Venting

I had planned to write a very funny post tonight about being fooled by cynical marketing ploys. Like how Franklin W. Dixon, who wrote the Hardy Boys books, and Caroline Keener, who wrote Nancy Drew, never existed, but were a conglomerate of about thirty authors under two pseudonyms to create brand loyalty among eight-years-olds. And how Panadol is simply Paracetamol, just three times the price; Nurofen is no more than Ibuprofen, but it has a pretty advert so people think it’s worth the extra money; and Nutricia, who make Aptamil, and Cow & Gate, who make Cow & Gate, are actually the same company.

Yes, it’s quite a shocker. Different coloured lids, one a reassuring scientific blue, the other a family friendly red, but they’re two sides of the same coin. Apparently, despite having identical ingredients, the amounts of each are marginally different and they source them from different places – probably meaning Aptamil comes from the left teats and Cow & Gate the right. Whatever the case, I’ll never look at the formula market as a triangle, with SMA as the third corner, ever again. It’s more like a line.

But that’s not what I’m going to write about. Instead I’m going to vent.

Venting is healthy, venting is necessary, and if we didn’t find safe ways to let out the scream that’s been building then we’ll either let it out in damaging ways or else our heads will explode. Which, come to think of it, is probably damaging too, except for carpet cleaning companies, who’d love it. I digress…

I was going to make a joke about Izzie screaming for six hours to celebrate turning six weeks old. The joke would have worked, had she stopped screaming after six hours. It’s eight hours and counting. I love my child, I love being a dad, but right now, nearing midnight, eyes pink, back aching, ears ringing (yes, really) from the window-shaking volume of my daughter’s cries, I just wish she could shut up for five minutes. Just five. I’m not asking for a miracle here, people. 300 seconds of silence. Please God, that’s not too much to ask.

To say that Izzie has been difficult the past couple of days is like saying the Himalayas are a little hilly. Her mother was out all day yesterday, leaving me in charge of puppy and baby both. I was really looking forward to catching up on some sleep, doing my model, reading a book, and just generally relaxing with my daughter. Endless hours of grizzling, crying and feeding later, she was asleep in her cot. At shortly after midnight.

Today was so much worse. After a pleasant morning at the New Forest Show, where she spent most of her time trying to lift her head and gaze at all the people passing by, four o’clock arrived and Izzie turned into a monster. She screamed the entire car journey home. And when I say screamed, I don’t mean simple crying, I’m talking about peel-the-paint-off-the-wall, angry, strength-sapping roars of the deepest portion of hell.

She screamed in the lounge. She screamed through the hallway. She screamed up the stairs. She’s screaming right now in my lap at I jiggle her up and down while writing this with one exasperated hand.

Actually, I tell a lie. She hasn’t been screaming continuously for eight hours. She’s been feeding, screaming, feeding, screaming in a cyclical pattern. Although that’s not accurate either, as she’s making a moany, screechy sound as she’s feeding, and screams every time she pauses to breathe or swallow.

I’m slightly at a loss here. She’s so distressed she won’t latch onto the dummy. Changing her, burping her, rocking her, singing to her, taking her for a drive, a walk, into the garden, baby massage, it has no effect whatsoever. She just wants to feed and scream.

She normally has around 22 ounces of milk each day. She’s already up to 30 ounces, and has had boiled water, and still she wants more. If it’s a growth spurt, as Lizzie suggests, I had better look in the Moses Basket in the morning and find she’s shot up in size like Jack’s beanstalk.

How can a baby even stay awake for eight solid hours? How is her throat not rasping and sore? How can she fit all of that milk inside?

Lizzie has just asked if our baby is superhuman. No. The full moon isn’t till Friday, but it’s been building up a few days. The hunger, the screaming, the copious amounts of body hair, the way she claws at us no matter how neatly we file her fingernails, the fact she’s more alert at night than during the day, the desperate champing at the teat as though nothing will satisfy her bloodlust  – it all makes sense now. She’s a werewolf, isn’t she?

Right now, she’s a werewolf that can’t act on her desires. So God help us all when she learns to walk.

The following morning:

She slept for a solid six hours last night. I don’t remember the last time I had six straight hours of sleep. I feel a little woozy – I’m too well rested.

