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 2)

I meet the midwife on shift, a friend of our midwife, who explains that Christina had rang ahead and ensured Alex was hustled off the ward and into the birthing suite as soon as possible. I thank her profusely for reducing our apart time, and reflect that, once again, in Austria, it’s all about who you know.

The midwife explains the current options, all of which boil down to different ways of waiting, and Alex goes with the most comfortable sounding: a bath. The suites are fitted with a private bathing room containing a circular tub the size of a spa. The midwife gets the water running, provides some towels and shows us the adjoining bathroom, and then leaves us to it.

Alex disrobes and eases into the water, her tight pregnant belly glistening, and it still doesn’t feel quite real, even here and now, that a baby is ready and waiting inside.

‘Do you want me to get in with you?’ I ask, winking.

‘I don’t know how the midwives would feel about that. They’re used to dealing with naked women, not men.’

I sigh. ‘All the perks go to the pregnant lady.’

‘Damn right.’

We talk, conversation broken regularly every time Alex has to focus on another contraction and I get to practice my encouraging breathing instructions. She says that the warm water is helping, but it feels as if they’re getting stronger. 

I bring out a bluetooth speaker and we listen to George Ezra strum his brand of upbeat pop, Alex soaking in the bath and me on the floor, one hand dangling in the water, waiting for our baby to arrive. 

After an hour, the contractions step up a notch and the discussion and laughter starts to thin out. The pain has increased to the point that she cannot keep talking, cannot keep the thread of conversation. I default back to a string of reassurances but can see their effect lessening with each new spasm. 

At a little before seven, Alex is towelling herself off when Christina arrives. We both soften a little with relief. The hero is here to make everything better. Which, of course, is an unfair expectation as a baby still has to pass through my wife’s genitals and there is little Christina can do to bypass this. Nevertheless, her presence and positivity is a comfort.

Half an hour later and that comfort is dissipating under the ceaseless strain each new contraction is demanding from Alex. She’s hunching now, all efforts directed towards taking long slow breaths through this latest wave of squeezing pain.

‘Any reason they’re coming so fast?’ I ask Christina.

She shakes her head. ‘The body is in charge, and every body is different.’

Christina suggests an examination to get a gauge of where we’re at. Alex lies down on the mattress, once again dressed in an oversized black t-shirt, and I sit at the head of the bed. I hold her hand and give a hopeful squeeze that all her efforts will result in good news. Alex squeezes back, but I think it’s more due to pain than optimism.

‘One centimetre,’ Christina says, and the announcement hits me like a splash of cold water.

I think of all that Alex has given already and multiply that by ten, the magic number before anything can start happening, and feel a heaviness in my gut. I catch her eye and force a bright smile.

‘Progress,’ I say. ‘Only nine more to go.’

She gives a weary grin but the expression is cut short by another contraction.

Once she is breathing normally again, Alex sits up. I’m watching her closely and see the colour drain from her face. She purses her lips and lets out a long stream of breath.

‘I don’t feel so good,’ she says.

‘Do you want to lie back down?’ I ask.

‘No. I want to go to the toilet.’

She stands but pain ripples through her middle and I grab her elbow for support. We shuffle out of the room together, Alex’s weight pulling more at my arm the further we go. 

‘I really need to get to the bathroom,’ she says, a touch of panic in her voice.

‘Almost there.’ I pull open the heavy door and guide her past the round bath and towards the bathroom.

She shambles out of my grip and stumbles against the toilet door, banging it open and dropping to her knees. The sound of retching follows, deep and guttural, the type of heaving that seems determined to scrape away her insides. The contents of Alex’s stomach erupt out of her and continue to do so until she is rung out.

‘I missed the bowl,’ she says in a croaky voice.

I look over her shoulder from where I was rubbing her back and note that the bathroom contains a sink, a bin, and a toilet, and that she had managed to miss all three. I decide not to share this observation.

‘Why don’t you go sit down. I’ll clean this up.’

Alex gives an exhausted nod and pads back towards the bath. I find a cup and fill it with water from the sink and carry it to her, then get to work with some paper towels and disinfectant left on top of the cistern. By the time I’m done, a little colour has returned to my wife’s face, but pain lines have set up camp around her eyes and mouth.

‘Are you okay?’ A pointless question I can’t help but ask.

She shakes her head, the formation of words proving too much.

