Dear Rob: Information

I suspect that every now and then and your soon to be every waking moment you’re beginning to wonder: “how the hell do you look after a baby?”

Well don’t worry. Lucky for you there’s almost as much information out there on babies as there are babies.

Unlucky for you much of it is either frightening, mystifying or contradictory and in every other paragraph the baby’s gender changes (you’ll be relived to know that that does not happen in real life). Navigating the stormy seas of books, blogs and advice is fraught with peril. A few thoughts for you then, which according to my own advice you should take or leave entirely at your own will.

There seem to be two general kinds of books: those that tell you what to do and those that tell you what happens as a baby develops. My preference was always for the latter as they don’t tend to set up too much false expectation. Books that tell you what to do take wildly different and occasionally terrifying approaches and seem to be about the kinds of well behaved infant the likes of which I have yet to meet or even hear compelling evidence to prove the existence of; unlike, say, the yeti which I’m far more certain is real.

They are also on the whole directed towards mums. I was lent a book on parenting for dads. On about page two it told me that after the birth I’d be the one counting fingers and toes. I thought that was a bunch of patronising bullshit and stopped reading. In the end I don’t know if anyone actually counted his fingers and toes but it was the last fucking thing on my mind after what we’d just been through.

Books also don’t really tell you the stuff that you absolutely do need to know like how to get the smell of shit out of your nose, what it feels like to really really hit the wall on lack of sleep and how fucking freaked you’re going to be when you realise that baby boys get erections (yeah, no one told me either).

There was one book that we both placed great store in. It’s called Wonder Weeks and it’s about the developmental stages of infants and how their physical and mental development runs in cycles that can create discernible and predictable periods of calm and bloody mayhem. It’s fascinating because it’s about how your baby develops and one of the few products I’m ever going to mention by name.

To be honest most of the ‘how to’ you’ll get from friends, colleagues, other parents, your own parents and God bless it, the Internet. So even though parenting, like getting married, is one topic in which so many have such well informed intentions, the world of blogs and forums gives you the collected and accessible benefit of experience: real world knowledge, on-the-job training. And often many very very very funny stories.

You can do a lot worse than turn to your peers (although when it comes to sickness then asking the experts is still the way to go).

That’s still a lot of very different opinions to choose from. You know what kind of parents you want to be. Follow what makes sense to you. Ignore what doesn’t. To do otherwise will only make you unhappy.

In this respect I really do recommend some kind of ante natal class. Not so much for what they teach you but to make contact with a bunch of folks all going through the same thing at the same time. I remember one of the mums in our group saying that it never mattered what time it was, there was always someone else up on email. It’s company and comfort and learning from each other’s experience. It’s swapping tips and tricks and war stories and bearing your scars with pride; although dads meetings can get a little Quint, Hooper and Brody.

You’ll also learn to sit in a room full of women with their boobs out and not gawp like some hormonal teenager which is a pretty good life skill of its own. I should clarify that new mums don’t all sit around half naked in some Wicker Man style circle, at least not round these parts, but they do breast feed.

One of the other things I love about researching or hearing about current recommended practice in good parenting is how it highlights how wrong most of what our parents did was…

It will all get on top of you eventually, information overload, so take heart my friend, and keep these three simple things in mind at all times:

~ evidence suggests that as a species we’re quite good at reproducing; much of what you need to be able to do will come naturally, improved medical facilities will take care of the rest

~ despite the incredibly long journey to maturity and the world being against them, babies are actually pretty resilient little things. On balance you’re far more likely to fuck them up emotionally than they will come to physical harm

~ and to be honest, we’re all just winging it anyway…

Stupid fiddly friggin’ buttons

For some reason this post had been hiding in draft since October of last year. So a little late…

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This is how the inner monologue works sometimes:

“Hey, cool, look at my son, he’s put his hands in his pockets. How awesome is that. He’s put his hands in his pockets for the first time. His hands are in his pockets. His jacket pockets. He’s learning so fast. He’s so smart. He looks so grown up. He’s found his pockets and put his hands in them. For the first time. Walking down the road with his hands in his pockets. Only a year and a half old and there he goes strolling along like me with his hand in his pockets…

