After the Cold

You look around your house, a shell-shocked survivor of the tornado that has swept through. Stained clothing lies scattered over chairs and banisters, dirty muslins screwed up in every corner. Tissues, and pieces of tissues, and the wrappers from cough sweets, litter the floor like patches of melting snow. And over it all lies an icy silence.

The storm has passed.

 

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“I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe…”

I struggled to make dinner this evening. Partly it was because I forgot to take my antidepressants two days running, leaving me horribly light-headed and with pupils like pinpricks; partly because in the endless round of buying vapour rubs, cough syrups, tinctures, ointments and snake oil salesmen’s charms, we’ve run out of food.

It’s a contest from Masterchef. I wandered around the kitchen, doing an inventory in a daze. One egg. A clove of garlic. Some carrots, best before two weeks ago. Strawberries that can walk by themselves. Some unidentifiable white substance lurking at the back of the fridge. And some oats. Make a dish out of that.

In my mind, I’m haunted by the memories of crying, sneezing, coughing, puking, and snot, endless snot. What started clear and runny turned thick and yellow-green – at this stage she blew vast snot bubbles from each nostril that spattered everywhere when they burst. Later, it turned into this sticky jelly-like substance, not dissimilar to the glue they use to fix bank cards to letters or CDs to the covers of magazines. It would get stuck all over her face, and I’d have to peel it off in strings. Now, as the cold fades away, it’s a healthy snotty green, and only visible when she sneezes – that’s when it hangs from each nostril like two little worms. Lovely.

I think the worst thing about the whole experience was little Izzie’s distress. You’re meant to protect her, you’re meant to take away the pain and discomfort, but there’s very little you can do to make a sick baby feel better. You can’t explain what’s going on, get her to blow her nose, give her a decongestant. I tried as many things as I could – held her in a hot, steamy bathroom, used vapour rub, nasal spray, Calpol, cough syrup, cuddles. I even tried to use an aspirator – kind of like a pipette where you squeeze a rubber bulb, put the attached tube up the baby’s nose and release the bulb to suck all the snot out – but frankly, more was dripping out on its own than I managed to get in the pipette, so I abandoned that one. And I didn’t bother putting pillows under her mattress to prop her up – given how much she moves about in her sleep, she’d have ended up upside down at the bottom of the cot with the blood rushing to her head.

And so much for three days coming, three days here, and three days going. I mean, the worst of it is over – her temperature is down, her nose isn’t running, her appetite has returned, and she only sneezes from time to time – but her throat still rattles with phlegm that she’s struggling to bring up, and she still has a nasty cough. Apparently, the average baby has eight colds in its first year, lasting ten to fourteen days. Since she turns six months on Friday, and this is her first proper cold, either she’s way below average or the next few months will be hell!

Now if only I could shake the cold she’s given me…

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A total lack of sympathy

What’s really been getting my goat lately is that people won’t allow me to moan.

‘I’ve had five hours sleep in the past four days.’

‘Well that’s what happens when you’re a dad,’ they say in this incredibly patronising tone of voice, as if I didn’t know that.

‘All of my clothes are covered in snot and vomit.’

‘That’s called “being a parent”,’ they reply with smug self-satisfaction.

‘I’m completely exhausted and I haven’t eaten a proper meal in days.’

‘We’ve all been there.’

‘But you’re not there now! I’m the one bursting my baby’s snot bubbles and trying to clean it out of her hair at four in the morning! I’m the one sitting up all night listening to the mucous rattling in her throat in case it it develops into something worse! And I’m the one who’s tired, hungry, dirty, smelly, and more than a little volatile, so I’d appreciate a little more sensitivity to my plight from some well-rested, well-fed person standing in clean clothes, thanks!’

I have discovered, since the baby started with her cold, that if you complain about parenting you get no sympathy whatsoever. It’s weird –  I figured that, because other people have struggled just as you have, they’d be more empathetic about your situation, but it’s the opposite. Anyone who has raised a child of their own in the mists of history tries to make you feel like an asshat for saying that, God forbid, you don’t always enjoy the feeling that your brain is about to burst right through your forehead.

Maybe that’s because there’s this notion that not only are parents meant to suffer but they’ve chosen to suffer. And I get that. I knew going in that it would be hard. I knew that I would suffer, and I accepted that in order to get the good bits of having a child, I was going to have to face the bad. But when the baby has a cold and I’ve had so little sleep I’m hallucinating, for God’s sake let me have a little moan about it!

It doesn’t mean I don’t like being a dad, or that I’m such an idiot I hadn’t realised it would be hard, it simply means I’m letting off steam, which is human, and natural, and healthy. I’m pretty sure even the most positive of people come home some days and say, ‘Man, if life is a shit sandwich I’m the filling right now!’

What is not helpful is when, instead of people saying, ‘Hang in there, lad,’ and slapping you on the shoulder, which is really all you want and need to buoy you up, they shut you down, belittle your struggles, and marginalise your pain.

The worst thing is when you say, ‘This is so hard,’ and someone replies, ‘Well, just imagine how much harder it would be if X, Y or Z,’ as though you’re not allowed to complain, as though your difficulties don’t matter and aren’t important because other people have it harder, and that’s just so wrong.

One of the best things I was ever told, and something I firmly believe, is that all suffering is relative.

