Learning to raise a 5 year-old with twins in the #NICU.

Each time I see this picture…it breaks my heart.

It is late in the evening on June 13th, Sarah had just been released from the hospital. George and Henry had just been born four days earlier on June 10th. They were still in the hospital in the Level One NICU at GHS. Rosebud had been spending the night at her cousins for the past few days and life was just completely out-of-whack.

George and Henry were born at 32 weeks and five days, close to 5 weeks early from their 38 week scheduled due date. Rosebud had just gotten home from a week at the beach with my mom and nana, so she was exhausted. When she got home, the twins were born, her mom and dad were living in the hospital, her brothers that she had watched grow in her mommy’s tummy were now in a place where she had limited access. Rosebud’s world was tipped upside down.

We knew the moment we were released after Sarah’s c-section, we needed to get home to get Rose back on schedule. That decision was one of the hardest we ever made yet one of the most important. Rosebud does better when she is on a schedule, but more importantly we wanted to make sure she did not feel neglected.

This night, she was building a NICU for her baby dolls. Literally building a NICU out of her toys. Remember, she had only seen her brothers three times for only fifteen minutes each time. This is important, that fifteen minutes each day to visit her brothers included tubes, beeps, beds with walls, and something helping them breathe.

She was visually overloaded and needed an outlet. She create a tube to go over her baby dolls mouth representing the CPAP. She had her little LED flashlight hanging over the make shift bed on the bedside table, it was the bilirubin light. She had different strings attached as a feeding tube. She even had her Doc McStuffins doctor kit out checking vital signs. She was fixated on making sure her baby was taken care of before bed. It was 10pm and she was so tired from the long day of being shuffled to and from the hospital, AND only getting fifteen minutes to see her brothers. But no matter what we said, she wanted to make sure her baby was ok.

I was so frustrated with the situation, with Rosebud not wanting to go to bed, not having any normalcy, not having my sons home…I had to leave the room and let Sarah work with her to go to bed. I left the room and cried…cried a hard cry. Life was out-of-control and my a-type personality was so overwhelmed that I had no way to figure out which side was up.

We have read so many books how to be prepared to have twins. We have talked to so many people, joined numerous online groups, talked to our doctors…but nothing prepared us to have twins living the first 28 days of their lives in a NICU, let alone having a five year old that needed equal attention. There are no books for this niche market space. NOTHING for a father. I was trying to be strong. I was trying to stay in my “Man Box”…but the world felt overwhelming.

Nothing prepares you for when you want to sleep when the twins are sleeping then your five year old needs attention. Nothing prepares you to explain why your five year old cannot see her brothers for only fifteen minutes a day, and that fifteen minutes includes a timer, tubes, special beds, limited touching, consistent hand washing, and mommy/daddy focusing all their attention on two boys and not her. NOTHING!

This experience taught us so much, and we are still learning. As I am writing this…the boys are not even 40 weeks gestation, yet over six weeks old. Rosebud is a big sister to preemies needing, both needing a lot of attention. Both needing their own space to grow up, heal, and bond. We still have so much to learn, yet here is what I have learned so far about trying to be a father to your five year old, while you are have twins in the NICU.

1- Keep them on a schedule
2- Make time for daddy dates
3- Leverage the village
4- Create boundaries
5- Let them take part in the twin experience
6- Give them room to have downtime
7- Let them cry

1- Keep them on a schedule is one the most important things we learned. First of all, Sarah and I are A-Types, so we are control freaks. So, scheduling brings normalcy to our lives. From the moment Rosebud was born, we have had her on a schedule. From her sleep schedule to her eating schedule…she has had structure implemented throughout her life.

We knew we had to keep her on her sleep schedule, getting her to sleep by 8:30pm so she could sleep a full night sleep was crucial. Going to bed is a process that has given her more responsibility, we call it her “list.” She changes her clothes, goes to potty, picks three books, and tells us she is ready. We then lay in bed, read her books, and then let her go to sleep. If this part of the day is altered for a long duration, she becomes sleep deprived, irritable, non-compliant, and irrational. By keeping this consistent pattern for Rosebud creates symmetry in the household, and provided tremendous structure for us to plan our day with the twins.

2- Make time for daddy dates is so important for so many reasons. We started daddy dates when Rosebud was around two and a half. It was created as an opportunity for me to take Rosebud out of the house so Sarah could have a few hours to herself. It developed into a routine of father daughter connection.

I can always tell when we have fallen off the daddy date routine, she starts acting irritable and irrational towards me when I come home from work. Picking her up and taking her out for a little date is where we can connect, chat, and just have fun. It gives me a since of father bonding with my daughter, but also lets Rosebud know she is important. Having this routine on a schedule, even after the twins were born, became an opportunity to get away and have one-on-one time. Even if it is getting out of the house for ice-cream, going to driving range to hit balls, going to the toy store for a little reward, or just running errands…it is important.