Why the fuck are his hands in his pockets? Shit if he falls over he won’t be able to get them out in time to stop himself falling and he’ll really fucking hurt himself and he could cut his lips or his nose or knock his teeth out or bang his head and scratch his face and his mother will fucking kill me and why the fuck would you want to put pockets on a kids jacket anyway that’s an insane idea it’s fucking dangerous stupid fuckingjackettakethemouttakethemouttakethemoutmust get his hands out of his stupid fucking pockets before he hurts himself…

…oh thank christ he’s taken his hands out of his pockets…”

It takes approximately half a second for that monologue to run. The processing power of the average parent of babies and toddlers is fucking phenomenal and if we weren’t so tired all the time we’d be collectively more dangerous than Skynet.

What exactly do toddlers need pockets for? Car keys? Loose change? An iPhone? Should I have given him a wallet with a picture of the family in? Am I failing as a parent? Who signed off on this one? Where was the user testing? What is the user need? Was there any kind of risk assessment in the design phase? I don’t understand what’s going on here.

Ooh but now, look, buttons! Tiny scaled down buttons. Perfectly sized for baby’s tiny fingers. Perfectly scaled to his tiny scaled down form. Only baby is still some way off of embracing the level of manual dexterity required to do up a button, albeit through no fault of his own. Meanwhile Daddy’s fingers, which cope quite well with his own larger person sized buttons, find themselves clunking like clumsy tree trunks trying to negotiate tiny button through tiny button hole.

Hey, look at our cool new shoes. They have laces! Real laces… But hold on, my son’s not going to be able to tie his shoelaces for maybe another two or three years, he’s certainly not going to be doing it before he grows out of these tiny shoes. But his shoes now have real laces. So what are the laces for? I have my own shoes with laces and I know I don’t need to practice on tiny shoes. I mean, they look good but… Oh, I see, it’s so they can come undone and baby can trip over them.

Damn, that’s almost as fun as baby-grows that do up at the back or across the front in some weird diagonal or involve wrapping multiple flaps and folds that look cool in the shop until you realise that trying to dress a baby in anything that doesn’t slip cleanly over the head is like trying to put the peel back on a falling banana.

I have often found myself wondering if the folks who design babies’ and toddlers’ clothing actually have kids of their own or whether they merely harbor deep resentment towards all parents in general.

Dear Rob: Becoming

Dear Rob,

A few months ago you asked me what it was like becoming a dad. Not long after you announced your impending fatherhood. There was something about the way you asked that made me think you already knew: a sprinkle of fear, a soupçon of uncertainty, a handful of ‘holy shit’.

I gave you some spiel on how wonderful it is to be a dad and I didn’t lie. But I didn’t tell you everything and I kept it sweet.

In return you’ve given me an idea on how to look back on my own experience of becoming a dad; all the bits I missed writing about first time round. Of course, it’s not really a letter directly to you, I may not even send this to you. You’re  a cypher, an avatar, a convenient excuse to direct some energy back into my writing and bring some life back to this blog through an occasional series of ‘Dear Rob’posts. Thanks for that.

Becoming a dad. Well, first off it’s a matter of linguistics. So let’s be clear, to me, dadness is the emotional journey; fatherhood the physical one. So becoming a father is easy, it’s point and shoot. You make your scrunchy Oooh face and nature and good timing does the rest. It’s a whole heck of a lot easier than becoming a mother but more of that another time.

Becoming a dad. That’s a whole different trip my friend.

Becoming a dad…

…is about letting go of how you once lived, of the freedoms you once had, of the thought and movement and time and people you saw and when, and of replacing that with the responsibility of bringing up a sentient human being.

…is about shouldering the responsibility for forging this life; for influencing an understanding, an attitude, a belief, a set of values, a way that will one day go out into the world and wreak the results of the impact you have made (some of which was imperceptible to you, soaked up in those first few years and stored away for later without telling). Fair enough, you’re not the only thing to influence how your kid feels or what they do but you’re building a bedrock that can support or crush them when it counts.

…is about coming to terms with how your needs and their needs are totally incompatible.

…is about being broken (sometimes): deprived of sleep, of reason, of sanity, of quiet – of being taken to the edge and over day after day after day, relentlessly pursued by your own flesh and blood terminator.