Reflecting on last night, I think all parents need to find a way to safely vent. You can be as patient as a saint, but nobody can indefinitely endure such an assault on the senses. It’s not just the noise, either: seeing the despair on the baby’s face and being unable to do a thing about it cuts to the heart, messing with your emotions and leaving you just as desperate and willing to try anything. It’s so easy to lose control in that state, and you can’t afford to ever lose control around your baby.

If you can’t cope anymore, you just don’t know what to do, make sure the baby’s safe, make sure she’s in a clean nappy, put her in her cot or pram or basket, and leave the room. Get out of there. Go back a few minutes later when you’ve calmed down. You can’t help the baby if you can’t help yourself.

And remember, things always seem worse at night. Especially when there’s a full moon.

Advertisements

Knowing What’s Right

As a new parent, you want to get things right. You want to do the right kind of feeding, whether breast or bottle, the right amount, the right products, the right process. What kind of teat, how fast the flow, normal or anti-colic, two-hourly, three-hourly, on demand? You want the right sort of nappies, the right size, the right comfort. Sleepsuit or outfit? Woolly hat or sunhat? Is she warm enough? Too hot? What’s the right thing to do?

Unfortunately, ‘right’ is a fluid concept. It changes depending on who you talk to, which books you read, the websites you consult. It changes from child to child, and no matter how much you weigh up the evidence for one thing against another, the answer remains ever elusive. Short of turning your baby into a test subject as you experiment on them with various methods and tools to see what works, which not only makes you and your child confused but damages your bank balance, you have to find some way of navigating through all this mess.

The answer seems to be a little esoteric.

I have known a few psychics in my time, mostly teenaged self-proclaimed witches and middle-aged divorcees with ‘the gift’ who go on to prove it by telling me I’m sensible when the situation calls for it, but also fun in the right circumstances, that I’m extroverted at those times when I’m not being shy, and that I am confident except for when I’m not. Wow, you should charge money for that. You are? No wonder my wallet feels so light.

Anyway, as an endlessly inquisitive and sceptical sort of fellow, I wanted to know more about the process of being, ahem, psychic. They told me they received ‘impressions’. Well then, what form did these impressions take? Did they see visions? Did they experience it as feelings? Did they hear it as voices? Thoughts? Some other sense that those of us on the non-psychic plane of existence couldn’t understand?

And how clear were these impressions? Were they vague and poorly formed? Were they a tangled jumble of thoughts and feelings? How did they sort out this bundle of interconnected data streams? How did they interpret them?

Apparently, that’s not how it works. You don’t ponder, you don’t analyse, you don’t question and evaluate and formulate. You just know.

As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome who has to think his way through everything, the idea that you can ‘just know’ is an alien concept. Like those other cliches ‘follow your heart’ and ‘go with the flow’, I can’t select a course of action without first weighing up all the available options and comparing the possible benefits and repercussions. My world is a rational world of thought.

At least, it was until last week. Lizzie and I were always averse to dummies (pacifiers for my American readers). Then one day we looked at a horribly unsettled, colicky baby, looked at one another and said in one voice, ‘Let’s get her a dummy.’ Neither rhyme nor reason, no analysis, no evaluation or assessment. We just knew, intuitively, in that moment, that it was the right thing to do.

And it was. For the past week, Izzie has been a calmer, happier baby. It isn’t lazy parenting, it’s doing what your child needs. I wouldn’t recommend it for every baby, but Izzie needed something to soothe her between feeds more than cuddles, rocking, burping and going for walks. In spite of the censure of people who don’t matter anyway, I know we made the right decision.

Loathe as I am to admit it, having a baby has made me realise you can overthink things. It is hardwired into our DNA to know what is right for us and our babies. If you’re faced with an impossible decision, switch off your brain and allow your instincts to take over. You might find that your intuition already knows the right thing to do.

But take my advice: if your instincts tell you to try the baby’s milk, they’re not to be trusted. You’ll be tasting that warm sour yoghurt tang the rest of the day.

The Meaning of Life

I never wanted kids. If they were anything like me, they’d be annoying, dissatisfied, egotistical misanthropes, and if they weren’t anything like me, I wouldn’t like them anyway. Kids are fatal to your own future: every generation reinvents the world anew, so by having children I’d be paving the way for my own obsolescence. I was too selfish for kids, I’d be a horrible father, this is an awful life of soul-destroying wretchedness, and it’s irresponsible to bring children onto an already overpopulated, polluted, strife-ridden planet.

