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.