This is part 17 of a series about my experiences being a parent. Read the rest here.
Gaby, my wife, a few weeks before the birth:
Before Oscar was born, I was entirely excited that we were going to have a child. I liked my life, but it was a good time to change everything. My job was fine, but I wasn’t worried about putting it on hold or even losing it. We were about to move to London, so my social circle, hobbies, and routines were going to get warped anyway. I’d have to rebuild, with or without a baby.
But my new life with Oscar is perfect as it is, and so this time I feel like I have more to lose. My love for Oscar feels so supreme that I struggle to believe I could experience the same thing with another person, even though I’m sure I will. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel about our new child, even though I already have one and I know exactly how much I love him.
The baby is due soon. I’d planned a lovely day out with Oscar and Rob, one of the last with just the three of us. Then the Queen died. The theatre closed as a mark of respect, the fire station canceled its open day, the community fair shut down. I cried. They didn’t need to do that, she didn’t need that much reverence, I wanted one more day out with my little boy. I told Oscar that the queen had canceled everything and we went to the playground, like always. The next day he said “let’s pretend to be the queen and cancel things!” Rob tried to go for a walk but Oscar stood in front of the door and canceled it.
There was something thrilling about giving birth to Oscar, despite the pain. I don’t get many chances for that kind of acute, exquisite experience. I had time for drugs, and I felt safe and in control. I saw labour as a test of endurance that I could win, which I did. I didn’t mind being a sleepless new mum. I had four months off work and I enjoyed being at home with my new baby. I gained a new identity instead of losing one.
Oscar’s birth was exhilarating, but now I think I got lucky. I’d read some birth stories, but back then I didn’t know many women who’d had children themselves. Now every mum I meet has a story, and so do all of their friends, and many are horrendous. Septic shock for mum and baby. Days in the NICU. Thirty-six hours of labour, then a C-section anyway. Anthologies of disasters from a random sample of women, just like me, in the same place and time. I know more about what happens during a birth, so I know more about what could go wrong. I wonder if my shallow confidence helped make Oscar’s birth simple. Maybe, in some tiny way, but optimism doesn’t protect against sepsis.
The part of Oscar’s birth that did rock me was the recovery. I knew that birth would be painful, but I’d never had to recover from any physical trauma worse than a broken leg, and I couldn’t imagine weeks or months of not being able to get out of bed. After Oscar was born I struggled for a long time. When he was twelve weeks old I was able to go for one last, slow bike ride round San Francisco, just before we left forever, and even that was uncomfortable. And it could have been much worse. It was summer, Rob had time off work, our families came to visit, my wounds healed.
If this recovery is similar then I’ll be trapped inside for months, in winter, unable to play properly with Oscar, reliant on Rob for everything. We’ve been thinking of getting a car to help me get around and take Oscar out on my own, but I haven’t got round to taking the UK driving test, and it’s too late now. But bodies are strong, I’ll make a comeback eventually, probably.
Last night I said that I had a headache and Oscar brought me an empty packet of ibuprofen. I appreciated the gesture even though I shouldn’t have left it where he could reach it. He sang a song he’d made up called “you can’t imagine how nice it is to be a bear” while I snuggled him to sleep. “I love you so much,” I said. “Me too,” he said, “I super duper superstar love you always”. I’m cautious and a little melancholy but I really am happy to be doing this again.
Back to me:
I met up with a child-curious friend when Gaby was six months pregnant. He asked what life was like with a child and whether I was nervous about a second. “You do have a lot less time for yourself when you have kids,” I said. “Although we’re at the pub now so I suppose it can’t always be that bad.”
I hadn’t thought in much detail about the implications of another baby. They’re hard to imagine, and by this point they didn’t matter, we were all out of decisions. We’d find and reallocate time and energy, just like everyone else. We’d done well for parental leave; Gaby would be off for a year and I’d finagled seven months, part paid, part unpaid.