Oh, and did I mention I was really, really contrary in an elitist if-everyone-else-is-doing-it-I-don’t-want-to kind of way? Yes, I was a hipster before there was a word for it.

So one day, maybe not too many years from now, my daughter will ask me why I changed my mind, and that is a question that’s very difficult to answer.

The stock response would be that I was getting older and we’re biologically programmed to ensure our genetic legacy. Triops, those ugly puddle-dwellers you can buy your kids instead of sea monkeys, only live for sixty days. They reach adulthood, breed, lay eggs and die. When the puddle dries up, the eggs lie dormant in the earth until the next time they get wet. Life, leapfrogging through time, rainstorm by rainstorm.

I was explaining this lifecycle to my cousin one day when she said, ‘What’s the point?’

I guess the point is existence itself.

So strong is this urge to procreate that last night, the baby wide awake as she had been for five hours, both her parents feeling sick, exhausted and heavy-limbed, the cat scratching at the bedroom door, the nappy bin overflowing, the dog whining for attention, Lizzie declared that she wanted to be pregnant again.

‘Now?’ was my incredulous response. Izzie’s only five weeks old, after all.

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘I loved being pregnant. And I want to experience labour again. It went so quickly last time, I didn’t get the chance to enjoy it.’

Now, I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure that crazy talk is down to her hormones whispering in her ear, ‘You’re fertile, breed, breed!’

But biological factors are not the reason I had Izzie. To paraphrase Bill Bryson, my lineage – everyone’s lineage – goes back several billion years, from that first amoeba that found life in the primordial soup and asexually reproduced, through countless aeons, orders and incarnations to culminate in the being that is me. Every single one of my millions of ancestors was born, reached sexual maturity, and managed to successfully reproduce before they died. They survived ice ages, volcanic eruptions, meteorite impacts, earthquakes, floods; they walked with dinosaurs, megafauna, insects as big as your arm and snails the size of Volkswagens; they evolved to meet every crisis, and as humans outlasted the Egyptian Pharoahs, the Roman Empire, Viking raiders, the Crusades, the Black Death, the Plague, the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, Napoleon and two World Wars.

If I didn’t have children I’d be breaking a chain that goes back to when the world was new. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure. It’s like being picked to carry the Olympic torch and letting it go out – nobody wants to be that guy.

But that’s not the answer either. The truth is that as the years went by, the more I felt as though something was missing. Like my cousin and the triops, I looked at my life and wondered what was the point. Without kids you become centred on yourself, on what you have, what you do, what you want, and eventually it begins to feel empty.

I realised over time that there’s no meaning in bricks and mortar or trinkets of tin, certificates on the wall, money in the bank. What matters are the connections you make, the people you touch, the lives on which you have an impact. Taking for yourself bears no comparison to giving of yourself. The meaning of life, I firmly believe, is family.

My daughter may one day ask me why I brought her into a world full of hate and pain and suffering. My answer is that life thrives among the ruins. There is beauty amidst the horror. I have seen coral colonising sunken ships. I have seen flowers growing at Auschwitz. And I have seen families love, and support, and forgive one another, when all around them was falling apart. That is worth more than all the pain the world can serve up.

Making Memories

Anybody who has seen the movie Alien cannot forget the scene where they try to cut the face-hugger off John Hurt, only to discover it has concentrated acid for blood. It burns through the deck, so they run down below to see it burning through to the next deck, and the next, and the next. It stops just before it eats through the hull and vents into space. Great scene.

Except when you experience it yourself.

The other night Izzie was sitting in my lap while I was feeding her when I suddenly thought, ‘Why does my general groin area feel damp?’ It turned out that Izzie had peed, and it had somehow made its way through her nappy, through her vest, her leggings and her dress, through my shirt, through my jeans, through my underwear and to my skin. She doesn’t have urine in her bladder: she has some super powerful alien pee that cuts through whatever you put in the way to stop it. I thought showering vomit out of my armpits was bad; washing your daughter’s pee off your man-parts in the sink is something else altogether!

