Travels With Baby, Part 1: Facilities

The main thing I’ve learned from taking Izzie on holiday to the Isle of Wight is how baby-unfriendly the world can be. And that’s not just the occasional person muttering, ‘F**king babies,’ as you squeeze the pushchair past their rotund frame on the pavement – it’s the facilities, or lack thereof. If you’re a parent in general, or a dad in particular, they sure don’t make it easy.

Arreton Barns, for example. I asked about baby change facilities in the pub. They had them, but only in the lady’s. So can I go in? No. They brought out the changing mat and I was obliged to take it into the men’s loo and change her on the floor of a cubicle. Not the cleanest or most hygienic place to put my knees, or, for that matter, my baby.

Cowes: the baby change was in the public disabled toilet, which was locked with one of those special keys disabled people have, but that parents don’t have. Not overly helpful. So I went to the nearest pub, which didn’t have baby changing facilities but allowed me to change her on a bench out the back. Very good of them.

And Sandown is clearly still stuck in the 1960s since there are no baby changing stations in the men’s loos, forcing me to change her on the passenger seat in the car in the rain – not much of a problem except the seat slopes towards the rear of the car, meaning she keeps face-planting into the upright. But that’s better than Whitecliff Bay, which has no toilet facilities whatsoever, and doesn’t seem to mind you getting sand in your baby’s bits.

I’m starting to sound like a bit of a moaner, but in addition to the above, in the past week I’ve changed my daughter’s nappy in a doorway down an alleyway, in a lady’s toilet, in the boot of the car, on a grass verge beside a car park, and on the floor of a tent – though the latter was admittedly kind of unavoidable since we were camping. It’s not so much that I mind  changing Izzie in random places – after three months you’re a dab hand at changing a nappy – it’s that if people object to something as discrete and inoffensive as breastfeeding in public then how will the crowds of shoppers and tourists react when I pop her down on a bench in the High Street, whip off her clothes and proceed to wipe oodles of smelly green and yellow poo out of her creases? I’m going for ‘unsupportive’ at the very least.

I know there are people out there who’ll say, ‘There weren’t changing stations in my day, we had to make do with broken glass and rusty nails,’ but just because they suffered doesn’t mean everyone has to or the situation can’t be improved. Sometimes you’re quite a distance from the car with the baby in a sling when she drops a bucket of gloop in her nappy that starts to spill out and soak through her clothes and you just can’t wait. And it’s incredibly awkward trying to change a baby when you’re on a slope and it’s blowing a hoolie, with one hand holding her ankles, a second cleaning her up, a third hand trying to keep leaf matter out of her bottom, a fourth preventing her from sliding off the changing mat and rolling down the hill into a ditch where she’ll never be seen again – you get the picture.

So top marks to Osborne House for having an entire room in which to change your baby, and a large one at that, without a toilet in the corner and piss on the floor. Unfortunately, they lose points for their dashedly rubbish bottle-warming arrangements.

For those of you that don’t know, you make a baby’s bottle by mixing cooled boiled water (boiled water that has been cooled, yo) with some scoops of formula (powder) and either heating or cooling the resulting liquid to body temperature, since we’re trying to fool kids into thinking the milk comes from a breast and not an udder with additives.

But here’s the rub – the mixture is apparently only safe to drink for two hours and it’s impossible to keep stuff at the right temperature until you need it. So before heading out for the day you boil the kettle, fill a bunch of bottles with water, pack the powder and leave the house weighed down like a freighter. When little one needs a drink, you take a bottle of water, pour in the powder, shake vigorously and ask a nice waitress or waiter to bring you a small jug of hot water into which you can place the bottle until the formula is the right temperature. Simple.

Except when I asked for a jug of hot water, the man at Osborne House looked at me like I’d asked him for a mug of pure, unfiltered urine. He went away, came back and told me he couldn’t bring me hot water because of ‘health and safety reasons’. But he offered to take the bottle out the back and heat it up for me.