We get back to the birthing suite and fill Christina in on what she missed, and she suggests we try walking around the ward to ease some of Alex’s discomfort. Alex concedes with a worn-out nod. The three of us venture into the large open space between rooms, Christina on one side and me on the other, with Alex hunched over between us. 

We don’t get far before Alex stops, fingers tight around our arms, trying to breathe through the iron grip of her uterine muscles. Christina and I garland her with praise and encouragement, and try to coax her further, but progress is slow and it’s not long before she is waving us off, silently pleading for a rest while she hunches against a work desk, arms crossed against the smooth surface and head hanging in between. 

The contractions come back-to-back without any respite to allow Alex to catch her breath and detense. I squat beside her, trying to look up into her face.

‘You are doing great, babe. That’s perfect. Long breath in and long breath out.’

I enact my instructions, breathing with her, and she follows along, face scrunching up and cheeks ballooning as she exhales. She opens her eyes and looks so very tired. She has become increasingly non-verbal and it’s making me nervous. My brain feels like a bird flapping up against a cage, wanting to shout out that something is wrong, that my wife is in pain, but everyone is behaving as if it’s normal so I have to believe that it is. I attempt to quiet the manic bird and smile and rub Alex’s back and prompt her to take a step.

We manage to cross the length of the ward, a weird shambling six-legged creature letting out a jarring combination of painful moans and upbeat assertions. Alex is wrecked by the end of this journey. She leans into a sink mounted on the wall and I ask if she is going to be sick again. She only shrugs and sags lower.

Christina spots a physician and excuses herself. We are alone in the hallway and I want to do something to make the situation better but my options have shrunk to cheerleader and backrubber. I have never felt more useless to my wife. She is bearing this physical burden for us and I am repeating the same sentiment I’ve been saying for the past hour. I’m amazed she hasn’t asked me to shut up yet.

Christina returns. ‘The doctor said he’s been watching you and believes you’re ready for an epidural.’

I feel a flush of satisfaction that Alex’s painstaking parade has been good for something.

‘Is that something you’re still wanting?’ Christina asks.

Alex looks up with dark hollows under her eyes and breathes out, ‘Please.’

We start-and-stop our way back to our suite, moving with the tide of her contractions, until Alex finally collapses onto the edge of the bed. I expect to see relief in her face, but sitting hasn’t eased the waves of pain squeezing her body. Her entire focus is committed to enduring.

‘Just a little longer, beautiful, and then they’ll numb you right up. You won’t even know you have a uterus by the time they’re done.’

She gives a fluttering smile at my weak attempt at humour then returns to her ordeal. 

It takes another forty-five minutes of deep breathing and moans trickling from pursed lips before the anaesthesiologist and his resident arrive. I am given blunt instructions to leave the room; COVID restrictions separating us again. My caveman side wants to thump my chest and tell him ‘Make me,’ but I concede after giving Alex one more pep-talk and a kiss to the forehead.

The door slides closed and I stare at the white surface for a while, picturing my wife exposing her back for the needle, before turning to the open ward. 

I stay within a five metre radius of the room, wandering out to my self-imposed limit and then snapping back. I lean against the wall beside the door, and then the door itself, and then stride out again, restless. From my nursing experience, I know the procedure should take around twenty minutes, providing all goes well. At the forty minute mark I feel like a shaken up bottle of soft drink with the lid on tight. I bite back the urge to hammer on the door and demand they let me in. I pace my small circle and wait.

Five minutes later the door slides open and the anaesthesiologist and his resident step out, glancing at me before striding away. I rush the room and find Alex sitting up in bed with her latest accessory — IV pole, pump, and tubing snaking under her shirt — erect beside her. She smiles at me and I breathe again.

‘How are you doing?’ I ask, sitting on the edge of the mattress.

‘Better,’ she says.

‘The contractions?’

‘They tell me they’re still there, but I wouldn’t know it.’

Tension is draining from her features and her shoulders have relaxed. It’s good to hear her voice again.

‘Took them long enough,’ I say.

‘I don’t think the resident knew what she was doing.’

‘Just what you want when someone is shoving a needle into your spine.’

She leans forwards until our foreheads touch and we each exhale. The respite feels well deserved.

With the pain under control, we find ourselves unsure what to do next. The morning has been swallowed in a haze of agony for Alex and a fog of anxiety for me.

‘So, what do you feel like doing?’ I ask.

‘I could eat.’

I laugh and know I have my wife back.

(To be continued…)

Raising Roo: New Roommate

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.

