Thursday, 29 October 2009

Sibling Rivalry

If people ask me one question these days, it's "How's Alex?"  If they ask two, it's "How's Alex?  And how's Ringo taking it?"  The answer to the second question is fine, as far as we can tell.

For those who don't know, Ringo is our cat.  He's not the brightest of felines - he once got stuck halfway in and halfway out of his cat flap - but he is very cute.  And until recently, he was the cutest thing in the house.  With the arrival of Alex this is no longer the case.

I have to admit, we were a touch worried about what Ringo would think of Alex.  He became very protective of Nicola while she was pregnant.  In the last few weeks before Alex was born Ringo would follow Nic about the house, always keeping one beady eye on her.  If she sat down for more than a minute, he would be on her lap.  Or attempt to be on her lap, anyway.  Pregnant tummy + large cat > total surface area of lap, so there were a couple of awkward moments.  But guarding a pregnant owner is one thing, dealing with the inevitable result is the other.  How would he take to Alex?

The answer was (unsurprisingly to many cat owners I'm sure) that he would just pretend Alex didn't exist.  When Alex first arrived back, Ringo gave him a cursory sniff, then wondered off to eat some food.  That's pretty much been it in terms of cat/baby interaction since then.  Ringo will every now and then look at Alex, then go back to pretending he doesn't exist.  Alex, for his part, will watch the cat if Ringo walks past while Alex is on his mat getting a nappy changed.

The only behaviour we've had to discourage was Ringo's unfortunate tendency to go to sleep in the pram.  Not the comfy, baby containing bit, you understand, but the shopping bit underneath.  You may recall that it's just big enough for 19 toilet rolls.  It transpires that it's also an ideal size for a large, black cat (who is almost invisible when in there).  It's remarkably hard to get a cat out of a shopping basket, I discovered.  At least, it's hard if you want to remain in possession of all your remaining limbs.  Tipping the pram on its side and shaking it turns out to be the best approach.

So other than trying to stowaway on the pram, Ringo has taken Alex's arrival remarkably well.  He hasn't left home.  He hasn't weed on Alex's sheets.  He hasn't decided to sleep on Alex's face.  Phew.  I can tell you, though, that it's impossible to see a cat that's about to twine itself around your feet when you're singing to a baby in your arms.  I've come pretty close to death a few times thanks to that.  So maybe Ringo hasn't taken it so well after all...

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Separation Anxiety

29th September and 22nd - 25th October 2009

This post is somewhat out of synch with the rest, both in terms of day published and dates it covers.  The topic is just very fresh in my mind at the moment.  And besides, what's the point in having something so monumentally self-indulgent as a blog if you don't self-indulge every now and again?

*          *          *

It's Monday, a little over two weeks since Alex was born and it's time to go back to work.  I am, to put it mildly, dreading it.  It feels like a combination of going back to school, dereliction of duty and selfishness all rolled into one.

Going back to school is an obvious parallel.  For all the last two weeks have been tiring and stressful, they've also been two weeks without work.  At this point in the PhD if I never saw it again it would be too soon, so I've enjoyed not having to deal with it for a fortnight.  Dragging myself up at 6:45 and trekking into the office is the last thing I fancy right now.  Still, it has to be done, so I'm doing it.

With that comes a sense of desertion, though.  Nic's mum is staying with us, but it still feels like I'm abandoning Nic.  Up to now we've been a team.  We've shared changing, bathing and entertaining duties.  Now I'm leaving Nic to cope on her own and I feel bad about it.


But there's also a horrible, selfish part of me that thinks "wow, nine whole hours without being on duty".  Even when Alex is asleep, there's an added level of stress that being a parent brings.  At the office, that stress is gone.  He is, and this is a horrible thing to say, someone else's problem.  What sort of warped soul do I have that I'm glad to be leaving my son for a day?

In the end, it is both easier and harder than I expected.  Easier in that the routine of work comes back instantly and it seems normal to be there.  Harder in that I spent every other minute wondering how he's doing.  It turns out that I'm NOT glad to be leaving him for a day!  It will be a couple of weeks before I'm really used to going away for more than a few hours.

*          *         *

Flash forwards to last Thursday.  A long time ago, while Nic was only just in the "pregnant but not telling anyone" stage, I booked tickets to go and see the NFL in London.  We hadn't even made it to twelve weeks at that point, and I didn't want to tempt fate.  Not booking tickets would have been tantamount to standing under a ladder, smashing a mirror off my head while kicking a black cat and shouting, "hey, Fate, bet you can't harm my baby in the womb!"  Now Alex is six weeks old and I'm off to London.  He's going up to Aberdeen with Nicola.  It will be the first night we spend apart.  Once I head off to work at midday, I won't see them again until Monday evening.

Again, I'm rather torn.  I know I'm going to miss them, but I'm also rather looking forwards to a whole night of uninterrupted sleep.  Then I'll get to go to London, catch up with friends and see the NFL.  Sounds like fun, right?  And it was, sort of.

It really started to hurt on Thursday evening when I found Alex's hat lying around the kitchen.  Oh dear, he's been gone for about six hours and I'm getting emotional over headgear.  Nicola suggests that every time I feel miserable, I go to sleep, thus enjoying the peace and quiet.  I spend a lot of time in bed.

