Raising Roo: Year One

The earth has completed a full lap of the sun since I first looked upon the face of my son and was awarded the title of “Father.” And it’s taken about that long for the moniker to feel like it fits.

When word of our having successfully created a human leaked, people responded with lovely comments such as “Way to go, new dad,” or “Fantastic, Papa Jon!, or the less popular “Congratulations on your progeny, begetter.” Whatever form of address was used, I couldn’t help but wince away from it, feeling like I hadn’t earned it. After all, what had I really contributed to the process up until this point? A small amount of genetic material delivered in a rather enjoyable way and then it was all Alex from there. Her body housed and nurtured this fragile embryo, fanning air into the spark of life and providing the building blocks for each and every cell while I waved from the sidelines and occasionally massaged her feet. 

A father was someone who worked and sacrificed for his family, but nothing had really changed in my routine up until that point. I still read fantasy books and watched sitcoms, played on my phone and ate an irresponsible amount of peanut m&ms. To try and wear the title of father felt like walking around in my dad’s suit, two sizes too big for me and loose around the collar, and expecting to be taken seriously.

I was a kid who had somehow found himself responsible for a baby and was winging his way through it, and the weirdest bit was everyone just went with it. Here in Austria, you first need to complete a course and obtain a “dog licence” before you can own a dog, but there’s no vetting process for making new life. You tell the world “I have decided to procreate” and everyone just pats you on the back. Thankfully, my wife felt the exact same way, so while we saw ourselves as frauds, at least we were frauds together. The other good news was that Roo didn’t know or care how we felt. He was just a baby, after all. He didn’t know much.

So there we were, the three of us suddenly sharing an apartment together, and figuring it all out together. We all started with the basics: keeping the baby alive. For Alex and I, this meant mastering how to feed, clean, and put a baby to sleep, while simultaneously feeding, cleaning, and putting ourselves to sleep. For Roo, this meant mastering the mechanics of sucking, a complex idea involving negative pressure and multiple minute mouth muscles, and one which he figured out, thankfully, almost automatically. I wasn’t sure what we’d have done if he hadn’t; how do you explain sucking, after all? Much less to a baby with no communication skills. I don’t think Alex would have appreciated me giving a practical demonstration.

After this first hurdle was more or less successfully leaped, with the skill of everyone getting sufficient sleep still a bit wobbly, we moved on to mobility. Alex and I took our first tentative steps outside wearing the hats of “mum” and “dad” (or, in Austria, “mama” and “papa”), venturing into the world with the new accessory of a baby. Given our insecurity in our adopted roles, this accessory turned out to bring a lot of undesired attention from members of the public who suddenly felt no compunction about approaching strangers to talk directly to their baby. As an afterthought, we were eventually addressed by these baby superfans, but only to enquire after the specifications of the baby — age, gender, bowel movement frequency — before they wandered off and we were left figuring this was simply a part of our new occupation.

Roo also acquired his own form of locomotion. This entailed the mighty effort of transitioning from his back to his belly in a rolling movement to the left. Always the left. Perhaps, having mastered this action, he saw no reason to deviate from a successful manoeuvre. Maybe he just liked rolling left. Either way, we were as proud as if he were a gymnast who had performed a perfect triple double, and cheered him on like the genius he was. 

Six months in and the title of “Father” was beginning to feel less like a role I was playing and more like a part of my identity. When people said the word “Dad” I no longer looked around for Peter Robb, wondering what he was doing in Austria when latest reports had him on the other side of the globe in Australia, and realised they were talking to Roo about me. It helped that my earlier statement about nothing having changed in my life rapidly became untrue and I had successfully morphed into the perpetually tired, overworked, falling-asleep-on-the-couch state of being that all dads eventually adopt. While my phone, book, and TV time had definitely taken a hit, I did manage to maintain my habit of eating an irresponsible amount of peanut m&ms. This, coupled with no time to exercise, helped transform my physique into that of a dad bod, which assisted in me accepting my honorific. You have to look the part, after all.

Roo was also figuring out where I fit into his life and when asked “Where is Papa?” would think long and hard before eventually turning to me with a finger raised in my direction. This act of identification was equally celebrated as any of his world-shaking achievements, cheers worthy of someone having divined an essential truth of the universe, and evidence further tabulated into the genius column. It also caused me to realise all over again that in this child’s eyes, I was Dad. That for him I wasn’t wearing an ill-fitting costume and pretending, I just simply was Dad. This understanding was simultaneously venerating and terrifying. The power of a Dad is vast and a careless statement can stick with a kid for years. Who am I to be bestowed with this level of influence? And why is there no university course for this? It could be called “Introduction to Parenting: How Not to Fuck up Your Kids.” I believe enrollment numbers would be high.

