Having a baby born too soon, too small, too sick is a massive shock for the mother, and for the father. Nothing can prepare a father for suddenly having a baby that needs special care, whose life hangs in the balance. What shocked me the most, was discovering that in the paternity leave (and maternity leave, for that matter) rules, there was absolutely no provision for emergency situations such as premature birth, or babies born with life limiting conditions.
Standard paternity leave is two weeks. When a baby is born prematurely, they are usually in hospital until around their due date, sometimes considerably longer depending on various medical factors, and whether surgery has been required. In the case of Joseph he was born 13 weeks early, so I knew we would have a long haul.
Corey took a week off when Joseph was born, to support me in hospital, and to be by Joseph’s bedside as much as possible. He had to take that week off as annual leave, his employers would not allow him to utilise his paternity leave, as he had not given notice (how very inconsiderate of us not to let them know in advance!)
During the whole time Joseph was in hospital, Corey took one day off. I was having problems being heard on the unit, and was an even more strung out mess than usual, and he came with me one day, the rest of the time Corey would visit Joseph in the evening, on the way home.
Like many men, Corey wanted to save his paternity leave for Joseph coming home, and this is what many men choose to do.
I found during our time on the unit, that our unit was very much focussed on the mother, father’s were rarely considered or consulted, and my husband got some funny looks when he insisted on doing kangaroo care (he resembles a mountain gorilla, bless him!) He felt very left out a lot of the time, and helpless. At least I could express, and I had a small amount of medical knowledge, so could have the difficult conversations, and I knew where to go if I needed help understanding information. A lot of it just passed Corey by, or frightened him, so he didn’t want to know more.
Once Joseph finally arrived home, I found the pressure immense. The first weeks were fine, with Corey there to help, to consult with when the baby did strange things, and to make brews and fetch shopping whilst I looked after this confusing, demanding, but very cute, small thing!
When Corey returned to work, I found it tough. I was teary a lot. I was having intrusive thoughts. I didn’t really know what to do or where to go. It was a truly horrible time. And my husband would get home from work to be faced with a stressed out wife, and a confusing baby, and not really know what to do with either of us.
I always feel a little uncomfortable talking about financial aspects of having a premature baby. I was told off once, by someone who was having difficulty conceiving, for talking about the pressure of buying nappies, paying for bus transport and meals whilst Joseph was in hospital, that I should shut up, and be grateful for my baby. I felt suitably chastised, and never moaned again.
However, having a baby is a huge financial pressure, and having a very early baby is an even greater one. My husband could not take more time off than he did, as he had no leave left. Even if we could have afforded it, his company would not allow leave without pay. His only option was to go on sick leave (annoyingly, in 4 years my husband has had 3 sick days) and he refused to do this, and quite rightly so, why should he have to?
I know we are under immense financial pressure as a nation, and that benefits are being cut, seemingly on a daily basis. However I fail to see how it is fair that businesses can get away without supporting families in a time of crisis. I am not asking for massive handouts, or loads of leave, but just some flexibility and consideration. And I do think it should be legislated. Surely, in the grand scheme of things, this would prevent people from going on benefits. I know families who have split up because of the financial, physical and emotional demands of having a premature baby. I know parents who have gone on to Income Support, because they can no longer work. Surely, a flexible, supportive approach in those first, crucial weeks, could facilitate families being able to stay together, and to get back on their feet following the crisis, without having to rely on benefits.
When you have a premature or poorly baby, your world is turned upside down, for a short time, it freezes, but whilst your life is now stuck in a unit, by the side of an incubator, your bills mount up, your rent or mortgage still needs paying, and life marches, cruelly and brutally on.