Monthly Archives: November 2012

ON THE NIGHT SHIFT

Day 6

The pram in the hall. Google that. You’ll be fed a list of links to no small number of blogs and blogspots, written mostly, but not exclusively, by mothers on the subject of a particular anxiety – that their creative lives have been curtailed by the arrival of a child. You’ll also see the phrase placed in its correct context; the quote which first lent it fame, ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’

It’s a quote I originally became aware of when I’d heard it alluded to in an interview given by Nick Cave, no doubt fretting that the presence of buggy and occupant in his household were inhibiting his best musical efforts. I somehow got it into my head that the words were first spoken by Cecil Day-Lewis, and reasoned that if the pram in the hall does indeed signal the death of creativity, then there must surely be some comfort to be taken in the fact that it’s Daniel Day-Lewis who’s in the pram. It was of course the critic and writer Cyril Connolly who first gave utterance to the words, and in doing so nailed the fears of innumerable parents before or since.

But I have no such fear. Indeed I hail the new muse, welcoming the firstborn (not to mention cherishing him as the possible sole born) and the inspiration he offers. He’ll bring distraction too, naturally, but ideas come easier to the diverted mind. For now, my concerns are somewhat more prosaic. The logistics of overnight care for a newborn are challenging even when his parents aren’t sleeping at opposite ends of the corridor and they need to be addressed. The pram in our narrow hall (a Quinny Buzz, since you ask) is proving to be the sombre enemy, not of creativity, but of freedom of movement.

Perhaps we’ve both been afflicted up until now with a blind spot, or it may be that we’ve trusted too readily in our ability to adapt and improvise, but our situation brings with it an unforeseen problem. Not sharing a bed with the mother of my new child puts a limit on my capacity to be there and to help. There’ll be no sleepy ‘I’ll go…’ muttered at all hours in the ear of the beloved here. The Moses basket is stationed by the brass bed in the room formerly known as ‘ours’. Should it be with me in the living room? I see no good reason why not – ‘My bedroom’ is more spacious, after all. But this question, as with so many others in these early days, is settled in mother’s favour (though perhaps it is me that is favoured) – proximity to mother being of paramount importance, as Leo has taken to breastfeeding with some enthusiasm. Yet there is room for manoeuvre still within the confines of the space and situation, and Leo becomes a happy satellite to Mum’s moon, always returning from his orbits with me.

And so begins the curious choreography of our new nocturnal rhythm; each learns their respective steps, and we manage. After the near-pantomime of the evening meal, which at intervals involves me spoon-feeding Ellie who in turn feeds Leo, Ellie retreats to the only bed in the house, leaving me with new friend on the sofa. With late night TV for our companion, I take him in my arms and sink back into worn brown leather, tipping him gently onto his side as he drifts off, swaddled on my chest. As mutually satisfactory as this arrangement is, after a couple of hours of BBC4 music documentaries and cycling highlights he’s no longer the only guy in the room likely to nod off, and I’m on guard.

This vigil is to be kept for as long as I am humanly able, in order to give Ellie the benefit of as much uninterrupted sleep as possible. This is shift work. But our untimely uncoupling has sharpened my fathering instincts, granting them a competitive edge, and I take up the gauntlet, challenging myself to keep Leo with me ever further into the night. Keeping busy seems the logical way to stay awake and there’s plenty to be done, starting with the dishes. Reluctantly I rise and lay Leo down on his makeshift bed – an immense cushion on the low sofa, which is in turn surrounded by furnishings soft and otherwise – the kind of bed no midwife would recommend nor health visitor approve of, though he’s safe and sound. On tip-toe I retreat to the kitchen and pad around the creaking floor boards as the boiler softly rumbles. It’s a warm night, but I feel the chill of childless evenings to come.

