Thursday, January 03, 2008

Life as a new parent

For those of you who are curious as to what it's like to have a new baby, I might recommend the following experiment. Set your alarm clock so it goes off randomly between every hour to two hours for, let's say, 48 hours (I'm being generous). Then imagine that that alarm clock doesn't simply have an 'off' button, but that you have to spend an hour or more each time figuring out (from scratch) how to do that in your completely sleep-deprived state.

That's not factoring in some extremely messy nappies (newborns are known for the creative palate of shades their poo comes in, not to mention some rather unappetizing consistencies) that need changing, and trying to get a baby to latch on to some very sore breasts.

When I was about ten or so the film Blue Lagoon came out. The one with a very young Brooke Shields getting stranded on a dessert island as a child with another equally beautiful boy. When they reach puberty they discover sex, and soon she has this baby. The little thing is screaming and she, having no clue because they've grown up on this island with no other people to teach them, puts the baby to her chest to comfort it, and it immediately grabs her breast in it's mouth and starts to suckle. She makes this sort of 'A-ha' sound, and it's all happy days after that.

Yeah right. I guess I should have known better. But seriously, I honestly thought that having boobs was all you needed and that the baby would just know what to do. Well it turns out that's not the case, and you actually have to teach your baby how to latch on, and more so, you yourself have to learn how to do it. I won't go into it on here, but the short end of the stick is that it takes time, and in those early days your nipples are red raw and it hurts like hell.

What makes matters trickier is that in order for a baby to sleep a decent length of time between feeds (the ideal at this age being around four hours), is that they have a sufficient amount of milk in a given sitting. But as you grapple with the latching on and your milk is just starting to come (this takes a few days after the birth), they often aren't getting enough, which is why they do the whole erratic every hour or two waking up thing. That then means they also aren't sleeping enough, so you don't just have a hungry screaming baby, but a tired one too. And yes, a cranky, sleep deprived mother who looks down at the sweet angelic face of her daughter, now contorted into a series of distressed expressions, and thinks to herself, 'Oh sweet Jesus, what the hell have I gone and done?'

So yes, I think it's safe to say that the days of being footloose and fancy free are indeed a thing of the past, as are uninterrupted afternoons of watching back to back reruns of CSI. The hardest adjustment for me though has been that I'm usually a very goal/task oriented person and I like to see results - specifically short-term ones. Suddenly I have this little person who is a human being with all the complexities that go with that, and it's not a simple case of if I do x then y. In those first few days after we got back from the hospital, I found myself experiencing an enormous sense of anxiety, helplessness, and even failure. A lot of this tied into difficulties with breastfeeding. And suddenly, the full impact of how we were totally responsible for this little person and her very life, dawned on me. That was perhaps one of the scariest moments of my life.

Last week an angel from heaven arrived in the form of Elizabeth, our maternity nurse. We had spent a week in the hospital with Julia rooming in, and then a week at home without any external help. I imagine we looked a sorry sight when she met us - all hollow-eyed and anxious, with the house in a complete state (my cleaner has quit - but that's another story).

Elizabeth is wonderfully warm, kind, anecdotal lady in her 60's - and a classically trained English maternity nurse/nanny. Most people get a terrified expression on their face when I tell them we have a maternity nurse, as their mental picture of English nannies if of someone formal and starchy that doles out Victorianesque punishments.

Elizabeth is anything but. It's more like having a lovely competent granny for Julia in the house - someone who is teaching us the ropes and helps out when she is needed, and supportively yet unobtrusively lets us get on with it too. She's respectful of our opinions (even if she's probably thinking, 'Oh dear lord, these people are deluded'), and offers her own ones in a suggestive rather than a bossy forceful way.

The best part though is that our little girl is thriving. She's more or less on a four hour schedule already, and has comfortably got back to her birth weight again and beyond. Her face has changed from a lean little heart-shaped one, to one more closely resembling a pudding - lovely fat cheeks. She's well-rested, calm, and happy. And for the record, no, getting a baby on a schedule does not mean leaving them in their cribs crying. By Elizabeth's method it comes down to a simple formula (I say simple, god help me when she leaves) of ensuring baby eats enough at a given sitting, and then gets wrapped up nicely and put down in a quiet darkish room for a good rest between feeds.

Elizabeth has had an extraordinary life, and times feeding Julia are made all the more enjoyable listening to one of her many humorous stories.

Despite Elizabeth being here and helping us, the slight overtone of anxiety continues to envelope me, and I wish it wouldn't. R reckons it's part of being a new mother and that we're probably instinctively wired to be that way - primed to protect our young against potential danger. Julia also has a cold and at times a really rattly cough. We've had it checked out by the doctor and got the all-clear, but when it first started it manged to send me into complete nervous breakdown mode. I'm the sort of person who reads instructions on the back of shampoo bottles, so having a small little girl that's sick and can't tell me where it hurts is torturous. The doctor said, with a teasing smile on his face, "Get used to it. And in a few weeks when your antibodies in her system begin to wear off, I'll be seeing a lot more of you two as she catches everything that's going around." Great.

There's not a lot of up time with babies at this age. They mainly eat and sleep, oh yes, and there's those lovely number two's to contend with. They also don't smile and interact with you much, so you don't get a lot back in that sense. There are little moments however where her developing personality surfaces for a moment, and we get these lovely little expressions or sighs. Or when, after an early morning feed, she curls up on my chest in a little frog position and falls fast asleep. The incredible sense of love and delight is incomparable to anything I've previously experienced. And it's these moments, however fleeting, that make all those hours of lost sleep and missed parties and pints, suddenly seem very unimportant.

Indeed we are not in Kansas any more.

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