The next evening, I meet up with friends, get drunk and play cards.  Very drunk in fact.  Two months of no alcohol have left me with no tolerance and the drink makes the pain go away.  The next morning I regret it rather severely.  Still, at least the hangover gives me something to think about other than how much I miss Alex and Nicola.

To be honest, I don't know how good company I was in London.  For all that I loved seeing Doug and Mairi again, I was only half there.  The other half of me was up in Aberdeen.  Kew gardens, the NFL and the hustle and bustle of the big city all pass me by in a blur.

On the train home and for the few hours I'm back in Dalkeith before Nicola and Alex arrive I'm like a teenager waiting for exam results they know they've failed.  Churning gut, misery and restlessness.  Every time a car passes the house I perk up like a spaniel after a bag of weed.  I bought Nic a bunch of flowers as a welcome home present.  I worry that they're drying out as I wait.

Finally they arrive home.  It turns out that Nic has got me a welcome home present too.  Alex has learned a new trick.  When I take him out of his car seat and hold him close he breaks into a broad, beaming smile.

I am whole again.

Friday, 23 October 2009

I See You Baby

3rd October 2009

Alex has started looking at me!  (And other people too.)  And by looking at me, I mean actually looking at me, rather than just happening to look in my direction.  It's funny how much of an impact this has on me.  Eye contact is such a basic fact of daily life for most of us we don't realise how important it is until it's gone.

Alex is still learning about looking at things.  At almost a month old, he can manage some limited focussing and is able to recognise a face.  (Note that he can't recognise faces in the sense of "oh no, not you again".  He just sees two eyes, a nose and a mouth and goes "ooh, a face".)  He's also starting to associate sounds (voices in particular) with something interesting that's worth looking at.  As such, he'll follow a person around with his eyes as well as he can.  (Not very well, at the moment.  He's got about a 45 degree tracking zone.  Beyond that, you might as well not exist.)

I wrote before about the difficulties of interacting with a newborn.  Looking at you, even if it is for the briefest of moments, is such a huge deal because it begins to break down that barrier of incomprehension between parent and child.  Playing with Alex now seems like a possibility, rather than just tending to him as we do at the moment.  It makes him seem more human, less alien.

There's also a sense in which it feels like he's getting to know us now, rather than just us knowing him.  He might not recognise faces yet, but he's learning.  He'll see me and Nicola and, over time, hopefully he'll come to know us as Mum and Dad.  The bond placed on you by a child's birth is pretty compelling, but it's a negative compulsion.  You care for them because the alternative is too horrible.  When he looks at me, I feel a more positive bond forming.  I want to make him happy, not because otherwise he'll scream, but just because I want him to be happy.

Once he learns to smile we'll be totally under his thumb.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

And They Call It PUPPy Love

1st September - 20th October 2009

So far in these blogs I've skirted round an issue that's been an overwhelming presence in the run up to and first few weeks of parenthood.  It's kept us awake at nights.  It's caused more fights and arguments than anything else.  It's been a source of worry.  It was even the reason that Nicola was induced (relatively) early.  (Two days past due, rather than two weeks.)

Nicola has had PUPPs.

No, this isn't a reference to the Shappi Khorsandi joke.  ("We're having a surprise."  "No, you're having a boy or a girl.  It would only be a surprise if you had a puppy.")  PUPPs (variously PUPs, PUPPPs or PEPs) is an extremely unpleasant itchy rash.  For the medical acronym fans amongst you, it stands for Pruritic Urticarial Papules and Plaques of Pregnancy, or Polymorphic Eruption of Pregnancy (hence the many names).

It started innocently enough.  Towards the end of August and the start of September, Nic got a few berry bug bites.  Or what we thought were berry bug bites at the time, anyway.  (Berry bugs are microscopic parasites that thrive in berry fields at around harvest time.  They're annoyingly common in central Scotland.  Aren't you learning a lot today?)  In top annoying fashion they had decided to bite Nic on the stretch marks.  It was itchy, but not absurdly annoying.  Just one of those things.  Ringo was blamed for bringing them in (unfairly it would later turn out) and lost his lap privileges.

The bites didn't go away though.  They got worse.  And worse.  And worse.  The bites spread up and down the stretch marks, turning them into rivers of raw, itchy skin.  Then bumps started coming up on Nic's hands and thighs.  Then those bumps started to spread up her arms and down her legs.  And all the time the itching got worse and worse.

At this point, maybe two weeks before Alex was due to be born, it was pretty clear it wasn't just berry bugs.  A quick check on that source of all truth and knowledge, the internet, brought up PUPPs.  Itchy rash?  Check.  Starts on stretch marks?  Check.  Third trimester?  Check.  First pregnancy?  Check.  Not itchy on palms of hands or soles of feet?  Check.  (Itchy palms and soles of feet is a sign of something more life threatening to do with liver function.)  Photo of PUPPs that looks exactly like Nic's tummy?  Check.  We have a winner.

What a pity the GP didn't agree.

Now GPs have a hard time of it.  They need to know a little about a lot of things, and PUPPs is relatively rare.  And I imagine people coming in clutching print-outs of diseases from the internet must make their hearts sink.  Still, I don't think Nic appreciated being laughed out of the surgery, along with instructions to put some camomile lotion on.  (And unspoken ones to not waste the GP's time again.)  The camomile lotion did not help.