3- Leverage the village, yep…surround yourself with people who love you and want to help. It was just the other day and we had been focused on some downtime in the house. A day of quiet time to feed the twins on schedule and allow Rosebud to have a quiet day as well. It was hot outside and so staying in was nice. But, the next day you could tell Rosebud was getting a little cabin fever and wanted to get out and play. Sarah and I were extremely focused on the twins trying to take care of them, get the clothes done, and keep dishes cleaned. That is when the village kicked in.

My nana took Rosebud to the lake for the day to visit with her cousins. This was a perfect opportunity for Rosebud to have fun, enjoy the company of her family, and allow Sarah and I to focus on the twins. We also have leveraged many people at our church to pick her for church related activities including Sunday church services and play activities. Our extended family is a great opportunity for Rosebud to play in the day or have a sleep over at night.

The village does have it’s draw backs, when people come to help with the twins and Rosebud, they want to take part in staying around in the house for long periods of time. With preemies, that is a touchy issue. First of all, preemies are not used to being held consistently, exposed to a host of germs, and random children not understanding the difference between preemies as a toy and preemies as little babies. This is a whole separate discussion, but we learned to set rules of the house including who is allowed to hold the twins, who can feed the twins, who is allowed in the house, and visiting hours.

Surround your family with the village, but know there has to be rules for the village as well.

4- Create boundaries for the big sister or brother. We learned immediately we had to set rules for Rosebud. There were a few basics like washing her hands before she touched, she is and still not allowed to pick them up by herself, no screaming around the twins, and there is a slow zone when approaching the twins. These initial rules are small items that we consistently address with Rosebud, but they are small part of the bigger picture. We have to create a space for us to consistently chat and explain what it means to be a big sister, her roles/responsibility.

We used this mindset of roles and responsibility as an opportunity to engage Rosebud in conversation, one that is not only about rule following. We talk to her about setting an example for her cousins, so she can lead by example of how to help with twins. As we create these boundaries for Rosebud, it allows her to share with others the proper way to handle the twins.

5- Let them take part in the twin experience. This is such a mindset to instill in a family, everyone is part of the family and it takes each one of us to keep the ship moving. It is important to let her help with bath time, help with changing by making sure we have diapers and wipes, ask her to hold the twins for a few minutes while we are sitting and talking, and let her have voice in some of the decisions.

This process started immediately when the twins were born. We wanted her to have the ability to visit the twins each day, be able to touch them and ask questions including the tough questions. One Saturday afternoon, she had exceeded the fifteen minutes in the NICU and it was bath time. She wanted so dearly to help, yet it was time for her to leave. She broke down and cried, she so desperately wanted join in experience. So we let her cry right there without rushing her out the NICU, then allowed her to ask the nurse if she could help next time. And yes…she was able to come back the next Saturday and help with their bath time.

We were so lucky that the twins were born in the summer. We had many twin parents share with us about their experience, having their twins in the winter during flu season. Their older sons/daughters were not allowed in the NICU during flu season, waiting months before seeing them for the first time. We even had a parent share with us their older son rebelled when their twins came home, he was unable to visit because of the flu season rules. It took him a year to finally accept his new little brothers. We are fortunate Rosebud was able to visit once a day, even if was for only fifteen minutes.

6- Give them room to have downtime, yes…Rosebud needed that space to have time by herself. Rosebud loves to be in the center of everything, she is curious, constantly asking questions, and constantly learning. But she needs her alone time. We had to make time and space for that to happen.

While in the NICU, we were getting people to watch Rosebud during the day while Sarah drove back and forth to the NICU. In the evenings, I would sometimes bring her up to the NICU for her 15 minute visit. This meant she was being passed around within our village, which meant she had little down time. We knew we had to come home at night in time for dinner, get her ready for a good bed time, read books, and let her go to sleep.

We also knew Saturday’s and Sunday’s needed space for downtime. Sarah and I would trade off going to the NICU so Rose could stay home and have some time by herself to regroup from the week. Her little brain was absorbing so much information from the trips to the NICU, dealing with separation anxiety, the fact her parents were not on their normal schedule, and the fact school was out which removed the routine. Rosebud needed space, quiet time to let her mind process everything.

7- Let them cry…let them share their emotions in a healthy way. There are so many moments when I was so frustrated and all I wanted to do is cry. I cried so much during this process, so many times because the only thing I knew how to do was cry. As an adult, if that is the go-to emotion when there are no words…then for our children who are experience the same hardships, you know the tears are there.

My brother-in-law says it best, you can always tell when “there is one in the chamber.” Rosebud can be so resilient, so happy, but she cried when it did not make sense.

The most heart breaking cry we experienced was when she did not want to leave the NICU. I had my camera snapping pictures and happen to capture this image of her crying on her mommy’s shoulders. She was not crying just because she had to leave…she was crying because for a five year old, the NICU sucked! There was nothing great about the situation other than the care being provided. But for that moment in time…it was so important to just cry. We all cried with her, because sometimes that is all you have…tears.