A clarifying moment for me came about via a cliche. Roo continued to evolve at a rapid pace and before long he had transcended past rolling and figured out how to manipulate his limbs into the action of crawling. Within days of striking upon this groundbreaking act of forward momentum, he was slapping his way around the apartment, no longer confined to the metre patch of carpet we had laid him on. Alex and I watched on with pride swimming in our eyes and fear in our hearts as he barreled head first into anything and everything that was in his way, regardless of whether it was a battering match he would win. 

The cliche that crystallised my status as a father was that of the male role model returning home from a long day’s work, hanging up his hat and jacket, and being greeted by his enthusiastic offspring. While I sadly don’t live in the fifties and own an era-appropriate fedora to hang on a hook, the rest of the tableau was fairly accurate. I turned the key and stepped into our entrance way, and from the living room heard the echo of my son’s tiny hands slapping the wooden flooring becoming increasingly louder. His face popped through the doorway at ankle height and he stopped to survey me before a giant grin swamped his features in recognition and he continued his journey, bum wiggling in excitement. As I swept Roo up from the ground and felt his weight and warmth settle into my arms, the bond of father and child felt entirely normal and natural, and a sense of contentedness spread deep into my bones. Roo then stuck his finger up my nose, but eleven months into the parenting game and this also felt entirely normal and natural.

I have an uncle, Darren, who throughout his life has worked a cornucopia of jobs across a smorgasbord of fields and his philosophy is that you have to first work in a position for a year before you can determine if it’s something you like, something you can do, and something that fits. 

On the occasion of Roo’s first birthday, as Alex and I presented him with his cake and we watched on with joy and pride as our little boy demolished his baked good with the exuberance and vigour of Godzilla attacking downtown Tokyo, I knew with certainty that being Roo’s dad was something I liked, something I can do, and something that fits.

Next week’s topic: Flying with a carry-on baby

Raising Roo: Birth Story (Part 3)

I navigate my way through the hospital maze to a small supermarket built into the building and buy some fruit, a bread roll, and a sandwich. When I walk into the suite, the victorious hunter returning with food, I feel like I have accomplished my first useful contribution for the day. It’s fair to say that Alex has been doing all the heavy lifting.

We eat, Alex sitting on a large inflatable ball, bouncing a gentle rhythm, me in a chair, and Christina on the bed, and Alex and Christina talk while I eat my sandwich. There’s grit in my eyes when I blink and a headache at the back of my scalp telling me I haven’t had enough sleep, but I feel wired from adrenaline and relief that Alex is looking better. 

I have seen my fair share of suffering during my time as a nurse, but was always able to disconnect myself from it, playing the role of the professional. But having someone I love afflicted with such torment right in front of me fills me with a hollow despair that is hard to swallow. 

Christina performs another examination and is happy to report that Alex’s exertions have cracked her cervix open to four centimetres. We all cheer and then Christina leaves to tend to her responsibilities, and we find ourselves, shockingly, bored. The epidural pump chirps with each dose of analgesia it pushes into my wife’s spinal column, announcing that it has everything under control.

I lock eyes with Alex. ‘Wanna watch TV?’

She shrugs. ‘I could go some Friends.’

I set up a laptop on a wheeled table, curl up behind my wife on the bed, and we watch Chandler attempt to keep his relationship with Monica secret from the rest of the gang with hilarious repercussions. 

About halfway through the second episode, Alex speaks up.

‘I can feel it again.’

I’m instantly alert. ‘The contractions?’

‘Yep. But weirdly only on the left side.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah. It’s like someone’s drawn a line down the middle of my body that the pain can’t cross. But I can definitely feel it on the left. Through my stomach and back.’

‘Is it bad?’

‘Nothing compared to before, so I’m not complaining.’

‘Can I do anything?’

‘Just watch Friends with me.’

I settle back into the mattress a little less at ease than before.

By the time the third episode is about to start the pain has ratcheted up to the point that I turn off the laptop. All of Alex’s attention is pulled towards her discomfort. She gets out of bed and tries pacing around the room, pulling her IV pole around with her. It isn’t long before she has to sit down again, the pain dragging through her body in ceaseless waves.

