Monthly Archives: October 2012

UNKNOWN CALLER

Day 2, 08.00

I rise early and, aware that visiting time for parents is only an hour away, I roll from the sofa to scurry once more up and down the corridor that links the four rooms of the flat. The forgotten bath water is let out, two temporarily forgotten cats are fed, and spare sets of baby clothes and mother’s clothes are tossed into a bag before I take a call from Ellie. Primed to jot down additions to the list of items required for another day or so on the ward, I scramble for a pen. But no need. Ellie isn’t after a toothbrush or a bunch of grapes, she’s not asking for her Kindle or her iPod. She needs to see James, and she’s calling to let me know he’ll be dropping by the ward to visit her first thing, and so don’t bother coming in for a little while yet. James is Ellie’s new partner. Oh, and yes there are a few other things I could bring along. My spare hand finds a pencil and I add to the list.

Breakfast, then, is unexpectedly leisurely of pace and my mind takes the opportunity to nip off for a wander. I’m dismayed and uncomfortable, in fact entirely affronted. Another man, another man, is with my ex-partner, at her hospital bedside, as I root around for the Marmite. That’s ok, it’s alright. We have, after all, been separated for some six months. He’s not news. And yet… another man, another man, is being introduced to my son as I sit here pouring a second mug of tea. My son, my parents’ grandson, nephew to my brother and sisters, cousin to my nephews and nieces, is becoming acquainted with, presumably being held by somebody I have never met, barely twenty-four hours into his life. Is that alright? My wandering mind finds no answer.

I had no intention of meeting the significant other, an other as significant to me as to her, albeit in a very different way, until after the birth of my child. There will be no soap opera scene, no “who do you think you are?”, no face to face meeting in the corridors of the maternity ward, no fear of that. His is a shadow long since cast over the pregnancy and the anticipation of my first child, and for now I determine to place his presence to one side. So, parking the primal outrage that’s swelling inside, I focus instead on the mundane, the essentials – the washing up, the nappies and the baby-grows. And not on bludgeoning James.

Seated once more on the top deck, my son grows larger in my thoughts as I approach, and arriving at reception, he once again commands my thoughts. From the front desk I pick up and pocket my pass in its plastic holder and head back into the transitional care unit. It’s clear from the notice on the door that it’s parents-only until the afternoon and only then it dawns. James has visited his partner and my son during parent-only hours and has used my security pass to do so. How else could he possibly have got in? Ashamed to be dwelling on the detail yards from our newborn, it turns over in my mind nonetheless – the significant other has stepped into my shoes. As far as the early morning reception staff were concerned he was me. He was the father.

In Ellie’s own room I’m re-united with our unnamed son and, assured of his relative health, I struggle briefly with myself, but it’s futile. Despite my shame, and wary of risking an unseemly argument, I point out that James should not have been here, that technically he should have waited until family visiting hours. Even as I say this I realise that that is exactly what he is now – family. What I mean, of course, is that he has no right to be here whatsoever, barely a day after my son’s birth. He can wait. There is no argument, and it soon becomes clear that both Ellie and James were entirely unaware of ward regulations, and that James had appropriated my pass (and, albeit briefly, my identity) entirely innocently and purely on account of a receptionist’s false assumption. Paranoia, then, on my behalf. But really, who can blame me? No more is said on the matter, nor will it ever be.

The issue dealt with, we return to the business of the day, and I wonder just how important my concerns are in the scheme of things. That this is a milestone in my life need hardly be said. The birth of my first, and the age of 42 now potentially only child. And for precisely that reason would it surely not be best to ease my mind and let go, to help myself by erasing it from my thoughts? But I can’t hit delete. The knife twists precisely because this is a milestone. Days like no other, and possibly never to be repeated, yet they’ve been intruded upon, violated. Briefly, and not for the first (or last) time, I wish him dead. Then I let it go. It is not my day, after all, nor hers or even ours. And certainly not his. This is my son’s time.

He’s born to a new Britain, an Olympian nation now officially at ease with itself, if only while the late summer and the afterglow of the Games lingers. Just as the country at large is comfortable at last in its skin of many colours, expressing a new, guilt-free and joyful brand of patriotism, so too I feel a shifting of the landscape within me. I can only hope it’s a change that’s not fleeting, but it appears that a lifetime of emotional constipation may be easing, even to the degree that James’ intrusion can be forgiven, and possibly even understood. A gift, perhaps, not from Team GB but from a remarkable son. A son who may have a deal to teach.

