Box Clever

Late to the party as always, I stumbled upon an article detailing a recent speech made by the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, at the SNP Conference where she announced that babies born in Scotland will be gifted “baby boxes” from New Year’s Day 2017. Like Christmas, on your birthday. Or something.

“We promised a baby box of all essential items for all newborns. It’s a policy borrowed from Finland where it’s contributed to the lowest rates of child mortality in the world,” she told delegates.

I wasn’t aware of the Finnish scheme, which has apparently been in place for expectant mums for over eighty years. It seems like a simple yet genius idea which puts all new parents on a slightly more equal footing. So, if the Scottish pilot is a success, it will be a no-brainer to roll out to the rest of dear old Blighty, right? Don’t hold your breath, unless that you live in places trying to address SIDs head on, like just down the road at Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust.

Politics aside, the article got me thinking about what I would have liked to have seen in a baby box if they had been around back in the olden days when we were dipping our toes in, so to speak. So, here’s my (aspirational and just a little bit silly) top ten in no particular order.

1. Breastfeeding/Maternity Pillows
Or “Star Trek” pillows if you prefer. Tricky to fit into a box, but vital for propping mum-to-be up, supporting the bump, getting comfy while sleeping, and all sorts of other things during the run up. Post birth, mum can find herself in some contorted positions while feeding too, and you will need a couple to hand, ready to cram into any visible body gaps on the off-chance that a latch is ever found.

2. Babygrows and vests.
Lots of them. Preferably in shades other than white for pretty obvious reasons.

3. Washing Powder
An industrial size container should get you through week one if you’re lucky. Needed primarily as you will receive hundreds more babygrows and vests as gifts, and they’ll all be white.

4. A radio tuned to BBC Radio 4 or 5 Live
Other talk-based stations are available, but these two in particular may help during the monotony of feeding or wandering round in circles trying to get the baby to sleep in the small hours. Just avoid any programme that has members of the public phoning in as it will do your blood pressure no good. It turns out that most other idiots stay up late too, not just new parents.

5. Infacol
We got through gallons of the stuff due to never-ending problems with trapped wind (not mine, I hasten to add.) If there’s enough room in the box with all those pillows in there, a lactation consultant would be an even better thing to include and will negate the need for Infacol. Calpol is the default cure-all when babies gets to two months. In the time up to then, a spoonful before bed will have Dad sleeping like a baby. No, not your baby. They’ll be awake.

6. A Blindfold
Obviously useful for much needed “pin the tail on the donkey” practice, but if, like me, you’re a light sleeper, you’ll wake up every time the lights go on or off at feeding time. Not recommended for Dads that also do the feeding. Luckily, I didn’t have to.

7. Sophie the Giraffe
The middle-class Guardian reading parent’s accessory of choice. Your little person will bend it, chew it, suck it, squeak it and play with it so much that you will wonder how you ever coped without one. Genius, yet expensive for what it is essentially a re-moulded rubber duck. Just don’t wash it in the washing up bowl like I did. Killing Sophie is on a par with shooting Cecil the Lion it would seem.

8. Tea bags
As if you’re not tired or busy enough anyway, the constant stream of visitors will need looking after too. Cheap tea bags will be best, as they will ensure that you only have to make one brew before you get your house back.

9. Baby wipes.
Useful for anything and everything from nappy time to cleaning the house, car or guttering. Enough said.

10. Blankets
Keeping a baby at the optimum temperature is a skill in itself and you’ll need plenty of thin layers to get things just right. Three or four freebies to get you going will be useful. After a couple of weeks you will perfect the skill of quickly adding or removing layers depending on which health visitor is approaching your front door, to satisfy their perception of how warm your child should be. And putting it all back to how it was once they’ve left.

So, there you go. It will be interesting to see how the boxes North of the border compare come the New Year. Probably.

Old Father Time

In which our reluctant hero ponders a topical issue.

According to BBC News, some singer or other (Janet Jackson, whoever she may be) is expecting a baby. At fifty. Blimey.

Hot on the heels of publishing this incredible piece of not news (they could equally have led with “WOMAN EXPECTING BABY”) Auntie Beeb followed up with a more interesting magazine article about what’s it like in a family with a big age gap between parents and kids. Pretty much the same as with a small age gap I would think, asides from everything being done so much better by us old ‘uns. Probably.

I was a sprightly thirty-nine year old when we brought a little person home for the first time. Don’t worry, it was ours. Looking back at photos from that time, I could have easily knocked a good few years off “late thirties” to hang around the park BMX-ing, or whatever the cool kids get up to these days. Certainly not the dishevelled mess that I resemble now after nearly four years of active parenting.