Drying as I go I flit constantly between kitchen and lounge, needlessly checking for a fall I’ve made impossible in any case. Within ten minutes Leo is stirring and I’m back on the couch, rocking him to his rest once more. It’s a pattern that’s repeated until he’s finally taken by sleep deep enough to allow me to join him, and with the kitchen in some semblance of order I do so. I daren’t allow myself to drop off with Leo on board, so I nudge him atop his cushion into the far corner of the sofa and slide myself onto the generous stretch that remains free, my head to his toes. Securely fenced off though we are, still I refuse to yield. Each moment before sleep is a moment to savour, a moment spent listening to the steadied rhythm of his breath. It is, after all, our first night together, and I’m not inclined to let it from me just yet. Minutes, hours pass and Leo interrupts the reverie before oblivion arrives. Hunger is his alarm call. It’s feeding time.

As yet, only mother’s milk will do, and so with a deft scoop he’s in my arms as we prepare to head through the darkness to Ellie. I allow myself a brief moment to marvel at my previously inconceivable assurance in handling him, and in that moment the big toe of my right foot snags in the bottom of my left pyjama leg and I lurch headfirst (Leo’s head first) through the dim light towards the solid wood of the bookcase. In the time it takes for my breath to catch I switch him into the nook of my right arm and shoot my left out to seize the frame of the shelf. Catastrophe averted, I steady myself, but my heart is racing off ahead of me nevertheless. Leo picks up on the panic and his crying escalates accordingly as we round the corner and negotiate the narrow length of the corridor and the pram within. Ellie’s bedside light flickers, a beacon as I negotiate the sombre enemy, and I shoulder open the door to deliver Leo into the arms of freedom.

It is three in the morning. I slope back to the sofa. It will take Leo all of thirty minutes to feed. He’ll then spend the remainder of the night tucked away in his Moses basket by the bed, as Ellie takes the watch. By eight he will rise from his slumbers, and mother with him. She will deliver him along the corridor from one bedroom to another, from the south wing to the north, and on to my waiting lap, before making tea in the kitchen. Morning, Leo.

And so it goes…

HOME AGAIN, HOME AGAIN, JIGGITY JIG

Day 5

Four days in transitional care has been time well spent for Leo. He’s gained weight, though perhaps not rapidly enough to convince that he’s on the home straight just yet. He’s bonded merrily and efficiently with his parents, their families and presumably with his prospective stepfather, too. He’s won the hearts of every female on the ward he’s come into contact with, medical or otherwise, and most of those he’s so much as passed by in the corridors.

