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…