With apologies to those of you who are here to read book reviews, of which there have been precious few over the last few months…
I had a baby on the 22nd of September. She’s called Beatrice Illyria, and she’s wonderful. Here are some photos (because it would be rude not to share):
Twelve hours old:
One and a half days old (with new Dad and new Grandma):
One week old:
Two weeks old:
Three weeks old:
Four weeks old (her first trip to London; my first gig after giving birth):
And most recently, on Monday, at four and a half weeks old, she urges you to vote if you haven’t already:
Beatrice will be five weeks old tomorrow. Things I have learned so far:
1. Newborns think they’re still in the womb. This is why they often freak out when they’re left by themselves or left to kick and move when they’re not being tightly surrounded by something, be it a wrap, sling, or someone’s arms, and consequently:
2. Newborns really like to be held. All day. My daughter likes this especially at the moment because she’s apparently going through a cognitive leap at four and a half weeks, which means that she’s more overwhelmed than before by sounds and smells and things that she sees because her senses are sharper, and this means that she can only really fall asleep while (1) nursing or (2) being held after nursing, in a sort of yoga “child” position (I never understood the name of that position until now) with her legs folded under her, her arms under her head, and her head tucked under mine on my chest. If I don’t hold her like this for at least ten minutes after feeding while she drops into deeper and deeper sleep, she will instantly wake up when she’s put down in a cot or basket, away from the sound of my heartbeat and the smell of my skin. And she will be very displeased. This is probably because:
3. Newborns don’t know they’re separate from their mothers yet. This one boggles my mind, but it makes sense – they have no sense of personal identity yet. Being separated from their mothers causes them huge distress, because it just doesn’t feel right to be alone. When they’re upset, they scream. Because the sound of a screaming baby is hugely distressing to its caregiver, we spend most of our time trying to prevent or stop the screaming by holding, feeding, changing, talking to, and stroking the baby. Consequently:
4. Newborns are all-consuming. Which means that the caregiver can go all day “without getting anything done”.
I know I’m accomplishing something by keeping her alive and [relatively] happy all day, but the weeks have slipped by in a blurred stream of feeding, sleeping, feeding, napping, changing, rocking, feeding again (and again) and trying to cook and eat one-handed, and I’ve only written half a chapter of my second draft in the last month. I haven’t written any thank-you cards for the incredible and generous gifts of food and baby things we’ve been given, or answered more than a handful of emails, or made it to the grocery store alone more than a couple of times. I wanted to figure out why, and disabuse myself of the frustrating notion that I SHOULD be able to be as productive as I was before, so I kept a log yesterday of what I’d done over the course of about seventeen hours, from Monday evening to lunchtime on Tuesday. Here’s what happened.
Warning: this is much longer than I thought it would be. It turns out I can type quite a lot, one-handed. Also, when there’s nothing to do but type one-handed, it’s possible to be really productive. I’ve edited it in bed this morning, while she feeds, with both hands, but most of it was written yesterday.
Monday, 24 October
7.15pm onwards: All evening, my daughter engages in an activity called cluster feeding, which means she nurses for five to twenty minutes until she seems to fall asleep, but then can only be put down for about a minute each time before screaming and demanding to be fed again. Tonight this goes on for over five hours. She doesn’t feed efficiently when she cluster-feeds: she chews and sucks and pulls herself off every few seconds, then screams and then attaches herself again, latching on poorly (which means that it stings). The word that comes to mind is “vampiric”, though I’m grateful to be able to do this cluster-feeding thing more easily now that we’re both much better at breastfeeding, four weeks in, and I don’t find it screamingly painful any more. In the first two weeks I would cry almost every time, or at least have to stifle a shriek when she latched onto my chapped, bleeding nipples. In the first two weeks I also had contractions every time she fed; breastfeeding stimulates the production of oxytocin, which causes contractions, which makes the uterus shrink back to its normal size little by little after the birth. All good and necessary, but unbearable. Now I don’t feel as much, and she’s better at feeding (during the day, anyway) – it’s a skill both of us have had to learn.