Now, the reason you see us splashing milk on our wrists is not because we like the smell of dairy – it’s to check it’s not too hot and going to scald her, or too cold and going to make her gripe. While there’s no real evidence that cold milk is necessarily bad for a baby, their digestive systems are still developing, and if from an evolutionary viewpoint we’ve evolved to drink milk at body temperature, at least for the first few months, then why mess with nature?

Yes, daddy, why?
Yes, daddy, why?

So how on earth was Mr Waiter Man going to get my baby’s bottle to the right temperature? Splashing it on his wrist? No thank you, sir, she’ll just have to drink it cold.

He then proceeded to serve us our teapots of boiling water without a trace of irony. Health and safety, my ass!

But then, perhaps he had a point. Two other places gave us boiling water in wine coolers. Great for the heating, but when it comes to getting the bottle out, it bobs up and down like a fishing float and burns your fingertips while red hot steam scalds your hand. But even that was preferable to the place that gave us a cup of hot water – a cup that was smaller than the bottle!

So, restaurateurs and city planners: you have the power to make the world a much easier place for us parents. A plastic changing table that folds down from the toilet wall, and half a jug of hot water – not a cup, not a wine cooler, a jug. That’s not asking too much, is it? Is it?

The Truth About Parenting

Izzie is three months old today, so I’ve been a dad for a quarter of a year. It is one of those milestones that encourages you to look back, assess, evaluate, decide what you did well and what was wrong. I don’t believe in regrets, but there are a few things I could have done differently and that I wish I’d known about before Izzie was born. And with that in mind, I feel I’m qualified to tell prospective parents and new parents how it really is, and offer some advice from my experiences.

(FYI, I’m not going to refer to the baby as ‘baby’ in this post because that smacks of a 70s midwifery handbook (‘pull baby out, turn baby over, smack baby on the bottom’). Likewise, alternating between he and she is confusing while s/he is just plain annoying. Thus I will use ‘she’. Half of you will be pissed but the other half perfectly happy.)

