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.”