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Once upon a time, father was born - a survivor's guide to daddyhood
Should fathers have the same Paternity Leave benefits as mothers?
In the beginning
It has been said millions of times, over and over, it even sounds like a cliché but birth is a unique experience, especially the birth of your own child and more so if you have witnessed it yourself – this of course I say from a male’s point of view. An event that will change you forever, a milestone one can say, something that will make or break you for the rest of your life. That is, if you survive the first few weeks.
It is mainly an endurance test more than anything else, a character building experience. I always heard many stories about this whole birth thing; sleepless nights, rewarding experience, supersonic ageing, loss of social life, being demoted to the fifth echelon in the food chain. However, I never thought it would be this testing, despite everything I thought I had read, heard, assimilated from third party experience, etc. But there are two things I must admit; first, you are never 100% prepared for what’s coming and second, it is definitely something that changes your whole life.
Yep, it changes you emotionally, psychologically and very especially, physically. You can’t see it but the changes are there, you are just too ill prepared to realise it, and your poor under-developed human eyes are oblivious to it as well. How do you explain the fact that you have become a hybrid between a human being and an octopus?
If that metamorphosis didn’t occur, how would you be able to juggle baby, shake the bottle, answer the telephone (which seems to ring only when baby is in the middle of a feed or being nappy changed or practising his lung enhancing technique, also known as crying), tie baby’s bib on, scratch the tip of your nose, get rid of that stupid salesman at the door trying to sell you that useless Dynoware that you don’t need (and don’t even know what the hell it is for anyway) with only two hands? Your hearing has become so acute, that you can even hear baby’s inward burp even when it’s two bedrooms away from where you are. You even get to the sad conclusion that you don’t need holidays anymore. Going to work even seems less traumatic and stressful, and even relaxing. And all this has happened the day after baby is born.
Last of a dying breed
But believe me, I lie not; babies do change your lives. And it all begins before birth. Just think of the amount of information, advice, anecdotes and stories in general that people tell to start preparing you for when the big day arrives; of how you must do this or that to get him/her used to this and that, of how they coped or didn't cope, etc. In the end, it all adds up to nothing, because when your little one comes along you do all the opposite things, and you make up your own rules, or rather, baby makes up it’s own rules.
So all those interesting pre birth gatherings and endless nights, reading ‘How to be a mega-dad’, ‘You and your Baby’, ‘Modern Mother’, ‘Bringing up baby in the XXI Century’, ‘Organic Babies’, ‘Your new baby, enhanced & upgradeable version 2002’ and all that stuff end up being a pile of bull**** because nothing of what you have read applies to your particular case and all you do is end up feeling like a useless git and what you really want to do is sue the bastards that wrote those stupid books in the first place. So don’t even try looking for the logic in all this, because there ain’t no logic! The first few weeks of baby’s life never follow a logical pattern. Hence the very unique experience. Let's face it, even if the ultimate rulebook "How to be the perfect baby" was written, I doubt baby would bat an eyelid to give it a read.
But let’s go back in time a bit.First, the weeks of intrigue and doubts; did we really do it this time? Is she really glowing?
She has her first medical appointments. Pregnancy tests here and there. Next you get the confirmation and finally, the wonderful news. You are both over the moon, you can see into the future two glamorous parents with equally glamorous baby in luxurious surroundings, just like in the abovementioned magazines and books. Then of course, reality kicks in. Big eye bags that reach your knees, loss of sex life for about pretty much forever you seem to think, re-thinking of life’s priorities (basically, forfeiting your priorities). And that is actually the positive side to it.
And so the pregnancy goes on, you learn as much of your partner and her new situation than you dared or cared to before because it’s the sensitive thing, you are showing your human side, your feminine side (don’t go round saying this to your mates though because you’ll never hear the end of it), it’s a new and caring world now, a new age, the age of Aquarius and all that, in a nutshell, it’s cool to be gentle and tender.
In fact, it’s not only cool but very reasonable and wise, because the last thing you want in this life is to get into one of those emotional arguments with your partner that you are bound to lose anyway (you know, all those hormones and stuff doing her head in).
And it grows....and grows....
But all that aside, it is beautiful to see how her body changes (not her sudden mood swings though), how day by day, that little someone grows to be the fully developed baby that will enlighten up you days and nights – basically because after two weeks you won’t be able to tell the difference between day and night.
Let’s go by stages though. First, that 12-week Scan.
Oh yes! That scan where you see for the first time the image of your future offspring, jumping and swimming about like a little fish (it’s only about 4 cm long but surprisingly well formed), the thrill of not knowing what sex it’s going to be and all that. Then it’s spreading the news to all your relatives and mates. Yes, these are exciting times indeed. Then you also think of Friday nights after work at the pub, those dirty weekends away, those relaxing and romantic holidays in far and exotic locations, stag parties, hanging about with the lads…they start to seem like far gone memories. Nostalgia kicks up a gear. Yeah, them good ol’ days! Who knows when them days will return again.
