In a World of Poo

Like sex, periods and who farted in the elevator, poo and pooping is something we really don’t like to talk about. As a species, we keep up this strange charade that we don’t poop, even though the presence of toilet paper in everyone’s bathrooms suggests we’re really bad liars. It’s a natural bodily process, yet it’s shrouded by an aura of mystery and wonder, shame and disgust, as though we’re crapping out porno mags we’d hate our grandmothers to see. And that’s just silly.

Now, I’m not suggesting it’s something we should discuss over dinner, and I’m certainly not advocating we start taking photos of our bowel movements to impress our neighbours with, but as someone who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, is allergic to all different kinds of food, and spends much of his life either sitting on toilets or else desperately trying to find them, it can be a lot of fun watching people squirm whenever you bring it up. And if we can’t talk about it, we’re not only denying the reality of our experience and reassuring other sufferers that they’re perfectly normal, we’re missing out on a lot of potential humour.

From an early age I had problems with my gut. The slightest things could trigger a bout of diarrhoea – too much wheat, too much cheese, a new food, skipping a meal, even simple nervousness. I’ve taken allergy tests (I should avoid gluten, dairy, chocolate and pulses, apparently), given up wheat, and carefully manage my diet, but while severe episodes have become less frequent, my digestive system cannot be called normal by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, I’ve been passing soft stools for so many decades, I worry what might happen to my asshole should I ever pass something hard!

I often disappear from parties, weddings, barbecues and family dinners to spend a half-hour moaning as I destroy a kindly person’s perfectly clean toilet bowl. Thanks to an episode in an Amarillo coach station, I missed my bus, leaving me stranded in Texas while my luggage travelled 450 miles away to Denver. A month ago I was sitting in traffic on a busy road when I realised I just couldn’t hold it anymore – the conclusion to this story, involving my new hat and one of my baby daughter’s nappies, I’m not going to go into here.

But why do I bring all this up on a blog about parenting? Because it’s been dominating my thoughts since I’ve spent the past six days up to my elbows in a three-year-old’s watery-porridge-like poop, and it might be all my fault.

Saturday she had a stomach ache all day and was off her food. That night it started, and by today (Thursday), it still hasn’t stopped. If anything, it’s got worse because despite being out of nappies for a year, she’s become incontinent. If you want to know where she is, you just have to follow the slick brown snail trail that leads across the carpet, and there you will find her, sitting in a mess at the end of it.

Our sinks are clogged with chocolate-coated knickers; the bath tub is populated by two polka-dotted pillows and a slime-smeared rug; and there is a duvet out on the washing line in the pouring rain because it’s better out there than in here.

Some of her clothes aren’t worth trying to salvage, so have been dumped in a bin that the sea gulls have become very interested in. We’ve put her in her sister’s nappies, but as a three-year-old who is mistaken for a five-year-old all the time, they catch only some of the deluge before giving up and resigning themselves to the flow. We are drowning in a floodtide of poo, like a Biblical plague that destroys all before it, and it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to end.

The funny thing is that she’s fine in herself – other than that first day, her appetite has been good, she doesn’t have a temperature, and she has bundles of energy – and nor has she passed it to her little sister, her mother or me, so it’s clearly not viral and/or infectious. I thought it might be bacterial, but apparently not.

After she left a big brown dollop on the landing, which I stepped in at five o’clock this morning with bare feet, I took her to the doctor, who said she would put money on it being a food allergy. Despite eating wheat since we weaned her, apparently you can develop an allergy suddenly – almost overnight. We’ve been told to cut wheat out of her diet and she’s been referred to specialists for tests.

And so my daughter may well be embarking upon a lifetime of being that awkward one at the restaurant who asks for the special dietary menu, the asshole that everyone has to buy expensive ingredients to cater for, and the bastard who keeps stinking out their friends’ houses. And she will likely talk to all and sundry about the realities of living with her condition, and inwardly smile as she watches the discomfort on their faces.

Like father, like daughter.

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The Winter Vomiting Bug

If you want to know about the aetiology of the Winter Vomiting Bug – or stomach bug, norovirus, rotavirus, gastroenteritis, or whatever the hell else you might want to call it – then read on, for I am now an expert.