We, like increasing numbers of other parents, left having children quite late. Everything is more difficult as you get older and I worry for Janet. Just how will she and her small army of nannies, au pairs, butlers, chefs, handymen and gardeners keep on top of everything when the little one arrives? They’re in for a shock, I can tell you.

As a middle-aged parent, I know only one thing. Being a middle-aged parent. Having scratched out some thoughts on the back of a Ready Brek box, unsurprisingly, there seems to be pros and cons to having children later in life.

With age comes wisdom and life experience. And, to a degree, confidence. As a man in my early forties, I know more stuff, and more about how to deal with stuff, than I did in my early twenties, so that’s got to be a good thing, right? I also care a lot less about what other people think than I did in my youth. One nil to the older dads.

Leaving things later, we saved up a bit and bought a house in quite a nice bit of Wolverhampton (yep, there are some.) This meant that, with a bit of careful planning and thriftiness, my wife was able to become a stay at home mum, which is something that we both wanted while the children were little. Being the lower earner and being a dab hand at making chutney and doing the hoovering, it would have made far more sense for me to have stayed at home, but she was having none of it. Foiled again.

There’s also a school of thought that having children later somehow keeps you younger. They certainly keep you on your toes physically. And who would have thought that I would gain such an in-depth knowledge of young people things like Ben and Holly, Disney Princesses and the like at this stage of my life? (This is supposed to be a good thing?)

But what about the negatives?

Leaving things later increases risks. Risks during pregnancy are well documented, but risk of injury during conception also need to be considered, being more fragile and less flexible than in our primes. Less twerk and more creak. Maybe we need an awareness campaign?

Disney Princesses asides, I have some massive knowledge gaps around popular culture if recent quiz performances are anything to go by. And all new music is just rubbish. Fact. Maybe I could have just about tolerated spending fifty quid a ticket to sit through the latest thing to drop off the Cowell conveyor belt in my thirties, but not in my fifties. I’ll also be pushing sixty by the time that the kids start going to gigs, and worse still nightclubs, by themselves. If I had been younger I could maybe have gone with them. Nah.

Children keep you young? Wear you out more like. I was never the fittest in my twenties, but now, with considerably more miles on the clock, I’m in desperate need of a major service (and possibly a new exhaust) if I’m to keep running long enough to reach “classic” status. If they had been born when we were younger, the children may even have left home by now. Which technically makes me old enough to be their grandad. There’s a thought. But if our two have children of their own as late as we had them, chances are that I’ll never get to meet my grandchildren. That’s quite a sobering thought, knowing how much pleasure that the grandparents get from seeing them.

Expanding further, I did wonder if being a burden on the kids as the years passed by should also be a negative thing to consider. Looking at it another way, they will probably just be getting their hands on the inheritance money earlier so maybe this should be regarded as a positive. For them at least.

So in summary. Janet is in for a shock. We too left it late and can’t do anything about that. Our children need to get themselves familiar with mid-nineties Indie as soon as possible. They also need to have their offspring by their early twenties so that I don’t need to worry about them sloshing round nightclubs and also get to meet my grandkids. Simples.

So, over to them. No pressure.

Tales of Love and Loss and Living

In which our reluctant hero attempts to tackle a tricky subject.

It’s Friday, it’s six o’clock, so it’s blog time. In a change from my usual light-hearted guff, this week I’m writing about something genuinely difficult but important. Baby loss.

You may, or may not, know that this week is Baby Loss Awareness week. It is also National Curry Week, which would have been a far more sensible subject to write about, but who needs another parenting food blog?

If death is something of an elephant in the room, then baby loss is more a roomful of elephants in the elephant house at Elephant World. A full on safari that nobody really wants to acknowledge or talk about. And perhaps unsurprisingly so. It’s not generally regarded as a good source of light-hearted banter for the dinner table or down the pub. It’s the sort of topic that makes people a little awkward and twitchy. About as awkward and twitchy as I felt while deciding whether writing this post was a good idea or not. But write it I did.

Like most of my weekly posts, this was written on a train and scheduled well before Friday’s 6pm publishing time. When it goes live, I will be sat on another train, trying to get home from work after a few nights away. Which is coincidentally what I was doing when my wife found out that our first child, a beautiful little girl, had passed away in utero. Singularly the most difficult thing that we have and hopefully will ever have to face as a couple and I wasn’t there. Sat on a train. Alone. Miles away and useless.

I found out the news on platform one of Wolverhampton railway station. As I got off the train, my wife was waiting for me. Her sizeable bump was as evident as it had been when I was at home the previous weekend. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but it looked different. Moments later we hugged. I started to cry. I didn’t think that I would ever stop. It was April Fool’s day. Sometimes life is full of odd coincidences.