Christina returns and Alex updates her on her condition, gritting her teeth throughout sentences as the contractions grip. She is looking pale again. The hollow feeling in my gut is blooming. 

Christina administers a bolus dose of the anaesthetic to try and get back on top of the pain and we give it half an hour. By the time we reach the deadline, Alex is moaning through each spasm and hasn’t spoken for the past twenty minutes. I suggest to Christina that we call the anaesthesiologist back to try and reposition the line, fearful that it has slipped, causing the strange hemispherical numbing that Alex is experiencing. Christina pages them and we wait.

After what feels like an eternity of joint deep breathing and pain lines deepening on my wife’s face, the resident returns and I am shooed from the room. I pace again for ten minutes, fatigue forgotten with fear taking the reins, before being allowed to return. Alex looks no better.

The resident gives another bolus before leaving and a cheerful goodbye, having accomplished exactly nothing. Alex is on her side in the bed, sweating despite the moderate temperature of the room.

‘How are you holding up, beautiful?’ I ask.

‘There’s no break,’ she says, out of breath. ‘If I could only get a break. But they’re one after the other.’

She’s cut off as what looks like every muscle in her body constricting to its limit. I encourage her to breathe and tell her she’s doing great.

‘Oh god,’ she pants, ‘my left side. It’s my left side. Why isn’t there a break?’

I rub her shoulder and breathe with her through the next contraction. She looks exhausted. Her body has been working since two in the morning and I have no idea how she’s expected to keep going. She purses her lips and forces her chest to slow, to not hyperventilate despite the adrenaline screaming at her to do just that, and rides the latest crest of pain. I am simultaneously distraught and bursting with pride. She is so strong.

The afternoon ticks away, time measured by the endless cycle of contractions and marked by the next strangled moan that Alex no longer tries to suppress. We cheer her on, applauding when she lets the pain out in an explosion of volume. Christina comes up with various strategies from her bag of tricks to try and speed the process along and provide Alex with some measure of comfort.

She has Alex shift to all fours on the bed and then drapes a folded bed sheet over her hips, with Christina at one end and me at the other. We pull back and forth in time with each other, Alex’s pelvis swaying in between, as if we’re trying to polish her backside to a high sheen. The movement is designed to help shift the baby lower and trigger further dilation of the cervix.

Next, we reconfigure the bed so that a cushioned part of the bed head folds down, allowing Alex to get her elbows onto it and rest her weight, knees tucked under her. She complies, but struggles against the paralysing effect of the all-but-useless epidural. The resident’s latest bolus did nothing to tamp down the pain and only managed a complete lack of sensation in my wife’s lower right body. She giggles and sobs as she tries to draw her right leg up, sliding back down in a puddle of pain and exhaustion. 

In the end, I manhandle the limb into position and she sags against the bed head, spent. After ten minutes, this position only amplifies her discomfort and she slips back down onto the mattress, knees under her, arms at her side, and head on the pillow turned to me. Her face is red, sweat-damp hair stuck in a scribble across her forehead, and her eyes are pleading for a respite. I stroke back her hair and hold a cold wet cloth to her face, the best I can offer and completely insufficient.

A look of panic crosses her features. ‘I’m gonna be sick.’

I bolt upright, looking around, knowing there’s no vomit bags from my perusal of the room earlier in the day. I grab a cardboard kidney dish from a stack by the window and shove it under her chin. Alex vomits, over-strained muscles squeezing again to empty the contents of her stomach. The kidney dish is full to the brim.

‘Just wait, lovely, I need to swap this over.’

I turn away, moving painstakingly slow to avoid spilling the hot liquid over the floor. I feel a rush of elation as I place the dish down without losing a drop. I’m reaching for another when I hear the gag of the next vomit coming up behind me. My shoulders slump.

I turn to find my wife slumped into the pillow, eyes red rimmed and a fan of spew on the sheets from her mouth to down over the edge of the mattress.

‘I’m sorry, love. I was too slow.’

She just closes her eyes, wanting it all to go away. 

With the help of soap, warm water, and fresh towels, I clean up Alex and the bed, and get a few mouthfuls of water down Alex’s burned throat. 

After another stretch, a doctor comes in, a short skinny man, and announces he needs to do an inspection. Christina has been working hard to report back to the doctor on shift, thereby circumventing any need for him to visit. After five minutes in the room with his arrogant demands and clipped bedside manner, I’m appreciative of Christina’s efforts.