First, despite the name ‘Winter Vomiting Bug’, you need to be aware that it doesn’t limit itself to just one end of the body – the explosions can come from pretty much anywhere it chooses, and often both places at once. Also, it isn’t restricted to winter – it crept into our house in the spring, and returned to provide some entertainment in time for Halloween, which is really autumn. In fact, since the name ‘Winter Vomiting Bug’ is only a third accurate, it should really be called the ‘Anytime Puking Squits Bug’, because that’s exactly what it is.

What are the symptoms? As you can gather from the (new) name, it causes guts ache, vomiting and diarrhoea. In this current manifestation, the vomit is rather neat and tidy, taking the form of a solid mass wrapped in a transparent sac of phlegm – kind of like boil-in-the-bag fish, only with more carrots. And a real powerful aroma of fermented apples, like the cider bums that sit on park benches.

I know this because when my darling daughter started to vomit at 1am while sitting in the centre of the carpet, there was nothing in range to grab, so I had to catch it in my hands. This is one of the unexpected pleasures of parenthood. But she seemed instantly more comfortable in herself, so that’s a plus.

Meanwhile, the diarrhoea is – well, diarrhoea. There’s not a lot else to say. A slightly sweet, fruity bouquet, but otherwise exactly as you’d expect.

What is the disease progression? Within twelve hours (of catching vomit in your hands), you get a real bad case of stomach cramps, relieved by burps that taste of fermented apples (at which point, you go, ‘Oh crap, I’ve caught it!). Over the next few hours, the cider burps develop an aftertaste of bacon. Gradually, these burps become more frequent and lose the apple taste altogether, now reminding you of those little burnt bits on the bottom of fried eggs. And then, as it starts to feel as though you’ve swallowed a sea urchin shell that’s rolling around in your stomach, you realise you’re going to be sick, and that as soon as you have you’ll feel better, but it’s going to be a while yet.

What’s the incubation period? I have this down – 23 hours, 37 minutes. Because that is precisely how long it took between getting vomit on my hands to experiencing the pleasure for myself. It is a particularly violent form of retching – my wife Lizzie ran around in a panic screaming ‘you’re going to die, you’re going to die!’ – and it feels like someone is smacking you in the gut with a sledgehammer, but as soon as you’re done you feel as though you could run a marathon – albeit, a marathon with regular toilet stops as the other end remains a little unpredictable.

How long does it last? Now the good news: about a day. The vomiting/diarrhoea explosions are fairly concentrated into a period lasting between a few minutes to a few hours. It’s a long time coming, but once it hits and it’s over and done with, you feel much better. Admittedly, you wonder why you can’t remember being kicked in the stomach by an entire rugby team, but it’s much easier after the explosions than before. The fragile belly lingers for a few days after, and you’ll have plenty of loose stools, but eventually it fades.

Is it contagious? Oh God yes. My wife had it first, about two hours before my daughter, so I had to tend to both at the same time. I used anti-bacterial soap and scalding water every couple of minutes, especially after handling vomit and poop and every time when moving from one patient to the other, but I still managed to catch it.

What’s the long-term prognosis? An aversion to cider. Red skin on your hands. An intimate knowledge of the inside of your toilet bowl. And, if you’re anything like my daughter, a chesty cough and cold that leaves you snotty and spluttering and miserable for at least a week.

The other night she woke up screaming 21 times. Sixteen times I dragged myself out of bed, put her dummy back in, placed her on her belly, rubbed her back until she was soothed, and stayed with her until she was snoring again. Which, for the mathematicians among you, means a deficit of five. On those occasions, I lay abed in a soporific daze, battling to claw my way up to reality, unable to rise in the five or so minutes it took her to ‘self-soothe’ a.k.a. cough and scream herself to sleep.

So this, in a nutshell, is the Winter Vomiting Bug/Anytime Puking Squits Bug. If you know anyone who has it, avoid them like the plague, for they are carrying the plague – a plague of disgustingness you don’t want to unleash upon your family. Although, telling people you’re contagious is a great way to keep the neighbours from bothering you…

The Circle of Life

They say that life is what happens while you’re making other plans, and they’re definitely not wrong. I had this week planned out in fine detail. I have to: I’m getting married on Saturday. So there is an awful lot to do and I couldn’t afford any hiccups.

You can guess where this is going.

