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.

The best-laid plans…

After three years of trying for a baby and finding out the odds were stacked firmly against us, we gave up and decided to get a puppy instead. We still wanted a baby, and if it happened one day, it would happen, but in the meantime we would move on with our lives.

The meantime didn’t last very long. Two months, in fact. Then Lizzie was pregnant.

I hadn’t planned to have a one-year-old puppy and four-week-old baby at the same time, but these are the cards we’ve been dealt and the hand we have to play. It’s hard, stressful, and exhausting, but Izzie will grow up with a devoted companion and within a couple of years our spaniel Ozzie will have a friend to play with who has roughly the same ball control skills and ability at maths. Who is to say that the way things have worked out aren’t better than the plans we made?

When you’re having a baby it’s normal to make plans. What I’m discovering, however, is that plans don’t survive contact with babies. The tranquil water birth turned into an operating theatre, the baby harnesses that worked so well with a teddy bear are rubbish for real babies, and ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ is only good advice for people who can afford cleaners and endless takeout.

The biggest change we’ve had to face is over breastfeeding. Everywhere you look you see posters exhorting that ‘breast is best’. There are countless books, support groups and websites providing practical advice and encouragement; midwives congratulate you for choosing to breastfeed as though you’ve decided to donate all your money to help build a new birthing unit; and random strangers slap you on the back and tell you, ‘Well done.’ Well, not strangers so much as acquaintances – if strangers came up to a breastfeeding woman and slapped her on the back, it would probably end in handcuffs and a public apology.

Though it isn’t explicitly stated, the flipside of all this focus on breastfeeding is that women who formula feed are looked down on as lesser individuals, unworthy of praise. Worse, they are failing their children by giving them an inferior product. Before the birth, we were warned that not all women could breastfeed, and with typical arrogance we pitied these unmotherly wenches who couldn’t feed their own children because, of course, we would be breastfeeding ours. Problems happen to other people.

We have stopped breastfeeding. It was a long, arduous journey to come to the decision, but it is what’s best for all of us. There were many reasons that it wasn’t working, not least that, after losing so much blood during the birth and having two transfusions, Lizzie’s milk doesn’t have the fat content to give Izzie the calories she needs. We had to top up with formula after every feed, and once Izzie realised she could get more milk with less effort from the bottle, she treated the breast as the appetiser before her main meal. Less stimulation meant less milk being produced. So that was that.

From an objective point of view, it is the right decision. Mother and baby were becoming increasingly stressed by the whole thing; Izzie is now putting on weight; I can feed her any time of the day or night and give Lizzie a rest; it’s easier to feed her in public; and she got the colostrum, the important stuff, in the early days so Lizzie did her job.

But you cannot look at breastfeeding objectively. It’s an emotive issue, and regardless of how much you know it’s for the best, it’s impossible not to feel that you have failed.

Lizzie is taking it particularly hard. We had always planned to breastfeed, and the fact we are using formula makes us feel like poor parents. As I keep trying to explain to Lizzie, and myself, the odds were always stacked against us: her mother didn’t create much milk so there might be a genetic basis; Izzie had a traumatic birth and forceps babies don’t feed as well; she spent four days being fed formula through a naso-gastric tube so was used to a full belly with no effort; Lizzie has to use nipple shields, which make it more difficult for Izzie and provides less stimulation to the breasts; mother and baby were on different wards for four days after the birth so everything was delayed; and this is before we mention all the trauma Lizzie suffered. Under the circumstances, that she managed to breastfeed at all is commendable, let alone for over three weeks. There really is nothing to feel bad about.

I think the key to surviving a baby is realising that ‘plans’ are actually ‘preferences’. Then, if things don’t go as expected, you haven’t failed: you’ve simply had to adapt to reality. And that is the best that any man, or mouse, can hope for.

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.