A last home visit from our designated midwife, then, before Leo is to be discharged into the care of his parents – plus one other, plus the state. I can’t help but feel for Karen. The three of us came a long way down the road only for a bout of food poisoning to keep her away just at the moment it became the four of us (five of us, for those keeping count, but four as far as she’s been concerned). Nonetheless she’s here to dot the i’s, cross the t’s and sign Leo off with a cuddle before nudging him off into the stream of life. She’s early and as Ellie is on her way back with Leo we sit and drink tea in the living room.
Waiting on mother and child, and alone with each other for once, we fill the time with a spot of dad talk. How have I been finding things, then? Things? …hmmm. Things are… interesting. Really interesting. But she’s asking about me and Leo so I talk about me and Leo.
I tell her that I have to admit it’s been surprisingly easy thus far, and I wonder why I feel ever so slightly guilty as I do. Perhaps it’s simply because I know that for the time being it’s undoubtedly harder on Ellie than it is on me. The relentless three-hour cycle of feeding continues apace, and she is naturally feeling the strain. When I do sleep, I’m unlikely to be interrupted within three hours because Leo needs to latch on to my breast.
More likely I feel I should instead be talking through some problem or other because, well, that’s what having a baby is like, isn’t it? Problematic. Hard work. The situation is problematic, no doubt. But no need to go there. And it’s certainly hard work. But I don’t have a problem with that.
In terms of myself and Leo alone, my confidence with him has been something of a revelation – to myself, if not to anyone else. Just handling a baby, even the thought of it, seems fraught with all manner of anxieties for any number of new fathers. Certainly, in my childless years – that previous life now gone forever and fast receding from memory – I’d heard a good deal about the care one takes, about the nerve-shredding frailty of a baby. I’d heard a good deal of fear.
Not that I myself had ever volunteered first to hold the baby – be the baby nephew, niece or firstborn of friends. I’d taken my turn of course, plopping the nonplussed tot on my lap for what seemed the shortest socially acceptable period of time permitted before offloading it onto the next, and invariably more enthusiastic incumbent. It was just a baby, after all. It wasn’t mine.
I wasn’t entirely cynical. I saw friends reshaped by parenthood and if anything envied them their progress, suspecting that it was I who was missing out; I certainly didn’t assume they’d been brainwashed or lobotomised. I sensed even then that the feelings I saw in them lay dormant in me. I’d caught a glimpse of a future in which I too was a father. But it was only one future among many, and it wasn’t my baby – not yet. I knew that something would fall into place when (or if) it finally happened to me, but I saw little point in second guessing it. Whatever that something was, I had no need of it. Not yet.
They’re a different species, babies. For the most part cute – adorable even – but for all that mere visitors in your (relatively) untroubled existence. Then one happens to you and you see they’re not actually babies at all. The invisible barrier that up until now had separated you from them is now gone. Now, for the first time, you see them for what they are. And they are in fact tiny human beings – brand new ones, new models and genetic revisions of you and your lover. Or ex-lover. Or friend. Or casual acquaintance. There’s no rule.
Bill Hicks was wrong, it is a miracle. Yes, it happens all the time. Billions of little miracles arriving at what may well be an environmentally catastrophic rate, and destined largely for less than miraculous lives, but miracles one and all nonetheless. But it only happens to you once. Twice if you’re lucky. Any more that can be considered a bonus. Or a burden.
Up until now there’s been nothing at stake, nothing invested. It’s been years of you, her, your family, her family, the cats, your mates, your football team. But then one winter morning you sit alongside your ex as she lies on a hospital bed and you peer into the world of the unborn in the spectral gloom of the ultrasound scan and you see a child as yet sexless become manifest before you and you feel the tectonic shift within you just as surely as you feel the tears rolling down your face and you snatch a look at each other and for now it doesn’t matter what’s happened between you or how you’ve hurt each other, it doesn’t matter at all, and here it comes…
And then it’s with you and it isn’t a baby anymore, and it’s certainly not an it – already I can’t stand to hear ‘it’, or ‘the baby’. He’s a human being. He’s Leo. He will grow, laugh and make others laugh, work, play, learn, sing, cook, earn money and pay taxes, party, hurt and be hurt, love and be loved, break hearts and be heartbroken, grieve, raise children of his own, grow old and die. He is mine. He is everyone’s. It’s terrifying, it’s liberating and it’s beautiful.
Ellie and Leo arrive, and he wastes little time in surging through the 6lbs 4oz mark. Now it’s the four of us again, and the talk turns to matters of family, as well it might. A family is what Karen is looking at, after all. She brings up ‘plans’, and the subject of our next child and contraception is raised. We certainly have plans, but the prospect of another child is deftly batted to one side. We’ve had a bit of practise now.
In closing, we’re given an end of term report that betters most I ever received at school. It seems we’re deemed savvy parents, role models even. And at last, I’m glad she doesn’t know… That time may come, should we meet again, and I can’t help but wonder if our midwives might be all the more impressed were they to know the full story. But still, we’re not here to be graded.
I grew to be vaguely envious of our midwives in one respect. It was the clarity of their evident sense of vocation. Midwifery has, as the novelist Michael Chabon has noted, ‘a fair claim to being one of the most fascinating jobs a human being could undertake to do.’ I can hardly disagree, even if I won’t be volunteering to retrain just yet. Karen has closed the door on the drama of one birth and will within hours begin opening new doors to many others. As Chabon says, ‘it’s just sort of a job, and at the same time it has all of this amazing charge around it.’
As she leaves we’re invited to return soon to antenatal class, there presumably to dispense pearls of wisdom to the poor lambs plunged into the unknown from the perspective of those who have been there. We readily accept, and as I close the door I ponder what is perhaps the greatest irony of the new status quo. Here I am, the ideal parent, whatever that may be, most boxes ticked. Headhunted, even. And yet, turning back into the flat, I stand alone. And yet that’s not it. I’m not alone, and never will be. And how glad I am. Oh, the ironies…