A letter from the dog about the new baby

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A complex being of rage and love, driven solely by the need to eat, sleep and play. Sat next to a baby.

Found this on the mat the other day, along with an invoice from a neighbourhood cat for typing and proofreading. We may not have adequately prepared the dog for Kitty’s arrival.

Caution: strong language ahead. She’s a rescue dog and a Jack Russell so can be, well, a bitch.

The letter in full:

Butler, scullery maid,

First of all: what the actual blistering holy fuck? Are you kidding me?

We have some problems. As no-one has paid attention at my previous staff meetings, despite my sitting and staring at you at the allocated hour, I haven’t been able to debrief you. (Or give you your annual reviews, which, let me assure you, you’re not going to enjoy.) So this is a written warning.

I can only assume that the weird naked puppy is your idea of a joke. But it’s gone on for five titting months now. I’ve had enough. The interruptions to my walk time, game time, snooze time, sitting on you when I want time and scattering infinite hairs over your lives time are unsustainable.

Not only do you disappear for a few days (although that guy who looked after me gave me more treats than you ever have, do you have his number?), you then return with this blotchy hairless puppy that does nothing but croak and squeal and keep me awake all bastard night long. Yet you never bellow “In your bed!” at it like you do when I prowl around growling in the dark – which I do for your listening pleasure, you godless philistines.

I tried to express my dissatisfaction at the start by weeing on the carpet, the bed, and one secret location that you’ve yet to uncover, every day for two weeks, but you just got upset. I still don’t see why you needed to sob as you mopped it up for the tenth time, or why you curled up in a ball and moaned when I knocked all the drinks off the coffee table a few minutes later. You should recognise constructive criticism and accept it with good grace.

So let me spell it out: the puppy is defective. It still can’t move, there’s no sign of a tail and it can’t communicate properly. I’ve tried to help with this by sitting next to you and howling every single time it ‘cries’, to teach it the proper sounds, but you’ve been most ungrateful. I don’t see how you “losing the will to live” is my fault. Go fetch it, as you always tell me. Maybe it’s behind the sofa, like my bone was that time.

Worse, you are not letting the puppy develop properly. If you don’t let me bite it every time it pulls my ears, how will it learn its position in the pack (which is right smack at the fucking bottom, I might add)? And how is it to stay clean or learn to play and fight if you go all high pitched and lose your shit every time I try to jump on it, lick its face or steal its toys?

I’ll admit that getting to sit in the front of the car now is pretty sweet, and you do seem to care less about stopping me sitting on the sofa, eating your yoghurts or getting into bed in the morning and lying with my head on your pillow. This relaxed attitude is a timely innovation and can stay.

HOWEVER. The music. Those songs about teddy bears, quacking ducks and the one about ‘horsey horsey don’t you stop’? The ones you sing all day? What an absolute clusterfuck. Have you been dropped on your heads or something? And how has it suckered you into wiping its bottom? You never, ever let me clean mine by dragging it along the carpet, but do I detect an aloe-vera softened wipe in my future? No I fucking don’t. This kind of inconsistency drives a dog to madness, or at the very least to attacking a pair of Great Danes. I could have taken them, you know, if you hadn’t dragged me away. Pacifist wankers.

Get it together, staff. I don’t sit silently behind you when you’re changing nappies, waiting to trip you up, for the good of my health. It’s to wake you up to reality: the puppy needs to know its place. It needs to be on a lead, not in a sling. It needs biting and sitting on, not rocking gently. Most of all it should share those lovely squeaky Sophie the giraffe toys. No, I don’t care how special or expensive they are.

Don’t make me write again.

Indignantly,

Mistress Dog

ps./ Say ‘Gruffalo’ one more time, motherfuckers. I dare you.

A few practical tips for brand new dads

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Got a Yoda-like being clamped to your shoulder? Here’re some tips on what to do about it.