By now, Nic is unbearably itchy.  Any pressure on her skin, such as from a close fitting top, causes her to itch more.  Any amount of heat sets her off too.  She has taken to sleeping under just a single sheet, while I'm tucked under our heavy duvet.  (Nicola is usually the one who feels the cold.)  Any time she isn't scratching, she's submerging her hands, feet or whole body in icy cold water until she goes blue.  She doesn't like being cold, it's just better than being itchy.  After a couple of days she learns to combine scratching and freezing into one simple, time saving act of misery.  I come through to the bathroom to find her standing in a tub of cold water, scratching madly, bleeding slowly from broken scabs and weeping.  Something needs to be done.

We call up the maternity ward at Borders General.  They agree to see Nic and we drive down there.  The ward is incredibly hot.  Obviously this aggravates Nic's itch.  We spend an hour or so waiting for SHOs, registrars and consultants to see us.  (They genuinely have more important things to be doing.)  Everyone is very polite, but not a great deal of help.  Nic is eventually given a prescription for a topical steroid cream.  We have to wait another two hours for the damn cream to turn up.  By the time it does, Nic is ready to kill me.  (I am doing my best not to retaliate, but it's hard.)  We head home, glad to be out of the furnace that is Borders General.

The steroid cream doesn't really help much either.  Nor does the topical anti-histamine.  Nor the oral anti-histamines.  A cold bath infused with oats is perhaps more a distraction than a cure, but it does provide brief respite.  Standing in the cold until the shivers start is marginally effective, but comes with  obvious negatives.  All the PUPPs information we can find basically suggests that nothing will help except giving birth, at which point the rash will clear up in 1 to 2 weeks.  Great.  Now all we need to do is persuade Alex to come out.

Alex doesn't show any signs of wanting to come on his own.  By his due date Nicola is exhausted, angry and miserable.  She can't sleep because she's either itchy or freezing.  The levels of sympathy from me have tailed off the more she's been angry.  It's hard to be helpful or sympathetic when it feels like any suggestion, sympathy or aid is met with venom.  When the doctor suggests an early induction we leap at the offer like an MP at an expense account.

I'm not going to go over the induction again, except to add that throughout it Nicola was draped in wet paper towels in an effort to keep her cool.  But we could get through that, because giving birth was the magic bullet.  Everything was going to be better afterwards, right?  Right?

I think you can guess the answer to that question without any help from me.

Imagine breastfeeding whilst being intolerably itchy.  Imagine not being able to wear anything other than your pyjamas for the first two weeks because otherwise you flare up into a red wealed mess.  Imagine only being able to sleep for one and a half hour chunks because of your newborn son, but then not being able to sleep for even that long because you're freezing cold.  Imagine not being able to cuddle your child because his body heat is unbearable against your rash.  That was Nicola's life for the first two weeks after Alex was born.

I can't say I had a whole lot of fun with it either.  It's hard to see the one you love miserable.  It's harder still when you try and comfort them, only to be slapped away because your hands are too hot.  What do you do when your wife is crying because she's so hot and itchy, but can't face going outside again to cool off?  As time goes on, Nicola gets more and more tired and unhappy.  As she gets more tired, her temper gets shorter and shorter.  She rages at anything and anyone.  Not because she means ill, but just because she hasn't slept well for months.  Bloody PUPPs.

After two weeks we go back to Borders and suffer the furnace for another couple of hours.  We leave with a short course of oral steroids for Nic.  For a glorious couple of days they seem to work.  Nicola is less itchy.  She can bear to be at a normal temperature again.  She even sleeps under the duvet for a night.  But then they stop working as well, then run out.  The itch returns.  The heat returns.  The whole, foul, misery inducing package returns.  Another trip to the Borders, another short course, this time with a referral to a dermatologist at RIE.

Still no joy.  The second course doesn't even have the decency to give us a couple of days respite.  We're due to go up to Aberdeen to see Nicola's folks.  Just before we leave, Alex pees all over Nicola.  Unknown to me, he's weed on her only loose fitting but smart outfit.  So I just find it funny.  (Hey, people that aren't me getting urinated on IS funny!)  Nicola doesn't find it funny.  Nicola doesn't find it funny in a quite spectacular fashion.  She savages me with a venom I've never seen before.  Only the fact that I'm holding Alex and don't want to argue in front of him stops me from retaliating and raising it to a relationship destroying argument.  We make a guarded peace in the car.  Neither of us are really to blame, but it's hard to forgive when you both feel so hurt.

Another day, another hellish hot hospital.  This time we're going to see the dermatologist in Edinburgh.  We arrive early and, miracle of miracles, are called to our appointment early too!  The dermatologist also seems to know what he's talking about, which is a bonus.  (So far, only 50% of the paediatric medical professionals we've spoken to have actually heard of PUPPs.  Non-maternity medical staff have a 0% awareness level.)  He asks a lot of questions, most of which make sense.  At this point, we're well out with the normal post-natal range for PUPPs.  It's normally 1 to 2 weeks.  Nic has had it for five.  The dermatologist is pretty sure it is PUPPs and not anything else, but he orders blood tests and a biopsy, just to rule out some more serious conditions.  He also asks about Nic's steroids.

"I'm on two tablets a day."


"Yes...  Is that bad...?"

"That's practically a homoeopathic dose!  Let's move you up to, erm, six for now.  That should sort it."

