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.

The Stroller Invasion

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Oh god they’re coming they’re coming

So here I am writing this at the yoga studio, while Dr T and Kitty do whatever it is mums and babies do at Mums and Babies Yoga upstairs. So far it sounds like they gurgle and gossip, although it’s hard to tell which is the mums and which the babies amidst the mellow hubbub drifting down to me.

Not that I’m mellow, because I’m fenced in by a silent guard of GIANT BASTARD STROLLERS. Look at the size of a baby. Then look at the size of these things. They have the grace, subtlety and turning circle of tanks and are about as easy to put in your car. And now they’re watching me in steady, coolly malevolent silence. It’s like being kept company by HAL, if he were fitted with an isofix base.

Which makes me wonder if these things have a plan. You need only spend about nine and a half seconds with one to understand that there is no earthly reason for them to be this big, unless we were somehow using them to confer status, and we wouldn’t do that, would we? That would be like making needlessly big cars in order to project a hefty sense of self worth into the world. Madness.

Even if there was something as horrifyingly shallow as self-validation to strollers (ours has lovely chunky tyres and a red seat, BTW), this wouldn’t explain their basic impracticality. They disguise themselves as useful with enabling terms such as ‘system’, ‘interchangeable’ and ‘collapsible’, but what they really want is to snap your wrists, or your will, or both, which they can do in seconds. Plus, they come to us via advertising campaigns so truly monstrous in their emotional manipulations (I saw one sunlit stroller billboard with the loathsome tagline ‘Perfect Family,’ making it clear that to choose a different option was to effectively admit you intend to punt your firstborn into a lake) that they can only, surely, be agents of a dark power sent here to destroy us.

They’re doing it through psychological warfare. Consider any parenting situation involving leaving the house. Shall we go to the coffee shop? Or the supermarket? It’ll be OK, we can put baby in the stroller and use the hammock underneath for storage. Except that will render it non-collapsible, heavy and awaken its innate desire to crash headlong into things. The certain knowledge that – even if you put it together without succumbing to the seductive longing for death as you wrestle with the grey buttons for the sixty-third attempt – your trip will be accompanied by an uncooperative leviathan that will be difficult to park and impossible to leave anywhere (it’s bad enough with just the baby) fills you with a kind of creeping existential dread until you drift into silence, staring at the front door, unable to go outside.

Should you make it across the threshold, they infect the driver with a false sense of virtue and self-importance. I find myself swooshing along the pavement with the Imperial March playing in my head, almost daring people to get in my way so I can toss out a vituperative ‘EXCUSE ME’ as the cattle-ram-like front of the Quinny Destructor (or whatever the hell it’s called) nerfs them into the traffic. Jesus, I wonder, is this what driving an Audi is like? It’s exhausting. I lost hours last week in a battle of wills with another stroller-driving dad coming the other way on the pavement, butting into each other like mountain goats.

Mentally weakened, the next stage is to physically chasten us. Think you’re strong? Able? Effective? Now lift this seat off the base of your Cruz Apocalypto. What’s the matter? Can’t press a few buttons and defy your own centre of gravity, you maggot? GET DOWN AND GIVE ME FIFTY.

Oh, sure, they’re safe, stable, secure. They said that about the banks. But alone in a room with twenty of them it’s clear: these are our overlords-in-waiting. They’re on a slow, silent mission to subjugate us. Lots of them have three wheels now and, well, you remember how splendidly the tripods worked out for humanity, right? Slowly, surely, they’re drawing their plans against us, one despairingly full car boot at a time.

Be warned.

The Force Awakens

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Oh God, how I loved the new Star Wars movie. Not in a restrained way where I cooly appraised it as an artistic endeavour – in a goofy, gleeful way that had me clapping, whimpering with happiness and leaving the cinema with tears streaming down my face. Twice. I am 38 years old.

Anyway, this unmitigated joyfest had one sudden, brief, very unexpected side effect. I should point out that there are plot spoilers ahead, but then if you haven’t seen this movie yet … I mean, what the hell, dude? Have you got young children or something?