Often, in the evenings, and this evening is typical, she screams while eating and then pulls herself off, then tries to find my nipple again even though it’s still in her mouth, frantically shaking her head back and forth, bobbing and swinging away and then back, her mouth wide open, making a desperate growly “raaa-aaa-aaa” noise. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating and I have to resist the urge to drop her on the floor, because this goes on until well after midnight. I try to talk to her calmly, to stroke her back and her head, to will her to just calm down and feed normally, the way she does during the day. I alternate sides, but I feel as though I’m being torn to pieces, and I’ve developed a pounding headache that stabs with each suck. Dehydration? Probably, but I can’t reach that water bottle. This is why we need at least two caregivers at all times – so that one of them can fetch beverages.
Is there even anything left in there? I test it – apparently there is. As the evening wears on, I keep thinking I’ll make coq au vin. I’ve told my husband I will, that there’ll be something for him to graze on when he’s home at 1am from a concert in Cambridge, but I can’t seem to make it to the kitchen, and I’m becoming increasingly exhausted. The ingredients are on the kitchen counter, waiting; we even went to the store and bought bacon!
I do not manage to make coq au vin. For some reason this surprises me.
At about 10pm I give up and, during a few minutes of calm, manage to eat some pre-cooked chicken breast and some apple crumble from the fridge. I finally put away the stew ingredients so that they don’t go bad. I’ll try again tomorrow.
Tuesday, 25 October
1.30am: Bojan gets home at some point around now, and Beatrice and I are finally asleep in bed with all the lights on in the bedroom. I manage to wake up and say hello; he puts her in her cot and crawls into bed. “Thank you,” he says, holding my hand, “thank you for being brilliant and doing this, and being you,” and I think he might be crying. I try not to cry too; I’m too tired to speak for the first time since she was born – the lack of sleep is finally starting to wear me down. I squeeze his hand and fall asleep again. It’s worth noting here that he has been utterly heroic since she was born, working through his exhaustion and looking after me exquisitely. It’s hard to understand how I got so lucky.
6.45am: Beatrice wakes up. How has she slept for so long? Is there something wrong with her? Newborns are supposed to eat every two hours – at first she woke up every hour and a half, but lately she’s been sleeping from midnight-ish until at least 4am, and, for the last two nights, until 6.30 or so. Alarming or impressive? A fluke? I can’t decide. I feed her – she’s calm now and eats with long deep sucks and doesn’t come off once until she’s done. Then she seems to fall asleep, but as soon as she goes in the cot she stars fussing, and then she’s crying and straining again – more tummy pain (breastfed babies poo less frequently, and when they do it’s explosive. The rest of the time it’s typical to strain and grunt like constipated ogres until they’re held. When she’s held, she can fall asleep). B suggests putting her in bed with us to calm her down. Everyone gets an hour’s sleep and nobody gets smothered.
We don’t want to do this too often because we sleep under a fluffy duvet and she could suffocate if she ends up under it, but she seems to love being in bed with us. I want to safely bed-share; most of the time she sleeps in a beautiful side-car cot borrowed from generous friends, but often she won’t settle unless she’s in with us. Figuring out how to do this safely – I know how to do it in theory, but I’m terrified to try doing it all the time – is on my list, along with “write thank-you cards”. I haven’t done much on my list in the last few weeks.
7.45am: She wakes up again. I feed her in the “I’ve given up” position, lying on my side.
7.59am: B’s alarm goes off. I sit up and keep nursing Beatrice; he goes downstairs and has breakfast. I can smell toast, which is almost painfully tantalising. When he comes back upstairs to get dressed I ask him if there’s any left, trying to sound light-hearted (I fail). He goes back down and makes me some and brings it upstairs while I feed Beatrice. He also brings tea, which goes on the stack of books on the bedside table. I discover after he’s left that I can’t reach it.
8.30am: B leaves. I offer a cheery goodbye. I feel like I haven’t seen him for days. At least tonight he’ll be home at dinner time, or late-ish dinnertime, around nine, rather than the after-midnight post-concert situation of the last few days. We’re both freelancers; he can’t take time off, so he’s worked most days since she was born, except for a coincidental week off from when she was one week old to when she was two weeks old, after my mother left (she was here for the first week and essentially saved our lives).
