Weekly posts have clearly become more realistic than daily ones – certainly at least while Baby J is battling the Meanies. This week – touch wood, press thumbs, cross fingers – is showing very promising signs of being better than last, which really didn’t improve after my last post until the weekend.
That paragraph above was hastily typed on Tuesday, and here it is Thursday afternoon already. Baby J is awake. He needs a sleep, actually, since we’ve had a play, a feed AND a long chat since his last shut-eye, but he’s still reasonably composed – though that fisted grip on his blanket gives me some small cause for concern… Happily, Tuesday’s optimistic prediction has thus far proven accurate – we are having a much better week. Indeed, Baby J has not required any colic medication since Sunday. The Meanies – dare I commit these words to the screen – appear to be abating.
And I’ll tell you what’s cute: watching this little guy fight sleep as I sit typing beside him. We’re tuned to the classical music station on his little portable radio, he’s sitting in a lovely afternoon sea breeze, the curtains are flapping like a nimble chorus, and Baby J’s swinger gently rocks him from side to side, because, you see, we upgraded last weekend. It became imperative – confirming advice we were admittedly given right at the outset – that we acquire something capable of rocking itself. This whole foot-forever-on-the-bouncer thing was a total bust, a real mug’s game, especially for a child who needs to be upright more often than most. We were going stark raving mad. So now he has fallen asleep, albeit reluctantly, Jeremy Fisher sitting on the swinger’s plush headrest confiding something clearly of insufficient interest, and the thing keeps on rocking unattended. God, the relief. And I mean that literally, because I can now run to the toilet without interrupting the rhythmic motion that has finally lulled the little man to sleep.
I love the swinger.
So now there is a brief pause in my duties, and I am almost at a loss as to how best to use the time. I have already dashed around the house, pulling in and folding laundry, putting on another load (as necessitated by Baby J’s most recent masterful dump, a bodily spectacular six days in the making that narrowly avoided destroying said swinger but did succeed in filling, believe it or not, his belly button), peeling and boiling spuds to go with currently defrosting ‘Marriage Saver,’ tidying the nursery, loading the dishwasher, taking out the recycling and so on, and now here I am, finally, my computer strange on my knees like something I no longer know how to use.
I am reading a gift at the moment, from the lovely Samantha, whose IVF story some of you may recall from her wonderfully knowledgeable comments on various of my infertility posts. When Baby J was born, Samantha very thoughtfully and kindly sent me a copy of The Hand That First Held Mine, by Maggie O’Farrell. I finished Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath a few days ago, which took FOREVER because of Baby J’s Screaming Meanies, but I’m comparatively galloping through the O’Farrell as he is so much improved that I can actually read while I hold him, something that couldn’t be attempted while he was in the grip.
I suspect I’m also bolting the novel because one half of the split narrative concerns a couple with a newborn baby. O’Farrell’s fictional depiction is astonishing in its familiarity and accuracy. I couldn’t hope to ever write about my own actual experience as well as she has succeeded in writing about an invented one. It has already left me a bit slack-jawed – the portrait is so uncanny. It’s the universalities that do it, of course, but the details with which they are furnished are truly striking, made all the more poignant (he’s awake and none too happy about it, by the way, so this post has just acquired a certain urgency) by holding my own new son while I read. I’m admiring the writing greatly, and must send Samantha a note of thanks once I’ve finished it. Talk about a well-chosen gift. My challenge will be succeeding as well when her own baby – that little miracle – shortly arrives.
As for The World Beneath, I enjoyed it very much too. I’ve mentioned Cate Kennedy a few times here; she conducted the short story workshop I attended a little while ago with Fugitive Pieces, and is one of Australia’s most renowned exponents of the form. This is her first novel, set mainly in Tasmania’s treacherous, Jurassic-style wilderness. The characterisations of the three main protagonists are both affectionate and unflinching – I lost count of the number of times I chuckled in recognition of one of these types. And the action was engrossing – I don’t want to give too much away, but most of you have probably heard of walkers going missing in one or another of Australia’s vast national parks, and it is always a race against time and conditions to find them and get them out alive. It makes for sobering reality, but gripping fiction, and Kennedy is another writer, like O’Farrell, with a really enviable eye for the telling detail. It is a rare skill, separating really great writing from the merely competent. And oh, how I love to read great writing.