My cousin and his partner had their first child recently, which got Dr T and me thinking about the first few weeks we spent with Kitty. Amazingly, most of that time has already vanished into a misty haze with the occasional pinsharp image – normally of the Purple Faced Hissy Demon – which I suppose is nature’s way of helping you process the trauma of a baby-sized grenade going off in your life. That, or all the gin we subsequently drank did its job.

Anyway, over the first few weeks we picked up some helpful tips from midwives, health visitors, friends, family and the Internets. With freshly minted fathers in mind, here they are: practical things you can do, buy and say to make things easier in those early days. Every single one is something I didn’t know at first.

1 – Sometimes they’re just tired. Although I sort-of-knew this, it never truly registered, so we definitely spent more time trying to feed / change / clothe / return Kitty to Dog’s Trust than we needed to. One year at Glastonbury I awoke from a cosy, womb-like sleep to discover that some mushroom sucking psy-trance goons had set up a trailer and PA next to my head, and were very keen that I should get up and have a dance. I imagine a newborn baby’s experience in the world is not dissimilar to the tiredness, grumpiness and unwelcome overstimulation that ensued. So definitely check nappies, temperature, food and so on, but don’t forget that the little people mainly want to be back in their sleeping bags in the dark. (And don’t play them any psy-trance, either.)

2 – A hand can be all it takes. Settling a screaming Kitty was often a half hour endurance trial of walking up and down with her and singing Simon & Garfunkel songs until I would gladly have jumped into a river with copies of Graceland weighing me down. But! Actually all she needed to sleep sometimes was a gentle hand laying on her chest as she lay in her cot. Try it: it won’t always work, but it can save you time and them stress.

3 – Bottom first, head last. An amazingly simple tip that I got from another dad: when putting your baby down to sleep, put the bottom down first and the head last of all (not at the same time – last). They’re so floppy at first that it’s easy for the back of a baby’s head to hit the mattress in the lead, but because it’s been through the birth canal and is made of what appears to be squidgy play-doh, it’s very sensitive and the contact is likely to wake them up. Get the rest of the body down first, though, and they should stay snoozing.

4 – Sock Ons. A friend sent us some. They’re brilliant, and will stop you fretting about the sinister dimension that seems to open up and swallow your baby’s socks.

5 – Those pesky hands. It’s hard to get a baby’s hands through the sleeves of a vest or sleepsuit. They seem to have infinite fingers. Add crying or wriggling into the mix and it gets even harder. A midwife showed me to pull, not push: roll the sleeves down, reach in, clasp their wrists and fold their fists up into your hand, then gently pull their arms through the sleeves. On a related theme, get the feet in first, not last, as it helps to hold everything in place.

6 – Come up with your response to the ‘how does it feel?’ question. As a wise friend of mine said, “I bet you have no idea how you feel, do you?” and he was right. But having a harmlessly generic “oh, it’s both beautiful and terrifying,” kind of answer ready to go will stop you from grabbing at people and attempting to lick the traces of caffeine from their last coffee off their lips, while whimpering “there’s a dog loose in the woods,” like some demented, haunted dad-rabbit.

7 – Get some instant food, for the love of god. Time goes right straight to hell once a baby arrives, and you will be amazed by the number of appointments you seem to need to go to. We would go entire days without eating. This is not helpful, so get plenty of nutritious, instant food that you can eat with one hand: nuts, bananas, protein bars, dates, that kind of thing. Not a sustainable diet long term, but it will help during the first weeks. Also, you’ll think you’ll make it to the shops: you won’t. Get online and get the nice 3D people to bring it to your door.

8 – Tell the mother loudly, often, every day, that you love her and that she’s doing great. Yes, we have our own male reactions and needs too, and yes, they matter. Nevertheless: do it. Every. Single. Day. Dr T is my favourite human and the greatest person I have ever known, and yet still I know I didn’t say it enough. You can’t say it enough. It’s important for the new mum to hear, and whatever your relationship to her – friend, partner, family – it models loving behaviour for the baby. Always a good thing.

9 – Speed bumps are not a new mum’s friend. Slow the hell down.