But now I’ve written it, this story will be remembered. That is my revenge. It will be resurrected in years to come whenever Izzie needs a little embarrassing, and should she wish to know what she was like as a baby.

The same can’t be said for my origins. All I know about my birth is that my mother didn’t form placentas properly, something she found out when my brother was born weighing three pounds, so when she fell pregnant with me she had injections to give me extra nourishment in the womb. My dad missed my brother’s birth so was adamant he’d be there for mine. During labour the midwife told my dad it’d be hours before I arrived so he should go to the canteen and get a cup of tea. Five minutes later I popped out, and I’ve been disappointing him ever since.

Having had a baby, I want to know more. What exactly were these injections? Where did they go? How long was the labour? What pain relief did she use? How did they feel when they first saw me? And afterwards, what was I like as a baby? How was I over the first few weeks? I want info!

Unfortunately, my parents can’t remember anything beyond the fact that I was a miserable sod who made their lives a living hell. For one thing, it was thirty-five years ago; for another, in the blur of nappies, feeds, a jealous toddler, and moving house two weeks after I was born, all the colourful little details that put flesh on the bare bones of the story weren’t committed to memory, so were lost.

I’m not unusual in this. Asking around, it seems that for most of us, our early years are a hazy dream, some facts with very little context and a couple of out-of-focus photographs of us being held by people with bad haircuts and worse clothes. In those days, before paternity leave, when men’s involvement with babies started and ended with ‘breadwinner’ and they left the women to raise the kids, when the most technical thing in the house was a calculator and everything was written by hand, dishwashers were for the rich and microwaves cost the moon, it’s only to be expected that they spent their time trying to survive, not recording the minutiae of my life.

In today’s day and age, there’s no excuse. Apps, blogs, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter; cameras and notepads and recording devices built into your phone; it takes just a couple of minutes a day to make sure that nothing is forgotten.

All those little idiosyncrasies you love right now, the funny faces, the amusing behaviours, those precious features that make your baby so uniquely yours, can easily be lost in the fullness of time. As our children cannot remember this time themselves, it falls to us, their parents, to remember for them: the way Izzie stares at a point over my shoulder when I feed her, making me paranoid someone is sneaking up behind me; the way she grabs my bottom lip and tries to twist and pull it off; and the way she reaches one fist above her head and stretches out her body as though she thinks she’s Superman. The stories we tell now need preserving for posterity.

In years to come, when they hate us and wish we were dead, when they’re pushing our buttons and making us insane and we can’t think what on earth ever possessed us to have kids in the first place, we need to remember how we feel now, the love that binds us all together, and all the little things that make it worthwhile. Because this is the best thing we’ve ever done.

We owe it to them to make memories of this time. We also owe it to ourselves.

The Baby Expert

New parents beware: sightings of the lesser spotted baby expert are at an all time high. Found in streets, parks, shops, pubs and your own home, as well as on the internet, this genus of the family interferus feeds by offering unsolicited advice and passive-aggressive criticisms of your parenting techniques. They are best avoided when tiredness makes it harder to hold your tongue, though as babies attract them, there is no known repellent that works.

The lesser spotted baby expert can be further divided into a number of species: the judgemental acquaintance overfamiliarus, the childless spinster that used to be a nursum, the earth mother organica, the internetus anonymous, the never had kids but I have strong opinions on the subjectumthe my daughter/friend/hairdresser/person I saw on TV had it much tougher than you but they’re still breastfeedingo, and, possibly the most pernicious of all, the had a baby forty years ago and in my day we did it like this and even though it goes against everything the midwives and health visitors and paediatricians say it didn’t do our kids any harmus. This last, often known by their common name of ‘Lady Macbeths’, can become quite offended if their advice is not immediately heeded without question. Best fobbed off with the line, ‘We’ll consider it.’

Unfortunately for the would-be baby expert watcher, no two have the same song. Use a dummy, sings one; never use a dummy, sings another. Teach her to suck her thumb; don’t let her suck her thumb. Cure constipation with laxatives; don’t use laxatives, give her boiled water; change to a different formula; use orange juice; yoga; massage; a cotton bud up the backside. Hold her like this; like this; like this. She’ll be too hot; too cold; too much sun; not enough sun; let her sleep; you have to wake her; you’re feeding too much; you’re feeding too little; too often; not often enough; make her sleep in her cot; she’s okay in your arms; she’s having too much stimulation; she needs more. This makes things rather confusing, and not a little annoying.