First, some background: in the runup to Kitty’s birth (in March) one of my very best friends told me about the moment he realised he was going to be a dad. It was when, in the labour ward, the midwife told him to “go and get a nappy and some baby clothes.” He assured me this moment would arrive for me, and once Kitty was here, asked me when it had been. I said it was when they asked me to go and cut the cord.

But this wasn’t true. The first moment happened much earlier, in December, watching The Force Awakens. As Han Solo confronted Kylo Ren – his son – resigned to the fact that this was probably the final act of his life, a little internal voice muttered to me that I was going to be a father, with all the responsibility that entails. My chest tightened and for a few moments I genuinely teetered on the precipice of a panic attack. After all, if Han Solo himself couldn’t stop his progeny becoming a psychotic Sith loon with grandaddy issues, what hope did I have? Hey, I didn’t say this was rational, it’s just what happened. Then, of course, the loon murdered his father, Chewie howled and I was back in a galaxy far, far away.

I forgot all about it until quite recently, but I’m now certain that moment of flickering terror, daunting though it was, was my first true realisation that I was going to be a dad. So I’m especially fond of that movie these days, and not just because it utterly transported me from the opening frames; but because it provided me with a little awakening of my own. Nice one, JJ.

(BTW, I couldn’t find a credit for the lovely pic above. If it’s yours, let me know and I’ll amend things!)

What does a dad look like?

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Here’s hoping the hillbilly hipster parent look is in this year.

Something has happened to my reflection. I’m generally a scruffy fellow – there are tattoos and beards and all kinds of hair and crumpled clothes going on – and this hasn’t really altered in the few weeks since Kitty was born. But as I shambled into the room the other day, Dr T took one look and sent me back into the hall.

“Look in the mirror,” she said, and I did. I looked at the familiar chap standing there.

“You’re a dad,” Dr T said.

Oof. Instantly, the reflection altered to become a source of amused bafflement: that guy is a father. I mean, look at the state of him in the pic above. You spend so long preparing for the birth, hearing what a life-changing event it is…I think I’d expected the mirror guy to somehow vanish in a puff of Adult the moment Kitty arrived. I don’t know what I’d expected in his place – maybe sensible shoes, or at least a haircut – but the fact that he was still there, just the same, with his ink, bangles, skull scarves and superhero paraphernalia, was a surprise. It seemed absurd that he could have survived the birth.

It’s one of the many strange things about my experience of new fatherhood so far, reconciling the fact that I don’t look any different (the odd bit of baby drool aside) with the equally sturdy fact that I manifestly am different: a whole other being, the precise result of my genes colliding with someone else’s, now exists, and I am her dad. So now my reflection poses more questions than “can we get away with these antique Cons?” He wonders whether we ought to feel differently, he and I; whether or not we should somehow change the way we present ourselves to the world; when, basically, we’ll start looking like a dad. I’m not sure strapping a baby to you necessarily does the job, it just makes you look, as Dr T opined, like a hipsterish version of that Athena poster from back in the day.

But maybe we do look a bit like a dad. Maybe the cultural notion of a Dad Look, to accompany Dad Jokes and Dad Dancing, is nonsense. Maybe it doesn’t matter, or maybe I’ll wake up one day, get a short back and sides and shop exclusively at M&S (their baby stuff is awesome, after all). But the mirror guy and I will keep putting the Cons on for now and see how we go.

Kitty Boing

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Why the name? Well, when Dr T (my wife) was pregnant with our daughter, we needed something to call the bump. I suspect most expectant parents come up with some way of referring to the tiny human in there, if only to make what otherwise seems like a pretty abstract idea more concrete. After all, the notion that an actual fresh bit of life was growing inside my best friend, the person whose hair I used to dye black in the toilet before going out to the indie club, seemed unlikely.

So we called the bump Kitty. We didn’t know the sex until birth and Kitty was a nicely non-specific label for something we only half believed was real anyway. As the pregnancy progressed, Dr T would say “Kitty Boing” whenever the baby stirred. They became the most comforting words I would hear throughout the pregnancy (other than “here, drink this beer”): to me, they signalled that all was well; that Kitty was moving around regularly and was content.

Now, of course, she’s out in the world. When Kitty goes Boing I’m expected to do more about it than goggle at Dr T’s stomach or mutter into her abdomen. So this is a blog about that. Thanks for taking the time to read it!