  1. Plan for it being pure hell with a few light points and you won’t go far wrong – make no mistake, this is going to be the hardest thing you ever do. If you have any illusions about it being fun, joyous, magical, you should get rid of them now. Being a parent is a wonderfully enriching, fulfilling experience, but it’s hard work and it’s draining, and you need to go into it with a realistic appreciation of what you’re about to face. If you mentally prepare for a worst-case-scenario and it’s not that bad, you’ve lost nothing, but if you’re not prepared and it is a worst-case-scenario, it’s going to knock you on your ass. The light points make up for the dark, but they don’t come often, especially at first. So be ready.
  2. Make sure you have plenty of muslins – I had no idea what a muslin was before Izzie was born, but these large squares of cotton are essential. Ostensibly they’re to mop up spillages during feeding (I use them as bibs) and for protecting your clothes from baby vomit while burping, but there are so many more functions. Because they’re thin and breathable you can put them over the baby’s face when transferring her to and from the car in the rain, or when out in bright sunshine without adequate shade. You can lie the baby on one when doing an emergency nappy change on the back seat of your car, or line the changing table in the public toilet so your precious doesn’t pick up another baby’s germs. You can fold them and put them under the baby’s head in their crib or basket to catch dribbles, meaning you don’t have to wash their bedsheets so often, and you can even use them for a game of peekaboo.
  3. Nappy changing isn’t that bad – this is one of the biggest fears of prospective parents and it shouldn’t be. Yes it’s gross, yes it’s smelly, and yes, it can spread all over her clothes and yours until you’re both sitting in yellow poop. But if you’re changing ten nappies a day, by the time she’s 13 weeks you’ve changed 910 of the things and that’s enough to make anybody an expert. What at first takes ten minutes rapidly becomes a ninety-second piece of nothing. So don’t worry – you’ll get it.
  4. Caring for a baby is pretty simple – you think beforehand that babies are incredibly complicated little beings, but they’re not. If our ancestors could raise them in the wilderness without any instruction, there’s no reason you can’t, and the fundamentals haven’t really changed. If she cries it means she’s hungry, so feed her; windy, so burp her; uncomfortable, so change her; tired, so put her down to sleep; has guts ache, so lie her on her back and press her knees (gently!) up towards her chest to help her fart; or wants cuddles, so cuddle her. Mostly, a crying baby means she’s hungry, because they’re always hungry. And if you get into a routine of feed, then burp, then change, then cuddle, then put down to sleep, you avoid much of the crying.
  5. Caring for a baby is mostly horribly repetitive – if you think caring for babies is exciting and varied and confusing and intellectually stimulating, it’s not. It’s a chore like any other chore. You sterilise bottles, make up bottles, feed, burp, change, repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Unless you’re breastfeeding, in which case you’re getting sore expressing milk all the time. That’s what you need to realise from the outset. What you’re doing over the first few days is what you’re going to be doing again and again and again and again until it’s second nature. And it’s not exactly exciting. It is what it is, but it has to be done while you wait for the bright points.
  6. You’re not going to break her – babies are surprisingly resilient and often simply bounce without much harm if dropped. But I’m not advocating you treat her as a basketball either. New parents carry their babies like they’re china dolls with cracks in them, but you should really carry them the same way you’d carry a rabbit or a puppy – firmly but fairly. Babies settle easier if you hold them with confidence, not like you’re worried you’re going to drop them.
  7. You will learn to function despite the lack of sleep – this is another of the main things prospective parents worry about – how will I cope when the baby is up every couple of hours? If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll get through the first six or seven weeks on adrenalin, no problem. But after that, the tank runs dry and you still have to get up, still have to deal with things in the dead of night, with no energy and eyes glued shut with sleepy dust. The next few weeks you get through with good old-fashioned gumption and bloody-mindedness. There is nothing physically keeping you going but will power and determination. But the good news is that you reach a point around eleven or twelve weeks where you don’t feel as tired. You look like crap and your mind isn’t anywhere near as sharp as it ought to be, but your body has become accustomed to the strain and you can survive. It’s all about surviving.
  8. Don’t worry if the love is not ‘immediate and unconditional’ – I always thought I’d feel an overwhelming surge of emotion when my daughter was born, and was a little concerned that I didn’t. This is, however, completely natural – by the time you’ve got through labour and birth with all the screaming and all the blood and they hand you this swollen pink bundle that looks Mongolian, you’re in too much of a daze trying to take it all in to feel very much of anything. But it comes later – a few hours in my case. And it grows over time until you’ll look at your baby and would rather die than be apart from her. And that’s when you’ll bore everyone to death about how much you love your baby.
  9. Babies play havoc with relationships – no matter how well you get on with your partner, or how much you love them, one day you’ll look and them and think, ‘My God I hate your face!’ This will be followed by niggles, passive-aggressive barbs, digs, arguments and full-scale blowouts. The stress, responsibility and exhaustion of raising a baby, the heightened emotions, fear, pride and possessiveness, along with adjusting to the changes in your life, leaves your nerves frazzled, your patience worn and your temper fierce, and the person you’re most likely to take it out on is the person right beside you. Mostly over things so minor that afterwards you can’t work out what the fuss was all about (‘What’s wrong with you? You told me there were three bottles sterilised. There are only two. Wah, wah, wah!’). If your relationship is strong, you’ll be fine because you make allowances for each other and know you’re in this together, come hell or high water. If it’s not and you think a baby will bring you closer together, start packing your bags. I don’t mean to be harsh, but the strain a baby puts on your relationship is intense, and if there are cracks in it before the birth, they’ll be gaping chasms afterwards.