I took an extra month off before the due date, liquidating a vacation account accumulated during a cautious year. I handed off my projects and set a frank email auto-response: “Thanks for your email. I’m not going to read it, so if it’s important then please send it again next year.” During this month Oscar and I started piano lessons, and I failed to teach him to ride a bike. I worked on hobby projects, including writing my own Game Boy emulator to let me play Pokemon on my computer, and an open source intelligence tool to work out when an audio recording was taken. Each day was slow and quiet and possibly the last of its kind.
I moved Oscar from Gaby’s bed, where he’d slept for the last three years, into mine. The baby would sleep with Gaby, and if Oscar did too then the baby might keep him up or he might roll over and crush it. I filled our box room with two beds, one for me and one for Oscar, since I can’t sleep near other people. This left just enough room for a chest of drawers and the door to swing open.
Oscar still sometimes wakes up during the night. He snuffles from his bed to mine, puts his hands on my face, and sacks out again. I give him a few minutes, then go to the toilet and switch to the other bed. One night I forgot how many times we’d done this disco and sat on his head. If it’s before 5am then I can usually get back to sleep, but sometimes I’m up for the day at 2am. I should probably try to move him into his own room, but I like taking care of him at midnight, when he’s at his softest. I’m happy to have more snuggles before I blink and we’re on handshakes and back slaps. Moving him would be yet another project, and I no longer think that sharing a bed with your three-year old is a failure if it more or less works for you.
I took Oscar to a new playground. He climbed into a wooden house, big enough for four or five kids, and set up a shop. I pretended to buy things through the window. Three children came over, about two years older than Oscar, and started shouting at him. He’d been in the house for too long, he couldn’t play with them, he had to leave. Oscar ran out and started shouting back that no, he was allowed to be in the house, and they had to leave.
I was used to kids not sharing, but this was full bullying, which I hadn’t seen for a long time. I’d forgotten the desolation of being told “you can’t play with us”. Oscar and the invaders kept yelling at each other. I wondered if I should protect him somehow, but I wasn’t sure what type of counterstrike was appropriate, or whether a playground is like a nature documentary, where you have to detach yourself and let the jungle decide. I held Oscar’s hand and asked if he wanted to go somewhere else. He insisted that he didn’t, but eventually he lost the war of words and crumpled to the colourful tarmac. He got up and buried his face in my chest and said that the children were making him feel sad.
I carried him off and we ate an apple. The children moved on and we returned to our shop. Later one of them came back and said that his friends had left, could he play with us? Oscar said that he could, magnanimous in victory.
When we got home he wanted to talk about what had happened, over and over. Next time I think I’ll just lead him away immediately. He’ll have to stand up for himself one day, but as long as he’s three years old, against a gang of older kids who he’ll never see again, I think it’s fine for his dad to ride shotgun.
We were at 41 weeks. But it had been a routine Wednesday, it couldn’t be today. It was 3:30pm and we were getting ready to go for a walk through the common for a pizza. We’d pick up Oscar from nursery and catch the bus home. Gaby found it hard to reach her feet, so I was tying up her shoelaces. She put a hand on my head. “I’m not having contractions, but every minute or so I do feel like I’m gently splitting in half for a second,” she said. She dithered. “It’s probably nothing, I’m hungry, let’s go.” She went to the toilet. “Although my underwear looks quite pink,” she said, “and shit - I haven’t felt the baby kick for ages.” She called the hospital and they said to come in now. We don’t have a car so I called an Uber.
It took ten minutes to come; Gaby kept asking how far away it was and I felt like a failure every time I answered. I don’t panic in stressful situations, but I do get serious and verbose, which Gaby finds just as distressing. “The taxi is approximately 7 minutes away and appears to be moving at a constant speed, I’ll update you when I have new information.” Still no kicks. These didn’t feel like contractions as Gaby remembered them. Contractions are usually in your belly, back, or bum. They start small and far apart and get bigger and closer as labour progresses. Gaby’s cervix felt like it was being gently prised apart for two seconds every two minutes, which the internet doesn’t discuss. Still no kicks. I called my parents and said that we weren’t exactly sure what was happening but could they pick Oscar up from nursery. They wished us good luck.