I was sixteen and on my first date – she was a scary girl with a nose ring, tattoos and leather jacket. We met by a pond in the February cold and huddled together on a bench as the world froze around us. And in the dark we talked about things that really mattered to our sixteen-year-old selves: dreams, poetry, UFOs, alternative history, magic, the Illuminati, emotions, spirituality, The X-Files, parallel dimensions, the faking of the moon landings, Nirvana, and what it means to be a human. Ah, those wonderfully naive days before I discovered her whole identity was based on Alanis Morrisette lyrics and Mia Wallace’s character in Pulp Fiction, and I found that I didn’t actually believe in UFOs, alternative history, magic, the Illuminati, or the faking of the moon landings. The mid-nineties: simpler times.

Anyway, at one point the conversation got round to problems, because we were teenagers, after all. I told her about my chronic loneliness, but qualified it by saying it was very minor compared to the problems other people had.

‘Don’t do that,’ she said. ‘Don’t dismiss your problems. All suffering is relative. A starving African’s need for food is his worst problem; your loneliness is yours. It doesn’t mean your problem doesn’t matter.’

And while she might have turned out to be full of it, she spoke a lot of sense just then.

So yes, in the general scheme of things, a few nights of missed sleep don’t amount to much; yes, other people have it much harder; and yes, I chose to become a dad and therefore any struggles I go through are willingly faced; but telling someone who has had five hours of sleep in four days and is wearing a T-shirt encrusted in dried snot and sick that what he’s going through is trivial and unimportant will get you knocked off his Christmas card list before the next patronising syllable escapes your condescending lips.

So next time you hear me gripe, please, pretty please, instead of marginalising my feelings, just nod sagely and say, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ That’s all I need to hear.

The Plague House

Paint a red cross on our door and may the Lord have mercy on our souls!

Yes, the dreaded lurgy has come as an uninvited houseguest, like that uncle who always turns up and hangs around in his underwear and refuses to leave. The kind of houseguest who robs you of sleep, disrupts your steady routine, and gets snot on your clothes, and doesn’t even have the common decency to look embarrassed about the shit he’s causing.

Friday night during the power cut, Izzie developed a bit of a cough and sneezed a few times during the night. She woke Saturday morning with a chesty cough and a sniffle and she didn’t want her formula. By mid-afternoon this had developed into a temperature and a full-blown cold.

I say full-blown because she’s definitely acting like it’s the end of the world. But then, for her, it is. She hasn’t had a cold before and it must be terrifying to have litres of yellow-green snot pouring out of every orifice, slipping ceaselessly down your throat, and choking you every time you so much as move your head an inch. And the cough is awful – it sounds like she’s hacking up razor blades, the poor thing!

And so it has been, every minute, every hour, since Saturday. Unfortunately, Lizzie came down with it Friday morning, so she’s a sneezing, coughing, congested wreck who spends most of the time in the bath, drinking Lemsip or sleeping, leaving yours truly to press on solo. Really, this is a one-parent family right now.

The worst thing about all this is the total lack of sleep. The little ‘un panics and starts to scream and choke the second you put her on her back in the cot. Any position involving lying down provokes coughing and spluttering as she starts to drown in her own snot. She will fall into an exhausted stupor, but only on her front on you, leaking from mouth and nose onto your chest or arms or neck, so if you want her to sleep, you have to stay awake.

Thanks to the power cut, I got three hours sleep Friday night. Saturday night, thanks to Izzie’s cold, I got an hour. Last night, Lizzie decided she should free me of the burden of disturbing her sleep and moved into the spare room, so I dosed myself up on caffeine and set to it and I have no idea how much sleep I got – a few minutes here and there, I think, but I’m not sure as it’s all a bit of a blur. Tonight looks to be the same.

The new routine involves me getting Izzie settled on me for half an hour, then gently easing her into the cot in the exact same position, where she stays anything from a few seconds to fifteen minutes before starting to scream again. I honestly don’t know what’s best – to go back to bed for a couple of minutes, which leaves me feeling rough as hell, or resign myself to staying up all night, which leaves me super tired.

There are other horrors too. She has a temperature and she spits out the Calpol and won’t drink the formula if I try to sneak it in. She chokes on the cough syrup and after a while the vapour rub I put on her chest starts to smell like death. Even that’s preferable to her breath at the moment. And she farts with every cough, meaning it’s a never-ending concerto of trumping, scented with cauliflower, for some reason. And there’s not enough in her belly to poop, so every guff brings out a tiny little liquidy smear, so you keep thinking she’s done a poo, start to change her only to discover there’s nothing but a skid mark in there. But it smells so bad you might as well change it so I’m going through nappies like there’s no tomorrow.

Because she can’t breathe through her nose and has a sore throat, not to mention that she’s swallowing gallons of mucus, I’m struggling to get fluids into her. A lot of what does go in she brings back up with interest anyway. It was very disheartening Saturday afternoon when, despite my trying to stop her, she put her fingers down her throat and brought up everything I’d fed her all day. Worse was when she threw up earlier – an endless outpouring of water, milk and phlegm, mixed together like amniotic fluid. Pretty darned gross.

And I’m gross too. I’m sleeping in my clothes which I’ve worn since Friday – there’s no point changing them because they’re crusty with snot and worse, and whatever else I put on will get dirty just as quick. I haven’t had a chance to bath or shave, so I look like a pink-eyed homeless junkie, and smell the same.

Right now, Lizzie is in the spare room getting another good night’s sleep – hopefully she’ll feel a little better tomorrow and help out a bit. Izzie is lying asleep on my chest. My shirt is a soaking puddle of drool and baby snot. Given my almost total lack of sleep since Friday, my eyes feel gritty and my brain wants to leap out of my forehead. And I have a sore throat, a sure fire sign that whatever has infected Izzie and Lizzie is making its way into my system and trying to take me down from the inside. But for now, I’m hanging in there. Someone needs to look after the baby. If not me, then who?