The lived experiences of transition to parenthood for parents of preterm infants
The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the lived experiences of parents of preterm infants and how they structure and cope with the new reality of parenting after discharge from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Data was collected from focus group interviews of 4 fathers and 11 mothers, online reflections from focus group participants and analysis of preterm parent support group blogs. Results revealed the theme Catapulted into Parenthood, as parents were thrust unexpectedly into parenting before they were ready with difficulty establishing parental identity while physically separated from their infant. The second theme, Building a Fortress, involved assimilation of the parental role as primary care giver after discharge. Parents recalled fearful autonomy and put up walls to protect their child, often alienating themselves and feeling misunderstood. Another theme, Suiting up for the Challenge, involved descriptions of being overprotective and worried about milestones, feeling justified after all they and their child had been through. The final theme, Taking off the Armor, described reintegration back into society. There was a ginger optimism in letting go of fear and worry. Relationships with other preterm parents were important to the coping process and they began to let their guard down. The longer parents had been home since discharge, the more likely they were to have bonadaptation. The data supports the notion that the birth experience, NICU stay, and the challenges once home profoundly affect parental role transition. It is a journey that cannot be fully understood for those who have not walked in these parent’s shoes. Preterm parenting is a subculture of parenting that seems to be growing as preterm infant birth rates continue to rise. There are distinctive traits that delineate this group as different from others within the parenting culture. There is a need for transitional programs to assist parents as they reintegrate from the NICU back into the real world and become fulltime caregivers. If social science is the study of human aspects of the world, additional study of this unique group of parents should be included and prioritized as the definition of parenthood further evolves.