. Up until then a part of me had been comfortable being a passionate and engaged spectator. It only was when I saw my own name against the incubators that I truly felt ownership of the twins. Up until that point a tiny part of me had been disengaged and was happy with them being seen as Clare’s children first and foremost. It was only when their names matched my own on the signs that that tiny sliver of denial was exposed and finally expunged. I imagine that I was not alone in feeling this.

I can’t and I won’t judge those who were not present. I can only speculate as to why some fathers chose to be absent when their children were in hospital. Men, despite the press to the contrary are complex creatures. Every father who chose to be there had their reasons and had to battle their own demons. I suspect every father that was absent had to do the same.

 

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