For some reason, the one memory that sticks out from the rest of the day was that, once home, our cat, Momo, wouldn’t leave the bump alone. He would lie, paws across, almost cuddling it as if he knew that something was wrong. Our emotions were all over the place but somehow we managed to get through to morning and back to the hospital.

Saturday morning’s scan reaffirmed the bad news. Having been absent the previous day, I was clutching to the ludicrous hope that a heartbeat would be found. It wasn’t. We chatted about what would happen next with the consultant, my wife took some medicine and we went home. I’m guessing that we must have packed some things ready for hospital but I don’t recall a single thing from the rest of the day.

We headed back to the hospital at 10am on Sunday morning to have our baby. Mentally, this was difficult to comprehend. How do you prepare for a labour and delivery, months before you expected it, when you already know that there’s going to be no happy ending? It’s tough.

Various tests were undertaken and the process of getting baby moving started sometime before midday. We had about half of the contents of HMV with us to help us get through the coming hours. Books, DVD’s, music, the lot. They never made it out of the bag as within an hour the contractions were so painful that co-codamol and morphine were being brought out. This was topped up with plenty of gas. If you’ve not tried gas, do. It helps. Even us blokes.

By mid afternoon, my wife was in a massive amount of pain once more but also appeared to be tripping. I guess that this isn’t a normal state to be in during childbirth, but I guess that this wasn’t a normal childbirth. She asked for an epidural, was refused one but took it well. One bizarre side effect of this cocktail of drugs was over politeness when speaking. At this time, every sentence contained several “please and thank-yous” in an almost childlike way. It melted my heart.

Sickness followed which was keeping me very busy. Contractions, pain, vomit. This was pretty much the next four hours, until at half seven there was a “whoosh!” and our daughter was born, in her waters, to the evident surprise of the midwife. Countryfile was on the television in the bereavement suite.

“We did it!”

My head was all over the place at this point. I was a Dad which was an extremely proud feeling. This was mixed in with an empty sadness caused by the loss. And relief. Relief that my wife got through it relatively unscathed, physically at least. Selfish as this is, even now I can’t contemplate how I would have coped if anything had happened.

We became parents for the first time on Mother’s Day. Sometimes life is full of odd coincidences.

We met our daughter for the first and only time the following day. Not knowing what to expect, I was extremely apprehensive beforehand due to an irrational fear that I may have rejected her. I’m not going to describe the meeting other than to say that the time with her was oddly normal and relaxing considering the circumstances.

At the hospital, there were lots of decisions to be made and seemingly no time to think things through. Should we have a post-mortem or not? Did we want a funeral? Did we want a burial? Other things too. There seemed to be leaflets everywhere but their words just went in and out.

Everything had been fine at our twenty week scan which was a couple of weeks later than planned, although I don’t recall why. We knew that we were having a girl and having looked at names there was one that seemed to stick out. After the scan, I headed from the hospital to the station for a fortnight away with work. The song “Evelyn Evelyn” by the band “Evelyn Evelyn” randomly came up my phone as I waited for a connection at Nottingham station. Spooky. I texted my wife.

Less than a fortnight later we had lost her. As the age at birth was deemed to be under 24 weeks, based largely on measurements taken at the scan, there was no birth certificate issued. We are still not sure that this is correct. The support provided at New Cross Hospital was fantastic, and we were lucky enough to receive a SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society) memory box which remains very precious. But no birth certificate. Legally, I was merely the husband of the patient. I couldn’t make any decisions. I couldn’t sign any forms. It still angers me.

We opted for a funeral but no post-mortem. If we had done so, we may have discovered the cause of death, which may in turn have helped during any future pregnancies. Or may not have. Having met our daughter, there was no decision to make. Nobody was going to cut her up.

The time up to the funeral passed so slowly. Fortunately it was glorious weather for April which meant that we could spend time outdoors. This was a massive help mentally and probably just as well as we couldn’t get in the house for flowers. I wrote a poem that was read out at the funeral. Friends and family gathered and left. Close friends returned later in the evening whereupon I invented the concept of “emergency wine.” We got ready for bed. Up to this point we had some focus and purpose, but what next? It all got a bit much. I cried myself to sleep.

Visiting the cemetery gave me a headache, although months later I started to find it quite a peaceful place. SANDS sessions, although massively beneficial to some, weren’t for me and just seemed to regress my mental state. I’d have to go back to work at some point, but I didn’t really want to talk to my then boss. Not because he wasn’t supportive or anything other than a genuinely decent man, but he had recently lost a son who had unexpectedly dropped dead at home in the kitchen, aged sixteen. To me, that was at least a nine out of ten score on my recently derived “grief scale” whereas our loss was probably only a four or five in comparison. Madness. Literally.

Things slowly got back to normal. Little steps. Day by day. Month by month. Other, much earlier, losses followed which was tougher to take with each new setback. Pregnancy tests went positive then faded away every month.