8.51am: I’m doing really well, feeling in control, with Beatrice propped up on me, feeding again, until a lovely musician friend calls from Edinburgh to see how I’m doing, because I complained on Facebook last night. People being kind always makes me cry, and when she asks how I’m doing I say “Good!” but then she says, “Are you ok? I saw your Facebook post,” and I say, “It’s crap. I’m so lonely,” and sob down the phone, and she tells me I’m doing a great job and that I’m brave and amazing. I’m not convinced.
Beatrice does some explosive poos while I’m on the phone, which lightens my mood, not least because looks as though she feels much better. I get off the phone in a much brighter frame of mind, then lift her up to give her a hug and see a patch of bright yellow poo on the duvet: it’s soaked through her diaper and her clothes because I stayed on the phone and didn’t change her fast enough. I finally exit the bed for the first time this morning and lay her down to clean her up. She’s very serene – she likes being on the changing mat because it means she can stare at the closet, which fascinates her), and then leave her for a minute to put the sheets in the laundry. She screams as though she’s being attacked by wild beasts, which, on reflection, IS probably what she thinks is about to happen. Then she nurses again for an hour – I try to put her to sleep but she screams again as soon as she’s put down, so I just keep nursing her. I read the Grantchester Chronicles and look at election coverage on my phone. I wish the New York Times would make their big crossword free – doing the mini one at 6am is never enough.
10.30am: She appears to be asleep. I put her down and SHE STAYS ASLEEP – thank you, Holy Mother of God. I run downstairs to tidy the kitchen and briefly consider a shower.
10.31am Throwing caution to the wind, I decide to make coq au vin instead. I doubt there’ll be another opportunity today (and I’m right).
10.56am: I become guiltily aware that the combined noise from the washing machine and the frying onions and NPR’s All Things Considered are probably preventing me from hearing Beatrice scream. Oh God, is she even still alive? I run upstairs to check. She’s asleep. All is well. I am a great parent.
11.01am: Was that a squawk? A scream? I go to the foot of the stairs to check. No – silence. I carry on cooking. This isn’t so hard.
11.22am: The post arrives. Several cards, and a Halloween-themed onesie for Beatrice from my mother in Illinois! She’s put the return address as “Grandma Sherri”, which momentarily confuses me. It’s the first time I’ve seen my mother’s name and the word “grandma” written down together.
11.30am: My retired neighbour Anne comes to visit. I knocked on her door yesterday at about 6pm in desperation because I hadn’t spoken to another adult all day, and the upshot was that I had a cup of tea (and Beatrice was hugely charming and attentive), and I said that she’d better come round today and help me finish the cheesecake brought by another friend (so I wouldn’t eat the whole thing myself). We sit in the kitchen and talk about adult things, I think – actuality, I’m pretty sure we talk mostly about Beatrice, but it feels like an adult conversation because she’s a cogent person who uses words. She’s brought her own coffee so I don’t have to make it. I finish making the coq au vin and manage to set a timer. Beatrice squawks just as I’m finishing my cheesecake, which is pretty good timing. Anne remarks that I seem to have it all under control, and I give a hollow laugh but try to accept the compliment. Beatrice goes to sleep on my chest, grizzling quietly. It’s worth noting that I still haven’t dressed or showered, but Anne is kind enough to say that my pyjamas are passable as real clothes.
11.54am: Anne leaves and I put Beatrice gingerly down in a basket in the darkened living room – I haven’t put the blind up yet today. I decide not to make it any lighter – she’s still making little grunting noises, but she seems to be 80% asleep. Could it be time to finish my cup of tea AND have a shower? I decide to do both, at the same time.
12.02pm: the silence is magical. I’ve been distracted by the remaining two pieces of cheesecake, and have eaten them. I really must have a shower now.
