The hospital bag trickled its entrails across the carpet, a moat surrounding a citadel of snacks that had conquered the coffee table, a fortress of sweets and peanuts, turrets of rice cakes, protein bars, raisins – all the items that had been packed and not eaten. The plastic changing mat was set on the small square dining table in our living room, littered with cotton wool, nappies, baby wipes, pots, bottles, teats, syringes… Sleep suits of various patterns hung across the back of chairs, blankets of different softness covered each sofa arm. A baby bomb had gone off and a tiny 8lb bundle of dynamite snoozed somewhere in a bassinet at the midpoint of the explosion. Every so often a bizarre dinosaur squawk echoed, with twitching and wriggling, before returning to the doze, still sleeping off that pethidine. We remained wired on over forty sleepless hours, buzzing off our nuts on a shit tonne of new-born endorphins.
We’d stayed in the birthing suite for eight hours after Frank was born (we’d both said “Frank” shortly after meeting him but waited a while to settle on his name). I was monitored for quite a bit of blood lost and dehydration, however being released to go home in the same night is actually quite uncommon and, as the fish and chips had barely touched the edges, we were eager. We ordered Dominos whilst tiptoeing across a carpark littered with landmines, having never carried such precious cargo before. I changed into the cotton wool pjs I’d bought for labour but then never worn, spending it in knickers and a string vest, until my waters broke and I went fully Donald Duck (no fucks given). There were so many items in the hospital bag that I forgot existed –the huge, dark diva-like sunglasses that I spent the entire time rocking were invaluable but the wireless headphones that I thought would be integral to my relaxation remained unused. Now each neglected item helped to create a cave of comfort, a blanket fort that the three of us snuggled down into with BBQ pizza and extra garlic and herb dip.
We were on our own.
There were no midwife home visits, usually conducted the following day, due to Covid-19 and no follow-up appointments at all, apart from a phone call, until Day Five. One hundred and twenty hours for things to go side-ways. There were no visits from family or hands-on help from anyone, as Lockdown had been declared on Monday night and Frank was born on the Friday. We’d expected to have a modest stockpile of supplies but there’d been no supermarket delivery slots and with panic buying, bare shelves and lots of items limited one or two per customer it had seemed wrong to buy in bulk. “Essentials only” we were told. Unfortunately, we grossly miscalculated how many nappies babies use. We’d been banking on some frozen meals from family, however the freezer remained a bleak, icy space. While the rest of the UK attempted to work out what dinners they could magically concoct with a tea bag, flour and the remains from a pickle jar, we had dominos and a mountain of jelly babies to keep us going… And one very real baby… and absolutely no fucking idea what we were doing.
Franks first proper cry jolted shock waves through Hither Green, through our rented walls and into my soul. Before this he’d been peaceful, silent even at birth. The doctor had told us he’d needed a bit of extra time to clear out his lungs. And then he found them. Shrieking babies’ mouths engulf the entire face, vast gaping holes that let out a sound precisely one-zillion times larger than they are. It is simultaneously adorable and heart breaking. He did not love having his nappy changed. Maybe it was the cold plastic or the harsh lightbulb or the time away from our skin but he wailed, and that made me join him.
Frank was drowsy, exhausted from an abnormally long, stressful birth (the time it took to get him out would have drained him, as well as the pethidine). Breastfeeding is a tricky, alien skill but add to that a heightened sleep deprivation, strong enough to make you hallucinate, and the pressure that if you can’t get this right your baby will not eat. A small downpour rained into Frank’s wispy baby hair and the more stressed I became the more agitated he was. It was also excruciatingly painful.
I explained to the midwife over the phone that I didn’t think Frank was getting enough colostrum (the stuff your body produces before the milk), that he was as lethargic as a furloughed man on a weekday afternoon. After sitting bolt upright all of Saturday night (the only place Frank would sleep was on my chest and I was too terrified to let myself sleep simultaneously) the midwife text to say she’d had a cancellation and that I could come into the library where they were holding some appointments. I realise now how little time had passed, Frank was less than forty-eight hours old, but again time was tripping. It felt like weeks had passed. The midwife confirmed that I wasn’t doing anything wrong and told me to “just stick with it”, both encouraging and demoralising.*
What is day and what is night no longer held meaning. We watched Friends at 4am with a cuppa as if it was four in the afternoon, crawled under the covers at 11am like 11pm. Rest comes in tiny portions whenever and wherever it is permitted to be served. The Small Ruler. He decrees when he wants more milk (all the time) and when he wants to sleep (not much at night, unless it was on my chest). Many episodes are paused. Many, many teas grow cold. Many mugs are stained with tea. Many episodes must be re-watched. Many mugs remain unwashed. I was waiting for a horrific hormone crash, one you hear about on every postnatal breath, in every postpartum social media post. We watched an 1870s drama, where a pregnant woman started bleeding and lost her baby. I sobbed my eye sockets dry, but I’d been so primed to expect this that it didn’t phase me. I was prepared for worse but it never came.
After nine months on the inside, physically fused together, a baby doesn’t know where they end and their mother begins. In those early days I felt that too. My skin felt soft like his. I curled up in the same positions he slept in. I spent twenty-four seven watching his face and saw it cinematic when I closed my eyes. I felt his warmth and pressure on my body even when he wasn’t there. It was sleep deprivation, smudging the lines of reality and distorting reason, but also I’ve never felt more connected to another soul. There is something so powerful about being able to soothe someone so vulnerable by simply placing them onto your skin.
Babies are demanding and I used to hear all the bullshit they put parents through and I would think, why would anyone want that? The sleepless nights, the continual crying, the relentless dirty nappies, the incessant worry, giving up so much it seemed for so little. And then I met Frank and I understood.
(*At the Day Five appointment Frank was weighed and he’d only lost 6% of his 8lb birth weight- they only worry if babies lose 10% or more. Since then he’s filled out into such a little chunk that I have never worried about whether he was getting enough milk again!)