Our society has more stay-at-home dads than ever before. Boys today are taught that it’s okay to cry and are raised to help with the housework. Women are working as the primary breadwinner in many families, and parenting is now, more than ever, a 50/50 role in American households.
Yet, despite all of this progress, men still suffer under antiquated, stereotypical stresses just like women do. Dads often feel pressures to be strong and hide their fears about fatherhood, while mothers receive more training and support from doctors and nurses. And no one feels this heavy burden more than dads of preemies.
Having a premature baby is a gut-wrenching, unpredictable rollercoaster that leaves parents feeling helpless as they watch their tiny babies clinging to life, often in incubators and out of their reach. Loved ones rally around Mom, who might be still healing herself and feeling guilty — like somehow her body failed. Mom needs rest to recover. She needs nutrition for strength and for her breastmilk. But, while everyone is rallying around Mom, what about Dad?
A recent study in the Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing found that although the stress of having a preemie is overwhelming to both parents, it’s actually Dad who often suffers the most. The study’s author, Dr. Craig Garfield, an associate professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, surveyed 86 moms and dads in the throes of parenting their premature babies.
Participants completed surveys that assessed their stress, but Dr. Garfield also “measured their cortisol levels in their saliva three times on day one, five, and 14 after the babies went home.” Cortisol, Today reports, is the hormone the body produces when under stress. And the study showed higher levels in the dads than in the moms.
Whether they were intentionally hiding how stressed they were or not, Garfield says the fathers were “actually internally feeling more stress than what they were reporting.” And, he says his findings show that “we need to find other ways to get at what dad is experiencing.”
Zach Giles, dad to Rowan, who was born premature, tells Babble, “I never felt prepared because I’m not sure that would be possible.” He also shares that the hardest part was “dealing with the fact that my wife was in the hospital under potentially life threatening circumstances, still having to work, making sure our daughter was taken care of, visiting the hospital every day, etc.”
A lot falls on Dad. And just as much as it’s important to make sure Mom is okay, and baby is okay, we cannot forget him. Like Zach, often fathers of preemies are running to and from work every day, trying to focus on their jobs, ensuring they keep their jobs to pay the astronomical medical bills coming in. And then, after a long day of worry, they also might feel pressure to be the strong rock at home and hide their emotions.
Chris Murphy, dad to Remy who was born with a litany of medical problems, was interviewed by Today. He admits, “I had the worst anxiety of my life. It actually took a huge toll on me. I couldn’t sleep. I started drinking a lot. I wasn’t really taking care of myself. I gained a bunch of weight.”
The truth is, dads like Zach and Chris may need to break down. They may need to admit that they, too, are scared and don’t know what to do. Dad may be exhausted, just like Mom, and need some rest.
Dr. Garfield says his study’s results should make us pause and reevaluate how we care for and prepare dads of preemies, according to Today. Dads need as much supports as moms, and maybe different kinds of support, depending on their circumstances.
The bottom line is a preemie baby needs all of his family to be healthy and well-supported as they do their best to help him thrive. Take care of yourself, Dads. Talk to someone. Get some rest. Your baby needs you to be okay.