2020/21

It is the first morning of 2021 and I am sitting in bed drinking a cup of tea my wife made me and 2020 is done and I feel better for it.

Of course, there’s really no logic to my sense of relief. The period we called 2020 is, after all, just an arbitrarily chosen point in time. Millennia ago, some shaman determined that when the earth was in a particular position in its cycle around the sun, that the year had died, an end-date was formed, and it was deemed appropriate to celebrate the start of something new. The earth didn’t notice, of course, and just continued in its steady circle of the sun, but we living on earth thought it sounded like a good idea and have since continued the tradition of putting a full stop in our collective sentence every time the earth finds its way back to that same spot adjacent to the sun. It is random, arbitrary, and nothing really differs from 11:59, December 31st, 2020, to 00:00, January 1st, 2021. But it does help give us a sense of closure.

And, damn, but do we deserve a fictional but comforting sense of closure. The events of 2020 were anything but fictional, they were, in fact, painfully real. I won’t rehash them because we all know what they were, we all lived through them. We all watched the world close down, all read the countless news reports, watched the graphs and tallies as the number of cases grew, all closed our doors and settled in for the long wait, all obtained masks, and developed an intimate relationship with our sweatpants. 

You know what I’m talking about because you lived through it too. And it doesn’t matter if you’re reading this in a backyard in Melbourne, or an apartment in Vienna, or in bed in Beijing, because you went through it too. And as awful as the implications of that are, that this virus and its society-stopping impact managed to circumvent the world with frighteningly apparent ease, isn’t it remarkable that this goddamn year and all its weird and new and awful moments was a universally experienced phenomenon. 

I didn’t see my family this year. That is to say, I didn’t see them physically. For a full twelve months, for the entire rotation of the earth around the sun from an arbitrarily chosen point and back again, I was removed from the people who raised me. This has never happened before. I hope it never happens again. But, like the rest of the world, I adapted. I found creative ways to engage with my loved ones through digital means. I participated in video call parties, broke out of virtual escape rooms, and sat in my pyjamas at two in the morning, raising a glass of whiskey to my grandpa while attending his streamed funeral. 

It wasn’t the same, of course. Nothing can replicate the feel and warmth and comfort of a long tight hug. But it was something. It was still connection, and conversation, and laughter, and life shared, and while it’s easy to wish none of this had ever happened, instead I choose to be grateful that this all happened at a time when I could open a metal book, click a button, and see my family’s faces smiling back at me through pixels so small so as not to be seen. 

You know what I’m talking about because you lived through it too.

To say it was an emotional year is an understatement. I felt emotions I didn’t know could be felt. The casual boredom and anxiety of a lockdown. The quiet exhilaration of completing a workday in pyjamas. The eerie sensation of stepping onto a train platform and seeing only masked faces looking back at you. But the primary emotion I felt this year was frustration. 

I felt frustrated by the limitations of lockdown. I felt frustrated when an overwrought network failed and a call to my family froze. I felt frustrated trying to take a work call while my wife tried to take one too from half a metre away in our cobbled together home-office. I felt frustrated looking at the same four walls day in and day out. I felt frustrated every time I saw a nose poking over the top of someone’s mask. I felt frustrated every time I forgot to unmute myself. And I felt overwhelmingly frustrated every time there was news reports of people having parties in the middle of a lockdown, of people who knew they were infected but thought it was okay to pop into the shops, of morons claiming that wearing a piece of protective clothing was somehow impinging of their personal freedoms, of selfishness, and borders closing, and death tolls rising, and flights cancelled, and that day when I could return to my family stretching further and further into the future until it seemed to disappear over the horizon line altogether. 

I felt frustrated with a society I thought was better than this.

You know what I’m talking about because you lived through it too.

But focusing on this frustration is a choice, and a bad one. And that was something else I had to learn to adapt to in 2020, choosing where to direct my attention in a way that best served me. It was so easy to get sucked into the endless feed of headlines and the addictive horror that was the virus and its effects, and to believe the world was ending. But it wasn’t ending, only changing, and there are good parts to change if you look for them.

2020 was the year of the virus, but it was also the year I got to spend every day with my wife and best friend. Rather than break us, being confined together taught us new ways to spend time together and new ways to give each other space. It made me more grateful than ever that I found a partner who I can literally spend every minute of my life with and still want more. 