We get Alex onto her back and I notice her eyes are squeezed tightly shut, riding out yet another body-jerking flood of pain. I narrate what’s happening.

‘The doctor’s just doing an inspection to see how dilated you are. You will feel a bit of pressure.’

‘I don’t care,’ she whispers.

Fair enough, I think, and kiss her forehead.

She lets out a grunt as the doctor probes his way inside, far firmer than Christina’s examinations. He takes his time and when he finally straightens, he pulls off his gloves and announces that the baby is face up, the less than ideal position for birth, and one that increases the likelihood of needing a caesarean. Having successfully lowered the mood of the room, he leaves. 

‘Fuck that guy,’ I say to Alex, ‘you’re doing great.’

She grunts in acknowledgement of my inspirational speech, or perhaps she is just grunting. She’s in a lot of pain, after all.

The intensity of the contractions continue to climb and a long drawn out moan comes from deep in Alex’s throat. I feel smothered by the pulsing need to help, to take this load from my wife’s shoulders for a spell, and want to scream at my impotence. 

‘Can I do anything, babe?’ I beg.

‘My hip,’ she pants. ‘Can you massage it? Oh god, it hurts.’

I feel a gush of gratitude that she has granted me a purpose. I make a fist and gently knead my knuckles into the flesh over her left hip.

‘Harder,’ she says.

I press deeper, rolling my fist back and forth.

‘Harder, please.’

I lean forward, letting my weight fall down through my arm until Alex’s skin pillows around my knuckles. I’m genuinely worried I will bruise her. I rock back and forth, watching her face to make sure I’m not adding to her pain.

‘Yesss,’ she breathes, features relaxing a little. ‘Better.’

I raise my brows and nod, and get to work.

At around five-thirty in the afternoon I look at my phone and find I can’t reconcile the time displayed on the screen with my own internal clock. Alex’s ordeal feels to have stretched on for far too long, for days, and yet wasn’t it only a couple of hours ago that we were in our bedroom studying a collection of amniotic fluid pooled on the bed?

Alex divulges to Christina that she needs to use her bowels, but is unsure how to go about it given her right side isn’t giving or receiving signals at the moment while her left side is a cacophony of contracting agony. Christina answers with just one word, ‘Bedpan,’ and makes the call to stop the epidural altogether. At this point, it’s only doing more harm than good. She holds down the power button, suffocating the chirping once and for all, and disconnects the tubing. 

Between the three of us, we manage to position Alex on her knees, bedpan cradled between her feet as she squats down on top of it. Utter exhaustion has robbed her of the ability to hold herself erect for long periods, so she lowers her weight onto the bedpan, folds herself forward until her head is on the pillow, and tries to ignore the pain long enough to let nature take its course. 

After twenty minutes of no action, Christina suggests that the bedpan be removed. Alex begs her off, stating she is too tired to attempt moving. We cajole her, promising we will help, but she is used up and groans that she simply can’t. It’s when I notice that her calves and feet, still drawn up under her, are turning a shade of purpley-blue more commonly found on drowned victims than healthy pregnant women that our entreaties become demands. Alex turns her head so she is facedown on the mattress, summons resources I’m amazed she still has, and with great effort and discomfort manages to manipulate her numbed leg and get onto her back, allowing blood to flow back into her limbs. 

‘I’m just going to do another quick inspection, okay?’ Christina says.

Alex’s lack of protest acts as consent.

‘Yeah, so you know how you thought you needed to poop?’ Christina says, head reappearing. ‘I think that was your body letting you know you’re ready to push something else out.’

Adrenaline surges through my tired body like electricity. ‘Did you hear that, babe?’ I say. ‘You’ve done it! We’re in the home stretch.’

She nods, brow furrowed and sweat running down her cheeks.

After the interminal whiling away of the day, the endless cycle of Alex bracing, us breathing together, long deep moans, and all too brief moments when she can slacken before the next round starts again, things are suddenly in motion. Christina is at Alex’s other side, instructing her to bring her knees up. I’m dimly aware of other midwives coming and going, but can’t spare the attention. 

‘I can’t lift my legs,’ Alex huffs through the effort of trying. Her body is still unresponsive from the epidural.

We bring her hands and thighs together until she is curled up, face red and eyes still clenched closed. 

