My journey of connection (and, at times, disconnection) started with that little bit of plastic in the artificial light of our bathroom. Alison and I in our first little flat together – the blue line appeared and my life changed; it took time for the momentum to really get going, but it changed … it changed there and it changed then.
It’s crazy that my life had changed before that, I just didn’t know it – I needed that little bit of plastic, with its chemical infused fabric, to tell me and ask the questions of me that would ultimately and completely alter my view of the world.
The First Steps
So, we diligently and excitedly made the call to the doctors – for our “confirmation” appointment – to see if we really were expecting our first baby. With the reliability of these little plastic, home kits, the doctor said “so you’ve done your pregnancy test?”, we said “yep”, and “congratulations!” was the reply.
“it was a proper blue line wasn’t it?”
We came out of the doctors feeling a little lost – we started to doubt ourselves “it was a proper blue line wasn’t it?” then we doubted the bit of plastic, but rallied ourselves with “Well, if the doctor thinks it’s good enough, then it must be!”
Growing a Baby
And so we set to growing a baby. The following weeks were exciting and rippled with fear – we weren’t sure what we really should be doing and what we shouldn’t – my conditioning from my forefathers and the culture we live in kicked in to protective mode … it was over-protective mode. My passion and expertise is physiology and health, yet my reaction was to reduce Alison’s movement and, fuelled by fear, take over as many activities as I could.
We had our first consultation at the hospital; it’s basically a risk based analysis – what might go wrong; with very little to represent the joy of the new life entering ours. We went on to our first scan – that was magical! The pictures suddenly gave me a connection to our baby – a tangible sense of the new person entering our world. The photograph provided me with something concrete; it gave me permission to talk about this huge and life-changing event ahead of us – it was an excuse to start chatting, an excuse I was desperate for. It became a part of my everyday life – attached to the fridge door and filling the background on my computer.
We would diligently uncoil my headphones and place them against Alison’s growing tummy and play classical music to our baby. I never did this as often as I felt I should – I guess the good thing about it was that I was getting in to practice for the regular beating I would serve out to myself for not doing, for not being enough as a dad. More importantly, we would talk to ‘bump’ or ‘little one’ – Alison in the car and at work, while I would position myself next to Alison’s tummy-button, raise my voice (as if talking to an elderly relative who had hearing impairment) and say hello and give a little detail about what was going on in the ‘outside world’ and how much we were looking forward to seeing them.
We were at around week 35 and our close friends had their baby daughter; we went to visit them in hospital a little over 24 hours later. It was mind-blowing, exciting and terrifying. We stopped, on the way home, to grab a bite to eat and sat in silence that was interspersed with many a “wow”, several of an “oh my God”, a number of “that is crazy” and dotted with a “that’s what we’re going to get”. I was pretty teary, simply with the enormity of what was coming ahead of us. But anyway, I knew we had a bit of time to prepare …
If 4 days was a “bit of time to prepare” I was right …
That Sunday we sat on the sofa at home and Alison’s waters broke. We were relatively casual about the whole thing – tinged with excited anticipation. We called the hospital and on their request made the 10 minute journey. We arrived at around 8 p.m. and sat in the waiting room, then sat in the consultation room – 1 hour, 2 hours, 3 hours passed – Alison was given a shot of antibiotics to counter possible infections and we waited.
Some time after 1 a.m. we were led out of the room and taken to the ward – told on the journey that Alison would be staying in for the night. We were unsure of what the process was going to be, the focus at this point was to get some rest. We stood in the antenatal ward full of ladies getting rest – unable to share or discuss what was happening. I left Alison to her new, uncertain surroundings – it was significantly different from each of our pictures that we had created in our minds earlier in the evening and over the past 30 or so weeks. I drove home feeling a little lost, with only limited ability to imagine how Alison was feeling.
I woke early and got things together and headed back to the maternity unit. Alison was moved to a room of her own, a bonus; however we were still unsure of what was happening and why things were progressing the way they were. A significant way through this new day, we were told that Alison would be staying until she had our baby – they added that they wanted that time to be as long as possible (we were at 35 weeks and 4 days).
We rallied and, I am grateful to say, we had people we could rely on to perform some of the functional operational tasks like collecting our pram from the shop and I went and got a TENS machine. We sat and waited. Then activity in Alison’s uterus started; the last hour of my time with her was spent with the stop-watch function on my watch, a pen and piece of paper … well, Alison had to keep me busy somehow. We spoke to the staff and they made moves to reassure us. I left for home that evening, my wife having weak and fairly erratic contractions.
