First-time dad Sam Fortescue shares his journey into fatherhood
Sunday. My wife Alex wakes me at 7am to explain that the contractions have started. Failing to judge the situation well, I initially try to go back to sleep. By midday, I’ve been massaging her back and making hot water bottles for four hours and she is zapping herself almost permanently with the TENS machine. By 1pm we’ve been admitted to University College Hospital and at 4.45pm, after a quietly incredible, awe-inspiring struggle to give birth, Alex pushes our daughter Olga out into the world, quite blue.
It’s the most intense emotion I’ve ever experienced – profound pride in my wife, relief that both are well and a sense of loving bewilderment towards my daughter. Astonishingly, she behaves just as the NCT breastfeeding woman had explained: rooting her way up her mother’s chest to latch on for milk. She feeds well for several hours, sleeps when the midwife tucks her in, then proceeds to keep us both up until 3am, feeding and crying alternately. The night staff on the recovery ward are fairly indifferent, until one kind nurse comes and swaddles her and she drops off immediately.
We are discharged in the early afternoon, after another nurse shows us how to adjust the car seat (don’t forget this or you won’t be allowed home) and we’re soon back in the familiar surroundings of our flat. I look around in amazement: everything closely resembles our old life, except for the sleeping form of our daughter. Nothing will be the same again.
Ever. Nevertheless, we fall into a routine quite quickly. I become the nappy changer and baby winder, cook, cleaner and tea brewer. Our ‘routine’ falls apart at midnight when Olga spends three hours nursing and still won’t sleep. It’s an important lesson: she will always grow faster than we can adapt.
Our first visitor drops in for an hour and a half – my mum. Olga obliges by sleeping through nearly the whole visit, then wakes up and squawks loudly for food at the end. My mum declares her to be an “absolute poppet”.
However, it’s another sleepless night for us both, Alex in pain from the breastfeeding. Olga keeps hiccupping herself awake.
The cavalry arrives – in the form of a breastfeeding counsellor from St Mary’s. Celeste wastes no time and shows Alex how to ensure a better latch and me how to keep Olga awake while she feeds. Celeste also advises us to spend more time winding Olga after feeding. This gives me a great opportunity for some skin-to-skin time.
As soon as she leaves, though, things start to go wrong again, as Olga won’t sleep longer than an hour. Celeste answers the phone at 7pm and advises us to top her up with formula, which seems to work. And by the next day, Alex’s milk has appeared, so there’s food on tap for Olga.
Sleep – nearly four hours! It seems ludicrous that I’ve ever complained about getting less than eight hours in the past. Olga is an angel all day long, and sleeps long into a visit from my sister, even though we’re all talking loudly around her Moses basket. I’m still half expecting someone in a suit to appear at the door explaining there’s been a terrible mistake, and that we should never have been allowed to take this little person home with no qualifications whatsoever.
The midwife drops in to weigh Olga and take some blood samples. She has only lost a little (five per cent) of her 8lb 14oz birthweight and is declared to be thriving.
It’s beginning to feel as if Olga is establishing her own routine – two hours feeding, a few minutes looking around through tiny, slitted eyes, then three hours sleeping in her crib. That night we watch a movie and open a bottle of Champagne while Olga sleeps, as if stepping back into our old life as a couple. When the film’s over it takes a few minutes for the reality of parenthood to reassert itself.
We’ve realised it’s no longer possible for us both to get up for every night feed. What’s the sense in having both parents exhausted? So we make up the spare bed and take it in turns to have Olga in our respective bedrooms. She has a repertoire of snuffling, wheezing and grunting which makes it hard to sleep. At lunch we inaugurate the pram (a Baby Jogger City Mini – for equipment geeks) . It’s such a relief to get out of the house for a long lunch.
We take Olga to the park in her pushchair. She sleeps through it all, of course, but it’s fun for us. We drop by a friend’s at lunchtime and freak them out slightly by predicting that Olga will wake for her feed at exactly 1pm, which she does. Suspect, they take us for parenting gurus, when in fact, this is just her natural routine in action. Then we’re home in time for a delegation of wellwishers, who add to Olga’s growing menagerie.
That night, Alex takes her courage in her hands and sets up the breast pump – a mean-looking cross between a Martian death ray and a kitchen utensil. Frazzled after a long day plus no sleep, it reduces her to tears, however it does furnish me with enough milk to do a late-night bottle feed.
Perhaps over-confident after our recent outings, we decide to take Olga across town for my sister’s birthday tea in Clapham – an hour’s schlep by train and tube. My two nieces, two and four, squeal with delight to meet
Olga and the youngest one tries to push a balloon into her crib. On the way home, Olga wakes up hungry and we have our first public feed. Alex makes me promise to cut the travelling for week two.
We try another lunch with Olga in the pram, but today it’s not to be, and she wakes up and squawks. Increasingly, she’s signalling her displeasure with flailing arms, legs stretched rigid and a noise like a pterodactyl. The waiter says she has ‘character’, which probably means they think she is noisy.
We are both getting used to living our lives as a series of four- or five-hour cycles, rather than the regular days and nights. It is very hard to believe that Olga has been part of our lives for only 10 days – it already seems
like so much longer. The health visitor makes her scheduled 10-day appearance today. Though she’s very friendly, it’s hard to avoid the sense that we’re being examined as parents.
My nightfeed is developing into a highlight. Olga seems to understand that it’s late and she feeds efficiently while I coo at her. I wonder how this will work when I’m back in the office.
I take satisfaction in doing the breast-milk accounts – we’re soon in ‘profit’.
Alex’s mother comes to stay, depriving me of the spare bed, but it gives us welcome back up.
Deep breath. Back to work. I happily talk about Olga to colleagues and show off my baby pictures. I’m no longer an equal part of the Olga cocoon and I guess I never will be again. I’m besotted, however the trade-off between being a father and breadwinner is already becoming apparent.