Bursting the Baby Bubble

Despite my best efforts to forestall it – ignoring my diary, avoiding the newspaper and keeping the calendar on last month – time is marching inexorably onwards. Izzie has been registered and is now a member of a wider community to which I must soon return, and although I’m still swimming against the current, I can’t delay the inevitable much longer.

For the past week I’ve lived a wonderfully wholesome routine. I rise around 7.30 and prepare a bottle, and while Lizzie feeds Izzie I feed the animals, make breakfast, and have my sacred first coffee of the day. Then I load up the car and take Izzie and Ozzie for a walk in the forest. When I return, I sort out a few things, have lunch, deal with visitors, have a nap, and then all of us go for a walk around the village, which is the closest thing to heaven I can imagine.

After dinner I prepare the night feeds, Lizzie has a bath and goes to bed, I work on this blog or watch something while cuddling the baby, and head upstairs around 22.30. It generally takes till midnight to settle Izzie, with a couple of nappy changes and feeds overnight lasting around an hour each. This is my routine, and I love it.

People with Asperger’s Syndrome live by routines and struggle to cope with change. This is to be expected, given our rigid thinking and the difficulties we have processing new information, but Temple Grandin has an alternate theory. A remarkable woman with autism who designs slaughter houses, she believes that those of us on the spectrum are like prey animals with an overactive nervous system no longer useful in modern life. If a cow hears a sudden noise, it could be natural but it could be a predator, so it reacts. If it sees something new, it could be nothing or it could be the cause of its death, so it avoids it. The cow is happiest doing its usual thing of chewing cud and pooping pats because that keeps it safe.

People with autism are those cows. When we encounter anything new, different, unexpected, it sets off a fight or flight response disproportionate to the reality. Our bodies are flooded with adrenalin, increasing our stress levels and making it even more difficult to think clearly and cope with the situation. Hence we structure our lives to keep the unknown to a minimum and avoid stressful encounters.

Unfortunately, people with AS are also highly susceptible to forming obsessions, and when these combine with our love of routines and aversion to change, we can lose ourselves in a ‘perfect storm’ of self-imposed dissociative isolation.

I am in a baby bubble and I don’t want to come out.

Ten years ago I was part of a crew of fifty that sailed a tall ship across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. Those four weeks were some of the best of my life. Not because I was popular – I was unanimously voted the person most likely to be thrown overboard and they even printed me out a certificate that said as much – but because time was divided into a rigid, unchanging rotation of the watch system and the whole world existed in a space less than two-hundred feet long and thirty feet wide. I knew where I was meant to be, what I was meant to do, and who I was meant to do it with. I ate, worked, slept, in a fixed, tireless routine. And it suited me just fine.

As we neared our goal, after eighteen days with nothing between us and the horizon but whales, dolphins, flying fish and the occasional distant tanker, the rest of the crew looked forward to seeing land again. But I was so happy in my perfect bubble i wished there was no such thing as land and we could keep sailing forever. That first sight of Barbados, an ugly smudge between sea and sky, broke my heart.

The past three weeks my life has revolved around being the best dad and partner I can be. Even as I write this, Izzie is asleep in my arms with her mouth wide open, ‘catching flies’. The outside world has ceased to exist. I haven’t worked, paid any bills or checked my bank balance; I haven’t opened my post or returned my library books, and my emails remain unanswered. My life has become routine and obsession.

But there are smudges appearing on the horizon. If you lock the world out it has an insistent way of banging on the door until you have to let it in. I’m lucky in that I’m a (starving) writer so can work from home; if I had a regular job I’d have been back last week. But I can’t bring myself to send off another chapter to the publisher, another article to a magazine, write something that isn’t about Izzie and Lizzie and me. Not yet.

My baby bubble is going to burst and the real world is going to come flooding back in. But for today, at least, I have all that I need right here.

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I mean, why would I want anything other than these two darlings?

Three Weeks of Growth

Izzie is three weeks old. Before she discharged us, our midwife warned us about Day 21. Apparently, new mums are the most fertile they’ll ever be today. Not realising this, many women go for their six-week check to discover that there is another bundle of poopy joy on the way. So we had a lecture about women’s fertility that ended with the catchy refrain: ‘contraception, contraception, contraception!’

Can you imagine? You’re just starting to get the hang of buttoning up sleepsuits without attaching the leg poppers to the stomach poppers and you’re back to morning sickness, mood swings and hair-thinning financial worries. Just as you’re weaning one child you’ll be trying to get the other to breastfeed.

I told the midwife she had nothing to worry about in that regard. Energy is at a premium right now and when I get into bed, the last thing I want to do is waste any. Besides, last time I looked down there, in the operating theatre, it was a car crash: I’ll probably need counselling before I have the guts to go anywhere near it again!