Weeks go by, partner gets bigger, you both get anxious, and stories get scarier. Now you know the baby’s sex (optional), start buying the odd things, little bibs, sleeepsuits, vests and all the baby paraphernalia. But the most important investment of all is nappies. It’s a commodity you’ll never go wrong with, no market fluctuations, no unused merchandise, always sufficient demand (sometimes not enough supply), if you manage to buy enough bags they can prove to be good soundproof material, i.e., good to isolate yourselves from those stupid, ignorant neighbours that can’t appreciate how nice and sweet a baby’s cry at 2.36 am can be! And there’s also the cravings, i.e., strawberry tart with anchovies on top, mars bar dipped in lemonade and the classic; a hot Chicken Vindaloo at 2.30 in the morning with McDonald’s French fries! And don’t dare get her Burger King fries, she’ll tell the difference. You’ll wonder if apart from that hormonal business, she’s not doing psychedelic drugs on the side.
All systems go!
And the grand date is almost upon you. It’s week 38, 39 or 40 as was our case. Friends, relatives are there just as expectant as you are, days appear to last longer, you’d swear they now have 36 hours, you even start to experience that sordid, obscure and low desire called nesting! It normally affects the new mother to be, basically she gets into a cleaning frenzy, wanting to clean the house every ½ hour, redecorate the nursery every 2 days – actually, that is basically you doing all the moving around. But the sad thing is when you get into it as well (in my case I think there was a bit of black magic, voodoo, hypnosis or some subliminal message involved at some stage when I let down my guard), that can be pathetic, raise a few concerns and all that. Then, when we’re near the big day, the first showings (that is what comes before breaking waters). You start getting into a panic-turn-excitement- turn-more panic-turn-what the hell do I do now mode.
Yep, it’s time to Rock. And believe me, you’re gonna roll! Of course you know what to do, you’ve talked it over with your partner, read all those stupid books, checked your A to Z to make sure you got the routing to the Hospital right. But still, panic gets the better of you. It’s normal and it’s OK.
Cometh the day, cometh the man.
And the day comeths, so to say. She breaks water. You go through the checklist as pilots do before take off; partner’s overnight bag with all her essentials, baby’s essentials, medical control book, oh yeah, and pregnant partner. You get your cab pick you up promptly; get to the hospital in good time. One contraction every two hours. No dilation. False alarm. Back home again, no right to complain, but come back or call us as soon as something happens, you are told.
Alarm bells go off again. She starts not breaking waters, more like breaking the dam! This time it’s for real, but you are more calm and composed. Again through the checklist, all systems ready to go. You call the local minicab firm again; no car for the next hour and a half, you say it’s an emergency, they rectify, no car for the next three hours.
You try the next one; ditto; and the next one. Finally, the one that has a car ready is 15 minutes away from where you live and charges double than what your local firms do. But you don’t tell them you’ve got a pregnant woman about to give birth, just in case they back off, or try to quadruple the charge.
The driver turns up promptly (well, two breakage of waters later) but has no idea where the frigging Hospital is – it is in fact one of the 3 main Hospitals in your area and known across London, even renowned all across the country. Worst still, he hardly speaks English, and your Sudanese is still not up to scratch.
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The final countdown
You get there in the end and to your relief you still count the same number of passengers that boarded when you left home. It’s the moment of truth, you go to the pre-natal ward, your partner is already nervous and she’s got the contractions again. This time, the Head Nurse that sees her is the ultimate bitch-nurse. You swear she graduated in one of the last outlawed Gestapo training camp; she says it’s still nothing to fret about, that your partner is over reacting and threatens to send you back home again.
That is when you ponder about all the trips back and forth, all the stress, confusion and above all, all the minicab fares and you either eat humble pie and submissively heed the Nurse’s order and go home or you just in a very cold but non hysterical manner threaten to pull out her tonsils through her nostrils with your own bare hands…without anaesthetic, if she doesn’t admit your partner in.
And here we go again with those contractions. In an ideal world (i.e. all that bull**** you read in those famous maternity books) everything is in a constant pattern, first every 2 hours, then the frequency of the contractions gets tighter, every 45 minutes, then 20 and so on. But nooo! Not in the real world it doesn’t. In your case (the real world) it’s every 2 hours for 5 hours, then every 10 minutes for about 1 hour (the time it takes between calling the nurse and her turning up), then when she arrives it goes up to every 90 minutes. That’s when the nurse gets pissed off at you for daring to interrupt her short three and a half hour TV snack-turn-lunch-turn gossip update break.