‘Okay,’ Christina says close to Alex’s left ear, voice calm and reassuring, ‘so, you’ve been clamping down with each contraction, keeping it all in, right? Now I want you to do the opposite. When the contraction hits, I want you to push for as long as it lasts. You understand?’

Alex jerks her head in a nod, lips curled inwards.

‘Are you contracting now? Then push!’

Alex cranes her head forwards and a strangled cry warbles from her strained throat, her face going a deep red. 

‘Pushpushpushpushpushpushpush!’ Christina cries.

Not knowing what else to do, I lend my voice to hers.

‘Pushpushpushpushpushpushpush!’

‘Now breathe!’ Christina orders.

Alex sucks in air, cheeks drawn taunt and mouth trembling. She collapses back into the pillow, fingers losing their grip on her legs. Christina and I take up each limb, raising them to help add more power to Alex’s labours. 

‘Excellent! When the next one comes, I want you to do the exact same.’

Alex’s hands make fists in the bedsheets and she bends forward again, every muscle from her neck, shoulders, back, and abdomen locking rigid as she pushes with everything she has. 

‘Pushpushpushpushpushpushpush!’ I encourage.

‘Keep going, keep going, keep going,’ Christina calls, bending towards the end of the bed to inspect the progress. 

Alex’s face is veering from red to purple, the pressure and lack of oxygen painting her features an alarming mask.

‘Breathe, baby! Breathe,’ I say into her ear, and she must hear me as air explodes from her open mouth and her face returns to a more normal colour.

This is how it goes. Alex strains, silent and unbreathing. We cheer her on. Her face discolours and I beg her to breathe. She draws in air with a cry or a sob or a scream. Repeat.

Christina provides feedback of Alex’s progress, somehow managing to be beside Alex, coaxing her on, and at the end of the bed, coordinating efforts, all at once. I hear mention of a head and peak between Alex’s legs to see a flash of the wet dark features of my child for the first time. It is alien, the colour unsettling, and so very very wonderful.

Alex is dipping into reserves I swear had run dry hours ago, face glossy with sweat, eyes pinched closed, teeth bared, and pushing on like a warrior. I am awed by her. I know that no athletic effort I have done has asked so much from me, that I have never known the physical toll she is enduring. She has run a marathon and is somehow sprinting towards the finish line.

I find myself babbling, words of praise tumbling from my lips, telling her how well she’s doing, how I admire her, love her, and to just hang in there and go a little bit longer. She is so consumed by her exertions that I have no idea if she can hear me, if it’s helping at all. It’s helping me. 

‘A big push, now, Alex. The shoulders have to come through,’ Christina calls from the end of the bed.

I repeat the instructions into Alex’s ear, feeling guilty for demanding more. She doesn’t react, but when she next tenses, she gives everything she has left, body coiled with strain, muscles trembling, a wail escaping her whitened lips, and pushes. 

There is a small chorus of exclamations from the other end of the bed and movement as midwives reach for blankets.

‘You’ve done it,’ Christina says, and I hear the relief in her voice. ‘Your baby is out.’

A tension unlocks inside me and deflates like a balloon. ‘You did it,’ I whisper to Alex, pressing my forehead to hers. ‘You amazing thing, you did it.’

Her eyes are still closed but she flashes a tired smile. I kiss her cheek and taste the salt of her struggles. 

Then Christina is approaching with a bundle of white and red blankets and, nestled within, a perfect new little lifeform. Alex lifts tired arms, opens her eyes for the first time in the past hour, and looks upon the small sticky face of our child.

‘What is it?’ she asks in a dreamy voice. ‘I mean, a boy or a girl?’

Christina bats tears away from her eyes and laughs. ‘You’re the one who wanted to see for herself. You tell me!’

Alex tugs aside the material and smiles. ‘A boy.’ Her eyes lock with mine. ‘We have a boy.’

He lets out a croaky little cry as Alex repositions the blankets and then he calms against his mother’s chest. 

I gaze at his features, taking in the minute details of lips and chin and ears and cheeks, all sculptured in ideal and fragile lines. He is so beautiful my chest aches and I want nothing more than to protect and love him. 

I lean in, face pressed to Alex’s, and kiss my son for the first time.

Next week’s topic: What goes in must come out

Raising Roo: Birth Story (Part 1)

‘Babe, wake up. My water’s broke.’

It’s two o’clock in the morning and I’m disorientated, lifting my head off the pillow and looking around with squinting eyes as a bedside lamp blazes to life. I find my heavily-pregnant wife lying beside me, looking down at herself with a faint expression of disgust, then at me, eyes wide and expectant. 