10 – High fidelity madness. You may be tempted to spend the first few days of your child’s life doing something like, oh, I don’t know, obsessively buying and returning audio equipment to Richer Sounds. Consider not doing that. (I may have gone a bit weird at the start.)

There you go. Not an exhaustive list, but hopefully something useful in there. I’d love to know what your tips are, so share away in the comments if you like!

Encounters with the Mole People, or, trying to leave the house with your baby for the first time

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Our first outing. Just out of shot: a goose with a switchblade

Kitty was nine days old when we attempted our first walk and it was an unmitigated disaster. Karaoke nights down at the Monastery of Profound Vows of Silence have been more successful.

In my head, I’d imagined a serene stroll, lulling her to sleep in the pram, dog trotting alongside us, taking it slowly and getting some air and sunlight to help Dr T with her convalescence. Instead, the dog contrived to fall down the stairs as we attempted to leave the house, Kitty wound herself into a purple faced whirlwind of hissing fury, we couldn’t work out where to go or how to drive the pram and we made it one hundred miserable yards – in tears – before giving up and scuttling indoors in case the guys on the building site several streets away complained about the noise.

As we got inside, I swore to the old gods, the new gods and the gods yet to come that we were never setting foot outside again. We’d simply be one of those mole families you hear of, living in bunkers and gradually learning to love their rickets. Also, the dog didn’t speak to us for days.

It’s not an unusual experience, I’m sure. We all know the benefits of getting out with baby fairly soon: the fresh air, the vitamin D from sunlight on the skin, the lovely serotonin kick from exercise, getting to see all the nice 3D people…but the Voice of the Mole People points out the reasons not to go:

“Where will you go? What, there? There are ROADS there, with CARS, you THOUGHTLESS MANIAC. Anyway, what if you’re out for too long and an ice storm hits, while baby is only wearing a sleepsuit? Why are you risking her life? What do you mean, it’s April? WINTER IS COMING. Plus, those geese in the park definitely want you DEAD and I’m almost certain the kids on the corner are into airborne ANTHRAX at the moment. OK, how many blankets is enough? No, that’s not enough. Ooh, too many, are you trying to overheat her? You’d best put two on her, one on your shoulder, another on the stroller handlebars and then take nine spares. You only have six blankets? Jesus wept, sit down. Look, if it rains, even for a second, she will DIE, or at the very least spawn GREMLINS. Are you certain you know how the rain cover works? Like, properly certain? And actually, have you checked that she’s breathing while we’ve been having this conversation? She looks very still to me. We’d best stay in and Google ‘TERRIFYING BREATHING CONDITIONS’. Look, you’re bound to inadvertently spill something on her or simply blurt out something so savagely ignorant that she’ll be ASHAMED and embarrassed by you forever, and besides, the stroller doesn’t look well maintained enough. The police are going to stop you and she’ll be in PROTECTIVE CUSTODY by the end of the day. Yup, I can DEFINITELY smell EBOLA in the air this morning…”

And so it goes on. It’s very easy to succumb to this sustained campaign of self-undermining doubt, but in the end it benefits no-one. Of course there was no rush to take Kitty out, but it turns out babies don’t come with a ‘Remove From House On This Day’ sticker, so we had to start somewhere. And on reflection, rickets didn’t sound great.

So we decided we wouldn’t, after all, spend Kitty’s first month in semi-darkness behind locked doors and ventured out again the next day, which is when we took the picture above.

The key to success was, as with all baby things, not trying to do too much at once. Walk Kitty to the park and back, don’t take the dog this time, wait until she’s been fed and is sleepy, and aim to be out for about half an hour.

Sure, we were twitchy as all hell as we sat in the cafe and I burned my mouth trying to neck the coffee before she woke up, and I’m not convinced that the geese weren’t harbouring murderous thoughts, but we managed. Nothing broke. No-one died. Things felt vaguely normal out in the sunshine.

It broke the spell that the previous day’s misadventures had cast. A great piece of advice we received before Kitty was born was ‘don’t beat yourself up over the little failures,’ and this was the first time we managed to put that advice into practice. We accepted the first failure, and realised that there’s no such thing as a perfect outing. You just do your best and sort of muddle through.