And thank the gods, it seems to be working!  Nic has been far less itchy for the last five days.  She's slept under the duvet three nights running.  I can't express how much it means to be able to cuddle my wife again.  Such a simple thing to be able to do, but it makes such a difference.  We've even had the heating on!  Will wonders never cease?  I just hope it keeps on working.

*           *           *

No photos for this entry.  Trust me, you don't want them while eating lunch!  So here's a picture of Alex doing his Buzz Lightyear impression, just for laughs.  To Infinity, And Beyond!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Tired and Emotional

16th - 30th September 2009

Being a parent sneaks up on you.  Obviously not the physical aspect of it.  You'd be hard pressed to miss your wife waddling around the house looking like she's got a beach ball shoved up her jumper.  Rather the emotional side of it creeps up you.  At some point you suddenly realise that you are, in fact, a parent.  It's kind of disconcerting.

In the very first post of this blog I wrote about how I was terrified about Alex's health while he was being born.  While this was undoubtedly true, I was worried more for what it would do to Nicola if he was stillborn.  It would have been awful, no question.  But in a curious way, it would have been awful because of its impact on other people I loved.  Nic had carried him for nine months, felt him move, watched what she ate and what she did while he was growing inside her.  I had yet to meet Alex, or get to know him.  Mums get a head start on loving their children, I think.

Today, I would be devastated if anything happened to him because I want to keep him safe.  Because I love him, not because other people I love love him.  When did that change occur?  I don't know.  But I can tell you exactly when I realised that it had happened.

Cut to: Alex and me in the dining room.  Nicola is grabbing some well earned rest after feeding.  Alex was, until a few moments ago, napping in his bouncy chair.  I was taking the chance to send a couple of emails.  Then Alex woke himself up.  He's always particularly grumpy when he manages this trick and set to wailing with a vengeance.  Clearly the bouncy chair wasn't going to cut it, so I resorted to my patented soothing tactic: Flower of Scotland as performed by the Shush-land national orchestra.  (Get face right beside Alex's ear (risking permanent hearing loss from screaming) then start shushing.  "Shh-Shhhhhh-Sh-Shhhhhhh-Shushhhhh.  Sh-Sh-Sh-Shhhh, Sh-Shhh-Sh-SHHHHHHH."  Feel free to use it on your baby.  Votes of thanks should be make in hard currency.)

So there I am, holding Alex to my face, subjecting him to a curious rendition of his national anthem, rocking him back and forth.  (He'll be very patriotic when he grows up.  Either that or the start of rugby matches will put him to sleep.)  Then the most bizarre thought strikes me.  "You know," I think.  "This reminds me of a dreadfully overacted scene of a parent hugging their child's corpse in Casualty, while shusshing them and explaining that this always put them to sleep."  Of course, once this thought was in my head, I was doomed.  My mind, prone to running off on depressing tangents when tired anyway, set off to explore all the horrible things that could happen to Alex.

I was stuck there for a good ten minutes, weeping and attempting to shush Flower of Scotland, all over what it would be like if anything happened to Alex.  Alex, for his part, didn't notice at all.  If anything, the snivels added an interesting counter-harmony to the tune as far as he was concerned.  Eventually I pulled myself back together.

That's when I realised I was a parent.  Now, and for the rest of my life.

Friday, 16 October 2009


15th-30th September 2009

If I had one bit of advice to give new parents, it would be this: never underestimate the power of the pram.  The pram is an item of limitless magical powers.  You insert an angry, crying baby and poof!  It becomes a quiet, happy baby that can be shown off to neighbours in moments.

I'm not sure what it is about the pram that is so soothing.  Ours, as you can see, is a bright, seventies orange inside and poo brown outside.  Alex seems to find the orange particularly appealing and will often spend entire walks staring at the sides of the pram.  Bumps on curbs, which one might expect to be startling, are actually very good at preventing crying.  It's all remarkably counter-intuitive.

Not everything about the pram is good though.  Being a parent increases your tolerance for unpleasant tasks, but nothing helps with having to clean dog crap out of the treads of the wheels.  We now have a dedicated poo-stick carefully hidden beside the front door to help with this task.

Prams are also ridiculously, absurdly expensive.  A middle of the range frame will set you back £300.  If you want any fancy extras like, you know, a seat, you're looking at an extra £75-£150 per item.  (And who isn't going to buy a seat?!  "Oh no, don't worry dear, we'll just gaffer-tape him to the frame.")  A mid-range pram with travel system and carry cot will cost around £500.  And that's far from the most expensive.  What on earth does it do that warrants charging £500?  For that sort of money I'd expect it to walk itself.

It's not even that prams are a low volume specialist item.  Got a baby?  You, sir, need a pram!  And it's not that they really do all that much.  Fold up, fold out.  Clip thing on, clip thing off.  Place drink in cup holder, remove drink from cup holder.

Yes, you read that right.  Cup holder.  There's a pram you can buy that has a cup holder.  It has a warning on it that says "Do not place drinks in the cup holder when your child is in the pram".  Excuse the hyperbole, but has the world gone mad?  What in the name of all that is holy is the point of that?  When am I going to use it then?  Am I just going to take the pram out to carry my drink?  Putting a cup holder on it does not make it car.  It does not make it worth £500!

We were lucky on the pram front.  We got ours from friends of friends for free, for which we are eternally grateful.  It has a carry cot, converts into a push chair and has enough space underneath it for 18 rolls of toilet roll (with a little encouragement).  It folds up enough to go in the boot of the car.  And it makes Alex shut up.