Even at this early and tentative stage in the father-son relationship, the potential advantages for a single dad aren’t too difficult to imagine. Beautiful baby, cosying up to daddy, snuggly papoosed. The ultimate accessory. It’s a good look, a now look, a look that screams fully reconstructed male, emotionally secure and in touch with self and child – almost foolproof. Yes, as the late Nora Ephron cautioned, woman might best be advised to ‘beware of men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.’ And that’s where Leo comes in. It’s a double act. Foolproof. It’s a look, however, that also carries more than a hint of with partner. How best, then, to saunter along the streets, firstborn strapped on tight, sending the signal that denotes available, without shouting it out or attaching a sign? Further thought required…
He’s also wasted little time developing the skills required to ensure we’ll remain positively and incurably doolally about him and so stay in his service from henceforth on – his appearance, to begin with. Leo seems to be mostly eyes, and he knows how to use them. These are eyes made to capture and enslave – beguilement by genetic design. Their gaze has been finely tuned; calibrated and honed to near perfection. Eyes, eyes, eyes. In the slew of photographs that threaten already to swamp the 16GB available on my iPhone, his eyes are captured shiny black and reservoir deep, in the flesh – beware, you may fall in…
The gaze mastered, Leo turns his attentions to the all important realm of physical contact – obviously of vital importance when one lacks the capacity even to crawl and is entirely dependent on being carted from A to B.
Aside from these practical considerations, he has his primal urges to take into consideration. At this early stage of his development, these urges extend only as far as touching mum as often as possible for comfort, nurture and survival. There’s more at play, however, as David Brooks reminds us again in The Social Animal – suggesting that ‘physical contact is just as important as nourishment for neural growth.’ Human skin is, as I’m sure we all know, layered in receptors, but it’s news to me that there are two types. There is the type that allows us to identify and manipulate objects by transmitting information to the somatosensory cortex. Of course. But there is also the type that, according to Brooks, ‘activates the social parts of the brain’, initiating a kind of chemical and hormonal conversation between mother and child, easing stress and blood pressure and giving rise to a mutual feeling of profound well-being. Brooks goes on to speculate that, for mum, the previously unimagined sense of deep fulfilment arising from this soma might prove more satisfying even than sex.
Curious as I am, I’m not sure I’ll be bothering Ellie on this particular point of order. Though from my own point of view – the point of view, that is, of a first-time father who has all but forgotten what sex is, I’m relieved to discover that Leo’s arrival seems to have initiated something of a sea change in my own feelings on this particular subject. It may be the sense of completion that washes over me now when I hold him, or the unforeseen understanding and acceptance of my new place in the scheme of my own life. I don’t know. But sex no longer hogs pole position on the grid of my cerebral cortex. Already I know that that whole shebang will simply have to fall into place around my new and complicated life. In one of my photos, self-portrait of father and child, I’m flaked out on the maternal bed with Leo in turn flaked out on me. A harmonious scene, my dozy contentment plain for all to see, so I decide on a rare foray into social media and post it on Facebook. I tag the shot with a single word, the only one that feels apt – speechless. Leo has cast his chemical spell, and I, too, have capitulated, mute in my euphoria.
No doubt I exaggerate in my mind the blissful biochemical rhapsody played out between mother and child. I daresay Ellie has been pacing the floor beside her hospital bed in the small hours, Leo yowling in her arms, long after my departure for the cold comfort of the sofa, the lonely monologue of the new parent rattling ceaselessly round her head – shitfuckshitfuckshit, what am I supposed to do? Less than idyllic. And my time, too, will come.
And all of this on top of his lone and arduous task of building up blood sugar levels, steadying his scuttling heartbeat, and settling his scampering breath. The end of the week brings him his window of opportunity, a hurdle to clear before he’s home and dry. A lunchtime weigh-in holds the key to freedom, then – if his weight loss since birth is more than 10%, he and Ellie face the unwelcome prospect of a further night on the ward. Less, and it’s happy days. So with hope in our hearts, we trolley him gently along the corridor to the soft chorus of aawing and aahing that is clearly his by right of birth.
How perfect a trio we must appear to the cooers and cluckers lining our way, proud young parents setting forth on life’s greatest adventure. And this is no show, this is no act played out for public benefit. We are proud – bursting, in fact, but we’re setting out on separate paths. That’s not to say the small triumphs of the new family go entirely unshared. An American paediatric consultant welcomes us at the end of our procession and succumbs to our boy without offering so much as even a token of token resistance, vowing to add a third to her own brood so that she, too, can “have a Leo.” The champ puts in a composed performance at his weigh-in, hitting 2.45 kg on the nose. Our English brains still resolutely undecimalised in matters of baby weight, our American friend scrambles for the charts but I’m first to convert thanks to an iPhone app – 5lbs, 6oz, he’s on the money, whoops of delight, high fives all round and a gurgle from Leo.
With the formalities of discharge complete and a cab summoned, Leo is fastened to mum in his BabyBjorn carrier and we venture into the sunshine. The cab driver is quiet and tunes into Magic FM, leaving us to chat in the rear with all eyes on Leo and smiles that won’t be wiped from our tired faces. Even The Lighthouse Family sound good as we head down through Vauxhall and up Brixton Hill in the sunshine of the late afternoon.
Leo stirs only when he’s through the door and unstrapped in the hallway of the flat I’m already planning to leave. He blinks, looks around, and waits. Welcome home, son.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Day 4

Birth is an experience to forget – if you’re the one being born, that is. In terms of development (physical or otherwise) little actually changes, though things certainly get a lot more interesting. Perhaps it’s as well none of us carries into adult life any memory whatsoever of being ripped into existence from the comfort and security of the womb. The effect on the psyche might well be …complicating, let’s say. And God only knows there’s enough people out there who spend the rest of their lives wanting to crawl back in. Equally, it may also be just as well that a great many things pass us by in those early and formative months.