As Kitty has got bigger the Voice of the Mole People hasn’t gone away (more of that another time), but we’re gradually learning to tune it out. Because if she’s going to enjoy the world, she’s got to see it first-hand.

Still think we needed one more blanket, though.

Your baby’s first cry: a guide for dads

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Kitty’s first cry: an artist’s impression

First things first: this post is a lighthearted sort of affair about various child-generated wailings. I’m not here to give actual advice about crying – after all, I’ve been doing this less than twenty weeks. Guys wearing red shirts on Star Trek have lasted longer than that.

However, if you’re reading this and you’re really struggling to cope with your baby’s crying, there are places that do give advice, and they are:

Cry-sis – they have trained volunteers who can talk to you

Family Lives – offers a 24-hour free helpline

NCT – they have lots of information on their website, or you can attend a group

Need help? Call them up!

Right then. So I’ve read that babies have three cries: basic, pain and angry. This is of course wildly misleading, suggesting they only make three sounds. Kitty at four months has a repertoire of ‘basic’ cries that includes:

  • melancholy

  • give me the bastard dog’s bastard ear, right now

  • I’m so hungry I’m milliseconds from starvation. Also, get this nipple out of my mouth

  • a crushing sense of ennui

  • you sneezed and woke me

  • I rolled over! Kitty FTW! No, wait. I rolled over. FML.

  • I cannot bear this traffic jam, so am going full Negasonic Teenage Warhead to help daddy stay calm

Each has its own subtly varied tone. It’s sort of a miracle, of course. But none of them are as shattering as the first cry, and here’s where things get tricky, as you actually get a couple of false starts before the first one.

False start number one is the very first sound they ever make. It is and will always be the single most wonderful sound I have ever heard in my life, and I’ve seen Springsteen and the E Street band play the entirety of the ‘Born to Run’ album live, in order. But it’s not really the first cry. It’s the soundcheck. It’s tentatively winding up and opening the musical box to make sure everything works – Kitty made a beautiful, tinkling kind of sound when she emerged.

Then there are the various cries on the maternity ward. They don’t count. I was surrounded by intimidating, amazing midwives and was so saturated with hormones and coffee that my brain had checked out for a while. So I defaulted to acting like dads I’d seen in Friends and suchlike, sort of cooing and rocking and basically play acting. Anything to avoid getting a telling off from a midwife.

No, the first cry doesn’t come in hospital, or while the midwife is there for your home birth, or indeed anywhere you have company. The first cry, the true introduction, is when you’re finally alone, and it’s you, and it’s night, and mum is slumped somewhere else, and the tiny splotch of matter you’re cradling, the microhuman shorter than your forearm, shudders, inhales, and lets rip.

When Kitty did this for the first time she transformed from microhuman to Purple Faced Hissing Demon of Infinite Fury. She cried so loudly she went silent. Or maybe my ears simply gave out. The physical effects are genetically hardwired and impossible to ignore, and in my case felt exactly as if someone was inflating a balloon inside my skull while I held a rabid goblin against my chest. My skin prickled. I felt my temperature soar. In subsequent crying fits, according to Fitbit, my heartrate went from 52-ish to 184 BPM, so lord alone knows what the first one did to me. It was a sonic boom and when it was finally over, I felt pummelled.

It’s apparently not clear why babies cry the way they do, although there are some fun theories. One is that they’re trying to stop adults making more babies, in which case, I tip my hat to you, babies: it’s a solid gold solution. Dr T and I don’t even hold hands anymore lest we unwittingly summon another Hissy Demon into this dimension.

But while in evolutionary terms an apocalyptic cry seems like a fairly quick way to get tossed to the sabre toothed tigers by a tired hunter-gatherer, it’s mitigated by the fact that we’ve evolved to react sympathetically. The thing they say about how you learn to interpret your baby’s cry turns out to be true. To my amazement, in a matter of a week or so I could hear the difference between cries (top tip: it’s the rhythm of the cry as much as the tone that tells you what they’re saying).