Unexpected irritation: my internet connection isn’t working. God knows when I’ll get this up.
Postscript: In less than a day!
Post-postscript: Just in case there was any doubt about it, I had some cheese on my lunch today after one of the other mothers said she’s found a bit is okay for the reflux and colic, and it is NOT okay for us. We have just had his first Screaming Meanies all week, immediately following the very next feed. I can’t believe I did this to him. I won’t be dabbling in dairy again in a fit while I am still feeding this baby. Case closed.
We’ve had a wee relapse here at Poo HQ… Baby J has been tormented by his digestive demons both yesterday and today, and I am writing this madly at the tail end of what I have christened the Morning Meanies. It seems to be his worst time (something he has in common with his mum…), but right now there’s a promising lull in the horrors, and so here I am. These episodes are plainly painful, overtaking him entirely. When it comes, the end is abrupt and total, much as though a cruel spirit has finally let him be, exactly like a possession– and right now he’s in his bouncer being rocked by my foot, lids heavy but resistance strong… he needs to sleep, and I need him to sleep too. We both need to fortify for the next bout of screaming. There he goes… drifting off… that’s the way, beautiful boy…
Weeks ago, I jotted down a list of things I didn’t want to forget to write about, but it occurs to me now I am most unlikely to get the opportunity any time soon. It’s a telling list, a story in its own right, so I’ve decided to just give it to you as I wrote it, as an insight into the first days of Baby J’s life all those weeks (nearly twelve of them, if you can believe it) ago.
Notes for Starting Life:
We need to give ourselves permission to admit things have changed.
The bottle in Special Care
Air-con and ticking clock
That’s wee in your eye
The view outside my window
The Jamaican vacation
The mid-stay weigh in
What happened to N and A, the other couple in the share suite
Nurse C vs Nurse D
Nurse D and the unauthorised squeeze
The trip home
The sleeping arrangements
The projectile shit
Laundry on the line
Recognising your infant’s cry
The generosity of others
That last one is especially worth lingering over, for this little guy has truly had the warmest welcome. It’s been sincerely humbling being on the receiving end of the tidal wave of good will attending his arrival. So many people have had a share in making his first twelve weeks one long celebration, despite the ups and downs of his early health, that we keep having to print off more photos for the thank you cards. I have hand-written over eighty at the last count. Now, my faith in people was never in any danger – I know way too many supremo human beings to ever waver on that front – but in the wake of Baby J’s reception, it has more than redoubled in strength. Colic? Reflux? Ha! They will be conquered, and despite them, he thrives.
And… he’s awake. And so it goes.
Now the birth story is FINALLY finished, nearly 11 weeks after the event itself, I’m trying to figure out what to write about next… god, there is just so much material I scarcely know where to begin. And I can understand, I really can, how it is that new parents end up boring everyone rigid with their incessant talk of their gummy progeny. It’s because it’s so absorbing. For a start, Baby J is fed six times every 24 hours. Because of his reflux (a diagnosis that has swelled to include colic now too), he needs to be held upright for 20 minutes after every portion of every feed. Each half takes 20 minutes, so it’s an hour and twenty, or 8 solid hours a day, before I even factor in changing his nappy, play time, and settling. Once you start to pile on household chores (I know the advice is to let everything slide, but that little nugget strikes me as something of a false economy. None of the things that need doing stop needing to be done, they just back up like a Venetian toilet) and, you know, eating or going to the toilet myself, or daring to attempt a walk or a phone call, it quickly turns into a very long day. And that’s without the hours and hours of screaming. Literally hours, and literally screaming. Thankfully, given the combination of time (for his oesophagal sphincter muscle to develop) , medication, practical strategies, and a new non-dairy diet for yours truly, as advised by Baby J’s paediatrician, he is now doing much better.