Hours go by and still nothing on the horizon. After your partner displays the most tragic portrait of pain and desperation, this Head Nurse (the Gestapo babe) in a very rare moment of lack of lucidity, has a soft heart and decides that your partner stays; I mean let’s face it, otherwise you would have a very strong case to sue her for abuse of basic Human Rights, and we all know what happened to those Nazi criminals of war during the 1946 Nuremberg Trails. But you get the marching orders, and off you go, straight home. No sympathy, no pity, no nothing. There you stand with the following dilemma; do I take her home, sod the Human Rights o do I leave her in just in case there are any complications? It is in that particular moment that you think about having to re-mortgage half your home to pay for the taxi fares and good judgment prevails.
And finally, the big moment arrives; contractions become more frequent and painful. The Gestapo Babe has finished her shift, and she is finally taken into the labour ward (this is your partner we’re talking about now).
As a man, one has no damn idea how painful giving birth can be. It is something, no matter how big your understanding and your imagination you just can’t fathom. That’s why you wouldn’t object for one second in her requesting an epidural, despite what midwives, obstetricians and nurses advise you; that a natural birth is healthier, and that the pain and suffering of birth is compensated when the dear little creature arrives and all that crap. I mean, I can just imagine me being pregnant and having a natural birth, and having to deliver my baby through that little urinary canal, I wouldn’t be asking for an Epidural, I would be begging for the Last Rites!
And there it goes, one hour, and hour and a half, and the little brat still doesn’t show itself. For the first time, you are subjected to verbal and physical abuse (unfortunately for me, she didn’t crack my ribs therefore I missed out getting 3 weeks off, on medical grounds), and still the little nipper hasn’t come out yet. But there you are, telling her to keep on pushing, encouraging her to continue to bury her nails in you and break your thoracic box to see if that elusive kid comes out once and for all. Then, all of a sudden, midwife tells you she feels a head. She keeps on pushing (partner, this is), you help her breath, in, out, in, out, more physical abuse your way, but hey, it’s paying off now, fortunately you’re spared the verbal abuse as she’s quite busy with the breathing thing. We’re almost there, two cm for the head to pop out, one cm to go, from your very dodgy position you see a strange body mass before you and you pray to God that’s baby’s head.
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And then there were three
There are many stories of how fathers react to this magical, emotional and impressionable moment. Some faint, others film or take pictures (prompting more verbal abuse), others like me just continue to put up with physical abuse, and don’t know whether we’re crying out of joy because our little one has arrived or because how shattered your fingers, arms or thorax are. Others decide not to take part, but they are the unfortunate ones.
Back to the head bit. It finally pushes itself out and that must be the most excruciating and indescribable pain any woman can bear. Being there gives you lots of mixed emotions, on the one hand, the biggest joy which is finally seeing your new offspring, on the other hand watching and almost feeling your partner’s pain.
But believe me, that is the moment when all things pass; baby has finally arrived, all naked, curled up, defenceless, still attached to mummy by his umbilical cord, and beautiful, just lovely, so tiny, it could almost fit inside your cupped hands. Waiting to be picked up, hugged and explain who the hell had the bloody nerve of taking it out of its comfortable dwelling without consulting him/her.
The midwife or nurse gives you the scissors to cut the cord. Though it’s no more than two cm in diameter it takes three or four snippets to cut it off – that’s when you thank God you’re not a surgeon or anything of the sort. Now it’s legally in this world, you hear its first burst of cries.
There and then you start believing in miracles, no matter what God you pray to or what faith you embrace. At this point he or she ceases to be a little angel and becomes a little baby; your little baby.
Whatever happens afterwards is simply magical. A moment to treasure and cherish. I'm sure no language has yet come up with the exact words to describe it, so let's just stick to miracle. That does it for me.
Many moons have passed since I started this chronicle, in fact 13 months to be exact**. My original idea was to write an account of my experience during the period when my son was conceived until his birth. Unfortunately, due to many factors such as sleepless nights, baby caring, work, travels and in great measure, sheer laziness I only got to the third page when I started writing but nevertheless, I have been fortunate enough to witness so many changes during these 14 months. There has been many a happy moment, some stressful ones too, but never a day has passed, no matter how hard and difficult where we have regretted for just one tenth of a second of bringing my son into the world.
Looking at the big picture, I think this is an experience that everyone can handle and should go through. I mean, why only nice guys like me should go through these kinds of experiences. It’s just not fair! I believe that every able-bodied man should go through sleepless nights, nappy changing, un-sympathetic friends and all the stigma that fatherhood brings upon us (like not being able to go out for a drink when we want, not allowed to have fun we were used to in the olden days, being a responsible man now so no mucking about, new curfews imposed by both partner and dictator, sorry, baby, etc, etc...) at least if only to atone for some bad karma one might be dragging.
But all that said, I simply feel I am the luckiest man on earth and canot see myself not being happy to have created such a wonderful little human being. But this is the beauty of fatherhood. Because, now I have become immortal through my son; he has become my next chapter, my continuation, my upgraded and improved version.
** Just for the record, in case you find discrepancy on the dates, this was written back in 2003