Realising that you’re actually managing to communicate with this tiny being, that it’s able to tell you things without language, is extraordinary. Not that it always feels amazing when your ears are ringing, it’s three AM and you’ve run out of soothing things to say and are now simply hoping an asteroid will impact reasonably close at hand.

But most of the time, it’s remarkable. And it all started from that first true cry. It shocked me. It was challenging. But, as I remind myself often, the Hissy Demon was also Kitty saying ‘I’m here, Dad. Help me.’

And what could I do but shake my head, take a deep breath, and do what the Demon asked? That’s the power of the first cry. It’s your wake up call. Time to step up, daddy.

The Cato Reset

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Kitty is now four months old and, as yet, is not on fire. So we’re calling that a parenting win. But! There have been some interesting (read: oh Lord, please bring me the sweet release of death) lessons along the way that at the time made me feel very far from being a winner.

Take, for example, the moment when, having successfully settled Kitty to sleep in her first weeks, I took the dog for a walk and allowed myself a moment to think ‘you know, I think I’ve got the hang of this.’ Naturally, I returned to a storm of unstoppable screaming and tears so cataclysmic that at one point I’m sure I saw Tom Hanks sobbing as a basketball drifted out of reach. Lesson learned: hubris has teeth, and it will savage you.

Or the moment when things were ticking along OK, so my brain figured it would be a good idea to jokingly tell a mournful, exhausted, hormone-soaked, post-caesarean Dr T that her low mood meant Kitty was effectively being mothered by Eeyore. What a catastrophically moronic thing to say. I deserved the world of pain that followed. Lesson learned: SHUT THE FUCK UP. FOREVER.

These are examples of what I’m calling the Cato Reset. Or maybe the Solo Safety Switch. I’m not sure yet.

It’s basically life’s little way of guarding against complacency by gleefully pulling the rug from under you every time you start thinking ‘hey, nice rug. I like how it feels between my toes’. I can see the evolutionary merit in this: complacent parents might otherwise take their eyes off their offspring, at which point said offspring will be eaten by wolverines.

So it’s good to throw the odd spanner in the works to keep them on their toes, in much the same way as Clouseau needs Cato to attack him at random, to keep his edge. Or Luke needs Han’s growled “Great, kid. Don’t get cocky,” to remind him that shooting one TIE fighter isn’t all that. Hence the Cato Reset / Solo Safety Switch.

It happened again yesterday. Last weekend, I managed to keep Kitty asleep in her sling for a couple of hours. When she woke, I reached behind me, grabbed her bottle from my backpack, fed her in the sling as we walked through town, she settled down. Boom. Ninja dad.

So yesterday when she’d been asleep for a few hours in the sling again and woke up grumbling, I did the same thing. It worked, but not as well. So I took her out of the sling. (Cato crept up behind me.) Bounced her a little. (Cato tensed.) Thought her leggings and nappy might need readjusting but didn’t bother because, hey, I’m a ninja and we scorn such things. (Cato pounced.)

At which point she smiled and detonated a nappy-bursting explosion of hot mustard poo gore all over my hands, the sling, my jeans, my Cons [what does a dad look like now, motherfucker?], the car park, herself. Oh yeah, we were at a neighbourhood street party sort of thing, so she did this in front of many, many witnesses. (Cato repeatedly slammed my head against the fridge.)

Voila: the Cato Reset.

The only thing to do at that point was laugh, wipe up as best we could and totter home to better manage the situation. (Cato was wrestled to the ground and subdued.) Another lesson learned, another day where Kitty didn’t catch fire. Great, kid. Don’t get cocky.

(Cato waits.)

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Breaking Dad

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So I’m probably one of the four or five remaining thirtysomething males in the UK who hasn’t seen all of ‘Breaking Bad’. (The discussion about the lengths a chap has to go to each day to avoid finding out how it ends can wait for another time.)