But do things pass us by as newborns? Deprived of recall, how could we possibly know what it is to be a baby? Without the benefit of hindsight we are left to speculate and so it seems reasonable to say that, given each of us begins life with a full complement of over 20 billion brain cells, there’s probably a fair bit going on. We dream before birth – or so it appears, given that we display rapid eye movement even in the three months prior to birth. Quite a thought, that, – for in that sleep before life, what dreams may come? We listen even as foetuses, soon able to distinguish between mother’s and father’s (and of course mother’s new partner’s) voice.

Hard as it is now to believe, the newborn was once commonly thought of as a blank slate. From the outset it was clear to me that I was meeting someone far greater than the sum of his parents’ combined genetic inheritances. This was a person brand new. A fresh personality with gifts derived, and gifts entirely his own. An original. The sense of being introduced to someone new could hardly have been more acute had he strode through the door and introduced himself with a flourish. Comparatively quiet and a keen observer, it seems to me our child has arrived with a certain quality of patience – which naturally I’d like to think assumed from his father.

Though born without self-awareness (just as well for all concerned), he seems already to know a thing or two. He’s the inheritor of what David Brooks, in his book The Social Animal, calls “a great river of knowledge…”, information from down the ages, “passed on from the dead through us and to the unborn”. Mind bending, perhaps, but I’m convinced. In between the nappy-changes, check-ups and blood tests that now mark the passage of each day, I gaze into his eyes, and it’s as though I’m gazing back through the generations and on into his future. Already I’m guessing that a great many new parents lose (or gain?) hours likewise engaged, and perhaps they feel the same curious sense of almost cosmic deja vu. When baby gazes back and our eyes lock something is happening – is there a shared sense that we’ve both been here before?

So it’s clear that from the outset, little is actually ‘passing us by’. We may gurgle obligingly, or not as the case may be, as we are passed from the arms of one adoring family member to another, but everything is clocked, duly noted and absorbed. Facial expressions and moods are read and instinctively understood. It’s thought that a six-month old can even differentiate between the features of monkeys that look alike to the adult. So he should know who his father is. Blank slates – unlikely; sponges perhaps.

And a name for our new sponge? That’s an ongoing conversation that definitely has been passing him by. In fact it’s a conversation that pre-dates his arrival by years. Long before he was even an idea, we’d tested out any number of monickers across years of of bedtime chats – cosy chats with cats on the bed, chats that gave definition to our future family, perfect and nuclear – one boy, one girl, one adopted and all attended on by a menagerie of pets. Funny, how it goes. When he became something a little more definite than an idea, those endless lists were soon whittled down to a pair of shortlists – one for each sex – carefully curated on my iPhone. Opinions were judiciously canvassed, whilst taking the greatest of care not to feed ideas to other prospective parents.

Girls names were carefully paired one after the other with my surname, until one was left standing – Olive, with her close rival Orla falling at the last. We know an Orla. Our trawl through the ranks of boys’ names proved less fruitful, leaving us with an unresolved shortlist of three. A problem we hope our new son might now apply his 20 billion brain cells to. Let him choose it. With one of the favoured names already held by one of the cats (such a beautiful name, we’re sorely tempted to use it twice, though we’ll spare him the ignominy), two remain. Dexter, having made a late dash on the outside, is now takes a tumble at the last. It’s a cheeky name (cocky, almost, and with a distinct London edge to it) – for no good reason other than the immediate mental association we both make with a young Dexter Fletcher in ‘Bugsy Malone’. And we don’t have a cheeky baby. Yet.