  10. You will become paranoid – all those things you did unthinkingly before like pulling out into traffic, crossing the road, stroking strange dogs, going out without a jacket – suddenly these things are risks that could harm the baby. You look around for hazards and you see them everywhere. If you’re walking under a clear blue sky you take the rain cover just in case. You triple check seatbelts. You start to look at the cat as the predator she is. When people you’ve known for years want to hold the baby you wonder when they last washed their hands and if you’ve ever seen them drop anything. This is, again, totally normal – you’re meant to worry about keeping your child safe. Just make sure it doesn’t reach such an extreme that you wrap her in cotton wool and refuse to leave the house.
  11. Don’t lose your identity completely – it’s very easy to become a martyr, and perhaps you even want to, but it isn’t healthy and it doesn’t make you a good parent if you burn out. From now on, people will see you as the baby’s mother or father and not as a person in your own right, so don’t make things harder on yourself by becoming nothing more than a parent. Pick one interest, one thing that defines you as you, be it cycling, reading, fishing, knitting, and try to keep doing it. You probably won’t be able to do it as often as before, but it’s the best way to stay sane and to remain anchored in your life at a time when you feel as though you’re being swept away. Plus people who can only talk about their kids and nothing else are really freaking boring.
  12. Learn Dunstan Baby Language – this is the main thing I wish I’d known about from the start. I’ve mentioned it before in a post (Baby Talk) and was rather dismissive of it, but it’s actually really useful. It’s the idea that all babies have five ‘words’ when they’re born, such as crying with an ‘n’ sound means they’re hungry (‘nargh, nargh!’), a staccato ‘eh, eh, eh’ sound means they have wind and need burping, while a drawn out ‘eairh’ sound indicates lower abdominal pain (i.e. they need to fart). Whether this works for you or not isn’t important – the very idea that different cries mean different things means you can listen to your baby, learn her cues, and cater for her needs so much better than before. The first two months, when Izzie cried I had to work out why; after discovering Dunstan Baby Language, the second she cries I can tell whether to feed her, burp her, change her or massage her belly, and that not only saves time, frustration and tears, it helps you bond with your baby because you’re actually communicating, and that is priceless. I can’t recommend it enough.
  13. Find a good 24-hour store – I know you think you’re too organised and well prepared to run out of something essential, and before the birth you’re probably right. After the birth, however, you develop ‘baby brain’, a condition typified by forgetting which day of the week it is, let alone being able to remember to maintain stocks of cotton wool, baby wipes, nappies, Milton (sterilising solution), formula, nappy cream, etc. You’re absolutely sure you have another packet, no doubt about it, until you reach for it at close to midnight and discover you opened it last week and it’s the one you just finished. And that’s avoiding the fact that things break, the dummy gets chewed by the dog, all the muslins are in the wash, the sleepsuits are suddenly too small, or the online community recommends using Vaseline on her nose to help with her cold. So get ready for a few late night excursions.
  14. Be flexible – you may have decided beforehand exactly how you’re going to raise your baby. Breastfeeding, no dummies, co-sleeping, ‘cry it out’ – you may have the perfect plan for raising your perfect baby. The truth is that babies don’t conform to plans, and as soon as your plan hits reality, one of them has to bend – and it’s not going to be reality. It’s okay to adapt to changing circumstances, in fact that’s what it means to be a parent. You do what’s best for your child, and you, and the family as a whole. The saddest thing is seeing parents stubbornly clinging to something that doesn’t work because they are unable to let them go. Breastfeeding, for example – if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. So stop making everyone miserable, including the baby, and find an alternative. Reality is better than any plan you can make anyway.
  15. Pick up tips – it doesn’t matter where they come from, listen to them all and give them a try. Some will work, many won’t, but they can make life so much easier. Like, for example, to stop your baby spitting out her dummy, rub her nose –  it stimulates the suck reflex since the nose rubs against the breast while breastfeeding. Or when you’re cuddling her, patting her on the bottom soothes her. Or if all else fails and your baby won’t stop crying, the best position to hold her is face down along your forearm, the side of her head in the crook of your elbow and your hand cupping her bottom between her legs. At least, these work for my baby. Yours will likely be different, so find what works for you.
  16. Don’t miss out – if Izzie is anything to go by, your baby will develop so rapidly that every day brings a new facial expression, skill, sound or movement. Izzie, at thirteen weeks, is trying to hold her own bottle, straining all the time to sit up, can both whisper and shout, and is (terrifyingly) able to pull the cord on her dangling toy to start the music playing. People who think babies are boring or unable to do anything are missing out. You need to treasure this time, because it goes by very quickly. And every smile, every giggle, every time your child recognises you and responds with affection, is a gift that you cannot buy. All too soon she’ll be answering back, and then you’ll be embarrassing, and then she’ll hate you, and be off to university, so cherish this time. It’s hard but it’s the best thing you’ll ever do.
  17. Trust your instincts – you’re a parent. Whatever you think is right for your child is right. It doesn’t matter what anybody else says or thinks or does, only what you believe. The responsibility, and the honour, is yours. And so long as you listen to your instincts, you’ll do fine.