Much. Better. It all started when he had a gold standard weekend. While the rest of Sydney was wiped out by our record heatwave on Saturday, I was positively euphoric. Baby J was content, and completely untroubled by the heat thanks to his enthusiastic nudity, constant wipe downs with a cool washer, two baths, the sea breeze and a fan. He barely cried, much less screamed, all day. The mid-morning feed seems to be the worst for him – I have no idea why – but even this failed to disturb our Saturday peace. The temptation was there to interpret his contented dozing as acute heatstroke, but one only needed to look at him to see the absurdity of such thoughts. He was just sleeping. And when he wasn’t sleeping, he was cheerful and smiling and cooing: a completely altered child. Or not altered at all. Restored.
After starting motherhood feeling supremely relaxed, I descended into the dark whorl of anxiety and exhaustion that is caring for a baby with reflux. Despite the recent improvements, I remain a little tense all the time, scarcely believing in this radical transformation of my days alone at home with him. I guess I feel I have to remain slightly on my guard, lest the worst days return. It’s not really in my nature to brace for bad tidings, who needs that, so each day that he is better, a little piece of me mends too, but the screaming was so harrowing, so relentless, that it’s harder than I thought to dismantle the grim expectation of everything kicking off again.
Have we turned a corner? I hope so. Oh, I hope so. Because he’s so lovely now his traitorous body is cutting him some slack. I feel like we’re finally getting to know him, this little person behind the red, distressed face, and he’s divine. And because now he’s not screaming all day every day, he’s actually having a couple of naps. Yes, naps (see how I’ve got you perched on the edge of your seat?! Naps, for crying out loud!). Not in his bassinet, no, no. He spurns his bassinet from 10 am daily, but he seems to know it’s bedtime when he returns to it at night, so I’ll take that as the priority, thanks very much. Anyway, a nap for Baby J means a moment or two for me to write. Like now. He’s snoozing in his bouncer beside me, and I am madly typing with two hands while rocking the bouncer with one foot. It is a huge relief, you know, just getting something down (apologies for any errors and poor quality), because writing makes me feel well. And I’ve ended up writing about this very thing in February’s Monthly Feature for the Varuna Alumni website. It’s called ‘A room of one’s own: claiming space in a shrinking universe.’
I want to write about the maternity ward. I want to write about every day since. I want to write about the media and the floods and fires and China’s terracotta warriors and the situation in Egypt and about driving, because in amongst all this I got my driver’s licence. I want to write about reading. I don’t know where to start. I just want to write.
Thank you, my gorgeous little man, for this precious window to go about my tiny task.
Help me. Please help me. I’ve been trying and failing to sign up to all your blogs as a subscriber so I’ll receive posts as emails whenever you update. Now I have a whiz-bang new phone, I then ought to be able to read them while feeding, which will keep me nice and up to date and connected. Having thought I’d already gone through the other day and ticked the subscribe thing on all my blogging friends’ blogs, I have received a grand total of NIL emails. So what am I doing wrong?? Please tell me!! Someone, anyone – how hard can it be?!
So if I thought I didn’t want an epidural, you can imagine how I felt upon learning I was now entering Caesarean City, ready or not. And the troops gathered with admirable efficiency – the birthing suite hummed with activity, as a cast of thousands readied me for theatre. Dr F miraculously appeared, as though he’d been waiting behind Door #3 all along, nurses came and went, and a man – Bernie was his name – charged with wheeling me to the surgery nattered cheerfully, offering a running commentary while I was indelicately rolled onto the waiting gurney, sporting a catheter and the slowly numbing spinal block for my trouble. Llew was thrown a set of scrubs, which he dutifully donned, and Bernie took a photo of us pre-op as they wheeled me down the hall. It’s an utterly hideous photo of me, I look bloated and, um, beached, and I’m starting to look quite off the air, but it’s a photo Llew loves, because we were on our way to meet our child. And for that reason, I find I can almost love it too.