So we’re left leaning towards one last idea. In fact, in all today’s correspondence by text, calls and email, he’s been known as “we’re leaning towards… (name)”. The intrusion of social media, however, soon brings the inevitable as an eager sister posts a hastily-tagged photo on Facebook. The genie is out of the bottle, and our son is nameless no longer.

With the decision made and the title conferred, I take him in my arms and walk him down the corridor, leaving Ellie to sleep, with an attendant paediatrician who has kindly waived the formality of having him wheeled along in a clear plastic box. I drink up the chorus of cooing and clucking admiration along the way, and enter the room in which the latest tests are to be taken. On this occasion a cannula is applied with some pressure to his tiny, beetroot-mottled foot, so as to drain off a sufficient amount of blood. His face crumples with the injustice of it, and he wails his his outrage down the length of the corridor. I’m left to comfort him and wait for the results, only to discover that a series of air gaps in the cannula preclude an accurate reading. The procedure is repeated, as are the wails of outrage – this time rendered with sheer disbelief that this could possibly be happening a second time. The guilt of the young paediatrician is genuine and affecting, and our boy is now on a promise to return and deliver her a smart kick when he’s of an age. Once again, I’m left to cradle him in the now darkening room. He flops and sleeps.

It’s now handover for the medics, and for a time it seems we’re forgotten. An occasional friendly face pops around the door with a cheery ‘are you ok?’. We’re fine. We wait. I leave the lights off, stand and slowly pace with him beside the vast windows overlooking the Thames and watch the sun slip out of view. For the first time in my adult life I have no idea that my beloved Liverpool Football Club are playing at this moment in a crucial European tie. I have no idea what’s going on in the world beyond these four walls. I have no idea I’m hungry. I’m oblivious to all else but the bundled five-odd pounds of boy I’m holding. I peel my focus from him briefly, taking in the headlights and tail lights that snake back and forth Westminster Bridge. But my eyes are soon back on his face, a mask of tranquillity now, blissfully heedless of recent traumas as he adventures in slumberland. Brave as a lion, our August child. “You’re good, Leo,” I murmur to him, “you’re good.”

MECONIUM BLUES

Day 3

Having hastened once more through the warm night and into the cold embrace of a long leather sofa, I sense the distinction of paternal responsibility is somehow amplified by the absence of my son. As mother and child settle and become acquainted in transitional care I shuttle back and forth along the corridor of the 159 bus route, maintaining my own solitary paternal vigil as I feed myself and two newly neglected cats, sleep, shower and replenish supplies for the trip back to the ward.

I cycle in, opting to re-energise with a charge through mid-morning traffic. I leave my helmet by the door, ignoring the recent and much-publicised (and not to mention wise) counsel of Bradley Wiggins. Perverse as it seems to be reckless at this time, I need the wind in my hair more than I need the knowledge that should I be flung from the frame, my head and its contents may or may not be saved by a piece of moulded polystyrene.

On the ward we wait. The pleasure of bringing baby home is to be postponed until we can be satisfied that he has lost no more than the 10% of his body weight that any newborn can be expected to shed after birth. Ellie heads to the ground floor for fresh air, papers and tea, and I head to her vacated bed to hold him close. As he lies swaddled on my chest I’m astounded once more by the urgency in the rhythm of his breath. Each intake of breath is duly followed with an exhalation but his tiny gasps for air are without a settled pattern, and despite what any doctor may tell me I’m unable to take the next inhalation for granted. Doctors and midwives take turns to gauge his breath-per-minute rate, and the spectrum of results is bewildering – anything from 50 to 100, with between 30 and 60 considered an acceptable average. I lie still and breathe with him.

Presently he stirs and attempts to latch on to my nipple, in a vain effort to feed. I’m flattered and would dearly love to oblige but though my nurturing instincts are roused, I am clearly at a biological disadvantage. He is seeking out mammary glands that are, unfortunately for him, currently to be found in Marks and Spencer on the ground floor and I’m left to ponder on just how much of a brick wall my inability to lactate might prove to be in the coming months.