So these are a handful of observations from a three-month dad. Hope they help.

(And to my regular readers, I’m on holiday for a few days, so this blog will be going quiet for a week. I’m sure you’ll cope!)

Baby Photos

This will be a far shorter post than usual and will ask my readers for feedback on a complex issue that our parents never had to deal with, namely, photos of our babies on social media. I have noticed that whenever people visit, they take photos of Izzie and within minutes of leaving these photos are on Facebook. So my question is: is this right?

A couple of weeks back I saw that someone had posted a photo of somebody else’s baby and the baby’s father got all shirty, saying his friend should have asked permission before sharing a photo of his baby. It got me thinking.

Part of me, deep down, thinks I should be very protective over people putting pictures of my baby on the Internet, and I should do something about it.The Internet is a dangerous place and I’m already worried about how I’ll protect my little girl in the future. I did a search for blogs the other day using what I thought was a very innocuous search term: ‘dad’. Scrolling down the results, I was confronted by a picture of a ‘buff’ dad, naked, glistening, and with a knob the size of my forearm. And I have a porn filter on my router, so it slipped through like an oiled-up cockstar. Scary stuff.

But while the deep down part of me is worried about people putting photos of my baby on the Internet, the rest of me shrugs his shoulders and goes, ‘So the hell what?’ Before the Internet, people would stick the photos they took of my baby in an album or in a frame, so I still wouldn’t have control over who saw them. Worse, I wouldn’t know which pictures were being displayed and which weren’t. True, there are a lot of sick people out there, but that’s true whether or not pictures of my baby are online. Perhap once she’s older I might restrict the amount of photos of her online because it makes her a target, not just of weirdoes but of bullies and trolls, but for now I’m not sure there’s a problem.

So what do people think? Should I get upset about people posting photos of Izzie to a-million-and-one strangers or simply smile that they think she’s so gorgeous they want to share her with the world? Because I really can’t work out the answer.

And since I have control of the photos on this page, here are some of us from a photoshoot at Closer Photography in Portsmouth (www.closerphotography.com).

Dalton_nb_104 Dalton_nb_106 Dalton_nb_118 Dalton_nb_126 Dalton_nb_139

The Physical Toll of Parenting

When someone says ‘new parents’ the first thing you think is ‘chronic tiredness’ because that’s the image we have of newborn babies – noisy, smelly sleep deprivers. Indeed, we hear mainly about the emotional and psychological effects of fatigue, and that’s not wrong because after eighty-nine consecutive nights of broken sleep I can only ascribe the mistakes I’ve been making recently to the fact I’m shattered – yesterday I put the butter in the cupboard and marmite in the fridge, spent five minutes using fingernails, keys and a penknife to pry the lid off my thermos cup only to discover it’s a screw top, and this afternoon somehow dropped my phone in a mug of coffee.

But I’ve realised of late that there’s a physical toll to parenting over and above simple exhaustion.

We all know that for women there are stretch marks and stitches to contend with (along with hormonal changes that cause them to grow scales and breathe fire, but the less said about these the better). But after twelve weeks of looking after a baby, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female: the only thing holding your body together is sticky tape and determination. And perhaps a little each of caffeine and codeine.

I have white hairs in my beard. Not grey – white. They definitely weren’t there twelve weeks ago. I’m missing a stage and jumping straight to silver! And my face seems to have lost some of its buoyancy – it’s not bouncing back with boyish elasticity after sleepless nights like it used to. I look tired.