And so it begins …
Alison called me at 2 the next morning and she told me she was indeed in labour; after considerable doubt from the attending clinician that anything was happening – he had to admit, after examination that she was indeed 5 cm dilated. She’s made of sturdy stuff. They gave her pethidine and she went to the delivery suit; I met her there and her mum arrived as light broke.
We prepped the music, got a birthing ball sorted and waited. Alison was examined and we waited. We got the TENS machine sorted and we waited.
I was charged with the responsibility of music and the controls of the electrical stimulation leading to Alison’s back. With hindsight, it may have been an advantage to have read the full instructions and had a bit of a practice before trying it out on someone I love! As things developed I got distracted and, while looking at something else that was going on, inadvertently kept my thumb pressed on the button that changed functions. Alison’s posture and expression contorted before I knew what had happened – I quickly tried to decipher the readings on the display and go the right way through the functions – we eventually returned to normal service. Unfortunately for Alison and for the short-term health of our relationship, I did it again a little later!
Alison progressed through with only gas and air – I’m not sure how the pain was for her, but it kept me entertained as she enjoyed the visit to our delivery room by the tennis great Roger Federer and likened the whole experience to browsing via Google for your ancestors. However, she was not alone, she was competing with her mum – who was not on gas and air! – for show stopping comments; Pat was regaling us with stories of her labour and sharing her admiration for Alison as she could never have done it without methadone! This was just as the big push toward delivery was starting, the team of 3 midwives and a consultant stopped in their tracks. Each of their expressions initially displayed that of “there’s something about what I’ve just heard that isn’t right”, changing to “shock” and then to “ok, I’m going to have to ask the question” and finally it was asked, “Do you mean pethadine?” – Pat looked thoughtfully into the distance, smiled and said “I think you’re right, methadone is something different isn’t it.” Everyone in the room collected themselves and started breathing again – to be fair, I think Alison had been continuing to draw on the mouthpiece of the Entonox. The team gave me the job of regulating Alison’s use of the gas and air – I’m not sure what I had done wrong for them to give me that task, but after my first attempt of disarming my wife of the delivery system I could only imagine it had been something very, very bad.
The Miracle Happened
… yes, Alison had made it through the entire labour without swearing in front of her mum!
And our other miracle arrived, Archie was in the world and ours changed completely and forever. Family and friends alike had told me how everything would change – I sort of knew it would, surely it would have to … yet nothing could have prepared me for this. Something that I was unaware of in the past was suddenly and very rapidly growing inside me – a connection to this new life, some of me was in this beautiful baby in front of me – he was part of me.
How Quickly Things Can Change
At around 5 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in August 2008, the APGAR test reached full score on the second taking and the vitamin K injection completed. All was good in the world and so it remained until the next morning; I arrived at the ward to Alison and Archie being assisted by 2 maternity nurses, Archie wasn’t feeding, his bloods were showing rising bilirubin levels (showing increased jaundice) and he was looking limp. I got a very brief cuddle with him; decisions and conversations were going on all around us and then a nasogastric tube was inserted – my anxiety was already there and growing rapidly, I was quickly switching between fear and resentment. I had an overwhelming desire to protect my son – and yet, I had no idea what that meant and what “protecting” constituted in this environment. The feelings were overwhelming and tears welled. This was the moment; the moment where I was rocked; the moment where I was self-shamed, angry, resentful and frightened; the moment where I took an emotional step backwards – and perhaps I have been trying to regain that emotional ground since.
Connection and Special Care
Archie was whisked to SCBU (the special care baby unit) and we tried to keep up with our son, with the team and with events. I wanted to look away, I wanted to run – feeling powerless and lost as Archie was plugged in to the machinery and encased in his transparent plastic incubator. Tears welled again; I was less able to conceal them this time.
“This was not part of the plan!”
I was expecting (I admit totally unrealistically) to be driving home with my wife (of just under a year) and our new son with the windows open (the roof would have been off if we’d had a convertible – somehow that had become part of my fantasy), with our hair blowing in the wind as we sang uplifting tunes and swayed in our seats with the feelings of indescribable joy.
I was feeling a sense of loss of this planned future and I was terrified to think of how far and what depth this loss may travel in to our future – was I losing the dreamt of future with my son?
The next 6 days were a haze; I can only give a feel of the time and interject key moments with any clarity.
I felt vulnerable, tentative and viewed myself negatively in my relationship with Archie; this newly born little boy had just come in to this world and I felt I had already failed him. I wanted to run, I resented myself for not being able to do or say just the right thing at just the right time to protect him – I was impotent.