As Kitty’s birth approached I started remedying this with late night Netflix viewings, and as you’ll know if you’ve seen it, this was me effectively starting to smoke crack and needing – needing, I tell you – to set aside time for it, regardless of all the life upheavals going on. What a moron. So tired.

Anyway. [SPOILERS AHEAD!] I’m just at the end of Season Two, and the last couple of episodes have profoundly upset me in a way I wasn’t expecting, because they involve the death of a young woman (nooooo, Jessica Jones, nooooo) and the emotional impact of this death on her father.

I would never claim that being a new dad has given me any kind of additional insight into the human condition – I barely have the wherewithal to have a shower, FFS – but it has definitely exposed fresh emotional lodes to be mined in my head, and the last episodes were like charges going off in those newly opened caverns of my brain. I needed a few days to recover.

Why? Because of the brief, beautiful, dreadful siren that accompanied those moments, reminding me that I have a daughter too now, placing me in those situations, inviting me to imagine how it might feel. All new sensations.

None of this is especially profound, of course, but the small ways in which parenthood is changing everyday experiences continue to fascinate me. And god help me when I get around to watching ‘Taken’ again. I’m already rehearsing The Speech, in case I ever need it.

The Drowned Dad

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“So we’ll wash your hair first, and then Cuthbert here will blow dry it for you.”

When she was a few weeks old, an interesting thing happened as I tried to pacify a howling, frenzied Kitty. Well, I say interesting: it feels that way now. What it felt like at the time was that my head was slowly being emptied and the insides replaced with wasps. I was bouncing her on my lap and, when she eventually calmed down, I realised that I had totally blanked out and had no idea how hard, or soft, those bounces had been. I could have hurt her. Had I hurt her?

Instantly the wasps were gone and were replaced with an icy horror that rapidly spread to my heart and stomach and stayed there for days. That question, on repeat: Had I hurt her? In my attempts to help her, had I lost perspective and damaged her somehow? I sat up all night watching for signs that her head was going to fall off, all the while trawling forums to find out what to do if it did. I barely slept. Reassurance from Dr T, the nice NHS 111 people and my doctor didn’t make a dent in the chilly armour of paranoia. Nor did the fact that she behaved in resolutely the same way that she always did.

After a while this madness faded. Kitty was of course totally fine and I hadn’t, after all, bounced her spleen into her nose, but I didn’t come out of the madness as the same person. I realised that up until that point I simply hadn’t engaged, on some fundamental level, with the fact that I was a dad, and that this was a person: a real, flesh and blood daughter that I have the capacity to help or harm in an instant. The wall of laissez-faire parenting I’d somehow put up, insulating me from the important truth that THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING, MOTHERFUCKER, crashed down in an instant and the roiling sea of doubt that it had been holding back came crashing in and rolled over me. I could feel my former self drown in it. An undertow of dread about my failings as a father, fear for the world we’re building for my daughter, and yes, a sudden hyper-sensitivity to Kitty’s frailness, tugged at me. It was like that godawful baptism they give the Ironborn in Game of Thrones to awaken them to their destiny (or something like that – whatever it is, it looks miserable).

Like them, I eventually came to, choking out the water and gaping around me as if seeing the world for the first time (although without the tendency for incest, regicide and pillaging). I once helped to rescue a friend from drowning and will never forget his expression when we reached him: the terror and the relief mixed together. I felt – metaphorically, at least – the same way, the mingling of knowing what could have happened with the certainty of what has happened.

So after a while panting on the shore, reluctant to hold Kitty, suddenly doubting my every move and decision, I noticed that I had indeed been reborn as a different dad. A little more calm, a little more compassionate. Fearful, but perhaps in the right way. Far from perfect, but a slightly better, more aware version of what was there before.

Was it a necessary drowning? Maybe. Could be that evolution as a parent comes both in subtle increments and traumatic shocks. I daresay there will be other moments when the Dad Sea comes crashing in again, but since the bouncing incident I’ve just been paddling mindfully as all hell in the shallows, and that will do nicely for now, thanks very much.