As for Lizzie, I’ve noticed far more grey hairs hiding amongst her dark locks, but more than that, her face has changed in some indiscernible way. I’m assuming it has something to do with gaining pregnancy weight, losing it quickly after the birth, and screwing up her face muscles for nineteen hours of labour until she can crush walnuts with her cheeks. The distances between her features all seem a little off – her mouth perhaps a couple of millimetres wider, her chin a trifle thinner – so that when I lean it to kiss her, or watch her sleeping on the pillow beside me, at times she doesn’t look like Lizzie at all but a stranger in my bed. Some might find that rather exciting – I find it a little unsettling. Nobody prepared me for the fact my partner’s face might change!

Psychological symptoms are having a major impact on my physical health. I look like I’m calm and completely in control, but inside I’m constantly fretting, and so I keep getting outbreaks of psoriasis under my beard – horrible, itchy, sore, red, flaky dandruff-type stuff that I’ve never had before but is driving me mad these days. I rub the baby’s nappy cream into my beard and leave it there, white and gloopy and sweet-smelling, because it cools the irritation. And having Irritable Bowel Syndrome, I’m a nervous pooper, and my nerves have irritated my bowels something chronic – I’ve had diarrhoea five days out of seven since Izzie was born. Everything I eat comes out within a couple of hours – I can’t imagine it stays in my stomach long enough to be digested.

But it does. I know this because I’ve put on a stone in weight since the birth. That’s just over a pound a week. I know the reason. Normally we eat three meals a day because we’re asleep for eight hours, but when you have a baby and you’re awake on and off throughout the 24-hour period, you realise just how gosh-darned hungry you are at three in the morning. So sneaking a fourth meal into your nightly schedule with a bowl of cereal, couple of slices of toast, or bar of chocolate at silly o’clock, really isn’t as beneficial as you might think.

I had my asthma check the other day. My peak flow is the worst it’s been for years. Admittedly, that might have something to do with the fact I’ve been neglecting to take my inhaler, but I’m not above using the baby as an excuse.

When I struggled up from my chair a few days ago, Lizzie laughed and told me I was like an old man. She’s not wrong. Given the pain in my back, shoulders and legs, I’m hobbling around like an octogenarian. My body is wrecked (I have to be careful how I say that, because I told a woman the other day that I was wrecked and realised it sounded like in answer to the question, ‘How are you?’ I replied, ‘I’m erect.’).

Part of the reason is that I sit sideways in the armchair, my back against one arm and my legs hanging over the other so that my knees are level with my shoulders. It makes it so much easier with the baby to support her against my thighs while I’m feeding her or massaging her belly or making bicycles with her legs. It just means I’m scrunched up in a position not very conducive to my own comfort.

In particular, the lower left side of my back is starting to kill me. Being right-handed, I tend to support Izzie with my left arm so I can use the other to hold the bottle, poke her in the nose, ward off the attentions of the dog, or else scratch whatever happens to itch. When I carry her in the sling, I similarly favour the left, with the straps running from my left shoulder to right hip. This means I’m always leaning slightly to the right in order to compensate, straining my muscles as they battle to keep my spine straight.

At least, I hope that’s what it is. The past five days, the pain has moved from the surface to the inside and I can feel it if I press on my front or my back, as though it’s sitting in my kidneys. Worse, it’s spread to my right side in the past couple of days, making me wonder if I’m dehydrated and my kidneys are aching.

And my left arm hurts too. Since Izzie is twelve weeks old, has been bottle fed for ten weeks, had ten bottles each day in the early weeks and around six now, if we average eight per day then she’s been fed in the region of (clasps his tongue between his lips as he tries to calculate it) 560 bottles. If we conservatively reckon I’ve done half of those, then I’ve held Izzie in my left arm 280 times in ten weeks. This might explain why it feels like my left biceps is torn in two, and is far bigger and harder than my right. If I keep this up I’ll have an Arnold Schwarzenegger leftie and a right modelled on Daniel Radcliffe – not attractive but great for hustling an arm wrestler.