I was worried that the Uber driver might refuse to take us, in case Gaby started leaking or even gave birth in his car. I thought about setting our destination to a few streets away from the hospital to disguise our destination, but under pressure I forgot. Fortunately the driver was kind, and in any case we were probably inside his car before he realised. He drove quickly and carefully and told us about his own kids. I tried to secrete gravitas and levity.
Halfway to the hospital Gaby’s cervix quietened down, and she started grumbling that this was probably all nothing. I still thought that she was in labour. We agreed that either way we should get the baby looked at. I reflected on how lucky we’d been that we hadn’t left the house thirty minutes earlier like we’d planned, otherwise we’d have been in the middle of a forest. An ambulance might have been able to squeeze through, depending on which route we’d taken, but I’d have still felt unbelievably stupid. I couldn’t believe we’d been so nonchalant; due dates are only estimates, but they do mean that you’re about to have a baby. I knew that labour can be sudden. My friend had given birth in a 4-wheel drive in a hospital carpark, but yesterday I’d gone to look round a piano showroom a forty minute train ride away, at Gaby’s suggestion. While I was out Gaby went shopping and had to pause every few minutes to grunt and tell strangers that she was fine, these weren’t contractions, just a pinched nerve.
We arrived at the hospital. Gaby griped to the woman at the front desk that nothing was happening but we were here now so might as well get checked out. We walked up a flight of stairs to the maternity ward, and in that minute the baby moved fast. By the time we lurched into the waiting room Gaby was in acute pain, definitely about to give birth. The receptionist was calmer than I expected. I suppose her waiting room is always full of women in acute pain and about to give birth, and she can’t spend every day in a rictus of concern. She was helpful enough and checked us in. I rubbed Gaby’s back; she asked me to stop.
A student midwife came to collect us. “We’re very busy!” she said cheerfully, “Seems like everyone’s having a baby today!” Congratulations but poor scheduling to us all. We went into the triage room. No one seemed too concerned about Gaby’s red discharge, although I should have asked directly. After some poking and waiting, two midwives led us into a labour ward where the rest of the day would take place. They asked if Gaby would like to try a birthing pool and she said sure, why not. They turned on the tap and Gaby leant against the bed moaning. Then her waters broke. I was startled, I think I’d been out of the room for this bit last time. The floor was soaked; my shoes were wet. A midwife gave me a paper pot, I wasn’t sure why and assumed that it would become important later. She saw my quizzical look, pointed at me, and mimed vomiting.
The day deteriorated. Gaby had a few huffs of gas and air but it made her feel sick and she wailed for stronger meds. The midwives said that the baby was nearly out and that anything they gave her now wouldn’t kick in until it was all over. She was past the event horizon. I asked what they meant by “nearly out”. “Probably just a few more minutes,” they said. It was about 5:40; we’d arrived at the hospital at 5. Another contraction.
Oscar’s birth had taken 9 hours. There’d been a storyline and a chance to settle in. Gaby had had time for pain relief, so the crescendo was lower and the build-up was slower. Gaby pushed for several hours, and we all cheered her on. It was a sublime trial, a marathon with pain but also glory. But this birth was ferocious and seemed out of control. One of the midwives scrabbled around underneath Gaby with a wand and a heart monitor, trying to check on the baby. She didn’t say anything, so I hoped that everything was OK.
Gaby broke character and stopped wailing, still on all-fours. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to work,” she said, “I’m not going to be able to do this, you’re going to have to figure out something else.” The midwives assured her that she was so strong and that she could do it. She was going to have to. The next contraction hit and Gaby burst into silent tears, which hadn’t happened last time. I started crying too. I didn’t know what to do, nothing seemed appropriate. This was so much worse than before, I just wanted it to be over, this couldn’t be worth it. I tried to act excited and positive, which Gaby said helped. “We’re going to see our baby soon!” I said. The bed was made up of interlocking pieces of foam, and I noticed that one of the slices holding Gaby’s knees was starting to slip. I held it in place and reflected that this was surely bad design. The midwives said that they could see the baby’s head. I couldn’t see anything but said that I could too. They were either telling the truth or lying for motivation.
