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.