…is about the terrifying anger that can at the worst times rise inside, boiling on a tide of frustration and lack of understanding or ability. And it’s about biting down on that.

…is about knowing that this little person your partner grew and that you helped create is going to have their own thoughts and feelings and experiences, just like you. That they will hurt and love and you will know only the fragments of that life, like your parents have with yours.

…is about the sadness of hoping you will never know the end of their life .

…is about being obliterated by a love for someone for whom every little thing you do is to prepare them for leaving you.

…is about first putting yourself second, then third and dealing with it because no matter how fucking shit you feel sometimes or how put upon or how rejected – and you will feel rejected – your needs come last even though you absolutely do matter so much. Even when you don’t feel it.  Yet, no matter how much you want to piss and moan you still have it easiest physically and emotionally so shove a thousand years of patriarchy up your arse and be a man and take it!

…is about understanding yourself and your own childhood; being given the opportunity to watch what you don’t remember, the process of growing up: learning how to speak, how to walk, run, move, grip, understand, how to eat, how to get dressed in the morning.

…is about being afraid for your kid, afraid of the world out there waiting for them, afraid of the myriad of harms that will likely never fall upon them and afraid to take the chance. Afraid that you won’t or can’t be there when they need you the most. Afraid that you’re going to miss so much which you will. Afraid of leaving them alone in this world.

…is about somehow overcoming the difficulties of bringing up a child in a world that has not made the raising of new generations its overwhelming priority.

…is about filling your home with unfamiliar objects, primary colours, high-pitched ear worms and evil smells.

…is about getting covered in shit, and piss, and vomit, and worse and not batting an eyelid.

…is about finding the joy in all of the above

…is about bursting with pride at their every thought, word and deed.

…is the best job satisfaction ever with the worst hours and the shittiest salary.

…is about wondering where the time went. All of it.

…is about so much more but I don’t want to go over 1000 words and I need to stop the boy from climbing up the radiator.

Or maybe it’s none of that. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, layering something that’s being going on since the first cells split with too much meaning, issues where there aren’t any, too much touchy freely bullshit. Just fucking get on with it you whinging dick, how hard can it be?

To be honest mate, the only thing I do know is your experience of becoming a dad will be all and only yours, as unique and special and beautiful and frustrating as your child.

It’s the best thing in the world.

Evil that must be destroyed

One of the many things ante-natal classes and parenting manuals won’t tell you is that some toys don’t have an off switch.

Which means they can’t tell you that they are also the toys with the loudest, the longest, the catchiest and most teeth grindingly really-fucking-annoying sounds. Or that they are the ones you are most likely to step on and accidentally activate mere seconds after you’ve just managed to get baby to sleep.

I have a sneaking suspicion these toys also follow you around the house to ensure they are always immediately behind you wherever you happen to tread.

You might want to disown any friends or family who mistakenly bring you such an offending item. Alternatively they make great gifts for other parents whose lives you’d like to make just that little bit more uncomfortable.

By the clipping of his thumbs…

I ain’t afraid o’ no nappy but the thought of clipping baby’s nails fills me with a mortal dread.

I’ve only seen my son’s blood twice. Proper blood mind, not the grazed knee smears that are a staple of the summer toddler’s battles with tarmac, no I mean the really red stuff. The second time was when they had to take bloods in the hospital which was a whole other barrel of trauma. The first when I sliced his tiny thumb, cutting his nails for the first time when he was three weeks old.

Of all the things you worry about as a prospective parent, finger and toenails weren’t even on our list. On learning that our tiny baby, mere hours old, had fingernails I was stupefied. I had simply not come close to wondering where and when the nails started.

Mum was asleep, drained by two days of induced labour on the journey to a Cesarean we didn’t want but had to have and all the drugs you have to have to get there. I was on duty, watching, wondering what had just happened to us all and coming to terms with the reality of this new life before me that I was now very very not in class anymore this is real this is not a drill responsible for.

This new life with scratches all over his face. Which were not there before. They were not there before. I would have noticed. Surely. I check the photos from earlier. No scratches. They were not there before. I check the photos again. No scratches.

WHERE DID THEY COME FROM???????