When you’re a dad, hiccups go with the territory. I expected a few things to crop up. I hadn’t imagined that life, death, birth, suicide and viral gastroenteritis would feature quite so prominently, however.

It started Monday. I was already up against it as I had my stag-do that night, when, driving home along a country lane, I saw a ball of white fluff wandering down the middle of the road. Since it’s a busy road and people drive like maniacs, I stopped to move it out of traffic, when I realised it was something I really couldn’t leave to get run over.

There were no trees about – just bushes – and those on the other side of a ditch, and if I left it in a random hedge there was no way it’d survive. Now I know you’re supposed to leave balls of fluff alone, but these were extenuating circumstances. So I did what I thought was best – I picked it up and I put it in my car.

I had no clue what it was, but given it had a hooked beak and long, sharp talons, I had a fairly good guess.

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Any ideas?

Since the last bird of prey I tried to rescue didn’t make it, I was determined that this one would. Luckily a few miles down the road is an owl, raptor and reptile sanctuary, so I took it there. Turns out it was a barn owl chick, far too young to be out of the nest. They’re going to get him well and then find a nest with similar aged chicks and slip him in, to be raised by a surrogate mother back in the wild.

My good deed for Monday was done – but it ate up a massive chunk of the day.

On Tuesday, I did a few wedding-related things like writing my groom’s speech, but I have to confess to being distracted all day by the wrens nesting two feet outside the back door. Every three or four minutes they return to the box with an insect, whereuopon three very hungry chicks lean chirping out of the hole. I guess I don’t have to watch them, but it’s hard not to when they’re so busy from sun up – around half-four in the morning – right the way through to after sunset – gone nine-thirty at night.

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Industrious little buggers

Part of the reason I couldn’t look away was this whole parenting thing. I couldn’t help feeling a kinship with these tiny little birds looking after their kids, sacrificing their time and energy to care for their young ones around the clock. I admired them their energy, and felt it needed to be acknowledged, if only through my observation. And if I’m honest, I wondered if I’d be able to cope if I had to expend so much effort on my child as they did on theirs.

The answer wasn’t long in coming.

I put the baby to bed as usual around seven Tuesday night. At ten came the most horrible sound, and when I rushed in there I found little Izzie soaked in vomit. I picked her up and, my god, she was burning up! With a temperature of 38.6, I gave her some Calpol, two hours of TLC, got her to bed shortly after midnight, and checked on her every two hours.

By six o’clock this morning she was 39.1 degrees and very unhappy. It’s awful, knowing she’s unwell but unable to do much about it. So many thoughts and possibilities run through your mind, and after so few hours sleep, you jump to worst case scenarios.

I spoke to a doctor at 8.30, saw her at 11, when Izzie was 39.3, and was sent straight to the hospital so she could be assessed. And that was just the start of six hours of shenanigans.

Izzie was the most distressed I’ve ever seen her, and Lizzie almost as bad. As the stable presence in their lives, I have to take it in my stride, act confident and calm, reassure them that everything’s okay and we’ll deal with whatever happens, even though inside I’m just as churned up. Watching Izzie get poked and prodded and howl like a banshee must rank up there as one of the least comfortable experiences of my life.

Well, worse was to come. They needed a urine sample to test, and despite this being 2016, guess how you get a urine sample from a baby? You sit the over-hot, kicking, squirming, screaming sweetie on your partner’s lap on a waterproof sheet, crouch between their legs with a plastic tub, and get ready to catch whatever comes out.

I always figured that since they’re incontinent, babies drip-drip-dripped, little and often. Nope. They pee just like normal people – when they need to.

So we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

For an hour and three-quarters. Crouched, ready to jump into action in a split second to catch that pee! And true to form, Izzie waited for the doctor to arrive and the precise moment I looked away to make her entrance to the stage. In the event, I got it all over my hands, but managed to salvage enough to test.

Meanwhile, doctors and nurses and mothers and boyfriends came to visit the girl in the bed next to us, a teenager who took an overdose this morning, and, by dint of still being classed as a child, was placed in a bay surrounded by screaming babies.

It’s impossible not to overhear things in a hospital – the curtains aren’t exactly soundproof, after all.

‘Did you intend to kill yourself?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Are you happy you’re still here?’

‘Dunno.’

