The day Sarah and I found out we were pregnant I stopped trimming my beard. Looking back on it, I don’t know why I did that or if there was any thought that went into it. When Sarah went into early labor we spent so much time at the hospital I never had time to shave or trim if I wanted to. The weeks that followed my beard grew and I started to resemble the homeless men that roam around the streets of our city. Even with the funny looks I received from some people I kept the beard.
After my first article, What NOT to Expect When You’re Expecting, I was contacted by a man from Australia who is also a NICU father veteran. We talked for a bit via Facebook and I learned he started a group called Books for Beards, and can be found of Twitter @NICUbeard (The NICU Beard Club). He tries to encourage dads who find themselves in the NICU to start growing a beard and to keep it going until the day their child is discharged, measuring the time through their facial hair. That was when I learned I was not the only father to do this.
My facial hair has always grown fast. I don’t know if this is from diet, genes, or because it no longer grows on top of my head. The first time I held Zoey I unbuttoned my shirt for the skin to skin care, her tiny hands weaving themselves into my chest hair and after an hour and a half she went back into the isolette taking little threads of me with her. I know one day it will be my beard she is playing with.
Dad’s don’t have as much to offer compared to mom’s long hair or the comfort of breasts, but as men we can still grow beards that they will recognize and offer when mom can’t be there. It is tough being a NICU dad. While mom is pumping and helping our child grow, dad’s sometimes feel like they are sitting on the sidelines waiting to play a game they were not designed for. We have to make it up in our own way to contribute; reading bedtime stories, talking to our baby about our day, making promises of the things we will do with them when they are older, holding them, and making sure they feel they are loved.
I’m lucky in a way, some families with micro-preemies like Zoey live miles, sometimes hours away from the hospital. At 3 in the morning, if I can’t sleep and want to see my baby I will drive the three minutes and spend time with her to make sure she knows I am there. We’ve read Stuart Little, a tale that reminds me of how little Zoey came into our lives. The Wind in the Willows makes me wonder what she will think of the toads that live around her mother’s house. I see Zoey several times a day; before work, on my lunch break, after work, and sometimes in the middle of the night.
Today is the fourth of July and I sit here now with my daughter celebrating our national holiday thinking about what her future might bring. A group of men in Washington D.C. are working towards taking away her Medicaid that she qualifies for, another doesn’t want me to leave a better planet for her to live on, and I wonder what kind of school system will be around when she is old enough to go. I try to push those thoughts out of my mind and do what I can for her at the moment, so I grow a beard, the only thing in this world that a man can still do better than a woman. The nurses have me beat, her mom gives her what her body needs to grow, the little that is left over is letting her know that I am here and that I love her. Little Zoey, this beard is for you.
Sarah and I went Kayaking today and had seen a family of eagles living on the Kalamazoo river. I don’t know what the future might bring for my daughter, as the days pass there is a feeling that the cards are constantly stacked against her, but there is one thing for certain she can look forward to, her dad, the bearded man who receives funny looks from people will one day take her to see those eagles.
Photo courtesy of author