12.05pm: I turn the shower on. Beatrice squalls from the living room, so I run back in, pick her up, and go back into the bathroom as an afterthought to turn off the shower. Then I realise that it’s really hard not to drop a baby into the tub while you hold her with one hand and lean over the tub to turn off a tap with your other hand. I manage it and take her to the sofa to nurse, but in putting her down on my lap to undo my bra, I drop her head a little too quickly onto my thigh. Her face contorts and goes crimson; she screams – from surprise or pain, I can’t tell. I bring her up to my chest and hug her and stroke the back of her head, hating myself. She immediately stops crying. Oh God, maybe she’s just really stoic and I’m a bad parent. She seems to have forgotten already – maybe I’m a good parent after all.
12.10pm: She’s eating frantically, as though she’s been starved for days. My mind wanders to that Roald Dahl short story, Royal Jelly, about a baby who won’t gain weight until its beekeeper father starts sneaking royal jelly from the hives into its formula. No such problem here, but her name IS Bea, and there’s lots of punning potential there, which makes me happy. I like calling her Bumble Bea. I am getting quietly hysterical. I just want to put her down and take a nap. My left arm is holding her up and my thumb is against her waist; I can feel her insides gurgling. How marvellous is man! What a wondrous thing I’ve made! Then I feel how warm her diaper is against my other fingers. Warm and wet? Or just warm? Please let it just be warm. I think it is – I think that dampness is just my fingers sweating. She doesn’t need to be changed right this second.
12.22pm: She pulls herself off dramatically, launching her body away from me and flinging her little arms into the air above her head, fists clenched. They drift back to her sides incrementally.
12.23pm: Asleep on my lap, she does the most exquisite grin, the first really symmetrical one I’ve seen. She looks like someone from her dream has told her an incredible joke. It doesn’t count as a “social smile” yet, but by golly, it’s charming. For a second her face is vastly characterful, like that of a much older child, and I get a fleeting glimpse of my youngest brother Elliot (now a rakish 24-year-old): the way his face looked the time he put a dead frog under my pillow and was really pleased with himself, probably around the age of 12. She’s going to be so cute. We’ve done well.
12.26pm: I’m too scared to move her into her cot in case she wakes up and cries again, so I sit there gazing, getting a crick in my neck. She’s grinning quite a lot in her sleep, moving her tiny hands and feet, and switching every couple of seconds between frowning and grimacing and raising her eyebrows. I could watch this forever: she reminds me of Rowan Atkinson or some other stretchy-faced comic, such is the infinite variety of the faces she can make. She grunts and chirps and chuckles. Then there’s another stomach gurgle. Oh yes, the warm nappy – I’d forgotten. Better change that, lest another outfit be sacrificed to the gods of poo. Sorry, sleeping baby…
12.32pm: I move to change her, but then the stew timer goes off. I put her down and – a miracle! – she doesn’t wake up. I tiptoe off and turn off the stew.
12.34pm: SHOWER TIME AT LAST! Oh look, my tea from before is still on the shower windowsill. STILL DELICIOUS, THOUGH. I am in heaven.
12.51pm: I’ve never timed a shower before, but in the interests of this mini documentary, I find that it was seventeen minutes long. Considering I didn’t wash my hair, that seems inexcusable. But she’s still asleep, and I got to listen to half of the NPR Politics podcast. Ahhhhhh.
1.05pm: Another kind friend sends an email, offering to make dinner next week and bring extras for freezing. She saw my miserable Facebook post last night. I feel guilty, a pathetic whiny person who shouldn’t have complained, because now the sun is (sort of) shining and Beatrice is asleep, and it doesn’t feel as impossible to cope right now as it did last night. Then I remember the refrain of everyone who already has children: “Accept all offers of help!” I decide that this is sensible. I will answer that email as soon as I can. I suspect it’ll take me two days to do so.
1.08pm: putting away clothes, I find all my pre-pregnancy leggings in a box. This is exciting: they’re long enough to wear boots with, which is a major step towards getting out of the house now that it’s cold. But we don’t need any groceries except for bread, and I could just make rice for lunch. And if I go to a cafe with her in a sling and try to write, she’ll get overheated and cross, and there won’t be anywhere to put her down. But if I take a buggy she might get too cold. And she’ll hate being left in the buggy if she’s awake. It all seems like too much. We’ll stay at home.