So that is the reality of parenting – it turns you into a grey-haired, odd-faced, flaky-skinned, sore-spined, kidney-aching, stiff, limping, fat, lopsided Quasimodo with diarrhoea. We don’t mention that to prospective parents!

Sparrowhawk Update

It’s a little off-topic, having nothing to do with parenting or Asperger’s Syndrome, but I thought I’d update you on the deceased sparrowhawk mentioned in the previous post (Clean Hands and Dead Birds).

I got in touch with the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme, who are sending me a box to forward it to them as they collect dead birds of prey. Not for nefarious purposes, mind – they autopsy them, take samples of various organs such as the liver (presumably with some fava beans and a nice Chianti), and test them for levels of toxins and pesticides to record long-term trends in avian populations.

So Jack Sparrowhawk is currently in my freezer.

Afterwards, they’ll send me an autopsy report, about which I’m a little concerned – if the cause of death is listed as exposure to extreme cold then my life-detection skills suck!

Clean Hands and Dead Birds

Is it bad luck having a bird of prey die in your hands? Scratch that – of course it is. The bad luck is having a bird of prey die in your hands. Especially when you aren’t wearing gloves, it’s a wild animal that could have all kinds of illnesses, bacteria and bugs, and you have an eleven week old baby.

I opened the front door this evening to find a beautiful sparrowhawk sitting on the driveway. A young female by the look of it. Long toes, curved talons, mean yellow eyes, hooked beak. But it had a tear right across its face.

I crouched beside it and it fell onto its side, stretched out its wings, arched its back, spread its tail, tried to lift its head and balled its feet into tiny avian fists. At the time I figured it was trying to assess what was damaged; looking back, it was in its death throes.

I’ve always been sensitive to the suffering of animals. I can’t watch nature shows because I find it heartbreaking when things die. I can often relate better to animals than I can to people. This is actually quite a common thing for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, which I think stems from our difficulties with Theory of Mind. People are complicated, extremely so, and their lives and deaths, thoughts and feelings, are imbued with so much meaning, symbolic and literal, that it’s impossible to understand even one iota of what it means to be another person.

Animals are simpler. While humans have many layers – intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual – and live in the future and the past, the spaces between thoughts and reality, animals live on instinct in the moment. They feel affection, hunger, fear, the need to protect their children, the will to keep living – things common to all of us, but distilled to their purest, most absolute form. You don’t need to second guess why an animal does something, or if it has an ulterior motive in wagging its tail, or what it really means when it says ‘miaow’. It means I can understand, and empathise with, animals in a way I often can’t with humans. And so a suffering animal is a call to action.

In my time I’ve rescued a litter of baby hedgehogs and two pigeons, one of which I put in a shoebox but sadly died and the other I took to the vet after finding it hanging from a tree wrapped in fishing line. If I’m walking in the rain and spot a snail on the pavement in a location it’s liable to be stepped on, I pick it up and relocate it to the nearest bush. And even though I accept that nature is cruel and animals eat one another – I’m not a vegetarian, in case you were wondering, though I have every sympathy for people with the strength to pass up a bacon sarnie – I must admit to freeing butterflies from spider webs.

All of which is a long preamble to the revelation that I decided to take the sparrowhawk into the garden, find it a box, feed it if I was able or otherwise allow nature to take its course – I couldn’t leave it struggling on the driveway where any of the local cats could torture it for fun. So I bent down, gently picked it up, and it was dead before I even straightened up.

I figure it flew into a window or wall and critically injured itself. When I picked it up, thinking I was a predator and in its weakened state, it died of shock. It was like switching off a light – instant. I knew it was dead. There’s something about holding things when they die – I’ve had dogs put down – you can feel the transition from a living, breathing being to an inert thing. You’re suddenly holding an object where a moment before you were holding a friend, and some intangible essence has left. It’s not simply that it isn’t moving anymore, it undergoes a complete change, from a fellow traveller on life’s highway to something no different from a table, and it happens in an instant. I’m not religious, but certainly when things die it’s as though an energy that we can feel through some deep-hidden sensory organ has departed – almost as though there is such a thing as a soul. But I digress…

I put the dead bird on the garden table and suddenly realised I had touched a dead wild animal. And in that moment, I started to itch all over as I pictured whatever fleas or mites could have been living in its feathers (I’m still itchy now hours later in bed thanks to my mind’s overactive paranoia manifesting phantom bugs all over me). Worse, what if it had diseases? I have a baby, what have I done?