It has nowhere to put my vente latte though.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Secret Smile

15th-30th September 2009

Alex is practising smiling in his sleep.  As he's drifting off, his face will twitch then crease into a brief smile.  It's wonderful to watch.  As the days go by, he is able to hold the smile for longer and more broadly.  It makes him look more like a person and less like a baby.  He has yet to smile in response to anything Nicola or I have done, but that will come.  (I hope!)

One of the unexpected difficulties of having a newborn baby is how un-interactive they are.  Except when he's sleeping, Alex has only three facial expressions.  They are (in rough order of use): the Duns Stare, howling in anger and yawning.

The Duns Stare

Alex was born in the Borders and it seems to have rubbed off on him.  The Duns Stare, named in honour of Jim Aiton's birthplace, is a glaikit gaze into the middle distance.  In its true form, the Duns Stare should ideally be directed at someone you don't know.  At no point should you actually be looking AT that person, merely happen to have your eyes pointing in their direction while thinking about something (or nothing) else entirely.

Alex is very, very good at the Duns Stare.  He can stare at people, sofas, bits of his pram, open space or packets of nappies, all with apparently little or no actual interest in the item in question.  Hands waved in his line of sight do not disturb him.  He blinks, conservatively, once every five minutes.  At one point I had to blow on his face just to make sure he actually could blink, which of course lead to:

Howling with anger

Everyone knows this one.   It starts with the bottom lip trembling.  Then the eyebrows draw down and the hands start flailing.  Lastly, an arresting red colour suffuses the face before an almighty "BGWaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa" is unleashed.  This is continued ad nauseum until which ever need is met.  Alex has a tendency to also go rigid with anger, which at least provides us with some amusement as you can prop him up and pretend he's standing.  This is not always appreciated by Alex.


Often thrown into howling with anger just to keep you on your toes.  Alex is able to do some mighty big yawns given how small he is.  I love it when he yawns, as he looks like a little person doing it.

*          *          *

And that's pretty much it, expression wise.  He's either angry, tired or staring into space.  It's remarkably unrewarding as a parent.  Nicola in particular feels bad about it.  We're conditioned to dash about at his beck and call, but all we can get for our troubles is some quiet.  Don't get me wrong, quiet is good, but we're both looking forwards to the day when he smiles at us, not just near us.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Hey Mr Sandman

12th-15th September, 2009

One of the great clich├ęs of being a new parent is that you don't get much sleep and are really tired all the time.  Neither part of this is wholly true.  You can get lots of sleep, just in one and half hour chunks and you'll be really, extraordinarily, mind-manglingly tired all the time.

The sleep pattern thing is odd.  During the first couple of days Nic and I manage to grab about as much sleep as we would usually.  The reason we're tired is that it's not good sleep.  As well as the general worry of looking after Alex, newborns are supposed to feed every three hours or less.  (And that's three hours from the start of the last feed, not the end.)  At best, we manage to get maybe 1.5-2 hours sleep in one go.  In the worst case, Alex will feed for an hour and a half, then take half an hour to settle.  That means he gets an hour's sleep before being woken to feed.  Nic and I are lucky to get 45 minutes.  Overall it might add up to eight to ten hours a day, but it's far from restful.

It's hard to describe just how tiring being constantly on-call like this actually is.  You pass through tiredness, into that magical second wind period, out the other side of that into dead tired and then go beyond dead tired into some previously unexplored nadir of sleep deprivation.  You become a shambling undead monstrosity, capable only of nappy changing and shoogling motions paired with shushing noises.  All hours of the day and night are equal to you.  You know you're a new parent when 3am seems like a good time for a chat with the in-laws, but curse their eternal souls for calling at the utterly unreasonable hour of 2pm.  I take advantage of the newly discovered hours in the day to put the bin out in the dead of night.

Even the times when Alex is asleep aren't really relaxing.  We suddenly have far more to do and far less time to do it in.  At one point I optimistically prepare dinner for an hour's time, at which point Alex should be asleep.  Three hours later we manage to shift-eat the cremated remains of a steak pie and baked potato.  I manage about five mouthfuls before giving up.

*          *         *

The upside of all this stress and sleeplessness is that I'm losing weight!  The Bell side of my family loses their appetites when overly tired.  The Caldwell side loses theirs when stressed.  I am currently both and cannot manage more than a slice of toast in six hours.  I thought it was Nic who was meant to lose weight after the birth, not me.  Still, can't really complain.  Maybe we have a family breast size total that can't be exceeded?  As Nic's have got bigger, mine are getting smaller.  That's a win-win situation!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Breast is Best

13th-15th of September, 2009.

Given how important it is to the whole survival of the human race thing, you'd think breast feeding would be easier.  I really don't understand how something that has been this critical to our species for so long can possibly be so stupidly difficult.

Like a lot of men (and I suspect women), my pre-baby understanding of bosoms and their uses could best be described as cosmetic.  I was aware that they were used for feeding infants, but only in the same way in which I am aware Mars is a planet or that Antarctica is cold.  (The media assure me it's true, but I have yet to see any physical proof for myself.)  But I had never considered the actual, practical implications of this.  I mean, baby + breast = nosh.  How hard could it be?

