An old joke has it that if you’re thinking of having a baby, first get a plant. If you can keep it alive for a month, try a cat. If after a month it hasn’t run away and you haven’t starved it to death, then think about a human partner. If after a month…etc.
Well, although I’ve always been crap at remembering to water plants and the only cat I’ve ever had did actually run away, me and my wife have now survived a whole month of having full adult responsibility for a proper human baby, which is a minor milestone worth celebrating. The last 32 days have, to be sure, contained some of the most difficult moments of our lives. After two nights I am happy to admit that I was actually going insane and wanted to take her back to the hospital until we could work out this whole screaming-sleeping equation. At 5am, after five hours of various white noise apps, cooing, shushing, pushing the pram back and forth like a deranged polar bear in a zoo, reasoning, googling ‘STOP NEWBORN CRYING’ (a secular form of prayer, one about as practically helpful and easy to interpret as the foreboding silence of God), we spent forty minutes trying to disengage the top bit of the pram so we could return her to the Maternity Department at Città di Roma and get them to stop her making all that noise.
It’s also, of course, been a joyous experience. The baby is hilarious, an endless source of uproarious entertainment. One of my favourite tricks to play on her (one she’s sadly now got wise to) is to pretend my nose is a nipple. When she’s having a tantrum she looks like Phil Collins doing a drum solo while suffering the after-effects of some dodgy fondue. And the faces she pulls while waking up suggest she may have a bright future in Gilbert & Sullivan revivals.
Nevertheless, here are ten lessons I’ve learned over the last 32 days and (it seems like) 640 nights:
- While swaddling may have worked for Moses, it does nothing for our child. Luckily she doesn’t seem to suffer from the dreaded Startle Reflex (which apparently causes most unswaddled babies to wake up pretty much every hour on the dot), which means I haven’t actually gone through with my late-night threat to take the so-called Miracle Swaddling Blanket back to the shop, wrap the person who sold it to me up in it and set them on fire.
- On the other hand, as promised by the current pandit of getting-them-to-go-to-bloody-sleep Tracy Hogg, shush-pat works. You have to do it for at least twenty minutes and it helps if you do so in a dark room because otherwise she keeps her eyes wide open to take in how amazing everything is. Reducing stimulation is also a good way for me to calm down. One exhausted 4am looking into her eyes I had the paranoid (but not irrational) sensation of looking at myself, and a feeling that our souls were locked into a battle of eternal wakefulness.
- It’s not clear whether it’s an urban myth, but I’m happy to go along with the internet fairy tale that Dutch babies sleep more. It reflects a no-nonsenseness that I associate with that hedonistically austere people, and which I admire in preference to silly speculation about what hour Madame might like to be served breakfast. A newborn baby doesn’t have habits or tastes. Without wanting to sound like Dr. Moreau, she’s a blank slate on which we can inscribe our own preferred behaviours. As to her current level of intelligence, I’ve not been able to find out much. I’ve read in several places that a two-year-old baby apparently has the same cognitive sophistication as an adult chimpanzee. With regard to newborns, researchers tend to be coyer. Maybe a lot of them have newborn kids and it’s just too depressing to report that their mental prowess lies somewhere between that of a large peanut and a small hamster. At least we can take comfort in the idea that even if our child never learns to read and write, she could still aspire to high political office, as long as she has a sex change and dyes her skin bright orange, that is.
- If there’s one insight I’ve gained is that if your baby is eating and sleeping, you have no reason to panic. For the first few days we, like all new parents, worried that she wasn’t feeding properly, but then we found out how very much weight she’d gained and were Very Pleased With Ourselves, although I have to confess that I then ended up googling ‘infant gigantism’, just in case.
- Her existence is a secret from her, one she’s not even close to getting. Donald Winnicott famously wrote that there’s ‘no such thing as a baby’. She’s just a cuddly jumble of impulses with no consciousness of how they fit together. ‘She’ is our invention in more than a physical sense, and will be for some time to come.
- Her screeching is as distressing as it can possibly be, having been refined over a period of 100,000 years. It was terrifying at first, then we realised it’s just her equivalent of ‘have we got any nuts’, ‘when was the last time we ordered a pizza’ or ‘I’m absolutely mortified to have to tell you this, but I’ve afraid I’ve soiled myself. Again’.
- I was worried about our neighbours, given that the people downstairs once asked us to stop using the floor on Saturday mornings. As it happens, no one has knocked on a door asking us to shut up our screaming child. It’s unlikely that anyone ever has done such a thing. It would demand an almost alt-right level of social autism.
- It’s very hard not to impute human thoughts to her spontaneous facial expressions, particularly to what appears to be the curious mix of embarrassment and defiance that appears when she fills her nappy four seconds after it’s been changed. Also, when she closes her eyes when I’m doing shush-pat, it’s difficult not to suspect that she’s merely pretending to be asleep. Her face at such times sometimes looks a bit patronising, like sure, dad, you’ve made me go to sleep, like well done yeah.
- I used to suffer from anxiety about things that didn’t matter. For example: for about six years in my early 20s I worried that I was going bald. It was the only thing I thought about between the ages of 21 and 27. I would judge everyone I met on how bald they were compared to how old they might be as against how bald and thus old I thought they might think I was. So the information I was getting in the run-up to the birth made the whole prospect quite daunting. Everybody tells you that you’re about to step through a portal into a world of pure mortal terror. From the moment the pregnancy was confirmed, I paranoically assumed I would drop and break her at some point, or accidentally snap off one of her limbs while nappy-changing. Then there was the concern that my experience of parenting might be like that of the hapless father in James Joyce’s story ‘A Little Cloud’, beset by panic and angst at his failure to calm a screaming child. As it turns out, my attacks of anxiety (so far…) have been pretty much restricted to the occasional 3am tantrum (mine rather than hers). It turns out that both she and I and her hero of a mum are more physically and emotionally robust than any of us feared. The baby herself is an actual embodiment of Schopenhauer’s Will, the life force that animates all matter. She knows how to survive – we’re just here to serve her capricious needs.
- Just in case anyone takes the last bit as a worrying sign that I may have been spending the last month sternly reading volumes of 19th century philosophy while a newborn baby screams herself inside out in the background*, I’m happy to reassure them that I actually read about Schopenhauer in a book called ‘Louis CK and Philosophy’, which was considerably less mentally taxing. While previous generations of parents have relied on Hogg, Winnicott, Dr. Spock or Captain Kirk for their insights into how-to-parent, I find his comedy to be an endless source of comfort and wisdom. I’m sure it will come in handy in the years to come, especially when, as it inevitable, she starts to ask us difficult questions.
However, the single-most important thing I’ve come to realise through this whole experience, though, the insight that has more than any other enlightened me with regard not just to infant life, but also in terms of all that we see, think and feel as human beings, is that…oh wait, I’ve got to go. The baby’s just started crying.
* Just for the record, I wrote most of this at ‘work’.