I felt I was a visitor at Archie’s bedside; feeling reprimanded at times and ignored at others. I was not in a good space; my mental health was poor and deteriorating. Staff encouraged me to change his nappy, I had the strong impression that I should touch him minimally, wanting to maximise the affect of the phototherapy. The practicality of getting to him was also an issue. Touch time was to be saved for breastfeeding. Touch became an anxious, tense affair. We rapidly started moving toward expressing milk and feeding him with a bottle. It developed further with an increased attraction, in terms of functioning and self preservation, toward the premixed formula bottles. Further dismay and fear was generated when Alison was told “Well that’s it now – he won’t go back to the breast now you’ve introduced a bottle”, a proclamation, a certainty stated by a staff member. I am grateful she was wrong. In fact Archie went on to be solely breastfed and eventually rejected bottles.
We felt at times we were losing touch with our little boy. We both felt increased shame and a sense of abandoning him when we snuck home for a night, on our 1st wedding anniversary – we still feel the shame today. I had been going home to sleep, but Alison was left alone in this clinical world. She would describe her desire to hand responsibility over to the staff – along with her feeling of impotence and her feeling of disconnect.
My Inner and Outer Worlds
The unit felt stressful and full of stimulus. Most of my stress was centred in me, in my insecurities; a fear of interactions; a fear of performing in front of people (staff, other families and my family) … a fear of just getting it wrong. The rooms were full of noise, wires and flashing panels. It is unfortunate that the areas of quiet, like the reception and parent room, were areas we felt unable to take our new baby to. It was a foreign and insecure environment. We watched as we saw Archie’s heels pricked time and time again for blood samples; at times they were pricked multiple times in one attempt to get a sample (he still has the scars).
Logically, I understood the issues; however, my emotional response was one of increasing frustration and resentment. I was losing my trust in the environment and the situation, in the people and the decisions – lost in myself, feeling absent of choices and options. I was irritated at my inability to affect change … at my failure to fix this … at my incapability to protect my son.
A Need for Control
Decisions were being made around us, we were often informed, however I often felt that they were being imposed rather than mutually agreed to. Again, I understand the practicalities of involving parents/guardians in every choice. Would anything have changed? Would the selection be any different? Would any of outcomes have been different? … I don’t know.
I tried to understand what was going on; perhaps if I could understand it I could fix it. I increased my questions, I wanted to look knowledgeable – I was trying to manage people’s impressions of me, views and possibly decisions. I was treading a fine line, trying to look knowing and impressive; wanting to bring clinicians with me rather than creating barriers.
Poor mental health and low self-esteem can make the world appear a frightening and threatening place; I can often see people and places as inherently risky. For example, I feel vulnerable and fearful of facing consequences if expressing negative perceptions about service in a restaurant. This sensation, when translated from a poor meal experience to the care of your premature baby boy, takes on a new intensity and the fears and consequences are transformed to monstrous proportions. I felt responsible, yet impotent and in conflict with the world around me.
Connection and the Origin of Our Work
I recognize that the one thing I was looking for and needed was connection with our new baby. I now know that the greatest gift for Archie is connection. There appears to be a theme!
I wish there had been someone there to support us in developing the relationship with our son. I wish someone had taken us by the hand, listened and guided us to make the connection with our son – both physically and emotionally. I wish someone was there to catch me as I was rocked and took that step back, that emotional step away as I watched my son scream as the nasogastric tube was inserted. I wish there was someone there to help me forgive myself and relieve me of that legacy that I carry into the care and love of my son today.
Are these excessive hopes, excessive goals? I think not. There must be a better way. I recognise my need for help with my shame and self-esteem, both of today and of the past – I am taking action on this.
The point is, we all need connection – our children (from baby to adulthood) thrive on connection. All of us, whatever our experiences, can benefit from tools that nurture connection.
We are sold all sorts of paraphernalia that will grow our baby’s brains, solve the “sleep challenge” (that we all face, by the way!), soothe our babies, stimulate our babies and many more besides. Yet, the one need (alongside the most basic levels of Maslow’s hierarchy) is connection.
Our experience in special care was short, yet the ripples in our relationships live on. Many families live with much longer and more complex experiences. In this transitional phase of our lives we need to support families to connect with their new babies and nurture these early relationships.
Creating Health and Resilience
We believe things can change. Passion has driven our last 7 years of researching and studying developmental neurobiology and its relationship with public health; I qualified as an Infant Massage Instructor, a Babywearing Consultant, and trained in the Newborn Behavioural Observation (NBO) System.
FitTogether was born, supporting families to develop health and resilience and nurture their innate strengths – so we can all flourish and thrive. We set-up HealthEase (a social enterprise supporting relationships and health) to create a positive legacy for the next generation.
We can change the world by working together. I look forward to meeting many more amazing parents and exceptional and passionate people along the way.
Thank you for all your support and we wish you a happy and healthy 2016 – Happy New Year!