For a second I wonder what she wants, then the fog slips away, the pieces of this jigsaw slide into place, and her words come into focus. I react with the best my sleep-addled brain can manage in the moment. 

‘Oh wow, that’s exciting.’

Not my most inspired effort.

‘Are you okay? Do you feel okay?’ I ask.

‘I think so.’ Her voice is shaky. ‘I don’t know.’

‘This is really happening.’ I give her an enthusiastic grin that she tries to match, but the expression is a little watery, fear butting up against excitement. ‘Do you want to get out of bed?’

‘I think it’s still leaking out.’

‘That’s okay.’

‘It’s all over the bedsheets.’

‘That’s also okay. We can clean it up.’

She nods. ‘Alright.’

Alex eases back the doona and places her feet on the ground while I trot around the bed to help her stand. She grips my arm as she levers herself upright and doesn’t let go as she straightens, each of us looking at the other, her dressed in a long black t-shirt and me in nothing but my own skin, and then to the puddle collected on the mattress.

‘It’s running down my leg. God, that feels gross.’

I’m struck with a bolt of inspiration. ‘Towels!’ I say, relieved I can make myself useful. ‘Are you good?’ 

She nods and I let go of her arm and step into the hallway, grabbing a few of the second-best towels before rejoining my wife. I drop a faded, rainbow-striped towel on the floor between her legs and we watch as more liquid trickles from her ankle and into the material. Her limbs are trembling, muscles overloaded with flood-levels of adrenaline. 

‘Do you want to call Christina?’ I ask.

‘Yeah. Good idea.’ She takes small careful steps, edging around the sticky mess on the floor, and plucks her phone off the bedside table and rings our midwife.

I hover around while they talk, wired from the unreality of the moment but unsure where to direct my energy. I decide that getting dressed is a good use of my time and put on some clothes.

Alex hangs up. ‘She said it all sounds normal. She’s not at the hospital at the moment but starts her shift at seven, so that works out well.’

‘Who knows, maybe the baby will beat her there.’ I wink.

She rolls her eyes. ‘That would be the dream.’

‘So we’re heading in?’

She chews her lip and looks at me. ‘I think I want to shower.’

I laugh. ‘That is allowed.’

I pass her another towel that she wedges between her legs and then she waddles to the bathroom to feel more like a human again and less like a leaky pot. As the gentle roar of the shower starts, I consider the bed, figuring clean sheets will be desired when we next return to this room, exhausted from the marathon to come. And with a baby on the outside of a body instead of within. 

It hits me then, that the countdown has really begun, and in a collection of hours our little family will have a new member. There’s a bubbling in my chest that’s just on this side of uncomfortable and I grin. The concept that’s been housing in my wife’s uterus will soon become a very real reality. I get to changing the sheets.

Alex emerges from the shower looking better, with colour in her cheeks and more steady on her feet. She looks beautiful, healthy and ripe with pregnancy. I hug her and feel my emotions spike for the fourth time in the past twenty minutes. 

She dresses and adds the final items to her pre-packed bag and suddenly it’s time to leave. 

‘Ready?’ I ask.

She gives a big smile. ‘I hope so. A photo first and then we can go.’

We stand together and immortalise the last moment before we become parents.

The city is dim and quiet as we wind through it, skimming along the edges of its heart under the glow of street lamps. The radio plays softly under the burble of our conversation.

‘That’s another one,’ Alex says, hand going to her midriff and pressing before eventually letting out a big breath.

I take note of the time. ‘How regular are they meant to be at this point?’

‘They say roughly twenty minutes apart this soon after your water breaks.’

I frown. ‘That was only around six minutes.’

She shrugs. ‘Lucky me.’

We pass nightclubs still thumping with the bass of dance music and I have never felt more removed from that lifestyle. The roads are all but empty and before long I am pulling into the hospital underground carpark. My heart is thudding in my ears as we get out of the car and I pause to photograph the bay number, sure this information will fall out of my head by the time I return to the car. I sling the overnight bag onto my shoulder and put my arm around my wife and we slowly make our way up to the hospital entrance.

The sky is lit with the dark illumination of light pollution and the hospital rears in front of this ghostly backdrop, foyer bright despite the hour. Two guards, one man and one woman, stand just inside the glass front, enforcing the COVID visitor regulations around the clock. 