I have only been watching him for an hour asleep in a hospital cot. It’s not like he climbed out and got in a fight with the newborn next door. I cannot let his mum wake up and see that I’ve failed in my first task as a protective father.

I marched to the midwifes’ station holding the baby with both hands at arm’s length directly out in front of me. I raised a finger to gesture at the red marks all over his face. I knew I looked severely panicked. The midwife smiled at me. I am not the first dad to do this I realised… Midwives have a special smile they give to new dads to let you know just how much of a shameful miscreant unworthy cretin you really are. I got that smile.

Baby’s new skin is so soft and sensitive and is reacting to the new air around him. But he’s also scratching his face. Because babies are born with fingernails. Fully grown. Baby rubs his face, baby scratches his skin so delicate even the impurities in the air can raise a rash. I make it through day one a wiser and more humble man.

We bought some child nail clippers. They’re basically adult nail clippers with giant handles to make you feel you’re in control. You’re not of course. The ratio of clipper to wriggling finger is about five to one. The nail was hardly bigger than the edge of the blade.

It was the tiniest of cuts but thumbs bleed. For an eternity. Long enough for mum to come down from a rest to see me gaze pleadingly at her, ashen faced, in a please don’t lose it on me because your son is bleeding as a result of my ineptitude kind of way.

I was devastated, just ripped apart inside. It was horrible, his blood dripping out of the tiny slice I had made. Did he have enough blood to lose? Seriously, I was asking myself that. His arrival had been so traumatic we didn’t have the emotional room for another trip to the hospital.

I had hurt my baby; who apparently hardly felt a thing and didn’t make a squawk. It was the worst feeling and I thought my wife was going to go ballistic on me.

Baby stopped bleeding . Mum shrugged it off.

And that’s what I did on my day off

Today the wife was at work and baby was at the childminder. This happens three days a week so not exactly a major news piece. Except that today,well today had the Halley’s factor.

Today I had a day off.

I have not had this much time to myself for almost twenty months.

So I have put the glass in the cupboard doors, put up coat hooks, hung some pictures, moved the wife’s electric piano, put up some more coat hooks, raised the side on baby’s cot bed, and got myself all sorted to hang the new curtain rail first thing tomorrow morning (when the wife’s job, baby’s three day stint with the childminder and my last day off before my last day in* align for the final time). I started at 8 and I finished at 5 and the longest I stopped was to make a cup of tea. I don’t work that hard when I’m being paid.

You might wonder whether such precious moments might have been better spent asleep, or overdosing on Netflix or indeed anything involving not having to put on proper clothes and not smelling funny all day.

Are you nuts???

Do you know how long it takes to hang a simple picture frame when you become a dad? Twenty months. Yes, you heard me, twenty fucking months. And our baby’s only just about to turn a year.

You get a moment when you can drill a hole in a wall and not worry about baby being there to chow down on brick dust and rawlplugs and that’s gold, that’s sprinkly magic faerie dust on the end of a frog-kissed rainbow and you do not waste that time on nothing. You know full well that if you do not act like Leon without hesitation it’s going to be another twenty months before you get to hang that picture without fear of having to explain to the wife/Dr/Facebook how baby swallowed three screws and ate a cable tie.

Babies take up all your waking hours. And sometimes they do that even when they’re still inside. This can be a source of frustration for dads who want to get on and fix this or build that and spruce up the cave like a good male-of-the-species should. But it’s not going to happen my friend, not in these first couple of years and you need to get over that. If you have anything major planned you want to get that finished sometime between the third and sixth month of pregnancy and then give it up and wait. Your baby’s going to be demanding 100% of you 24/7 and you need to answer that call.

Your time will come and when it does you will, like me, be rewarded with the full feeling flushness of jobs finished and tasks fulfilled. Tomorrow I will put up our curtain rail and then I will let go once again.

Anyway, if I really wanted to sleep that badly I’d go to bed early.

This evening baby brung on the shouty and dealt Mummy’s pillow a merciless punishment with his pyjama trousers which was as funny and beautiful as it sounds.

 

* I leave my job on Wednesday, and start a new on just after Easter. I might at some point cover the joys of being made redundant when you’re a new dad.