What the new parent must remember upon being accosted by the lesser spotted baby expert is that these creatures are experts on their babies, and on babies in general, but they are not experts on your baby. And while they insist on getting involved, the only people responsible for your baby, the only people qualified to make decisions that affect your baby, and the only ones who will have to deal with the consequences of those decisions, are you, the parents. The baby expert will fly away when it detects the scent of another baby elsewhere, and the parent must be able to look themselves in the mirror each morning, or evening, or whenever in the day they can find the time to look at themselves in the mirror, and be comfortable with the decisions they’ve made, and know they made them for the right reasons and not because the baby experts browbeat them into compliance. If you can’t justify it to yourself, just don’t do it.

Libraries are full of what other people think – all that matters is what you think. So during this upcoming season, watch out for the lesser spotted baby expert. It can be a nuisance, but it is more noisy than harmful. And if it gets too much, there’s no harm in reminding it that you are the only expert on your baby whose opinion matters.

Perspectives

I don’t want to go all New Age tree-hugger on you, but having a baby changes your perspective. As someone set in his ways, and a bit of a cynic with it, I figured my attitudes wouldn’t change much – none of that wishy-washy heal-the-world tosh. But loathe as I am to admit it, having a baby alters your perspective on things you were sure you had pegged.

That national treasure known as the NHS, for example. From the perspective of one who’s never used it, it’s the best of Britain, albeit sadly dying under the dual weights of lack of funding and mismanagement. From the perspective of a dad who spent a week visiting his newborn daughter and her mother, it’s already dead. I can’t fault the staff that work there, but one midwife covering a ward of twenty-five beds? That’s not just dangerous understaffing, it borders on criminality!

My perspective has changed on people too. Some of the ones I thought before the birth would be the greatest help have been conspicuous only by their absence, while others I thought were a waste of space have given generously of their time and effort and stepped up to the plate. It’s amazing how a little thing like a baby can bring out the true nature of people. I guess it’s done that to me.

I’ve changed my stance on public breastfeeding. Whenever I heard about somebody being asked to stop breastfeeding in a restaurant, or swimming pool, or public library, I’d go all Daily Mail and agree. ‘Too bloody right,’ I’d think. ‘There’s a time and a place for that sort of thing.’ But after watching Lizzie whip her boobs out in front of all and sundry, and the relief it gives to the baby, I really can’t understand what the fuss is all about.

And single mothers. Let nobody say that being a single mother on benefits is easy. This parenting lark is hard enough with two people, let alone one. So now, when I see a woman on Channel 5 with three kids under four by different dads, instead of right-wing indignation I wonder how she’s able to cope and if she’s getting enough sleep. Before you know it, I’ll be reading The Guardian!

My perspective on my parents has changed too. I look at my little baby, so perfectly formed, so pristine, and I wonder if one day she’ll want to deface her skin, or punch holes in her body parts. I speak as somebody with four tattoos who had his ears, nose and tongue pierced by the age of twenty. I understand now why my parents were so against it. It’s not because they’re culturally-arrested conservatives who can’t appreciate artistic self-expression, it’s because they can’t bear to watch you damage the body they’ve been protecting since the day you were born. Sorry mum and dad – my bad.

There are a host of behavioural changes too. When I’m out driving with precious cargo, I hesitate at junctions and roundabouts, passing up gaps I would have taken four weeks ago because now they seem too risky. It takes me forever to cross a road with the pram, waiting until there’s absolutely nothing coming before I make my move. The cat isn’t even allowed in the same room as Izzie, and when people come to visit I wonder how good their personal hygiene is, and what germs they might be bringing into my home. My perception of risk has changed the world into a significantly more dangerous place.

And my emotions have changed. Never a proud man, when I push the pram I feel a burst of pride; never sentimental, if I see a cute outfit I go all gooey inside and have to buy it; and never possessive of anything in my life, if somebody’s been holding my baby too long, I have to fight the urge to claw their eyes out while screaming, ‘Get your grubby hands off my daughter! She’s mine, mine, mine!’