Alex totters through the automatic doors, belly leading, and explains she is in labour and would appreciate a room in which to continue this activity. The male guard responds with the most absurd question I can imagine given the circumstances.

‘Do you have an appointment?’

Alex and I look at each other and then she turns back to the guard and explains that, no, she doesn’t have an appointment for three o’clock in the morning on a Saturday, but hopes she can still give birth here despite that. 

The guard briefly discusses this with his colleague, then again on the phone to a hospital staff member, while we wait, Alex taking long breaths through another contraction.

‘Okay,’ the male guard says, nodding at Alex, ‘you can go up. But you,’ he turns to me, ‘have to wait here.’

I feel a hiss of protective anger at being separated from my wife and the irrational urge to push past this uniformed poser and charge the hospital, but this is the caveman in me and the more civilised part of my subconscious reminds me that this situation was not unexpected.

During prenatal check-ups, all of which Alex attended solo as my presence was again forbidden thanks to the global pandemic, we were informed that no visitors would be permitted to accompany the patient until she was taken to the birthing suites. 

‘Okay then,’ she says, smiling through her anxiety.

‘I’ll be sitting right here until they let me up.’

She nods and we hug, and kiss, and then I watch my wife wander into the vast expanse of the hospital, alone.

There are a few tired looking chairs dotted around the glass walls of the foyer and I settle into one while the guards take their own seats at a desk by the entrance. I pull out my phone but am too stimulated to focus on anything and tuck it away again. I take stock of my situation, an Australian sitting in front of a Viennese hospital at three in the morning while somewhere inside my child is stirring inside my wife’s womb. I feel simultaneously connected and disconnected. 

I decide the best use of my time would be to try and nap, to conserve resources for the day to come, and so lean my head back against the glass and close my eyes. An hour passes this way, my facsimile of rest broken with periodic checks of my phone in case Alex messaged and I missed it despite the phone being clutched between my hands.

I eventually get an update saying that the cardiotocography has been done and our little foetus’ heartbeat is strong and steady. My own feels three times too fast. I return to waiting, each second protracted with the knowledge that important things are happening and I am sitting out the front of a hospital with my eyes closed, feigning sleep.

At four-thirty in the morning, the male security guard saunters over and I sit up, ready to defend my right to be here.

‘Robb?’

‘Yeah, that’s me.’

‘You can go up.’

Relief washes through me and I’m standing without realising it. I babble out a thanks while he gives cursory instructions, most of which go past me as I hurry inside, confident I will be drawn to my wife and unborn child like iron to a magnet. 

This presumption turns out to be premature. I gain this insight while choosing from three different banks of elevators, finding lift doors opening on identical-looking floors, trotting down long empty hallways then retracing my steps to the elevator, convinced I should have turned right, not left, when leaving the lift, only be become unsure once wandering deeper into the maze of Austria’s largest hospital.

Finally, while walking down a dimly lit corridor that shows no sign of human activity and convinced I’ve made another wrong turn, I spot the sign for the birthing suites. I press the buzzer and bounce impatiently while I wait for the response. I give my name and my justification for being there, soon-to-be dad, and the glass doors slide blessedly open. 

The ward is mostly quiet at this time in the morning and the midwife at the reception desk points me towards a birthing suite door. I step inside and see my wife and feel the stone in my chest that had been growing steadily larger for the past two hours fall away. She smiles and everything is better.

‘I got lost,’ I confess.

‘But you made it.’ She kisses me.

‘Are you okay?’

She raises her brows. ‘The contractions are coming a lot faster than I expected, but otherwise, all good.’

‘How far apart are they?’

‘About every three minutes.’

‘What? What happened to a slow build up?’

‘Apparently my uterus is in a rush.’

‘Are they bad?’

‘They’re not fun, but they’re okay.’

I shake my head. ‘What a stupid way to make humans. We should follow the kangaroo’s lead and just have them come out when they’re the size of a grub.’

‘Yeah, but then I’d need a pouch.’

I step back and consider her. ‘You could pull off a pouch.’

Alex laughs and runs me through the tests that were done and the action I missed, showing me around the suite, complete with a configurable bed to make any birthing position possible. Outside the window, the city and the sun are waking up, pre-dawn spilling across the sky to herald a new day. A day in which we will have a baby.