BEAUTIFUL BOY (DARLING BOY)

Day 1, 11.00

The day begins, a life begins. In a double-glazed room high above the Thames I can see London stir, silently going to work as our newborn son sets about his own business. Now cocooned in white cotton and crowned with matching hospital-issue cap, he seems bemused and not entirely impressed with the prospect of life outside the womb. On occasion, the combination of his attire and his disgruntlement lend him the air of a miniature medieval pope. It’s not a good look. The skull cap soon makes way for a hand-knitted woolly number given as a present.

I jest. He is, of course, beautiful, and is already challenging my limited descriptive abilities. Instead I gaze at him, unable as yet to do much more. I will be doing a lot of this, I suspect. We had expected a beautiful child and quite naturally so I suppose, for surely no-one expects or wishes for an ugly child. And yet I’d always felt some babies were exactly that – just not yours or mine, you understand. The image of Winston Churchill is too often and too easily invoked in reference to the recently born, and, having viewed my fair share of ten-pound hulks on Facebook recently, I often felt our greatest wartime leader has frequently been done a grave injustice.

More than once during the course of a decade-long relationship we had proudly reassured each other that our children would be lookers, and inside I’m shuddering at the memory, and all previously-held notions of beauty are swiftly reassembled in my head. For all my groping I can find no other word for him but ‘beautiful’, and yet I recognise instantly the woeful inadequacy of those three syllables as soon as they leave my lips. Similarly, the word love is now an awfully small word, a word with limitations and urgently in need of an upgrade. Much as I hate to admit to the inexpressible, my son has brought with him the ineffable, a quality intangible, and feelings that resist definition. Settle for the word love, then – call it love, though I wonder already if I’ve ever truly known it before.

This is, perhaps, the final word in natural beauty; the picture before me of the young mother cradling the newborn infant. A scene to be cherished, and yet I am vaguely uneasy as I fulfil my duties as birth PA, texting and phoning through the latest updates, summoning family, and snapping away for posterity in the meantime. We are not a couple, after all, and this milestone experience is not a shared one. I’m impatient for my turn to hold him, to have him in my arms, and to begin with the bonding.

Our beautiful boy is quiet, and remains so into the morning. But he retains the capacity to surprise, and soon delivers the second of his two major shockers (the first being his gender, as revealed by his fulsome set of cojones) – weighing in at only an ounce under 6lbs, some way short of the average of 7lbs or 7.5 which had been confidently forecast. This may account for his under-voiced performance thus far, and explains the steadily increasing amount of attention he’s been receiving from a succession of consultants. For reasons as yet unclear, he has opted not to grow quite as much as he’d appeared to from without, and so will soon be placed in transitional care, there to be monitored more closely.

His low weight has brought with it low temperature, low blood sugar levels, rapid respiration and an irregular heart beat. Life is tough when you join it without a decent amount of brown fat, it would appear. There is no drama, no urgency, no indication given that there is any need for real concern, but a higher degree of attention is clearly required and it is duly given with minimum fuss and maximum care. So, nothing to fear, then.

Nonetheless I’m afraid. It’s discomforting to witness just what a struggle life is for him so soon out of the womb – he’s working, and very hard. The rapidity of his breathing quickens my own pulse and I hand him over, into the care of experts, willing him to health. He’s placed under what looks to all intents and purposes like a grill, and we wait. Ellie takes the opportunity to recover and I can do little but retreat to the sofa provided for birth partners. Unlike my own leather behemoth, this is clearly a couch designed to keep expectant and new fathers awake. It works. I am on my feet every ten minutes, and cross each time to the plastic tray on which my son’s body temperature is artificially aided. His breathing is uneven, and to my now acutely sensitive ears, laboured. No real cause for alarm, head tells heart. “Breathe,” I silently mouth, “let me breathe for you.”