The midwife letting us go is both gratifying and butt-clenchingly uncomfortable. As people with ‘special needs’ we had a special midwife, although she was more used to dealing with alcoholics, drug addicts and battered wives than a couple with Asperger’s Syndrome. She was meant to stay twenty-eight days but we’re doing so well she decided we didn’t need the additional safety net. I must admit, I loved that safety net.

Lizzie says that it’s real now, though why she thought it wasn’t real before is anybody’s guess. She says she doesn’t feel like a mum. I know what she means. I have no idea what a ‘dad’ is supposed to feel like, but I expected it to be different than this.

Despite the fact I should know better, I have a weakness for believing external stimuli can cause personal growth. When I was at middle school, ten years old, I’d see the bigger kids walking towards secondary school and think, ‘When I’m that age I’ll be confident and able to cope.’ But when I grew up it was harder still – age is no indication of capability. The same with travelling: I thought if I walked down the street in some out-of-the-way town in a rainforest or desert I’d somehow be taller, and cooler, and better looking. Instead, I was the same old me, only more sunburned and slightly malnourished.

I slipped into that trap with parenthood. I thought I’d become a different person, that as soon as I saw Izzie it would be like flicking a switch and suddenly I’d be mature and wise and capable. Instead, on first seeing my daughter I thought she looked like someone had left a blue sock in a white wash. Then I wondered why she looked Mongolian. I think if I’ve changed, it has taken place over the past nine months and in such incremental stages I didn’t notice it.

I don’t feel wise or capable or mature – when Izzie’s asleep I use her arms to do the YMCA dance – but I guess we must be doing something right.

Lizzie got upset when the midwife left. It being day 21, I told her there’s a sure fire way to have her back in our lives for the next nine or so months. Judging by Lizzie’s response to that suggestion, she’s not that keen to see the midwife again!

Projectile Poop

I don’t know how I’m going to cope. I really don’t know how I’m going to cope. Up to now I’d taken everything in my stride. Poop? Fine. Vomit? Get on with ya. Endless screaming? Bring it, my ears are numb. But I just encountered something I had no idea how to deal with.

Izzie needed changing. I knew this because she was making her surprised, pouty Derek Zoolander face – ‘I’m really really really ridiculously good looking. But I’m sitting in my own faeces.’ So I took her upstairs to change.

Sure enough, oodles of poop. Make that gallons. So I started to wipe and she chose that moment to pee all over herself. That’s okay. I can just finish up, change her sleep suit, no problem.

So I’m wiping and she started to poop again, like a particularly foul Mr Softee ice cream dispenser, all over my fingers. Again, that’s no problem: inconvenient, but it’ll give me something to talk about as the father of the bride. I clean myself up, continue to clean her up. So far, so normal.

And then it happened.

Boom.

I have no idea how a baby can explosively project a stream of Chicken Korma four feet across the room. I’ll admit it, I screamed. I leapt back like a gunshot had gone off. It was on my hands and the spare nappies; it was dripping down the wall and off the changing table; it ran in a line across the carpet towards the door. I didn’t know what to do.

I could have sworn that Izzie was smiling at me.

Luckily, Lizzie came to my rescue. Since I’ve taken over the night shift and she’s getting more sleep, she’s ten times better in the daytime. As we cleaned up, I thought how odd it felt to be in need of rescue instead of the rescuer. If I had been on my own, there’s no telling how long Izzie and I would have floundered about elbow deep in curry sauce. What if I’d been in public? What if I’d been right in the firing line? I’d have been painted from forehead to navel!

There’s a line in a movie called The Ghost and the Darkness. It’s something along the lines of, ‘Everyone’s got a plan until they get hit. You just got hit. The getting up is up to you.’

Well I just got hit. Projectile bowel movements are beyond what I was prepared for. Now I just need to work out how to cope if and when it happens again.

I’m thinking a shower curtain around the changing station isn’t a bad idea!

The Twilight Zone (pt II)

There have been more mysterious occurrences, but these are of the everyday variety that I imagine every parent experiences. Despite having dozens of muslins, they inexplicably vanish the very moment you need one. I sterilise six bottles and before you can say ‘deja vu’ I’m sterilising six bottles again. And last night we spent an hour looking for an errant nipple shield that we discovered had somehow leapt from Lizzie’s lap all the way into the dog’s bed on the other side of the room and chewed itself up. Weird.

Once you’ve entered the twilight zone, you rapidly lose your connection to the world around you. Before Izzie was born I would always know the time of day, the day of the week, and the date of the month. Now these things seem irrelevant, as important to me as if someone told me there’s been a coup in a country I’ve never heard of on the other side of the world. What difference does it make to my life if it’s Tuesday and not Monday? I think of the me that checked his watch every five minutes and think, ‘How quaint.’

