When you’re a father, pain becomes a fairly common part of your life. Receiving pain is a given – Izzie stabbed me in the eye with a plastic knife yesterday, and has taken to ramming the corners of her hardback books into my throat, temples and ears. She also bites down on my fingers whenever I try to get something out of her mouth that shouldn’t be there, pulls my beard, grabs my bottom lip and twists it, jams her fingers up my nostrils, headbutts my nose, kicks me in the nuts (repeatedly), yanks on my ears, and occasionally jumps up and down on my stomach. Thank God I don’t have hair. This is before we mention the aches and strains of picking her up, carrying her, leaning down to hold her hand while we walk, and the million-and-one other repetitive actions of parenting.
But as I said, that’s a given – I’m a dad. Until she learns self-control, cause and effect, and appropriate social behaviour, these things are going to happen.
What I wasn’t quite so prepared for was the necessity to inflict pain upon my daughter – for her own good, of course. Not for discipline, I must point out, but for healthcare/first aid reasons. Unfortunately, when it comes to doing something like that, the job falls to me, and that’s something I baulk at.
Many years ago I started training as a nurse. I didn’t last very long because I just couldn’t get comfortable inflicting pain on others, even if it was to help them. ‘Cruel to be kind’ is a difficult concept in reality when the cruelty is self-evident while the kindness is measured at some indeterminate point in the future – giving injections might eventually make someone feel better somewhere down the line, but when you’re giving them, all you see is the grimace, the wince, the tears, or the blood. And ditto with inserting nasogastric tubes, performing enemas (although the benefits of this intervention were far quicker in coming, if I’m frank), or cleaning infected wounds.
The day I quit nursing was the day I was looking after an old chap with terminal cancer. He was in such pain that he couldn’t even have a bedsheet over him as the pressure on his skin was agonising. When he pooped himself – thick, sticky poop all over his bits – I was tasked with cleaning him up.
Imagine you’re a student nurse trying to wipe tar off the private parts of somebody who is screaming in pain. Imagine trying to do it delicately, knowing you are inflicting horrendous pain, and all the while your mentor is standing over your shoulder telling you to push harder, you need to press harder (and thus inflict more pain) to get him clean. And then she takes over and does it herself, matter-of-factly, calmly, quickly. Cruel to be kind.
He died later that day, and I left, because if my dithering and squeamishness prolongs someone’s pain then I’m in the wrong job. I understand the benefits of ‘cruel to be kind’, that we have to do it or he’ll get sore or infected and suffer even worse, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier for me to inflict pain upon others. If I’d stayed I’d probably have become hardened to it, or else had a breakdown, but it wasn’t to be; and I have never had to inflict pain ever since.
So you can imagine my horror when I was putting my daughter to bed last night and noticed she had a splinter deep under her thumbprint, and another on the side of her palm. Neither of them protruding. Neither accessible with tweezers. And both of them my responsibility to remove.
When I was a child and my dad had to extract a splinter, he would grab a trusty needle, heat it over a flame to sterilise it, and then dig out the splinter with speed and precision. To the crescendo of my screams. Indeed, before he even got near me I’d be screaming – I’m surprised the neighbours never called the police. Given the fact my dad’s a very practical, down-to-earth, matter-of-fact kind of guy, I doubt he ever had any qualms or concerns about it. It needed doing so he did it. That’s what it is to be a guy.
But I am not my dad.
My chest tight, I prepared the needle over the hob and took it up to her room. The little one knew exactly what I was up to. She wouldn’t even let me look at her thumb, let alone hold it or touch it. At least when I was a kid, I sat still, kept my arm still, and screamed. No such luck with Izzie. It’s phenomenal just how much a toddler can squirm, and how strong they can be when they want, particularly when their cold-hearted father is burying the point of a needle in the soft, delicate, tender skin of their fingertip.
For anyone looking for advice, the technique is fairly simple: you scratch the skin along the line of the splinter to open it up, gently insert the point to carefully lift one side of the splinter up out of the wound, and then grab the end with tweezers and pull it out. Much easier if the victim, er, patient is held still and secure. Be prepared for screaming, tears, a red face, eyes that ask you ‘why, dad, why, I’m your daughter, why don’t you love me’, and the feeling that you’re the devil.
On the plus side, she got over it far more quickly than I did.
Post-extraction I searched the internet for easier methods and discovered that most said to soak the affected area for thirty minutes to soften the skin – but not with a wood splinter as that causes it to swell. Given that 99% of the splinters I’ve had in my life have been wood, and I don’t tend to let my daughter near jagged metal, it’s not exactly the most useful advice I’ve come across. Apparently applying magnesium sulphate will eventually draw the splinter to the surface, but when it’s bedtime and she’s already cranky and the splinters are hurting her, again it’s not the most helpful of techniques. Needle it is, then.
So let this be a lesson to all doting dads. I thought I could get away with being a caring, gentle, nurturing father, catering for my daughter’s emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs, but that’s not enough. There are times when you have to be practical, pragmatic and hard-hearted, and do what needs to be done in spite of the tears, the screams, and your own tender sensibilities. But that’s what being a parent is about sometimes, and if you can bring yourself to do it, you’ll be a better parent and be justly proud that you achieved something you never thought you’d be able to.