She gave her mother a pretty hard time, lots of effing and blinding. And as a dad, I thought how odd it was that fourteen years earlier, she’d have been like Izzie, a little girl, an innocent, unsullied, perfect creature. I can’t comprehend how I would feel if in fourteen years time it’s Izzie in that bed following a suicide attempt, telling me to ‘shut up, I just don’t care, leave me alone, I don’t give a f**k.’

The stark contrast really struck me, two girls in two beds, separated by nothing more than a curtain and a few years; one so simple and dependent and full of the joys of spring, the other so complex and cynical and utterly jaded. And I want to cling to Izzie and stop her growing up, retain her innocence at any cost, arrest the passage of time.

But I can’t.

In one bed, we’re planning our futures together; in the other, she could have been dead. She might still be – it was paracetamol and they were waiting to see how much damage she’d done to her organs.

The thing is, in my life I’ve been suicidal. I’ve self-harmed. I’ve always been a little bit crazy. My teens are a blur of high emotions and antidepressants, hidden knives and hidden scars. I’m not always rational. People tell me I’ve said things, done things, and I have no recollection whatsoever. At times of high stress I become paranoid that people can hear my thoughts. I am the girl in the bed beyond the curtain – at least, I was. But I got through it. Saved, as it were, by the love of my family, a stubborn unwillingness to give in, and by the miracle that is my daughter.

I don’t ever want her to grow up like me. Stay this side of the curtain, sweetheart.

Long story short, after I wiped the piss off my hands, we discovered she didn’t have a UTI, and they diagnosed it as viral gastroenteritis. Eventually we were allowed to go home, after eight hours away.

Things have calmed a little this evening – Lizzie and Izzie are both snoring, but the latter wakes up every ten minutes, has a little cry, and drops back off. I’m monitoring temperatures, wiping up diarrhoea, and preparing for another night of broken sleep. In the test of whether I’m as good a parent as a wren, I think I’ve passed.

All day I’ve acted tough. Now the world has gone to sleep I can be honest. I feel tearful. Seeing Izzie going through all that, not knowing what was wrong – I was more scared than anyone can imagine. Because Izzie is my world.

So much has happened this week and it’s only Wednesday! If tomorrow is anything like today, I don’t know what I’ll do. Did I mention I’m getting married in three days?

[EDIT: I have just discovered from the Barn Owl Trust that I did exactly the right thing. It says finding barn owl chicks out of the nest before they can fly is not normal, they are only fed in the nest and parents will ignore one on the ground and leave it to starve to death, they have very little sense of smell and will not reject it if you handle it, and leaving it well alone is usually not the appropriate course of action. On the other hand, if it was a tawny owl chick, you should leave it as it is normal for chicks to be out of the nest before they can fly and parents will feed them anywhere – even on the ground. Barn owl chick = intervene. Tawny owl chick = leave alone. Yay me.]

Sickness bug update, part 2

When I said the tummy bug was over, I was speaking prematurely. We’ve had vomit every day since Thursday – acres and oodles of vomit including this evening, when I was cuddling Izzie close to my chest. Five days of my clothing being drenched in sudden, unexpected barf.

I have run out of trousers to change into!

As milk seemed to trigger bouts of vomiting, we switched to soya milk. That helped us get more fluid into her, because it didn’t seem to upset her. The next couple of days, the vomiting was caused by biscuits, porridge and fruit. But tonight it was caused by the soya milk. So we’re back to square one.

There’s no logic to it. You give her something for breakfast, she wolfs it down – the same thing for lunch, it’s Exorcist time. One minute she’s happy and playing and laughing, the next she’s spewing as though there’s no end to it. I just don’t get it.

Luckily, Lizzie is feeling a little better. I think it’s clear she had viral gastroenteritis/stomach flu/norovirus, which is pretty much all the same thing and lasts a couple of days. It’s highly infectious, so we are truly a plague house. Quite a wonder that I haven’t got it.

I have, however, come down with a heavy cold. My muscles and joints all ache and my head has been spinning for three days. Worse, as a result of the stress throughout the day Saturday, I had such bad indigestion/acid reflux all night, I felt like I was having a heart attack. Since then my chest has felt like I’ve torn every muscle surrounding my heart. But that’s what it means to be a dad – you dig deep and you carry on.

For how much longer – that’s the real question.

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!