Saturday, January 15, 2005

Bringing Home The Baby

You can spot a dad about to bring his baby home from across the hospital car park. He’s the one with brand new car seat. He gets it out from the boot or the back seat of the car and swings it awkwardly in one hand as he walks, like a handbag he’s been asked to hold onto for a minute.

But there’s a spring in his step. It’s his big day, the day his baby finally comes home. With a strange mixture of pride and trepidation he makes his way to the maternity ward to claim his new family.

For some people there’s only a day or so after the birth to wait. For some dads with babies born prematurely early, it might be as much as six weeks. For me, there was a wait of about four days before the hospital would allow Jack and the Mrs to check out; and not much less with Nancy.

It felt like a long time. Most days I went to the hospital twice during visiting hours, once by myself, once with a posse of relations.

Collecting Jack, I went alone. There was a fair wait for the formalities of being discharged to happen, but eventually after a couple of hours they were released. Jack looked tiny in his chair, but was calm enough considering he was being handed over to the care of two rank amateurs.

Getting the chair set up in the car was proof enough of this. Now, with almost two years of practice, it takes me about twenty seconds. Then it took a good ten minutes and a few cross words before we were both satisfied that we’d got the seatbelt in the right place.

Driving the car with my wife and baby inside was a big moment. Up till now the nurses and midwives were in charge. I’d become a father, but I’d not really done anything to justify being called a dad. Suddenly I was responsible for this new life. I found I was driving more carefully.

Getting the baby in the house was an even bigger buzz. We brought the car seat into the living room and lifted Jack out onto the carpet. Our baby was home. While the experiences we’d been through in the hospital might have been surreal, this was very real indeed. There was a real live baby on our living room floor. It was, as the Mrs said, as if an alien had landed. Jack was calm and quiet. He looked perfect, angelic and very vulnerable. We took lots of pictures and admired him for about half an hour. It was a magical time and I’m really glad there were just the three of us there.

Our sense of pride was gradually replaced by a sense of inadequacy. Especially when he started crying. What on earth should we do now? How should we know what he needs?

We’d read a few books and the Mrs had some basic baby skills training in the hospital: how to bath a baby, change a nappy and how to breastfeed. But everything we knew about looking after babies could have been written on the back of an envelope.

Fortunately little babies need very little. Feeds, sleep, nappies and the occasional change of clothes. A bath once in a while. And that’s it.

The first few days seemed to revolve entirely around Jack’s routine - not that there was a pattern of any sort. But we got the hang of it, in much the same way as you get the hang of a new piece of software or a new electrical appliance. You don’t need to read the manual. You do the things that are obvious and use a bit of trial and error. Once you’ve played with it for a while, you start to discover the other tricks you can do.

Contrary to popular opinion, tiny babies need tons of sleep, in the first couple of weeks particularly. There’re still getting over the shock of being born, I guess.

One of the first tricks I discovered was that when all the other needs had been satisfied (feed, burp, nappy, clothes) and Jack was still crying, I could soothe him. I’d sit or lie on the sofa and hold him with his chest to mine, his head just beneath my chin, his little legs splayed out across my tummy. His head smelled of freshly baked bread, his tiny perfect hands gripped my fingers and he made tremendously cute little mewing noises.

After a while he’d stop crying and if I kept still and breathed nice and slowly, the rhythm of my chest rising and falling would send him to sleep, like a great sighing mattress.

His warmth made me warm. I didn’t want to move, or do anything else. It was the best feeling in the world.

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