In between his toasting sessions, first tentative steps towards successful breast feeding are taken, under the patient guidance of an outstanding consultant midwife, typical of the care we encounter from all those whose help we are now dependent on. Family file through, and the clans look upon his face and see visual echoes of nephews and sons, fathers and brothers. I see no-one else. I see someone like no-one I’ve ever seen. Yes, there are hints of traits inherited; a nose I will adore for the remainder of my days, the delicate pursing of his lips, and he’s the son and heir of pockets underneath pale blue eyes that are, it seems, an inevitable consequence of being born into my family. But I am side-swiped by the arrival among us of a human being entirely unique, blessed already with a personality that is gifted by neither parent, but his alone. Calm, alert, observant and somehow …patient, he has brought with him an almost zen energy that humbles me.

Our nearest and (for the most part) dearest, leave us to our first evening with him, but it’s an evening I cannot share. It’s mothers only in the transitional care ward, so I take my leave after sundown, leaving my parental pass with security, struggling already to hang onto the mental list made between us of items needed to help see Ellie and baby through an unexpectedly extended stay.

Stepping out into the night I ease myself into the bustle of the city, feeling an extra two feet added to my natural six. There’s a new dimension within me; glimpsed only fleetingly, it remains somehow on the periphery of my mind but I’m assured it’s there. It’s as though I’m now titled, bestowed with an honour I feel I hardly merit but that I will surely grow into.

Southwards then alone on the top deck of an overcrowded bus, and the chaos and the chatter, the arguments and the phone calls, the music and the ringtones flow around me as I glow within. I hit the sofa on which I’ve maintained my lonely nine-month vigil, keeping half an eye on the news as I wolf down supermarket pizza. The bed is free, but I steer clear and as sleep overcomes I opt to remain where I am. We have long since passed the point of no return in this house, and the bed has played host to another. Besides, this fine leather sofa is by far the most expensive item I have ever written out a cheque for, and I aim to extract full value.

As my head returns to the pillow I ripped it from some twenty-fours previously, I find that I’m luxuriating in the new fatigue of parenthood. I’d dreaded the tiredness, made an enemy of it, fearing it more than any other aspect of having children. A keen and accomplished sleeper, inside I shrank and withered while politely listening to friends’ well-intended tales of exhaustion. And yet this new weariness brings with it an overarching purpose, and I sink into its arms as though reacquainted with a lost lover. My friend fatigue is fuzzy round the edges, comfy and warm like the memory of a drug from days gone by, and with the cub-like mewling of my son, my son, now rooted in my mind’s ear I succumb, and sleep a father’s first sleep…

AN ARRIVAL

Day 1, 06.49

Our unknown midwife is Peace, and she delivers on the promise of her name. Within a few short moments of being bustled into the dim glow of a room on the home-from-home unit we no longer feel the loss of our designated midwife quite so keenly, or at least I don’t. Ellie is riding the roller coaster now, and hardly minded to feel the loss of anything except the seven and a half pounds of child inside her and all the suffering of labour that’s coming with it.

Peace, I am soon to learn, has been responsible for single-handedly shooing in a sizeable proportion of the Earth’s population in both the third world and our world over the course of a career spanning more decades than she’s willing to admit to. In the spring of her vocation she’d kept a tally of the lives she’d ushered onto the planet, but had soon lost count. When I ask for a conservative estimate, she shakes her head and whispers fondly, “thousands, …thousands.” I like her, and I’m glad our small contribution to the Great Numberless will arrive in her hands.

Peace settles Ellie in, in as much as Ellie can be settled in, and starts running another never-to-be-sat-in bath, saying she’ll check on us in a few hours. She’s preparing us for the medium-to-long haul here, but clearly the fourth person in the room is tearing up the script and writing their own birth plan. With the pace of proceedings showing no sign of relenting and every sign of accelerating, Peace brings her experience to bear and ensures Ellie maintains her breathing between contractions. This is, of course, my job too, along with maintaining a steady flow of isotonic sports drinks and foodstuffs small enough to fill any space not taken by an unborn child. A steady flow of gas’n’air (entonox) is becoming increasingly crucial at this juncture too, along with an uninterrupted massage programme and as much emotional support as I can manage in between regular snacking to stop myself falling into the abyss of hypoglycaemia at this ungodly hour.