Yeah, well, ok.  Pretty damn hard, it turned out.  The problems are essentially three fold.  Firstly, there's Alex.  Basically he doesn't have a clue what he's doing.  Babies are born with a "rooting" (casting their head around for food) instinct and a basic "sucking" instinct.  Only the sucking one sucks.  They're just not very good at it.  Alex persistently gets his tongue in the wrong place during his first few days.  Rather than placing it under the nipple and sucking, he gets it on top of the nipple and chews.  It is unpleasant and frustrating for both Nic and Alex.  Nic because it hurts, Alex because it means he doesn't get enough milk.

Then there's Nic's body.  At the start of motherhood you produce colostrum (a sort of thick milk) for a few days, then main milk thereafter.  But Nic's not producing huge amounts of colostrum because Alex is not suckling well.  Supply follows demand in breastfeeding, so if Alex doesn't suck and so gets less food, then Nic doesn't produce as much milk, which means Alex gets less food, which means he doesn't have the energy to suck well which means and so on.  It's a vicious circle.

Lastly, there's positioning.  Nic and I are struggling just to work out how to hold this 7lb 5.5oz bundle of squirming, screaming humanity, never mind how to hold him in such a way that he can clamp on to Nic's nipples.  Think about it for a second.  Alex can't even support his own head, never mind sit or stand on his own.  He has no real volitional control over his limbs and even if he did, he couldn't understand what we want him to do anyway.  And he's surprisingly heavy if you hold him for any length of time.  Now imagine trying to get this thing attached halfway up your chest.

The upshot of this is that Alex is hungry a lot of the time and takes (literally) hours on one feed.  At some point in the first night we crack and I get a bottle of formula that the hospital gave us and stuff him so full of milk that he can't move.  (He can't move anyway of course, but at least he stops screaming and goes to sleep.)  It feels like a failure.

The next day the community midwife weighs him.  He's dropped in weight from 3.335kg (and yes, I know we all think about babies in pounds and ounces, but trust me, this bit is MUCH easier in metric) down to 3kg exactly.  The midwife looks a touch concerned.

"That's more of a drop than we like to see.  He's just over the 10% of birth weight ," she tells us.  (See, told you it was easier in metric.  Could you do 10% of 7lbs 5.5oz in your head?)  "It's not really worrying, but..." she trails off.  Nic's main milk still hasn't come in and Alex is still struggling with feeding.  She says to see how it goes for the rest of the day and we'll re-assess the next day.

Suffice to say, it goes badly.  Alex feeds for hours but still seems unsatisfied.  We call the midwife up.

"OK.  Come over to the health centre and I'll give you a couple of syringes.  Use them to top him up with formula after a feed until Nicola's milk comes in."

So for the next two days Alex is fed by a combination of breasts and the magic finger.  The magic finger is my pinky, which is stuffed into his mouth.  Once he starts sucking it we have to squeeze milk into his mouth using the syringe.  It sounds deeply tedious, but I really enjoy it.  Feeding is the only thing newborns really seem to enjoy and, until now, it has been Nic's preserve.  Here, I get to hold my son and provide him with sustenance.  I get to feel his mouth and tongue slurping away at my finger.  He is surprisingly strong.  After a while my pinky really hurts, but it's worth it for the bonding alone.

What it does to Nicola is another matter.  Even if you're not a breastfeeding mum, it's impossible to avoid the omnipresent "Breast is Best" message.  Harder still if you're an educated, middle-class new mum keen to provide the best for your child.  Every top up feed is a damning indictment on Nic's motherhood (or at least that's how she feels).  She needed all the pain relief the hospital could provide and now she is failing in her only role as a new mum.  I know she feels like this.  I sympathise, but, in my heart of hearts, I am still glad for the time with Alex.  Had I any spare mental capacity this would undoubtedly make me feel guilty and conflicted.  Thankfully it's all taken up with worrying about stuff, so I'm spared that at least.

On the 15th, Nic's milk comes in.  Her breasts suddenly leap up three cups sizes overnight.  Alex gets the hang of suckling and goes at it with a vengeance.  We step down then stop the top up feeds.  It's a good day.  Still, I find myself missing that link I got from feeding him.  I guess I'll just have to wait until Nic starts expressing breast milk, at which point I can take over on few feeds.  I am looking forwards to it immensely.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Home, James! Err, Alex!

12th September, 2009.

Something tells me Nicola has not been enjoying her stay on the labour ward.
"Please text back to say you got this.  Please bring 4 more vests, baby grow and car seat.  Am hating hospital! Love Nic. xxx"
Not sure what it is, just a feeling.

*         *        *

My mum picks me up first thing and drives me down to the hospital.  Borders General is not what you would call convenient for Dalkeith.  In fact it's about 10 times further away than Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, one of the biggest maternity units in Scotland.  But ERI is also one of the busiest, and the chances of being bumped to a different unit at the last minute, or of getting a less personal level of service are quite high.  So we went with the Borders.  I don't regret it, but it does make getting there at 8am when your car is still sitting in the hospital car park somewhat tricky.  Thus Granny Tatty is on dad taxi-ing duty.  The drive down seems longer than I remember, but maybe that's just the anticipation.

Eventually we arrive.  Technically, only I should be let onto the ward.  (Dads get open visiting between 8am and 10:30pm, other people only get 2-4 and 6:30-8.)  We prevail upon the red-headed orderly who lets me in though, and Tatty is allowed to say a (very) brief hello to Alex.  Unlike all the other grandparents, she doesn't break down into tears.  I suspect she's probably already done that at home.