Enhancing this sense of dissociation from the world is the fluidity of your identity. The cornerstones of who you are, those things that anchored you to life, pull out of the earth and you find yourself adrift.

Before the birth I had a great idea. I would scale back who I am, get rid of Gillan the author, Gillan the partner, Gillan the lover, Gillan the artist, Gillan the student, Gillan the charity worker, Gillan the model-maker, and all the other Gillans, and simply become Gillan the dad. Then I wouldn’t become frustrated at not being able to do all the things I wanted to do, because I was doing everything that Gillan the dad needed to do. Over time I’d let the other Gillans back in, but for the foreseeable future I was a dad and no more.

It was a dumb idea. Painfully, naively dumb. I never ceased being Gillan the partner, and in fact I could not be Gillan the dad without being Gillan the partner – the two are inseparable. And Gillan the dad is such a new identity that it could blow away on the breeze.

It’s also unhealthy to be nothing but a dad, or indeed a mum. You’d quickly burn out if that was all you did, and then you’d be no good to anyone. The few minutes I steal here and there throughout the day to write this blog, giving Gillan the author his due, keep me identifiably me. It grants me a hold on my life, tenuous though it may be. Without it, I’d be drifting through a sea of nappies and bottles in ill-fitting clothes, facing reflections I didn’t recognise.

I’d recommend all new parents keep one part of your life to yourself in the early weeks: it makes you a better parent. Instead of dividing yourself into different personalities, acting how you think you ought to act, just be you. Gillan the dad, Gillan the partner, and all the other Gillans, stem from Gillan the man. And so long as I remember that, I’ll get us all through this wilderness unscathed.

That said, Gillan the lover might be taking a back seat for a while.

The Twilight Zone

Day and night have blurred into an endless, formless twilight and time has lost all meaning. The rhythms of hunger and sleep have replaced the arbitrary units mankind imposes upon Nature. And things have taken a turn towards the surreal.

It started on Friday night when I woke Lizzie to watch the most impressive electrical storm either of us had ever seen. In every direction the sky convulsed, the lightning tearing apart the fabric of reality. The thunder claps rolled on top of each other in a continuous wave and the rain, when it came, was a foretaste of the end of the world.

Except Lizzie didn’t see it. Come the morning, she said to me, ‘Apparently there was a storm last night. I must have slept through it.’ So I’m now doing the night shifts. If she can forget witnessing someone crack open the gates of heaven, then she needs more sleep. Whether from tiredness or because I’ve been inducted into a mysterious dimension populated by shadows, and shapes, and the shadows of shapes, I’ve started to notice that the world is behaving a little odd: the inanimate, the animal and the Izzie.

When I make up bottles of formula in the night they scream at me like dying ghosts. The bedroom smells like curry powder for no reason I can grasp. A globe decided to jump off the window sill and roll down the stairs yesterday, denting the South Pacific and making a split across Asia. What does all this mean? Nothing, probably.

The animals are weirder. For some reason, the patio has become a cruising ground for earthworms, which at the moment are obsessed with sex. At 5.30 yesterday morning, a flock of seagulls descended on the street, and they were making so much noise I went out to scare them away, only to find they had opened the binbags and were spreading Izzie’s nappies all over the road. And our cocker spaniel Ozzie has become strangely suicidal, stopping in front of the pram every three seconds and asking me to run him over, or hiding under the sofa cushions as if he wants to be sat on.

More alarmingly, Izzie is doing things that I didn’t think babies could or should be doing. She’s beats me in stare-out contests and at eighteen days she’s already learned her first word: if you’re not making her milk fast enough, the hungry ‘ow-a, ow-a, ow-a’ turns into ‘now-a, now-a, now-a!’

I’m also starting to wonder if she’s in training to be a comic book supervillain. She dug her little fingers into my chest so hard the other day that she drew blood. If I’m cuddling her and she’s hungry she’s got a mean left hook on her. And while her farts smell like sulphur, her poo is like burnt ash.

The scariest thing was yesterday when I put her on my belly for some skin-to-skin. She put her feet in my belt, pushed herself up on her elbows and crawled up my body until she clamped her gummy mouth to my neck like a de-fanged Dracula. I moved her back to my belly; she wriggled back up to my jugular. Thank God she doesn’t have teeth yet!

I’m sure this sense of things being wrong with the world will dissipate like morning mist in the sunshine. Now I think of it, though, it might be less a case of tiredness and more the fact that when I was pushing Izzie round the village a few days ago, watching my feet so I didn’t trip up, I cracked the side of my head on a speed limit sign…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Post Traumatic Birth Disorder

All prospective parents are prepared for a number of things: the labour will be hard, the birth will be insane, the mum will be sore and hormonal for a long time to come, and the first few weeks will be a whirlwind of nappies, feeding, screaming and sleeplessness. With a few perks, of course, like being able to say you’re a parent and getting to use a new parking space at the supermarket. Or, if you’re really lucky, that moment the baby pees on your partner and not you.