There’ll be no let-up from this point, prompting Peace to look up at me on occasion and silently mouth the words, “too fast, too fast.” Should I be concerned? Instinct tells me that Ellie’s body knows what it’s doing. Our imminently-arriving child’s body definitely knows what it’s doing. It’s getting out, and will need catching at the far side of the room at this rate.

Any parent’s perception of time is mangled at this point, whether they’re the parent doing the pushing or the pacing. Most feel the stretch of minutes lengthening into hours, or even hours into days, but here and now I feel the hours have contracted into minutes more forcefully than the muscles of Ellie’s womb. The sun’s rise has pinkened the stone of Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster, the traffic congeals on the bridge below and above us long-haul flights from across the globe nose along to Heathrow. And directly in front of me the bloody head of a brand new human is starting to show, only hours after the first early warning cries of “MOTHERFUCKER.”

This first glimpse induces a new existential panic within me, and the B-word lives again. Will I BOND? The question courses around my mind without answer, adding itself to the Peep Show commentary that is already playing in a significantly sized portion of my brain. “Will it happen? Will it be instinctive? How can it happen if part of my head is detached enough to be asking in the first place?” The inner dialogue becomes a torrent as nine months of fevered imagining gives way to reality. “I always cried at this point in One Born Every Minute, am I going to clam up now it’s happening to me? How will we be with each other, Ellie and I? Will there be a Hollywood moment? Will we kiss? Should we? What is she thinking? Is she thinking? They always kiss in One Born Every Minute, don’t they? Unless they’re with a mate because Gaz did a runner and he can’t man up enough to be there. SHUT UP YOU IDIOT, YOU’RE ABOUT TO HAVE A CHILD.”

There’s nearly a fourth person in the room now. A head has emerged. It’s blood red and facing down into the bed. Ellie is unaware of this, not quite blissfully so but the gas and air is helping. Peace places a hand on either side of the head with great care and asks Ellie to give on last push. “Oh my God, is the head out?” asks Ellie, and I can only nod. My left arm has been supporting her knee in its preplanned yogic position for some time now, and is beginning to feel like it’s been injected with fast-setting concrete. Peace’s face is a mask of concentration and I realise that however ‘routine’ (albeit rapid) this labour has been, we have arrived at a critical moment.

This child is not with us yet, I’m certainly not hearing anything, and as Peace’s two-handed grip tightens I’m seized by the irrational fear that this woman actually has no idea what she’s doing at all, in fact who let her in here, she’s about to rip our baby’s head clean off, for God’s sake be careful! But Ellie pushes for the final time and out shoots a beet root coloured rag doll. Even now, an air of surreality pervades. The combination of gore and colour (not to mention mind-altering tiredness), and the almost mechanical jerking of the new arrival briefly lend it the look of a badly-made stop-motion animation puppet in an Eighties horror movie.

Only now can Ellie sit up and see clearly. We both gasp in shock and wonder and each catches the others eye for a fleeting moment. She is crying, and only then do I realise that I am too, and have been for some time. Our baby is lifted up towards us for immediate skin-to-skin, and the crying is without cease. Ours, not the baby’s, which has yet to even start. Amid all of this there is no thought for anything, even the sex, subject of much speculation since we opted for ‘a surprise’. In fact, it’s a full two minutes before I’m first to note that I’m no longer the only person in the room with a pair of balls, and our intuitive guess at a girl has evaporated and is forgotten. We do not care. How could we?

And as he’s swaddled and capped by the safe hands of Peace, the worries of a lifetime fall away to be replaced by new ones, and two words make their first real appearance in my vocabulary. I am a father. I have a son.

(I did, of course, cut the cord. I fully intended to, but had and still have no idea why. I always light the barbecue, and I do the carving on a Sunday, too. Again, I have no idea why.)

ON THE VERGE

Day 0, 23.37

Nine months into exile on the living-room sofa, five days past our due date, five minutes after head hitting pillow and all of sixty seconds after slipping into something on the way to sleep, it begins. There is a clunk as the bedroom door is opened and there is the familiar slap, slap of Ellie’s bare feet on the creaking pine of the floorboards as she paces purposefully down and around the L-shaped corridor, but I’m barely disturbed. There is a pause in the pacing and a steadily rising moan resonates with sudden violence around the kitchen. It carries an unmistakably animal register, and I am wide awake. We are in labour.