2020 was the year of the virus, but it was also the year I didn’t have to commute to work anymore and so had time to exercise. I started slow, and with short distances, but then ran longer, and faster. I ran in sweltering summer heat and pitch black winter evenings. I got fitter and felt better inside my own bones. 

2020 was the year of the virus, but it was also the year we all got crafty. We baked sourdoughs, and banana breads, and all the comfort food we needed to get through the long days. We picked up knitting needles, pencils, paintbrushes, and tools, and we made things. We took photographs and made videos, and wrote things, and read things. We found new hobbies and new ways to enjoy our time. 

And you know exactly what I’m talking about because you lived through it too.

I know nothing really differs from 11:59, December 31st, 2020, to 00:00, January 1st, 2021. I know it’s all arbitrary. But, dammit, I am still hopeful for this coming allotment of time. Not because some past shaman was right and something has died only for something new to be born, and not because the slate magically becomes clean just because we add an extra digit to the end of the calendar, but because in these last twelve months we have all adapted. We have been through an ordeal and we have learnt from it.

My hope is that we will take the collective lessons into the new year, the major groundbreaking discoveries and the intimate personal revelations. My hope is that 2021 is the year the vaccine works and we contain the virus. My hope is that 2021 is the year I get to hug my family again. But whatever 2021 brings, my hope is that I continue to grow and adapt and find new ways to connect and enjoy my time. 

And I am comforted by the knowledge that you will know what I’m talking about because you will be there, living through it too.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 27

Today marks the end of the sixth week that I have been writing this blog series. Six weeks! That is six weeks of spending 23 and a half hours a day inside my apartment, six weeks of having physical contact with only my wife, six weeks of sweatpants, and trips to the supermarket that feel like heists, and yoga in the morning, and working from my dining table, and social isolation. 

Only it hasn’t felt overtly isolating. Some of that is because we live in the future where I can literally talk to my magic handheld computer and instruct it to let me view and speak to my brother and it does! But another big part is because of this, what you’re reading right now, these words, this act of writing. 

Because, while technology is definitely an act of magic and I’m sure my laptop is just full of tiny wizards making it all work, there is an older magic at play here. Writing is magic and reading is magic. I sit here alone in my room in Vienna and put down a string of words to represent a ridiculous thought I’ve had, maybe about how Austrians like to scream “meal time!” at each other, or how an old tortilla will do if you’re out of toilet paper, or how my wife wants to stab people with a fork from time to time, and I express these images through a series of squiggles, and then you in your home maybe a thousand miles away from mine open up a page and decipher these squiggles until you too are picturing screaming Austrians, or sanitary tortillas, or a fork-wielding Alex. We have communicated, from my mind to yours. Magic.

Writing this blog and having this magical communication has helped me tremendously during this surreal and abstract, and any other art movement that applies (expressionist?), time. I have been able to funnel my anxiety and nervous energy, my questions and thoughts and actions and stupid jokes into this medium, and by doing so get them out of my head where they can breathe a little, see the sun a little, and not feel all pent up inside my skull where they would endlessly bounce around (much as I image kids are doing during this quarantine. Those poor, poor parents). 

Writing is a crystallising process. Putting words down forces me to reach into the fog of fragmented thoughts and hazy half ideas and decide how I really think and feel about a thing, to put it into a sentence that I can read back on and think “Oh yeah, that’s how it is”. And because I have formed it into a single clear statement, it’s as if I have permission to stop chewing over it, to let it go, to know it’s there if I need it, in black and white, and move on feeling a little lighter because of it. Magic.

As I have been doing this process for the past six weeks, the good/bad news (depending on if you’ve enjoyed these blogs or not, and if not, nobody made you keep reading them, that’s on you, friend) is that I have nothing left to say. All current concerns and questions, quibbles and queries about life in the time of COVID have been expunged onto the page and shared and communicated with you lovely people. The brain tank is currently clean and empty, and ready to be refilled. 

To all those who have read along, my deepest thanks goes out to you for taking this time to be with me, to communicate with me, for keeping me company and removing some of the isolation from my social isolation. These have been and continue to be strange times, but I am incredibly proud of how we as a community are getting through it together even while being forced to remain apart. That is another kind of magic.

I am sure there is more weirdness to come, more challenges and more adaptation, and so I’m sure it won’t be long until new perspectives and observations and silly jokes begin circling in my head, needing to be written down and shared with all of you. As such, this is not goodbye, instead let me just say, as is said in German, auf Wiedersehen (literal translation = on seeing again. I told you that language was literal!).

Until next time.

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