Nobody prepares you for the psychological aftershocks of the birth itself. Now that we’re starting to get used to parenting – that is, we’ve realised we’ll always have at least one too few hands for every task – we have time to process what happened that day. And I think I preferred it when we were too busy to think.

Every time Lizzie goes to the toilet she has a flashback to the labour. It started 6am when she woke in agony and started vomiting. I ran her a hot bath but it did little to help. We went to hospital, were sent home because they thought she wasn’t in enough pain to really be in labour, and Lizzie sat in another bath and vomited some more. She had a bloody show, started to shiver, and still the hospital told us she wasn’t in labour yet – these were just pre-labour ‘twinges’. Then she started to bleed.

There was no answer from the delivery suite, no answer from antenatal, no answer from the birthing unit, no answer from the community midwives’ office or mobile, no answer from the back-up hospital and no midwife at the local surgery, so I rang for an ambulance.

The single-crewed paramedic panicked the second he saw her, called for backup because birth was ‘imminent’, apparently, and within minutes there were three paramedics, three midwives and two grandmothers crowding around the tub. Lizzie was six centimetres dilated, so they piled her and the midwives into an ambulance and set off with blue lights flashing. This was four hours after being sent home from Maternity, and less than an hour since the hospital had told us they weren’t even contractions.

For Lizzie, this was the worst of the ordeal, and now the bathroom stirs unpleasant associations of pain, blood and fear. She isn’t really bothered about the public nudity, but then pregnancy and prudishness don’t go together. Trouble is, she can’t exactly avoid the bathroom.

For me, I have a single image that haunts me: my beautiful angel Izzie lying alone in an incubator in Neonatal ICU, hooked up to all kinds of monitors, a drip in her arm and a feeding tube up her nose. She got stuck in the birth canal for two hours as she was back-to-back.

Downstairs, Lizzie was recovering from haemorrhaging on the operating table after a failed ventouse and forceps birth. I spent the rest of the night and next day bouncing between the two. At the time I simply did what I needed to do and put one foot in front of the other for forty-three hours. But now, when people ask about the birth, I come to the moment when Izzie went into the incubator and I can’t go any further. I can’t talk about the four days in ICU; the three days in Transitional Care; the day I cried because my girls weren’t coming home; the day Lizzie begged me to stay but they still made me leave at midnight.

So how do we get past these thoughts and feelings? For Lizzie I guess we need to fill the bathroom with happy memories to replace the bad, such as baby bathtimes, or else it’s as good an excuse as any to get a new bathroom suite. And as for me? I just need to hold my daughter as much as I can and assure her she’ll never be alone again.

To sleep, perchance to dream

The past nine months I’ve had a recurrent dream. I’m backstage at a play, waiting to go on, and I haven’t learned my lines. It’s okay, though, because I only have two and I’m confident I can blag it. A couple of minutes beforehand, I glance at the script and to my horror I have five pages of complex dialogue and I’m not ready and oh hell there’s my cue.

It’s obvious what that’s about. No matter how much you prepare, how many courses you attend and how many books you read, you never feel ready for the arrival of your baby. I’ve had that dream at least twice a week, often more.

I haven’t had it since Izzie was born. On the third day I dreamt I had boobs, but I couldn’t produce enough milk so the baby was crying. In the twilight before dawn this morning, in the 90 minutes between settling Izzie down to sleep and her waking up screaming, I dreamt I had just given birth to triplets, and again my boobs were empty. I’m noticing a pattern emerging here.

Izzie might only be twelve days old, but she’s already starting to grasp that while daddy might have a great beard, mummy’s the one with the breasts. I just can’t satisfy her on that one, although when she’s hungry she does seem to think I have a nipple somewhere on my left biceps. If I did, it would make things so much easier!

It makes me wonder what Izzie dreams about when she sleeps.

Apparently, babies don’t dream. Despite reaching the REM stage of sleep and spending around eight hours there each day, they have too few experiences upon which to call for creating genuine dreams. Instead, the brain uses this period of sleep to discover the body it inhabits, learning about the nervous system and creating neural links (this is what the jerking movements, distinct from the startle reaction, are all about). But how can they be sure?

Sometimes Izzie cringes in her sleep and whines as though having a nightmare. Sometimes her breathing comes in fits and starts like she’s excited. Her experiences might be limited, but all of our sensations, emotions, thoughts and behaviours are played out in our dreams, even if all we know is milk, and pooping, and cuddles.

I like to think that Izzie dreams of a man with a great beard and a nipple on his arm. As for myself, I have a feeling I’ll be dreaming of my empty boobs for quite some time to come.