Once she's gone, Nic catches me up on the night's news.  It turns out that the good people of the Scottish Borders are unusually fertile at the moment.  (Or perhaps more accurately, were unusually fertile/frisky/drunk and careless around Christmas and New Year.)  As a result it's been really busy in the maternity ward.  At one point, it took over an hour for Nic to get a slice of toast, which she promptly threw up.  Also, she's been worried about Alex crying and disturbing other people.

Let's just take a moment to think about that, shall we?  She's worried about Alex, a less than one day old baby, crying and disturbing the peace in a maternity ward filled with crying babies.  I can't even begin to understand this.  Then I remember that Nic has had almost no sleep in three days, is on an interesting cocktail of drugs, has just forced a seven and half pound baby out through a hole that would comfortably take only a half pound baby and has stitches in places I didn't even know she had.  I decide to let this particular issue slide.  How gracious of me.

So we settle down to our first day of trying to look after Alex.  About the first thing that happens is that we need to change his nappy.  He rewards us with a remarkably accurate impression of the Manneken Pis.  Neither of us cops a faceful, thankfully, but the bed gets soaked.  (A good learning experience.  This is why you DON'T change your child on the bed!)  We press the call button and let the red-headed orderly from earlier know.  She goes to get new linen, but doesn't return for quite a while.

This going to do something but not coming back turns out to have been the bane of Nic's night.  It was responsible for the hour long toasting incident and numerous other issues.  Most upsetting for Nic was when she was told that she would be woken at five to breastfeed Alex, only to be woken at six thirty, scolded for neglecting her baby and then told that there wasn't time to breastfeed him and to give him this bottle of formula.  She is close to tears telling me this.  In contrast, I am close to homicide.  We both hold back with admirable self-control.

Maybe I'm pushier than Nic, or maybe I'm just less tired and so better able to articulate our needs, but over the next few hours we manage to get more help.  In particular, an Australian midwife (I thought all our nurses were going over there, not theirs over here) is able to spend fifteen minutes helping Nic with breastfeeding technique.

Visitors come and go.  It's all a bit hard to take in.  Shining through it all though is the fact that I'm enjoying my son for the first time.  I'm less stressed and (a little) less worried, so I can take pleasure in him.  We play "spot the inheritance".  The consensus is that Alex doesn't really look much like anyone.  He's got a bit of Nicola's dad in there, but it's not startling.  About the only obvious genetic hand-me-down is that he has my feet.  This strikes me as kind of weird.  I was expecting to be able to say "oh, that's my [eyes/nose/etc]", not "he's got my feet"!  I didn't even think of feet as being something you could identify, but it turns out you can.  Bad luck Alex, giant hobbit feet it is.

At five o'clock Nicola is discharged.  We're free to go.  We pack up our stuff (although not before I send Nic's only bra home with her parents, oops!) and carefully clip Alex into his car seat.  Then we're allowed to take him home.

Hang on, shouldn't there be a test?  Or some sort of home visit?  It was harder adopting our cat for goodness sake!  (£49 and a reference, if you're wondering.)  Just because we're fertile doesn't mean we're safe to be parents.  Why doesn't someone do something about this?  How can we be suddenly in charge of a tiny, fragile little life?  Eek!

We drive home, very, very carefully.  Ever two minutes or so I ask Nic how Alex is doing.  The answer, pretty much each time, is that he's asleep.  He is the only one who is unfazed.  On getting home we introduce him to the cat.  Ringo gives Alex a brief sniff, then demands food.  We assemble some sort of half-hearted dinner, all the time keeping an eye on Alex, as if he will despawn if we don't keep him in sight at all times.  We eat something.  I presume.  I can't remember doing so, but we must have.  Alex grumps and struggles to feed.

The Woolly Mammoth of Responsibility settles down in the back of my skull.  Oh gods, we're a family.  Life is never going to be the same.

P.S. I should explain that Alex was going to be called James until about 3 days before his birth, hence the title.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Family Ties

Andrew, topless, holding Alex. (C) Nicola Bell.
11th of September, 2009: 18:00

We spent a couple of quiet hours in the labour suite (where you do the whole "push push" bit) after Alex was born.  Just sitting, holding him, talking quietly. Of course, because this is the 21st century we were also fielding texts and Facebook messages of congratulations.  But it was a quiet time regardless.  Certainly compared to the previous 24 hours.  I'd had a good worry about everything, Nicola had been put back together by the medical staff and Alex had had a sleep.  Just as we were about to be moved to the maternity ward (where you stay after the "push push" bit), Nicola's parents arrived.  (Visiting hours were just starting, by an odd co-incidence.)  The staff let them in to say hello and accompany us to the ward.  Nicola and her parents hugged and cried.  I got a manly handshake from Alan and a kiss from Hazel.

(Utterly off topic, it's been interesting to chart Alan's greetings to me over the years.  When I was just his daughter's boyfriend, I got a cheery "Hello".  When we got engaged, I was promoted to a handshake.  Since Alex has been born, it's gone up to a manly handshake, complete with left hand on elbow action.  I dread to think what it would have become if we'd had twins!)

We got Nicola transferred to a wheely bed, Alex to a wheely cot and I put my T-shirt back on, so as not to scare the general public.  Then, in a bizarre cavalcade, we left the labour suite.