(To be continued…)

A couple of kids off to have a kid

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 22

Yesterday was the anniversary of my wife’s birth, an occasion that requires the utmost of fanfare, obviously, but fanfare in the time of COVID is a tricky thing to come by. There can be no gathering of Alex’s adoring public, no party with a chorus line of handshakes and warm embraces. Luckily, Alex and I share everything, including microorganisms, so I could distribute the warm embraces on everyone’s behalf without the risk of being infected. It took up the better part of the day, to be honest. She’s a popular girl.

Given that restrictions dropped into place in Vienna almost a month ago, I had some time to prepare and make sure isolation didn’t get in the way of a proper celebration. Firstly, it’s important for you to know that my wife’s glee in birthdays hasn’t diminished over the years like the rest of us cynic adults, but rather she will bounce up and down and tremble all over at the mere mention of her birthday like a puppy who just heard the word “park”. As such, there is no such thing as overdoing it when it comes to birthday decorations, which is why I was out of bed at 6:45 to ensure our living room looked like the inside of a clown car. 

The first step was to deconstruct our home office as Alex had made it very clear that monitors and office equipment do not set a birthday mood. The next was to coat the walls and roof with every possible decoration we had. As this is not my first rodeo, I had some already prepared, but had intended to buy some more up until the world went into lockdown and my access to party supply stores became severely limited. But, dredging up memories of making Christmas decorations in primary school at that time of the year when the teacher has all but given up and will use any time-killing activity at their disposal, I set about making some of my own. I had scissors, sticky tape, wrapping paper, and a whole lot of time on my hands, and from this collection spun out some of the best paper chains the world has ever seen. 

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The birthday cake is often the lynchpin to a birthday celebration, so I approached the task of baking with some trepidation. My apprehension was doubled as my wife is an amazing baker of cakes, both in flavour and appearance, and tripled as cakes hold great importance to the Austrian people. Coffee and cake is to the Austrians what tea and biscuits is to the British, or what vegemite toast and milo is to the Australians. Needless to say, the pressure was on. Fortunately for me, my wife is very direct when it comes to matters of food, so when it was time to select the variety of cake to make, she said “I want that one” and no further research was necessary. The result was a lemon sponge with raspberry cream, with a ratio of one part cake to two parts cream. This is a ratio I fully support. 

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Once cake and decorations were unveiled to a reaction of happy foot taps from Alex, which immediately made all efforts worthwhile, it was onto the real deal. The present giving. Being a creative guy, I normally like to make something by hand to give the gift that personal touch. But after five years together, Alex has about all the paintings, drawings, crocheted beanies, and pieces of writing that any sane person would need, so this year I went in a different direction and just spent as much money as I could to compensate. The gift was a set of Bose noise-cancelling headphones that I had intuited that Alex might want after picking up on subtle clues, such as her stating “I really want those”. She planned to buy them herself with any and all birthday money she received, not thinking I had budgeted to buy her such a gift, but she severely underestimated how far I would go to buy her love. 

The noise-cancelling headphones were originally intended to be used when flying to exotic destinations, but the whole global pandemic resulting in all planes being grounded really put a wrench in the gears of that plan (thanks COVID). But a new and better use for them has arisen in the meantime, one which could see an improvement to our time in quarantine, and even, in the long term, our marriage: Alex can wear them to avoid hearing me eat.

I no longer have to live in fear of getting a fork to my baby-soft skin every time I go to eat an apple. Sometimes things just work out for the best.

In addition to this gift, I also lashed out and got her the most luxurious birthday card that money could buy.

The rest of the day was made up of video chats, socially distant visits from friends, cake, walks in the glorious Spring weather, phone calls, cake, a socially isolated trip to the people responsible for Alex’s birth in the first place (her parents), different cake, and then crashing early to lie in bed and try to digest all the cake we had eaten.

My wife is an incredible, generous, considerate, loving person (see Easter post Re: “Angel in a human suit”) whom I love to bursting, and it pained me that someone who so loves their birthday would have to spend one in isolation from the people in her life. My heartfelt thanks goes out to all the beautiful people who texted, phoned, video chatted, sent photos, and voicemails, and videos, sung happy birthday, left Facebook posts, who sent cards, and presents, and flowers, and made pasta salad, and showed their love à la Love Actually, and made Alex feel as unisolated and as special as these times will allow.

Rather than it being a birthday that was forgotten, you all made it a birthday she will never forget. Thank you.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and whatever else you do with these days, make sure you eat some cake. I know I will.

On Monday: Grooming.