Ellie returns and I sip tea with my baby-free hand as I scan the copy of The Times that lies spread across my lap. Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, predicts with some confidence that ‘people who are alive today will walk on Mars’. It’s a bold, exciting claim and looking at the infant boy I hold in the nook of my arm I wonder what progress might be made by humankind within the span of his lifetime. I doubt that any combination of talents inherited from either myself or his mother might one day help him to set foot himself on the red planet (though who can say?), but I thrill to the prospect that he might one day watch on as a contemporary makes mankind’s first giant leap since the year before my own birth. It seems the practicalities of a manned mission to Mars might rule out a return to Earth, rendering the trip a ‘one-way ticket’ for those brave enough to boldly go. ‘Many people would volunteer to live out their days on Mars,’ Sir Martin maintains. I wonder who might and whether my boy might ever bear witness to such lonely sacrifice.

Rees may be optimistic in his belief that manned exploration of (and, who knows, beyond) our solar system may once again be prioritised in the coming century. I hope his confidence isn’t misplaced, though I suspect that economics, a culture of risk-aversion and a pervasive poverty of ambition will continue to ensure that unmanned vehicles, rovers and robots carry on doing the job for some time to come. But it seems certain my new son will at least have a far greater chance than ever of living long enough to see how far we can reach. The Office for National Statistics predicts that more than a third of babies sharing my son’s birth date will live to become centenarians. Good news for the babe in my arms? How will he be in 2112? That, I fancy, will all depend on the life he leads. He’s likely to be older, and I’m sure he’ll be wiser, than I ever will, but I’m not sure I’m envious of the capacity to outlive those around you. We don’t seem particularly well-equipped as a species when it comes to forecasting or planning even decades ahead, never mind across the comparative eternity of a century. Much as I marvel at the idea that my offspring may live to see dates on their calendar that to me were dates from science fiction, I’m unable and unwilling to accommodate the thought of my newborn awaiting death a hundred years hence. I drop the thought and mentally bookmark the statistic, fully intending to bore listeners with it at some future point.

Nappy-changing punctuates the day and I swap meconium-filled nappies for fresh with happy abandon, bringing to my allotted task all the primal male pride taken in a lifetime of lighting barbecues, starting fires, and carving Sunday roasts. Or cutting umbilical cords. But as I work, cooing all the while as the warm, yeasty and comfortingly familiar smell envelopes me and binds me to him, the full extent of James’ future involvement dawns on me, and the shadow is cast once more. From a point in the near future, he and Ellie will live together as a couple. What were once fears will harden into realities. He will change nappies, just as I am changing them now. He will change my son’s nappies. The thought can no longer be avoided yet it remains elusive and surreal, a vision from a parallel universe incompatible with my reality. To all intents and purposes, my son will have an additional father.

The shadow looms, and whilst there is no palpable tension within these four walls, there is discomfort within me and the absence of tangible shared joy is troubling. Will my son thrive with them, basking in the sunshine glow of their new love? Will I toil clumsily in my efforts to connect with him, struggling gamely in my new and unwelcome status? With those thoughts I take my leave and strike home for the couch.

Before unlocking my bike and pedalling south I’m drawn to the light show on the opposite bank of the Thames. Past Olympic glories played out at intervals of four years throughout a century and more are projected onto the Gothic facade of the Palace of Westminster. I join the loose gathering of tourists and Londoners alike gathered by the waterside and watch dreams made reality and hopes shattered, ambitions fulfilled, hearts and records broken. I turn back and crane my neck, searching out the lights from the seventh floor room I’ve just left. I can’t walk away, I think to myself, I can’t leave you. And how many times will I walk away from you now, how many times must I leave you? I turn my back on hospital and spectacle both and walk on, no direction in mind.