And then his head dawned, all at once, a sudden, bloody sun. I saw the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and I choked, but the midwives had seen it too and didn’t seem concerned. They asked Gaby to roll onto her back to push out the rest of him. She told them that there was no way she could do that; she had a head sticking out of her vagina.
The midwives asked if she wanted to catch the baby herself and she said no way, absolutely not. He flopped out anyway and they caught him for us. He was a boy and his name was probably Samuel. Gaby collapsed and they gave him to her. He rooted around for a few minutes, latched, fed, and passed out. One midwife turned off the birthing pool; it had filled up to ankle height. It was a few minutes after 6.
I took and sent some photos. The room had fairy lights taped to the wall, which looked hokey in person but fantastic in the pictures. Several people asked if we’d gone private. I ordered too much pizza. I put down the delivery address as “Hospital, Maternity Ward”. I took our son while the midwives dealt with Gaby’s placenta. I’d forgotten how to hold a newborn. They have no muscles and it’s important not to drop them. I slouched in a chair by the window and perched him on my belly. I was glad he was here but I didn’t feel love yet. I wasn’t worried though. I hadn’t felt much when Oscar was born and now I loved him more than anything. The plughole gurgled as unused birth water trickled away.
I felt in control, despite the speed and pain. Sam didn’t happen to me; I birthed him myself. I remembered what my doctor in San Francisco had screamed while I was labouring with Oscar. “Poop him out, Gaby, poop him out!” This wasn’t a metaphor, those are the muscles to use. When I pushed like that again I felt Sam edge through me.
But it hurt too much, I needed a break. When the next contraction came I did nothing with it, I let it wash over me. The pain was almost the same but Sam stayed where he was; wasted agony. I plunged into the next contraction and felt him move again. And now he’s here.
One midwife said goodbye while the other continued to stitch Gaby back together. Workdays on a maternity ward must have a deafening rhythm. Unreasonable pain, then pizza. Repeat until 7pm, with a lunch break. After an hour of reconstruction, Gaby asked the midwife if they could pause for a few minutes, because the stitches and prodding were painful and nonstop. The midwife realised that Gaby hadn’t had any pain relief of any sort and certainly no local anaesthetic. She shot some in and finished the repairs, then wished us good luck and left to get the next baby. I turned the lights off. The sun had gone but the fairy lights flared. We ate pizza, trading our baby to keep the cheese off his head. We called Oscar and my parents. Oscar asked why we hadn’t come home yet. We’d got the baby, what was left?
I started putting a nappy on Sam, but he’d already pooed in his blanket and I’d forgotten to bring any wipes. I found a jumbo pack on a counter and rubbed him down. I noticed that my fingers were tingling, and I realised that the wipes were covered in antiseptic. I told a midwife. She said that Sam would be fine but I should stop touching things that wasn’t mine. I gingerly finished putting his nappy on and wrapped him up again. Then I realised that I’d used the same blanket that he’d pooed in, and now he had syrupy black infant crap on his head, even though he wasn’t yet two hours old and I’d thought I knew what I was doing this time.
The duty midwife told us that we could go home that evening if we wanted. At first that sounded silly. Sam was so fragile, and I’d already covered him in chemicals and faeces. But he’d still be fragile tomorrow, so we said yes. The midwife filled out the paperwork and Gaby asked me to sneak into the triage room and steal some biscuits that she’d seen there a few hours ago.
My dad picked us up around 10. This time round Gaby could hobble herself to the car. I carried Sam in his new, unfamiliar seat and we strapped him in as best we could. We got home, hugged my parents and went to bed. Sam was comatose the whole night but Gaby lay awake shaking. She roused him every few hours to feed. The next day we introduced Oscar to his brother. Oscar said hello but was otherwise uninterested and went about his day as normal. Gaby’s parents had given him a new cuddly lion to mark the day, and I suggested that we call it Lionel Richie. Oscar liked my idea, but got confused about which animal I was talking about. Now he has a baby brother called Sam, and a penguin called Lionel Richie.
This is part 17 of a series about my experiences being a parent. Read the rest here.