I use the word we here, the pronoun (first person plural) used by a speaker to refer to himself or herself and one or more other people considered together. But this we is a particular we. This is the we that’s beloved of expectant couples, the we that’s been used across the breadth of the English-speaking world for generations now. It’s the we that we’ve all heard, even if we’ve never used it ourselves. As in ‘we don’t know what we’re having, but we think it’s a boy’, or ‘if it’s a girl, we’re thinking Edie’. It’s a cuddly we, a cosy we, sometimes a cute we, more often a vomit-inducing we. It’s an exclusive we, an almost royal we. It is the we of the couple with child.

But this is a we used through habit alone, because tonight in this South London flat there is no we, there is no us. There is me, and there is her, and there is our unborn child, now only hours from life.

It’s a child that was planned, wished and hoped for, a child conceived well into the eleventh year of our relationship. ‘Our relationship’, the one that broke down irretrievably three months into the pregnancy. “I want to have this child with you, but I don’t want to be in a relationship with you anymore” was the official line. Those carefully chosen words have jagged and rattled ceaselessly inside me since, but now at last the time to mull on them is ending.

With a shared sense of endeavour is swiftly established, a plan hatched on the back of six weeks of antenatal classes is promptly enacted. Ellie rocks back and forth on the Adidas ball, grasping the kitchen worktop and sucking in air as the waves of contractions mount. As the language approaches the industrial we decamp to the bedroom, the first time in months my presence here has been deemed appropriate. Ellie takes to the bed on all fours, and we are instantly plunged into darkness. Without power or time to wonder where it’s gone I reach for my iPhone and fumble for the app I intend to use to time the ever-quickening rush of contractions. Downloaded on the breezy recommendation of cheery midwives, we’re soon cursing both my app and hers, unable to credit the conflicting timings we’re presented with. With power and light now restored we kneel side-by-side between contractions, and realise our attempts at timings are futile – the animal in Ellie is now running the show, and our child is hurtling towards us and into life…

I lose the following hour and a half in an ecstasy of multi-panicking, Ellie’s regular and full-lunged cries of ‘MOTHERFUCKER!’ now reverberating around the flat. I bomb between bedroom, kitchen, living room and bathroom. I fill a bath that won’t be sat in. I fetch the largest available bowl to receive Ellie’s projectile vomit as our fast-emerging child displaces her dinner in its struggle to begin the journey from the womb, around the u-bend and out into the world . I carry out last minute checks on the hospital bag, ensuring Ellie’s home-made flapjacks aren’t forgotten. I phone through to the midwives, only to discover that our designated midwife is laid low with food poisoning, and her back-up is unable to leave a nearby home-birth. Shit. Ellie and child are now hurtling forward into the future like a steam train, and I’m mentally preparing for the drama of an unattended birth – by candle light and on the old brass bed, hot water and towels at the ready as the midwife makes her way thought the night from the drama of one home birth to another.

A call through to the desk of the maternity ward receives exactly the response that at this moment I can have no time for. They are patient, kind, understanding, and entirely unconvinced that we need to make our way up to them. Doubtless they are mindful of the number of couples sent home tails between legs, convinced they were on the verge only to learn that labour can last a long, long time. But they needn’t be in our case. I need only hold the phone up in the general direction of Ellie, and the now familiar bestial cry of “Aaargh, MOTHERFUCKER!” can be heard down the line. “We’re having this baby NOW,” I add by way of barely needed clarification. End of conversation, and the next call is for a minicab.

With the cab on its way up to us, the window of opportunity between contractions shrinks still further and I’m at a loss as to how I’ll be getting Ellie from bed to cab. As it pulls up I sketch the scenario to a perturbed driver, and issue detailed driving instructions to ensure a smooth and hopefully birth-free journey. “Is her waters break?” I am asked. “…no?” I reply. A shame to have to insist that he takes us, but I’m forced to, convincing myself as I do that waters broken in the back of a black cab would more likely be a source of pride to the driver.

The cab’s upholstery remains dry, and Ellie is soon assuming the familiar position on the floor of the reception area. There’s now no question of a return home without child, and we’re duly ushered into a room facing the Houses of Parliament, with a stranger for a midwife and strangers to each other. We are on the verge.