1.20pm: she squawks just as I’m halfway through folding laundry and thinking about bringing my laptop downstairs to do some writing. By the time I make it to the living room she’s nearly in full swing, but she calms down when she sees me. I remember I should’ve changed her half an hour ago, and sure enough, the poo is cruelly dry, stuck to her bottom. (It’s worth mentioning here that milk-poo is almost completely odourless, so don’t be alarmed, dear reader.) Therein lie the seeds of nappy rash; I’m a bad mother to have left her so long. I press a cold, very wet wipe to the suffering area for several seconds, and it works: we have a clean Beatrice without having rubbed her bottom raw. She gazes at me placidly, and I flatter myself that she’s looking right at me rather than over my shoulder. She’s calmed down, at least, so I don’t rush. I feel like a good mother (it’s the small victories) until I see a cat hair lodged in her bottom (HOW?), so I get a second wipe and try to grab it. And then, calm and happy, she makes a face as though she’s silently saying “ooh!” and emits an abrupt little fart, and then pees all over the changing mat. I yelp. It pools out around her and begins to soak into the back of her stylish mint-green-and-white striped onesie, which she’s worn for exactly – what, three hours at most? I run to get paper towels, dry everything off, wipe her down again, and look around for an emergency outfit. There’s a little purple onesie in the changing bag, which is now my handbag. (This is not a tragedy; I have never been a handbag person.) She looks cute in it, and kicks her little legs happily, punching the air with her fists, and looks as though she wants to smile at me, but doesn’t quite do it. Her thighs are getting wonderfully fat. Her toes are tiny miniature versions of mine. She’s clean and dry, and everything is under control. I’m a good mom.
1.29pm: Nursing on the couch again, she swallows furiously for half a minute, then pulls herself off me, coughing delicately, and gets sprayed in the face with three separate streams of milk. It reminds me of the fountains at Versailles, and I feel obscurely proud. After a couple more minutes someone knocks on the door, and I silently curse them and their entire family as I stick a little finger in the corner of her mouth to unlatch her, put her down in a safe position on the couch, clap the breast pad back over my boob, reassemble my bra and then my dress, and answer the door – by which time they’ve gone. “Hello?” I say to the empty street, not wanting to have done all that for nothing. “Oh, hi,” says a man, appearing from behind a truck in a high-vis uniform. It looks like he’s with Thames Water or something. He points to a silver vehicle I’ve never seen before. “Could you tell me whose car that is?” I wonder if it’s blocking a drain cover, but I don’t want to get into a discussion about it; I can hear Beatrice protesting again. “Sorry, no,” I say, adding lamely, “I don’t have a car, so I don’t really, you know, notice other people’s cars…” I dash back inside; she’s rolled over and is half face down in a muslin, screaming. I am a bad mom. They’re breathable, but still. Clearly everyone who said the couch is the most dangerous place for a baby was right. I apologise to her and latch her back on. Interrupting a feeding baby is a dangerous business.
1.49pm: Sleepy and full of milk, Beatrice falls off, flinging her hands up again and rolling onto her back on my lap, and does a little smile in her sleep. Her hair is getting blonder by the day as she loses her dark newborn hair and grows a new head of it; her eyelids are delicately veined, like the thinnest painted porcelain, and she’s growing golden eyelashes; her expressive mouth, with its perfect Cupid’s bow, is cherry-pink. She’s the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen, which I realise is an enormous cliche, but she really is. I need to get so much done today, but I don’t care. I think I’ll just watch her for a little while.
I was going to end it there, but I had to add one more thing:
Wednesday, 26 October
10.35am: Nursing, she pulls herself off and gets sprayed in the face with milk, in the usual way. “You got sprayed right in the face!” I say, and giggle at her. She looks straight at me and gets the most wonderful look in her eyes, as though she’s just figured something out. Then she smiles. And smiles again, and again. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life, a smile that reaches her eyes, full of delight and newness, the first real smile in response to someone – the long-awaited “social smile”. I call Bojan even though I know he’s teaching. “Guess what?” I say. “She just smiled.” And I start to cry.