I expected to cry when Alex was born and I became a dad (which I did, but not for the reasons I was anticipating).  I wasn't expecting to cry when I saw my own father afterwards.  Yet when I saw him there, standing outside the labour suite, waiting for us to be wheeled through to the ward, I broke down and wept uncontrollably.  Every ounce of fear, stress and fatigue I had accumulated over the last two days suddenly bubbled up.  I could stop being strong.  Stop being reassuring.  Stop being upbeat.  My dad was here.  I was safe.

My unexpected reaction to seeing my dad pretty much sums up what I'm aiming for with being Alex's dad.  No matter what else happens, if in thirty years time he can see me standing there and know, deep down, that he's safe, I'll count my life as a success.

*           *           *

I can't remember a lot about those first visiting hours.  It seems my body had finally given up.  Nicola had a sea of hormones to tide her through.  I had the stale taste of fear in my mouth and limbs as heavy as lead.  The grandparents coo-ed over Alex, who was obligingly cute if somewhat sleepy.  I think I may have managed a couple of sentences, but I doubt they were more than five words long, if that.  John and Grant took pity on me and whisked me off home.  (New dads are not allowed to stay overnight in the hospital.)  On the way home the sky was ablaze over Sutra Hill.  Fabulous reds, oranges and pastel golds framed the massive wind turbines as the sun set over Edinburgh.  A more spectacular sunset I haven't seen in a long, long time.  I cursed my lack of a camera to myself as we drove.

I got home to a dark house and a very friendly cat at around 9pm, over 36 hours after Nic and I left for the hospital.  I was worried that I wouldn't be able to sleep for replaying those horrible moments after Alex's birth.

I was asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.

*           *           *

And so ended probably the longest day of my life.  Although Alex is shaping up to be the best thing in the world, I can't honestly say that the day he was born was the best day of my life.  Hand on heart, it was far from it.  It was a day of terror and stress, pain and blood.  Enjoyment would have to wait until tomorrow.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Cry Baby, Cry: Update

I'm writing these posts about 2-3 weeks after the fact.  It's partly because I had better things to do in the first couple of weeks of Alex's life.  It's partly that it gives me time to think about and understand things, an emotional safety barrier if you will.  And it's partly that it stops me from writing something stupid, like a joke about a nappy rash that turns out to be measles.  A not looking like a prat barrier, perhaps.

I might need to work on the not looking like a prat barrier size...

Everything I wrote in Cry Baby, Cry was absolutely true for the first two and half weeks.  It was true when I wrote it.  It was true all the way until I got home that night.

Let's just say I'm over the "he doesn't cry enough" thing now.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Cry Baby, Cry

11th of September, 2009.  16:00.

Alex has been in the world for a little under half an hour and the elephant of worry, which had previously made a brief appearance in my stomach during his birth, has returned.  Only this time, he's brought his friends.  I've been a dad for maybe twenty-five minutes and it feels like I've spent most of that time fretting.  I have, in no particular order worried about:

  1. His funny shaped head.  (Pretty much all newborns have funny shaped heads, so this one didn't overly trouble me.)
  2. The fact that he was born with forceps.  What if they've mashed his little brain?
  3. That he was born blue.  What if his little brain has been starved of oxygen?
  4. The fact that he's dribbling out of one side of his mouth.  What if he's been paralysed down one side?
  5. I can't seem to feel anything but worry.  Is this it?  Isn't love involved somewhere?
  6. He's not crying enough.  (I know, I know.)  What if this means he's autistic?
  7. A whole bunch of other stuff that I have since forgotten.
The dribble turned out to be, well, dribble.  He was dribbling out of one side of his mouth because that was the side that was lowest down.  Having since been kicked in the face by both legs, grabbed by both hands and peed on with surprising, nay, malicious accuracy I can attest that he is in no way paralysed.  And love is much easier to feel when you're not on the edge of hallucinations caused by fatigue and stale adrenaline.  The one worry that's really stuck with me is one I suspect will mean other parents hate me.

I still worry he doesn't cry enough.

I give you a second to stop muttering dark imprecations about my parentage...  Got that out of your system?  Good.  Let's carry on.

Alex is a good baby.  Obviously I'm biased, but he really is very peaceful.  He rarely seems to get into a massive strop.  He goes to sleep and stays that way (usually).  He doesn't much like getting his nappy changed, but who would?  He just doesn't cry very much.  And it freaks me out.  Really, really badly.

I'm well aware there's little logic to this.  I've been on the verge of tears the few times he's been unsettled and cried for any prolonged period of time.  I can't stand to hear him cry.  The noise of him being upset seems to shred my soul into little bits, good only for making soul coleslaw.  (Soulslaw, in fact.)  But he's just so damn quiet the rest of the time.  I thought babies were meant to howl and scream.  To kick up a right royal fuss whenever anything was wrong.  But Alex doesn't.  Much.  On a good day.

The logical, rational part of my mind knows that babies vary.  The logical, rational part of my mind knows damn well that Alex can cry bloody murder when he wants to.  The problem is the logical, rational part of my mind can take a flying leap when it comes to my son.  He was quiet when he was born.  I was terrified for him when he was born.  Thus, I am worried when he doesn't cry.

Parenthood changes us all, I guess.  I just never expected it to change me into a worrier.