We went down, down in the lifts to what felt like a beyond basement subterranean level. Lying on my back, I stared wonderingly up into the exposed air-conditioning ducts, bits of foiled pipe dangling above like some spaceship’s dramatic disembowelment, the occasional gaping hole in the ceiling appearing obscurely menacing. It was like we’d left the hospital proper and entered a zone whose existence hospital officials categorically deny… it felt like I’d been outlawed somehow. Banished to the place where the women who can’t handle the pace are taken in hand.
Or many hands, as it turns out.
It was a blur of new faces. There was a new anaesthetist, P, another obstetrician, Dr D, who would be assisting Dr F. There were several nurses… and the midwife from upstairs, M, was there, and for her presence I was particularly glad.
Llew was given a nametag they’d prepared earlier. It read simply, DAD.
At some point I lost all feeling in my legs. And it was after I’d lost all feeling in my legs that Dr F said we were going to give it one last shot the old fashioned way. Bring in the stirrups! Hand me the suction! Push!
Push what? I can’t feel a thing!
It was the strangest spectacle, watching my legs being manually separated and placed in stirrups as though they were separate entities, and not part of me at all. “Oh look, there are my legs… there they go…” – I had no sensation connecting them to me. Most peculiar. Mercifully, it didn’t take Dr F long to allow me to abandon the faux pushing as it clearly wasn’t going to work – there was no movement at the station. Again I had that weird sense of faking it, as though this was all an elaborate ruse, and I wasn’t really pregnant or about to give birth at all.
But still the grand finale awaited. In moments, sheets were discreetly dropped, effectively separating my quasi-lucid mind from my unnaturally slumbering body. P the anaesthetist and Llew held their positions by the side of my head, while everyone else gathered on the other side of that all important partitioning sheet. The doctors began chatting and joking – P rolled her eyes as they discussed real estate and fitness. Dr D didn’t mind the sound of his own voice, but I didn’t mind it either – their relaxed chatter achieved its desired effect: it put my mind at ease. Earnest silence would have been terrifying – their insistent jocularity assured me that all was well.
I wouldn’t say I couldn’t feel anything. I could feel it, a kind of remote sawing, certainly not painful, not even uncomfortable, just… a dull probing.
“You won’t feel a thing,” cooed P.
“Really? Because I can kind of feel that.”
Llew glanced over the sheet, paled and quickly dropped back. Forceps. Later he would describe the scene as medieval, and as though they were pulling a gigantic tooth, really putting their backs into it. And then, very quickly, a wailing cry. Probably the single most welcome and profound sound of my life. Llew held my hand and we both had a bit of a cry. There was a confusion of voices and instructions. I wasn’t going anywhere, but Llew was taken over to the table where they cut the cord and count fingers and toes.
“Is everything all right?” I wanted to know.
Yes, they assured me, everything was just great. P directed me to a monitor over my left shoulder, on which I was supposed to be able to see my baby. Instead all I saw was my beloved husband’s back, entirely filling the screen.
“Um, hello?” I ventured after a while, “I still don’t know whether it’s a boy or a girl.”
“We’ll let your husband tell you,” Dr F said.
And then Llew was by my side, fresh tears in his eyes.
“We have a beautiful baby boy,” he said.
“Ooooh,” I said, my heart tight as my throat.
And then they handed him to me, all wrapped up in a hospital issue blanket. He slotted into my arms like he had always been there, and I held my son for the very first time.
Too soon, far too soon, he and Llew were whisked away from me, escorted up to Special Care. I was bound for post-op recovery. My two boys left me. Without a doubt, this was the lowest point of the entire experience. It couldn’t be helped, Baby J needed his care and I needed mine, but it was about the most counter-intuitive derailment of the natural order that I can possibly imagine. Suddenly I was alone with a couple of nurses, and neither my husband nor my minutes-old baby was anywhere in sight. It didn’t take all that long until we were reunited in Special Care, an hour maybe, but it was the most interminable wait imaginable for me.
