The journey back from the hospital was only six miles but it felt like a long journey to an entirely new country. We had crossed the Rubicon to join the tribe of parents. I felt like a refugee – passportless, dazed, and somehow slightly fraudulent. I kept expecting some official to emerge, cough politely, mumble something about a mix-up, and take the baby back. I looked out of the car window, to remind myself that the world was still the same – the clouds still grey, the tree trunks still black with rain, the traffic lights still changing from red to amber to green and back – just like yesterday. Then I would look at our baby son, sixteen hours old, to remind myself that he exists today, and everything had changed.
He feeds, sometimes in a frenzy, searching for my nipple like a shark scything through a school of tuna. At other times, getting mouth to breast is as delicate an operation as docking the Mir Space station. While he sucks, his hands float to one side and stroke the air as though he were Krishna playing his flute. I’m drawn to him like the most love-sick, dumb-struck gopi of the lot, content to watch him feed, thrilled to bits that I’m his chosen milkmaid.
It’s common knowledge that making babies is fun but having them is not. The books – and I’ve got a shelf full of them – at best talk of the “rewards and challenges” of parenthood. Such phrases, whilst intending to reassure, tend to have the opposite effect. These “rewards” sounds much too much like wages – as ye sow, so ye shall reap and all that. And as for “challenges”, well. I beg to differ from all those management training manuals, but calling a problem a “challenge” does not make it any easier to solve. Such “rewards and challenges” might sound enticing to the types who derive pleasure from running cross-country marathons in Scotland in mid-winter. I am not one of them.
“Agoo!” I exclaim.
My baby looks at me and the unoiled cogs of his motor functions clank to life as he lies there on the bed and flails. He stops. He lies there, helpless as a flipped turtle.
“Aggee!” I remark, setting off another manic upside-down doggy paddle.
“A…..” He looks at me expectantly, wondering what the next syllable might possibly be. “Aaaa….gooo!”
This can go on for hours.
Parenting books tend to have reassuring chapter headings like “Becoming a Father” or “Encouraging Sleep”, but these are the kid gloves covering the iron fists that follow. No sooner have you been told that having a baby is the most wonderful experience than you’re having to deal with the likes of colic, inverted nipples and how to subsist on two hours of sleep a day. In one book, a chapter cheerily entitled “Enjoying Parenthood” kicks off on a less than sunny note, with the author warning “I have spoken to many mothers who feel that they have reached the end of their tether within the first few weeks of having a baby.” It seemed from reading these and other books that we were in for a tough time.
Week five and he’s discovered his hands. He stares at them astounded that such an excellent source of entertainment, amusement and fascination had been so thoughtfully provided right there on the end of an arm
Giving birth itself, well, that wasn’t much fun either – although it had its funnier side, retrospectively, and now that the bite marks on my partner’s hand have healed. The overpreparedness, the amount of stuff that we took to the hospital, the optimistic silliness (it seems now) of essential oils and homeopathic pills to deal with labour pains. It was like taking elastoplast to the battle of the Somme.
Sixteen weeks old and he can support his own weight – just. He pushes his legs down dead straight and hangs on to my thumbs, while his hips do a little Elvis gyration. It’s an instant cure for all unhappiness. I plant him like a flagpole and he looks around from the great height of his verticality, hugely pleased. It is exceptionally endearing.
After all was said and done, I felt that we’d prepared well for the arrival of this child. There were tiny romper suits. There were fleecy blankets. We had bought nappies (size zero) and booties (size half). We had serried ranks of Johnson’s Baby products: bubble bath, shampoo, talcum powder, lotion, and more cotton wool than you could shake a stick at. I was mentally prepared for hard work, little sleep, large boobs and roller-coaster emotions. We knew, because we’d read, that our relationship was about to undergo its biggest test, and that if we emerged without killing each other, we’d be doing well.
Of all of life’s events, becoming a parent is, perhaps, the most conservatising. Any pretentions to radicalness or non-conformity are the first casualties on the road to motherhood – or fatherhood for that matter. In the months and weeks leading up to birth, there was much talk of ‘responsibility’, ‘planning for the future’, ‘settling down’. It all sounded about as much fun as a wet sock. As I was wheeled into the labour ward, I felt a pang of sorrow in amongst the many other pangs that were coursing through me as I bade a swift farewell to the young, free and single identity to which I’d clung – even though, strictly speaking, I was none of these.
We drift together at night. I lie moored in him like a boat on a very small sandbank, lulled by the rhythmic tug of his sucking. As his belly fills, so the rising tide of sleep covers first him, then me, releasing us both to resume our separate journeys on through the dark.
There’s something about the whole concept of “mother” which is a big turn-off. Self sacrificing, endlessly on call, nurturing – no thank you. I weighed up the relative merits of motherhood against its opposite (whatever that’s called). Motherhood smacked of biological determinism as against self determination; social oppression as opposed to gender equality; housework against professional career; and tradition as against modernity. It all sounded very depressing, all profoundly unsexy and unfun.
“Oooh my goodness, look at that hair!” We soon got used to being stopped in the street for people to exclaim over this extraordinary coif. His hair has an entire separate identity of its own. He was the hairiest baby to have been born in High Wycombe hospital or possibly anywhere else. A one-week-old baby. With a side parting.
And now in his fifth month, he not only smiles but laughs – a squawky in-take of breath. It’s a bit like having a budgie in the house. I count my blessings – a partner who doesn’t think that housework and baby care is a girl’s job, friends who are both caretakers and care-givers, and a baby who’s such a honeybun. It’s been a hell of a week at work, fun quotient at an all-time low. The moment I walk in and see our kid, the heaviness lifts. He recognises me, and that on its own is the biggest present ever. This is way off the scale of ‘rewards’ and ‘challenges’. It’s a gift: nothing to do with just desserts – and everything to do with love, pure and simple.
“Hello, pudding,” I say.
He looks up and smiles like all the Christmas lights coming on at once.
Outlook Magazine, 16 December 2002