What The NICU Taught Me About Fatherhood

03/19/2015 11:58 am ET | Updated May 19, 2015
Jon Helmkamp

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a frighteningly confusing place. I remember the night I arrived with my daughter -- she was five weeks early, laboring to breathe, helplessly lying in a transport incubator while attached to countless monitors and tubes. Her face was wrapped to hold her C-Pap unit in her nose, making seeing her face a chore in and of itself. We arrived at the NICU in the early dawn hours of the morning while my wife continued to recover at another hospital nearby, the transport team wheeling my daughter down the hall to the room where she would spend the first two weeks of her life, and all I could think to myself was, please let my girls be OK.

I vividly recall sitting in that room, listening to the machines, earnestly watching the glowing screens like they held the answers I was looking for. It was painful. But while I sat in that room, helplessly waiting for both my wife and my daughter to heal, I learned a lot.

1. I have never wanted to protect anything in my life more than my daughter.
From the second she was born and I saw her struggling to breathe, I felt this incredible need to make everything better for her, to protect her, to save her. I watched over her, just wishing I could breathe air into her lungs for her, that I could strengthen her and make her OK. For those two weeks in the NICU, that feeling never left, and it hasn't left since.

2. My daughter's life is largely out of my control.
A very sobering thought came to me while watching my daughter in the NICU, and that is the fact that my daughter's life is not now, and never really will be, in my control. As a father, I want it to be -- I want to be able to help her, protect her, guarantee her success and happiness and be able to make everything work out like a fairy tale. But even on the most fundamental level of life -- health -- there is nothing I can do to guarantee her success. That was made painfully clear to me as I watched her struggle and realized that there was nothing I could do to make it better. This was a battle she had to fight on her own, while accompanied with all the love my wife and I could muster.

3. It's OK to be helpless.
"Helplessness is not weakness," I repeatedly told myself in those first few weeks of my daughter's life. It's OK to not be the end-all, be-all authority on everything. It's OK to not be able to fix something. It's OK to let go, and to let what will happen, happen. All of this is OK, but it is certainly not easy. My immediate reaction to not being able to help or fix the problem was intense frustration and anger. But with time, I learned (and am still learning) that being helpless and having things out of my control does not make me weak. External situations do not impact my internal character. It is definitely a battle I am still fighting.

4. Children are resilient.
I saw a determination and fight in my daughter from day one. When she was first born, still being cleaned off and fighting to breathe, she grabbed my finger. I looked down at her and felt her grip, and I felt a strength from within her that I did not know was possible in a newborn. My strong girl, I thought. She battled through every obstacle in the NICU, deciding to remove her own C-Pap when she felt she no longer needed it, and proving to the nurses and doctors that she was a strong-willed little pain in the butt, just like her mother. That internal strength and resilience is a character I will do everything I can to cultivate and help thrive throughout her life. With that strength, in all the situations that I will not be able to control, she will be just fine.

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the fact that our story is not nearly as difficult or perilous as the stories of many families that we shared that NICU with, and that we are incredibly blessed and fortunate for the now good health of our daughter. No matter what challenge or obstacle you face with your new family, you will worry about the well-being of your baby, and spending two weeks in the NICU was full of plenty of concern. Those two weeks taught me more about my bond to my daughter than anything else has so far.

You can find more from Jon Helmkamp at Finding Fatherhood, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

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