There is a photo Llew took of Baby J seconds after he was hauled into the world. His limbs are all working, his face in profile full of protest. His eyes are squeezed shut, he is clearly crying, and his little ribcage is rippling. Whenever I see this photo, I am struck by the force of it, struck by the absolute physical fact of him and the moment Llew captured: life.
I was exhausted from the effort, so being told the cervical dilation had peaked at 8 centimetres and progressed no further was enough to have me feeling pretty stricken. What was happening? Or, more pressing (if you’ll pardon the pun), was what wasn’t? The very last word in indignity and discomfort was the regular inspection of progress down below – a more mortifying appraisal is hard to fathom. But beyond that, I really hadn’t reckoned on the startling reality of the birthing suite, which was that Llew and I were left alone much of the time. Who knew?!
Now, assistance was readily available just outside the door, and regular drop-ins by staff monitoring my progress (or lack thereof) meant we were constantly reassured of their existence and expertise, but I think we’d seen Dr F for a total of about ten minutes since I’d been admitted. He was not being idle; the man just delivers babies around the clock. Anyway, he’d already expressed surprise that the gas was my only pain relief when he’d popped in earlier, and had warned an epidural was on the cards if things didn’t start happening. I really didn’t want an epidural, and at the shift change, E stressed to the new midwife, M, that I really didn’t want an epidural, but M was clearly a seasoned midwife, and while I couldn’t begin to quote her now, I know she said something to E that amounted to, “Well, that’s all very nice, but she may not have a choice now.” Dr F had left it to proceed naturally for hours since his last check – I can’t remember how many had passed, four or five or more since his prior visit – and despite all those searing contractions, evidence of which had spooled out of the monitor for the past ten or so hours, there was still no dice. The “cascade of intervention” was about to begin, although I still didn’t know it.
I thanked E for everything she’d done for me throughout her shift, and then M went to call Dr F with an update and to receive his instructions. It was bizarre watching and feeling everything slowing to a halt, but they were watching the baby’s heartbeat along with the now infrequent contractions of lowering intensity, and Baby J was unperturbed by the lack of progress. The steady heartbeat suggested he was having a perfectly fine time in the lobby bar, and hadn’t even registered how long he’d been waiting for his table in the restaurant. Dr F was less sanguine – M returned with the news that they felt I needed an epidural and an injection of oxytocin, to get things moving again.
I started crying as M delivered this verdict – I’d endured all that agony for so many hours and now what? I was getting an epidural anyway? I might’ve had one right at the beginning and simply skipped the pain entirely, but I hadn’t wanted that – I’d wanted to experience this in all its visceral glory and guts. And yet here was the numbing needle, come to take my best-case scenario swiftly away. The anaesthetist E arrived and did her thing – and the move into a pain-free state seemed instant and total. I wondered then at my desire to forego the epidural if possible – suddenly, with all the pain gone, it seemed a crazy, masochistic option to pursue. Why on earth would you do it to yourself? For a long moment there, I no longer knew. But now, after the fact, part of me is glad to have been through it. Another part of me rolls its eyes and says, “Completely unnecessary pain – wake up to yourself, you moron,” but on the whole I don’t much mind the wasted effort. I like knowing what that pain is like – when it comes right down to it, I didn’t want my senses dulled, I didn’t want to be shut off from any part of the experience. This was the most bodily, animal event of my life; I wanted to feel it, and boy, could I…
They instructed us to rest while they were waiting for the oxytocin to take effect. Lights were dimmed and staff withdrew. Llew slept in a chair; I could suddenly comfortably recline on my side again, but no sleep would come.
I’m not sure how long we were left in the cool quiet of the darkened room before M reappeared and gently broke the news: the baby wasn’t reacting well to the oxytocin. Midwives are the self-proclaimed guardians of natural birth; you know things are serious when they say abandon ship. By the time M came in to tell us, she had already informed Doctor F of her concerns about the baby’s heartbeat, and so the course was set: they had to get the baby out. After all the stopping and starting, all the hours on the clock, all the pain and puff, suddenly it was systems go for an emergency caesarean.