The Long Night

My wife and I sometimes joke that our baby isn’t actually ours. One of the downsides to having an emergency c-section is that you can end up feeling a little removed from the whole experience. Don’t get me wrong, in an emergency situation the priority is always that mom and baby are safe, and your subsumption into the event secondary. With that said however, the birth itself did feel a little anti-climactic for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the labour was loooooong. We arrived at the hospital early on the Wednesday morning for my wife to be induced. Prior to this point we had spent most of the last few weeks of her pregnancy rapt with alacrity and anticipation, and now that labour had begun, the sense of a crescendo building towards the grand finale was palpable.

We remained in this state of emotional suspended animation throughout that Wednesday, the following Thursday and much of the Friday awaiting the arrival of our baby. In those 2 and half days my wife spent labouring at the hospital I realised that labour wards are designed to do one thing and little else. Their sole purpose is to provide a clinical space for medical professionals to safely extricate a baby from your body. It’s not designed to be comfortable, accommodating or even, ironically, hospitable. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was just indifferent about whatever you may or may not have thought your emotional needs were before you arrived.

I’m a Game of Thrones fan. My wife, trying to eek out some adult time, watches along with me but has no real emotional investment in the show. If you haven’t seen episode 3 of season 8 entitled, “The Long Night”, be warned, spoilers are ahead.

After we had put The Halfling to bed, the wife and I sat down to watch the aforementioned episode last week. The first 10 minutes were an incredible tension-filled wait for the expected wight onslaught to commence. We sat on the edge of our seats, the sense of terror and foreboding hanging heavy in the air. Fast-forward 65 minutes to Theon’s final redemption and a confrontation between the Night King and Bran. All seemed lost before Arya came flying through the Godswood with a swish of death and summarily dispatched the Night King.

As epic and amazing as that moment was, we couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way – that there was a more satisfying conclusion to the Night King’s reign of death somewhere in a scriptwriter’s waste paper basket. Jon Snow didn’t get the showdown his character arc had been foreshadowing since season 5, so many major characters emerging unscathed from the the Battle of Winterfell ultimately cheapened the stakes, and Bran’s 5-season journey to becoming the Three-Eyed Raven amounted to little more than him masquerading as Night King bait.

Yes, Arya’s stuck ’em with the pointy end moment was epic, but it left us feeling just a little bit unsatisfied by how the supernatural existential threat posed by the undead and which had loomed over the show since the very first episode was concluded.

This leads me to my second point…

Despite all the joys of birth regardless of the method, a cesarean is, for all intents and purposes, major abdominal surgery. There are upwards of 10 medical professionals in the operating theatre with you – there’s no intimacy about it. In our case, there was a partition erected at my wife’s mid-chest section which meant we were effectively ‘cut-off’ from all the action. My whole view of the birth of my daughter was that of my wife’s disembodied head and upper torso. That was probably for the best to be honest given the fact I almost collapsed a couple of hours previous at the sight of the anaesthetists prepping her for an epidural.

I realise I’m not exactly painting the birth story of my daughter in a magical light here. We were ecstatic, of course. The sound of her first cry, my first glimpse of her over the partition, the moment I got to hold her. These were incredibly emotional moments I will never forget, but to a certain extent, we felt a bit like spectators without a view during the birth; passengers in our own vehicle. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I’d liken it having the chance to witness a total solar eclipse. You stand there watching the slowly waning solar crescent and just before the big moment, a cloud momentarily passes by and obscures your view. You know it happened, you saw the beginning and the end. You were there, but at the same time, not quite.

I guess in some ways, Arya’s big moment in the Battle of Winterfell echos our own. This crazy amazing thing happens, but deep down somewhere you’re left with an infinitesimal sense of disenchantment about the climax itself. At around 17:40 one balmy Friday afternoon in September last year, someone handed us a baby and told us she was ours. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t what I had imagined it would be like. That in itself is by no means a bad thing, it was just different – unexpected, perhaps.

Mom and baby, just an hour old

Our kid does not look like either of us to any great degree, her complexion and features bear little striking resemblance to our own. We joke from time to time that maybe we left the hospital with the wrong baby, especially as we didn’t actually see her being born. But every now and then she flashes us a look that has her mom’s personality stamped all over it and leaves us in no doubt about exactly who’s womb she spent 9 months in.

Not quite a daddy’s girl… yet

Her dad is usually the first man a woman ever learns to love. At least that’s the theory anyway. My daughter however, doesn’t give her affections to anyone easily, and 7 months in I’m still working hard for her love. After a marathon 54-hour labour, largely without any pain relief, my wife gave birth to our little girl Afia, via emergency caesarean section. The exhaustion and trauma of the whole thing meant that she was effectively bed-bound for the first few days postpartum, and housebound for the next 5-6 weeks thereafter. I happily assumed ownership of all the less glorious tasks of caring for a newborn (e.g. nappy changes and night feeds) and maintenance of the household so my wife could focus on her recovery and bonding with our new baby. We also restricted the number of visitors in those first few weeks and requested they either brought a meal with them or donned a pair rubber gloves to scrub the bathroom when they did eventually come to visit.
Aunty A cleaning our bathroom
For me, those early days, especially my two weeks of paid paternity combined with a few annual leave days I had saved up from work were beautiful, but it was over far too quickly. Getting to know my daughter, figuring our her different cries and watching her learn about the world around her was an amazing experience. Going back to work obviously meant we had much less bonding time together, and at 6 weeks old when she rejected the bottle completely, any role I could play in supporting her feeds came to an abrupt end. We then effectively only had about 2 hours of awake time together during the week – the period between when I got home from work and when we put her to bed time. I took ownership of the bath and bedtime routine so we could have some exclusive daddy-daughter time together, but at some point, I really did start to feel as though she was rejecting me too as she did with the bottle before. It’s natural for baby to be more attached to their primary caregiver, but I think I just started to become a vaguely familiar figure to her. When I was home on the weekends, Afia would start to warm up to me by the end of the Sunday, but then pretend like she didn’t know me by the Tuesday. Fast forward to the present and I think she has definitely developed more of an attachment to me over the past month or so. I’d like to think that my steadily growing repertoire of stupid faces and dad dancing has in some way contributed to making me somewhat memorable during my day-time absences. I tweeted the other day that for the first time, Afia giggled, almost jumped out of mummy’s arms and practically flung herself at me when I came home from work. Mummy is still her favourite of course, but operation ‘Daddy’s Girl’ is now well under way! I read yesterday that O2 have announced an extension to their paid paternity leave to 14 weeks, and think it’s an amazing and positive step towards encouraging more of a balance for parental leave options. I also wonder how much more of a bond Afia and I might have built if I had the opportunity to stay at home for longer after she was born. Who knows, maybe if we do have another child, extended leave policies for dads will be far more commonplace. In the meantime however, dad dancing will have to do!