I soaked my hands in scalding water, washed them in three types of antibacterial soap, and I’m still afraid to touch the baby. I’m sure I can’t do her any harm, but I keep wondering ‘what if, what if?’

In hindsight, as a dad with a young baby I probably should have left that poor beautiful sparrowhawk to its fate. But if I did that, I wouldn’t be me. And as Izzie grows up, I want her to see her dad isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty helping those in need. Because if we teach our kids to look the other way in the face of suffering, then what the hell kind of world are we making?

Night Feeds

Since around about the second or third week of her life, I have looked after Izzie overnight (my halo is in the post – I had to send back the original as it was too small!). But much as I complain about it, moan about how tired I am, and use it as leverage during the day (‘Can you sterilise the bottles? I was up three hours in the night.’), I must confess that I love my daddy-daughter time.

As part of my PADI training in a picturesque town called Kaikoura, I did a night dive. Kitting up on a long-abandoned wooden wharf on the headland, the van’s headlights pointed out to sea, snow-capped mountains silhouetted against the stars and the barking of seals resounding from the cliffs, it’s undoubtedly one of the most evocative things I’ve done. It was just me and my female dive instructor, no backup, nobody else to get in the way.

Linking arms so we didn’t lose one another, we stepped off the end of the wharf and descended into the inky black water. With your torches, all you can see is whatever comes into the ball of yellow light that extends a couple of metres around you. The whole world shrinks to the size of that bubble – all beyond, hidden in the cimmerian depths, ceases to exist. We became the only two people in the world as we swam along the seabed, alone but for each other.

We surfaced a couple of hundred metres out, the headlights mere pinpricks in a vast unlit universe. It’s weird being out in the water in the dark. You feel primitive somehow, in touch with your instinctive animal nature, experiencing the world through touch. And the person beside you is an extension of your own body. Night diving is the most intimate thing you can do with your clothes on – well, a neoprene wetsuit, BCD, air tank, regulator, weight belt, mask and fins, in any case. I’ve never felt anything like it.

Except when I’m doing night feeds.

At first, Izzie would go down around midnight and be up at half two and half five. Heading down to the lounge, Lizzie fast asleep, the dog snoring on the sofa and the cat purring on the bed, we were the only two beings in the world, daddy and his daughter.

Of course, feeding a baby isn’t exactly thrilling entertainment, so the first couple of weeks I’d switch on the TV and watch whatever was on – a documentary about a jaguar hunting a crocodile, perhaps, or how an American detective solved a murder case from the 1980s. After that, I started watching Monk  and Castle, half an episode at the first feed and the remainder during the second.

As time’s gone on, Izzie drinks larger amounts less often, so it takes a whole episode to satisfy her, but only once a night, around five am.

Now, every third night she sleeps right through from half eleven to seven in the morning. Of course, I wake up much more often than that, checking on her about every two hours – if she stretches, groans, breathes differently, I wake up in an instant. But our exclusive daddy-daughter night feeds look to be coming to an end.

I never thought that I’d miss getting up in the middle of the night, the broken sleep, the days when your eyes hurt from forcing them open. But it’s our special time, when it’s just us and the rest of the world have no claim on anything we are. At night, things seem bigger, and more important, than they do during the day, and I wouldn’t trade this time for the world.

Parents moan about the night feeds, the tiredness and the broken sleep, but it’s actually one of the best parts of being a parent. There is no better way of bonding with your child than holding them in the night when you’re the only two people awake in the world. I say that I do the night feeds to help Lizzie get a good night’s sleep, but really I do them for me, for my daddy-daughter time. Because every time I feed her, I’m night diving off Kaikoura again. And that’s worth a lifetime of broken sleep.