Here I am now, standing in the hall, in front of my partner when her waters break as she looms, petrified, in the bathroom doorway. Yes, nine months pass that fast and within 24 hours we would be holding our first child in arms.
My partner is very self-reliant. So much so that she decided that driving a car while in labour was well within her remit. Of course, only seconds after sitting down in the driver’s seat she got a sense that the baby had other ideas. As I phoned the taxi, I was beginning to feel how powerful this child already was. He was forcing his stubborn, know-it-all parents to immediately discard stupid ideas by the roadside and move on without a thought. He was teaching us that we didn’t know much at all and that the best way to survive this next chapter would be to shut up and listen for his instructions.
He was doing something no other force of nature has so far achieved. He was humbling us.
We got to the maternity ward expecting some sort of welcoming party. What we got were nurses, about to come off their shift, so tired they could barely lift their eyes to look at us as we identified ourselves. Once we were settled in the last stop before the delivery room I was advised to go home and get some rest before the birth. The nurses were sure that my partner wouldn’t give birth until the next day.
Thank God her mother is an expert on everything and insisted the nurses double-check. When they did they found the baby was already half-way out.
Front stalls at the birth
Back home, my face had barely hit the pillow before the phone rang. “The baby’s coming now. Hurry!” I arrived back at the hospital with 30 minutes to spare and in that small window of time I bore witness to some talents I never knew my partner had. First, her ability to mimic the sound of a large animal that has just been shot but isn’t quite dead. Second, her love for buzzing gas. And finally, her energy and courage when faced with the unenviable task of delivering our son to the world through her humble vagina. Her mother had also managed to bag herself a front row seat – somehow – and so here we all were waiting for the next member of the family to arrive.
Unlike mummy, he was extremely punctual.
When the baby comes out it doesn’t look like a baby. I remember seeing what resembled a small purple alien in a little see-through bag. My only experience of child-birth up until that point was watching Casualty as a kid, my grandparents awkwardly coughing over the bits where doctors referred to female genitalia. For this reason I expected the baby to appear fully formed in a Jungle Book onesie. The reality is more startling.
There is a lot of blood, your partner is both delirious and cognisant that the child has yet to be declared alive and healthy. You’re looking at this little thing but can’t make head nor tale of it.
And then he cries. His skin turns from purple to pink, his eyes open for the first time and out of a tiny mouth ring the top of your little boy’s lungs as he takes his first breath of air. Incidentally, this is also the last time you’ll feel elated at the sound of your child screaming. It’s hard to overstate just what a beautiful moment it is when your baby is handed over to you for the first time.
Daniel was placed on his mother’s chest and we looked down at his tiny face as he stared up at us yelping inoffensively. We could do nothing but adore him.
The first two weeks after mummy and baby get home are a mix of novelty and exhaustion. Every other moment you seem to be learning how to do something new whether it’s sterilising bottles or buttoning up one of a million uniquely fashioned baby-grows. Some things come natural and others feel cumbersome and forced. There are times when you feel rather clumsy and incapable and it’s always in those moments that you’ll glance up to find you are encircled by onlookers staring at your baby. When you’re tired then every passing comment and or helpful suggestion feels like an orchestrated slight on your parenting.
As a father, you will spend a lot of time either going to retrieve something or returning it to its place. You’ll find yourself lying to people about how profound the experience has been when they ask you what it’s like being a dad. The truth is you don’t have a clue what you’re doing and strong feelings of love and attachment can fade quickly in moments of stress. Sleep-deprivation becomes part of your everyday life.
Fetch the messages
The starring role you’ve created in your head about being a wise hunter-gatherer, protecting your cub from the dangerous world while imparting nuggets of wisdom, is quickly reduced to a recurring cameo as an errand boy. Your job is simply to assist in making mummy and baby as comfortable as possible while they both recover from almost killing each other.
As the days pass you watch on as their bond grows. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little left out sometimes. Perhaps it’s a selfish thought, but nonetheless I confess to pondering my usefulness on more than once occasion as mother and baby grew more intuitive of one another while I seemed to be trying to guess what both needed or wanted from me.
When your two weeks’ paternity is over, then returning to work is not as hard as you imagined. You think to yourself: how do women do it? She is either super-human or she experiences an even more intense compulsion to nurture and care for him than I do. Either that or she’s just a better person than me and implying her capacity to care is genetic seems to minimise her effort and sacrifice.
What I struggled to grasp, at times, was that this version of my child was really just a digestive system with vocal chords and that I had no business taking his lack of interest in me so personally. I mean, how hyper-sensitive and emotionally immature do you need to be to feel slighted by a month-old baby that can fit into the palm of your hand?
The easy life
One of the hardest things about being a dad is that no matter how difficult it gets – it’s always harder for a mother. In fact, there is almost no complaint you can make that doesn’t make your partner want to roll her eyes at you. Her threshold for pain and discomfort is now so high that you could walk in the door with a bullet lodged in your skull and she’d bite it out of your head with her teeth, spit it in the sink full of dirty plates and hand you a dish cloth.
Which means that sometimes you either feel a bit lame for not coping well or get resentful that nothing you could ever experience will compare to the agony of child birth – and all the other things a mother endures that you only experience vicariously. A rule of thumb before complaining about anything is to compare whatever difficulty you are experiencing with how it would feel if someone woke you up by biting your nipple. Anything that isn’t as bad as that can no longer live among the pantheon of real problems.
Life is as much about reconciling reality with everything you’ve been idealising in your head as it is about getting on with the business of day-to-day living. If you stop to think about it all for too long you’ll seize up and I suspect this is why babies are the personification of hard work.
In our case the baby didn’t take to bottles, so me taking the night shift was never an option. All I can do is wake up and carry him into his mum. For me this was quite difficult to accept. I ran so many scenarios in my mind before the birth about how good I would be with the baby and how safe and secure mummy would feel when I took charge and commanded the situation. Yet here we were, in the wee hours of a bleak morning, at our wits end, about to tear one another’s heads off because neither of us knew how to make the baby stop crying.
When you can’t feed your own baby, despite the fact he is screaming because he is hungry, it’s hard not to feel like a bad dad. It’s very easy to attribute every difficult thing your baby goes through to your meandering parenting skills. Our baby has never been much of a sleeper. In fact, he seems to be the antithesis of all the babies I keep reading about online. He wakes up two, three and four times a night, screaming the building down every time. When we put him to bed he screams himself to sleep – every single night. You have the dual dilemma of having to suffer the noise yourself while being aware of that fact it’s probably disturbing your neighbours too – the latter is worse for anxiety in my opinion.
Sometimes I find myself isolating and fears about my ability to be a father usually manifest as a lazy or distant attitude to some of my responsibilities. You start seeing silhouettes of your own parents on the wall as you stand, exhausted, begging your baby to sleep.
In a way it has brought me closer to my parents. I’m a lot older than they were when I was born. Part of the reason I’m able to manage my emotional life today is because I didn’t have to raise children when I was 20 years old. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been. Deep within me there is always a strong urge to run away and sever my emotional ties because it whittles life down to a more manageable size. Intimate relationships are very challenging and the feelings of vulnerability are overwhelming at times. Now, in a twisted sort of way, I can appreciate why my Mother opted out of her responsibilities. But even more so, I can appreciate my Dad for sticking around and raising three of us the way he did.
In my parents I see the two extremes of what I am capable of.