Recently my wife suggested I write a series of posts about what it’s like to have a child. I did a similar thing when the curtain of doom that was the COVID-19 pandemic first descended on all our lives, closing us off from the outside world and forcing us all into the digital sphere, where in my little corner of it I attempted to relate the suddenly universal experience of logging into work in your pyjamas and rolls of toilet paper inexplicably becoming the new gold standard.
So, as our child furniture walks towards the big one year mark, and with almost twelve months experience as an apprentice parent, I decided to take my wife up on her suggestion.
It’s rather fitting that my previous series focused on a viral pandemic, because the experience of first bringing a baby into your home is not too dissimilar. This might sound like a hurtful comparison to make, drawing parallels between a voracious virus that leaves you feeling sick and exhausted and a beautiful new baby boy, but replace the word “virus” with “baby” and you’re not far off the mark.
Here in Austria, the standard paternity leave is one month, and so for that first month, much like during the early days of the pandemic, my wife and I closed our doors, pulled on our pyjamas, and bunkered down. Instead of becoming obsessed with graphs and tallies of rising case numbers, we found a new obsession in the contents of nappies and the secretions from my wife’s breasts. Rather than watch governmental updates and bingeing on Netflix, we watched the rise and fall of our boy’s chest (still breathing = successful parents) and binged on the curves of his perfect round face. Rather than acquiring the new skills of baking bread or mastering Zoom calls, we became experts on the face he makes when pooping and schooled ourselves on swaddling our son until we could eventually make the perfect baby burrito.
And, much like someone who eventually succumbs to the virus plaguing the planet, we found ourselves at the end of it all in a state of physical deterioration.
The problem was the cycle. The cycle is the rotation of tasks required to ensure your newborn continues living for the foreseeable future, which is an objective we strived for as new parents.
The cycle begins with us gently coaxing our newborn to wakefulness. I know, you’re thinking, “Well, if you just let the damn thing sleep, you’d probably be in a much better state. No one to blame there but yourself, mate.” And while I agree with this logic, and can’t argue that there were times I was tempted to wrap myself in a matching swaddle and join him, the problem is that babies sleep too much. Again, I see you rolling your eyes and raising your hand, “Make up your mind, buddy, are you getting rest or not!” But let me lay out my case and this sleep paradox will untangle.
Babies, or more specifically newborns, are mad for sleep, they can’t get enough, they’ve mastered it in the womb and see no reason to change their habits just because they’ve been ejected out into the big bad world. The issue is that the womb is the equivalent of first class — it’s temperature controlled, the lights are permanently dimmed, and sustenance is delivered through a tube directly into your circulatory system. (Okay, I don’t know if first class technically has this last feature, I’ve never actually flown first class, but it can’t be far off, right). But now the baby is down here in economy with the rest of us schmucks and he can’t quite wrap his head around the idea that he has to eat his own food. I don’t have the heart to tell him it only gets harder from here.
Our new son would have contentedly dozed the day away, comfortable in the presumption that his nutritional needs were being met, and slept right through breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. And dessert! As previously mentioned, the objective is the ongoing survival of your infant, and so while we were tempted to let sleeping babies lie, we would instead do the responsible thing and wake the lazy little man up.
Rupert, my son, was understandably upset with this arrangement, a slumbering first-class passenger being poked awake and hustled out into the cold reality of economy, and would take some cuddles and bouncing and a nipple or two before calming down, a situation we’ve all found ourselves in.
Alex, my wife, took to mothering like a bird to the wing, and it was inspiring to watch her soar on the updraft of her new responsibilities. Thankfully, her body also slipped into mum-mode and started producing the colostrum needed to transition from arterial-provided sustenance to the more traditional oral technique. Alex would take our sleepy son and nurse him, administering the ingredients for life from her own body, while I would flutter around and try to make myself useful.
One service I provided during these early feedings was as awake-keeper. The aforementioned addiction to sleep extended even to the act of feeding, and there were times when we would be merrily chatting away, feeling very proud of ourselves and our successes at this whole parenting thing, only to realise that it wasn’t a feed a little man was catching but some Zs. The little sneak remained latched, but all sucking would cease as he surreptitiously snoozed under our very noses. This was my call to action, damp cloth at the ready, dabbing the cool material to his forehead and neck while he scrunched up his face and squirmed, and I apologised all the while, doing my best to explain the importance of a healthy and robust diet.
Because of his sloth-like tendencies, a full feed could take a while. We would juggle our son back and forth between us, Alex easing the milk into him and me burping it back out, until we were satisfied enough had settled into his belly to ensure he would remain comfortable until the next feed time.
We would then make our way to the bathroom for the next stage of the cycle, dealing with the opposite end of our son’s digestive tract, the changing of the nappy. As we disrobed our boy under the mesmerising glow of the heat lamp and removed the soiled diaper, Alex and I would discuss the weight, colour, and consistency of Rupert’s offering like two artists admiring a piece by one of the Great Masters. Healthy bowel movements or particularly weighty nappies would be met with cheers and heartfelt words of praise, assuring our little man that he had accomplished something wonderful and was destined for great things.
Once cleaned and redressed, we would put our culinary skills to work and burrito-wrap our baby in his swaddle and then settle in front of the TV for some cuddles and come-down after the excitement of the diaper change. Roo would drift off to the sound of canned laughter and Jim Parson’s deadpan delivery as we re-watched the Big Bang Theory. Once we were confident he was under, we would transition him to the bedroom and his small crib attached to our bed where one or both of us would join him in catching what shut-eye we could.
If we opted not to join him, we would instead madly rush around attempting to tend to those activities of daily living we had recently performed for our son, only for ourselves. Once fed, showered, and toileted, we would collapse, alarms set for an hour’s time when we would have to wake and prepare for the next stage of the cycle. Pumping.
To encourage along the milk production, as well as to allow me the pleasure of administering life-giving nutrition to our baby even given my lactation deficit, we invested in a breast pump, which, for the uninitiated, is exactly what it sounds like. Alex would drowsily strap those suckers to her chest and they would chug away while we made conversation as if being milked in your living room was a totally normal thing. Which it quickly became.
I would collect the produce from Alex’s efforts and measure it out into a feeding bottle with the care and accuracy of a scientist handling volatile material, ensuring we did not lose a drop of the hard-earned liquid. Once both breasts had been mechanically stimulated, we would tip-toe into the bedroom to restart the cycle and gently coax our boy back into the waking world.
For those of you playing at home, you may have already noticed this cycle leaves little room for anything else, such as, oh, I don’t know, sleep. The cycle, which approximately lasts three hours end-to-end, wheeled its way throughout our days and nights, twenty-four seven, completely uncaring that humans are not traditionally nocturnal creatures and actually prefer a good eight hour stretch if given the chance. Our son was afforded approximately two hours of sleep for every three hour cycle, but us chumps in charge of the prep and clean up were happy to catch an hour here and there when we could.
And so, at the end of our first month of our self-imposed quarantine, eyes perpetually red-rimmed and heavy-lidded, we found our obsession slipping from all things baby to just one central theme: Sleep.
Next week’s topic: Sleep.