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…