And along with all these other changes, having a baby has changed my perspective on cliches. I hated all that guff about how ‘you’ll feel differently when you have kids of your own,’ and, ‘until you have a baby you’ll never understand.’ I hate it even more now because, from my perspective, it turns out that it was right.

On Bodily Functions

The procedure for looking after a baby is nowhere near as difficult as you imagine. So long as you’re putting stuff in one end and clearing it up as it comes out the other, the rest mostly takes care of itself. I’ve stopped feeling for Izzie’s pulse every thirty seconds, and I sometimes go a whole hour without checking she’s still breathing. Providing she’s fed, winded and in a clean nappy, there’s not a lot that can go wrong.

So far, so simple. You’d think.

But putting stuff in one end and clearing it up as it comes out the other can be a friggin’ minefield. And when stuff comes out the end it’s meant to be going in, and stops coming out the other, it throws everything out of sync.

We were following a wonderfully modern, touchy-feely thing called ‘demand feeding’. It is exactly as it sounds: you feed the baby when she demands to be fed. Because babies aren’t machines. Sometimes they want a light snack, sometimes a five course dinner followed by an all-you-can-eat buffet. And sometimes they want to take it in their mouth just so they can spit it back out.

I think it’s a fundamentally decent principle. On my travels I met a dreadlocked German girl in a hostel/hippy commune above the ocean who lived by the rhythms of her body. She ate when she was hungry, slept when she was tired, and spent the rest of the time knitting beanie hats, as far as I could tell. She told me to get rid of my watch, listen to my body, because my body knew best and would never steer me wrong. She seemed so in tune with the vibrations of the world I thought I’d give it a try.

I lasted around three hours. Despite what Lizzie might tell you, my body doesn’t talk much, or perhaps I’ve lost that connection with my instinctive animal nature. So I’m all for Izzie keeping in touch with her body’s desires.

Her natural inclination is to cluster feed. That’s where, instead of leaving a few hours between feeds, she wants to feed, feed, feed, with only fifteen or twenty minutes between, and then sleep for five hours, before waking to feed again. Left to her own devices she’d cluster feed all morning, sleep all afternoon, cluster feed again from tea time to early evening, then settle into more regular feeds overnight. It might not be ideal for everyone, but it worked, and other than some griping in the evening, we had a very contented baby.

Except for the constipation. We give her laxatives morning and evening, but still her belly goes rock solid, she lifts her legs, sticks out her tongue and turns purple as she strains to squeeze out a thumb-sized nugget. It’s horrendous to watch, actually, and no matter how many times I put her on her back and do bicycle movements with her legs, it doesn’t seem to help.

The Health Visitor came a few days ago and told us that as we’re no longer breastfeeding, we shouldn’t be demand feeding anymore. Instead, we need to get her into more of a routine, feeding her three or four ounces of formula every three hours. She’ll feel more secure and it’ll help with the constipation too.

Pardon my French, but what utter, total bull-plop!

The last couple of days Izzie’s morphed into a wild beast that claws at our necks, rips glasses from faces, breaks necklaces and grabs collars while screaming at the top of her lungs, and she hasn’t pooped once. Because she doesn’t want to feed every three hours. Between each feed she’s unsettled and agitated. And at night she’s inconsolable.

Friday I fed her at ten and it took until one in the morning to settle her. She woke up three minutes later as it was time for her next feed. Afterwards, she was so unhappy it took till half-two and skin-to-skin for her to stop screaming, whereupon she burped and threw up the whole of the last feed over my bare chest. And because she’d vomited, she was now insatiably hungry again. Showering sticky milk vomit out of your armpits at three in the morning is sure to put you in a bad mood, especially when she’s up at five screaming again!

Last night was just as bad. I’m averaging three hours of broken sleep a night, and perhaps an hour during the day. They say you reach a point where if someone offered you £1000 or a full night’s sleep you’d take the sleep. There’s no contest: I’d take the money and use it to hire a nanny for a whole week of nights.

Since making this change to feeding, Izzie is miserable, Lizzie’s confidence has taken a massive leap backwards, and I’m on the verge of hallucinating about fluffy white pillows and bed linen. Perhaps, in the long term, getting Izzie into a routine is a good thing, but from where I’m sitting, the ‘chaos’ of her natural bodily rhythms was far easier than the vomit and tears of this artificial routine.