Eventually our luck changed and we had another baby girl, and, twenty months later, a baby boy. You may recall me moaning about them in every other post in my blog. Which is what we all do as parents because, although our love for them is unconditional and it is hugely rewarding, it is also bloody difficult at times. We have never taken any of our children for granted and realise how lucky we are to have had them. Others that have experienced loss may not have been as fortunate as us to experience this joy.

Evelyn’s birth has changed us forever. More than five years on, there still hasn’t been a day where I haven’t thought about her at some point. They say that time is a great healer, and it probably is. For the most part we don’t get sad any more. Oddly, the saddest I have been about our experience of late has been over the last few days thinking about, and writing, this post. Sat on a train. Alone. Miles away and useless.

Let’s Go Fly A Kite

A few weeks ago, we went on a short holiday. Or a long weekend, if you prefer. Holidays used to involve exciting things such as planes, trains and automobiles, meals out, sunsets and lie ins, often in warmer climes. Now they mostly involve collecting vouchers from the newspaper, traffic jams, caravans, sleep deprivation and six-foot tall dancing fluffy rabbits. Which is all fine of course. Except maybe the rabbits.

On our way back home, we stopped off to say goodbye to the sea and partake in one last go of our newly found most fun thing to do on holidays ever. Flying a kite.

On the last two Father’s Days, we have visited the National Trust property at Dudmaston where we made kites at the Family Fun Day. Little cellophane sails held aloft by garden canes stuck down with badly applied sellotape. String with coloured ribbon for tails and thin cotton line that looks like it will snap if blown too hard, let alone launched on a windy day. Having made them, one kite sat behind a picture gathering dust for a year or more and the other on top of a bookshelf in the kitchen. Where better?

We finally got them packed and onto the beach during day two of holidays. Would they fly? No, not at first, but after a little untying and re-sticking we were off! The first kite managed to float pretty well if we caught the wind correctly. The second adopted more a high-speed kamikaze flight path, darting in crazy circles up and down until smashing into the sand below.

Little legs spent much time running up and down the empty beach trying to catch enough breeze for another lift off. Larger legs spent much time tangled up in line as the up and down went more round and round. Eventually, kids worn out, we headed for lunch after a lovely morning whereupon I invested a whacking five English pounds (currently worth about two US dollars) on a proper kite from the cafe.

On the final day, I took this picture on the beach at Talacre.

Flying a Kite

Flying a Kite

I was rather pleased with my photo which should one day end up in the children’s albums if we ever get round to printing anything out ever again. Ahem. (See also this old post.)

It is funny how a photo can evoke different mental imagery depending on who looks at it and when.

In years to come, the children may look at the photo (yes, yes… it will be printed by then) and summon planted memories of a long forgotten, almost idyllic, holiday. Quiet beaches, stormy skies, a coat at least a size too small that should have gone in the hand-me-downs bag, and flying a kite. Which will be nice.

Friends (asides from those on my Facebook “Stalkers” list) and family will get their sanitised highlights through social media and may recall happy times on holidays of their own.

And Mum and Dad, being the only ones who were on the beach at the time, will recall something quite different. Over to Sue Barker to find out why in our “What Happens Next” round.

Within a second of the shutter clicking the kite was released, on purpose, for the second time in a matter of minutes. The first time we managed to jump on the line and quickly stop it. A bit of winding in, a quick chat about the need to hold on tightly and no harm done.

The second time coincided with a gust of wind that propelled the kite at high-speed down the beach towards the lighthouse.

Moments later, a quick thinking mummy (having checked suitability of footwear – old trainers, so fine) pegged it in hot pursuit. Off the kite flew, faster and faster, first over the sand, then the wet bit, then the stony bit, then the sinky bit which were all carefully negotiated in a desperate attempt to catch it.

I had two soundtracks to this rather bizarre scene running through my head. Having decided that it was more Benny Hill theme than Chariots of Fire, the rest of us gave chase too.

Eventually, the kite came to a halt in mud at the water’s edge near the lighthouse. Mummy pounced on it and collected her gold medal. The telling off that followed was interesting in that yes, it was definitely necessary, but the minutes preceding had been so amusing that it was difficult to keep straight faces.

This is an ongoing problem in parenting. If something is a bit naughty, but also funny, should we say anything? Like the time when our eldest, then a two year old, shouted “K***HEAD!” at a driver that overtook us like an idiot. She was right of course but, slightly surprised, the only response I could find was “Have you been in the car with mummy?”

Anyway, having cleaned the mud off the kite, stopped the tears and packed everything up, we headed back to the car and home via the ice cream factory. You can’t go to the beach without having an ice cream after all, even if the ice cream ends up being purchased 35 miles away.