Dear Carolyn: My brother's wife just gave birth to very premature, very sick twins. They will probably spend months in the hospital and one is likely to have severe developmental issues.
My brother is panicking; he keeps saying he didn't sign on for this, and he is worried he's going to cut and run if he doesn't find relief from the stress. His wife is still recovering from a C-section, so instead of talking through his fears with her, he puts on a brave face and then tells everyone else how scared he is.
How best to support him? I want to be there for him, but the part of me that still remembers (all too clearly) the stress of being a new mom to one healthy baby, and not having to recover from a C-section, can't imagine what my sister-in-law must be going through. I kind of just want to tell him to snap out of it.
Carolyn says: He does need to snap out of it, that's true. But if you're looking for a correlation between telling people to snap out of it, and their actually snapping out of it, then you'll find it in Yeahrightville.
Anything you say to your brother has to include elements of sympathy to leaven the suck-it-up part. For example, "You're right, no one signs up to have -- or be -- sick children." And then ask him what he thinks might help with the stress? If it's just a chance to walk away, then take him out to eat, or pull hospital duty for him while he takes a day to himself. Put it on the weekly schedule, even, so he can count on relief.
If having someone to talk to would help him, then you can research his options for him; states offer different programs for special-needs children and their families, and while the gateway is usually the hospital staff, it's possible your brother hasn't received or processed the information. Do some homework for him to find support (Washington's Division of Community and Family Health: www.doh.wa.gov/cfh).
Taking his distress as seriously as you take his wife's and babies' will make you a more tolerable source of any tough love you then choose to serve up. Still, give him room to wail his way through this; listen patiently, and also pat his back whenever you see him rising to the occasion. Remind him how lucky his family is to have him.
If you don't see that -- say, if his no-show talk turns to walk -- then remind him that, even freaked out, he's better equipped to handle what lies ahead than his babies are, and they're going to need their daddy. Not to be perfect, mind you -- just to be there, loving them, and teaching them how to try.
Predictions of developmental problems notwithstanding, every child faces an uphill fight to get from Point A of infancy to Point B of contented-but-not-resigned adulthood. Some never achieve contentment. But the ones who do aren't always the ones with all the physical advantages at birth. The greatest advantage any child can have is a parent standing by his side throughout that fight, with no agenda other than to supply what the child needs. Any parent could use the occasional, non-preachy reminder of that.