The Small Things

A few days ago my life was a movie in which I played myself while my partner Lizzie was played by the Devil. Actually, that’s a little harsh. She was more like Kathy Bates in Misery. Now, things are a little better: she’s become Kathy Bates in Titanic – happier, jokier, with a trifle more backbone. And I’ve gone from Jack Nicholson in The Shining to Jack Nicholson in…actually, he’s pretty crazy in most things. Maybe that’s a bad analogy.

Putting aside which Hollywood characters we most resemble, I said that I’d keep this blog positive, and I’ve noticed my posts have become rather whiny and self-pitying of late. So here’s to all the small and wonderful things that make this endeavour memorable and worthwhile, the kinds of things you’d forget if they weren’t written down, divided into four categories: the physical, behavioural, developmental, and simply gross.

I want to remember the little physical things that might disappear as Izzie gets older. Like the uncatchable bogies that yo-yo in and out of her nostrils when she breathes, or the slimy green sleepy dust that collects in her left eye but never her right. How her strawberry birthmark, which looks like a strawberry to me, is more like a Rorschach inkblot test, since others have variously described it as a tomato, an apple, a pineapple and a maple leaf. Her belly button that can’t decide whether it wants to be an inny or an outy, and her snowplough penguin feet. Enough wax in her ears to make a candle. And she’s strong, too, like a baby Wonder Woman. A couple of years, she’ll be kicking my arse!

And I want to remember the behavioural things, like the way she somehow removes her shoes, socks and trousers no matter how high you pull them up or how tightly they’re attached. How she rather creepily smiles at me when I put Vaseline on her bottom, or chirps like a bird and kicks her legs if you lie her on her back without a nappy. The way she dances and sings to Smells Like Teen Spirit (or ‘writhes’ and ‘screams’ according to Lizzie) and chuckles at me when I sing My Girl complete with bass line (‘I got sunshine – bom-bom-bom-bom-bom, burm, on a cloudy day’). How she falls asleep with her mouth wide open like she’s catching flies, and screws the backs of her fists into her eyes when she’s tired. And she watches everything that’s going on, strives to stay awake in case she misses something – she’s more alert than I am half the time.

Then there are the developmental things that need to be recorded for this stage because they change so quickly. Like how at ten weeks Izzie is trying to sit up (my brother took nine months!), how she can stand if you help her balance, and with both as soon as she’s upright she beams with pride as if to say, ‘Look, daddy, I did it! I’m a big girl!’ How she can’t take her eyes off the TV if it’s on. The way she keeps trying to hold her own bottle while we’re feeding her, but given her poor motor control skills succeeds only in pushing it out of her mouth and then punching herself in the head. Give it another few years, she’ll be reading War and Peace and standing for public office – it’s scary how early she’s developing.

Which leaves the simply gross stuff, the anecdotes that are awful at the time but leave you laughing. Like how we have a vibrating poo chair – if she hasn’t gone yet in a day, we put her in her bouncy chair, turn on the vibration and within ten minutes she’s filled her nappy. Every single time. It never fails. Or how when I changed her the other day the inside of her nappy was entirely orange, except for two perfectly elliptical white ovals where her butt cheeks had been. How her grandmother spent ages dressing her in a pretty yellow vest, yellow trousers, yellow dress, yellow cardigan and yellow socks, only for me to remove them ten minutes later covered in sopping yellow poo. And how the other night while I was feeding her she did a massively warm, squelchy fart; I thought I’d change her after she’d finished her milk when I suddenly felt my leg grow wet, picked her up, and lo, my shorts had a large wet yellow patch of poo all over them. Yay.

These are the things that make up a life. Not whose turn is it sterilise the bottles again, where did that sock go, you forgot to buy nappies, and oh my God how can you sleep through all of this screaming? It’s about the little smiles, the laughs and the oddities. These are the things we want to remember in years to come, and the only things Izzie will care about. It’s easy to forget that the little things are by far the most important.

Making Memories

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

Except when you experience it yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.