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.

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.

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?’


‘Are you happy you’re still here?’


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.]

A Sense of Inconvenience

While they might look like normal little people – well, within reason – the differences between babies and us comprise a great deal more than simply size. When they’re born, our baby’s five senses are far from fully developed, and though we might swear blind that our little one is watching the TV, odds are she’s simply gazing in that direction while wondering why that odd person beside her is getting all excited over nothing. In fact, their sensory development is quite different to what you might think.

Surprisingly, a newborn’s most acute sense is that of smell, and experiments on babies show they’re able to distinguish between their mother’s milk and that of another woman by smell alone. That’s pretty impressive, considering that no matter how many times I smell milk from the fridge, I can never tell if it’s gone off until a big lump of congealed yuck drops into my cereal.

According to the experts, touch is also a key sense at this stage. A newborn’s hands and mouths are their most sensitive parts, while the rest of the body can feel temperature and pain, before beginning to sense pressure and touch. Before you know it, that fabric softener you’ve been using doesn’t make things soft enough for her highness, and you’ll need to fork out on one that’s three times the price.

She can hear, but not all the frequencies and volumes we can – if you whisper sweet, soothing words in her ear, she might not even know you’re there. Her tastebuds can only distinguish between sweet, salty, sour and bitter tastes, and despite a persistent myth that this is all anyone can taste, she’ll develop the full range of tastes later. And her vision is probably the least developed of all.

Newborn babies can see around twelve inches and in very limited colours, only able to sharply discern high contrast patterns, such as a chessboard – though why they’d be staring at a chessboard from a distance of twelve inches is anybody’s guess. Beyond that, the world is a blurry mess of movement and shapes and it’s not until around four months, when she develops binocular vision, that she can tell how near or far an object is, its size and relative dimensions, and thus be able to reach out and touch it. Prior to that, no matter how many times she punches you in the mouth, you can’t attribute intention to her – it’s just luck that her flailing hand caught you six times a day in the exact same spot.

There are other senses beyond the five we are (wrongly) taught at school. If we class a sense as a bunch of cells designed to pick up on a specific input, then most experts believe we have at least nine, and maybe as many as twenty-one, including hunger, thirst, balance (which enables us to sense movement), the sense we need to pee or poop, and a sense of the passage of time. In fact, most experts divide the sense of touch into different, discrete categories: touch, pressure, temperature, pain, and itch. So that’s an awful lot of different body systems for our babies to physiologically develop and learn to process.

But if babies are stuck in a bubble with limited perception of the world around them, then how on earth is it that Izzie manages to time her indiscretions for the worst possible time? Her sense of inconvenient timing arrived at birth and has been developing ever since. She’s fast asleep, the light is off, but the second – literally the very second – your head hits the pillow, she starts to cry. You cook dinner and she doesn’t make a murmur, but the moment you sit down to eat and you insert your fork into that first precious potato she somehow senses that now’s the time to scream. Telephone call? I’m going to cry. Furthest point of the walk from the car? I’m going to choose this exact moment to poop.

This morning she somehow timed her pee to the exact second I was slipping the clean nappy into place over the top of the dirty one – the precise moment my hand was positioned beneath her where she could give it a shower. A heartbeat of a chance and she took it. And what’s more, I have a tiny cut on that hand from where she scratched me. I learned two things: baby urine is surprisingly hot, and it feels oddly like acid on an open wound. And a third thing: it’s uncanny how awkward Izzie’s timing can be.

The worst is with her nappies. I have realised, since Izzie was born, that I’m rather squeamish. I don’t understand quite how or when it happened. When I was working as a care assistant in an old people’s home, and later as a student nurse on an infection control ward, I used to roll my eyes when I heard parents moan about dirty nappies. I made a living from wiping bottoms, and not just any old bottoms, but people with clostridium difficile, a hospital superbug that makes people incontinent and their poop into orange marmalade. I cleaned up diarrhoea after people had been eating sweetcorn. On one memorable occasion, we had to hoist a guy with a gangrenous sacral pressure sore up off the bed so he could poop into my (gloved) hands, which is the closest I’ve come to vomiting on a job.

The point is, I did these things without blinking. Perhaps I repressed my disgust and now it’s coming back to bite me, but somehow Izzie seems to know when I’m alone with her, and stores up her poop for then. And this isn’t just any old poop. Since starting her on the Comfort milk, it’s green and it reeks like a diseased goose.

It follows a pattern these days. First, the hard nugget that lures you onto the changing table with a peg on your nose. Then, as you remove the nappy, she passes a softer stool that comes out like a sausage and coils round and round until you have a twelve-inch Cumberland you have to detach from her bottom with a piece of tissue. Then she waits until you’ve been pulled into thinking she’s finished before she projects a green stream of mushy peas across the back of your hand.

Every time, nugget, sausage, peas. Every time I change her, that is. When her mother changes her, there’s none of that, and her mother has no sense of smell. It’s like she senses my weakness and goes in for the kill. So if there are any experts reading this, you need to add a new sense to your list: a baby’s sense of inconvenient timing.

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.