Southerly by David Haywood

103

The Truth About Babies

Parenthood always sounded thoroughly delightful in the amusing writings of Dr Jolisa Gracewood (who, incidentally, is now known in our household as "That F**king Lying Bitch"). But the truth about babies, I'm sorry to say, is not something to which the word 'delightful' would normally be applied.

Not, that is, unless you usually find yourself making pronouncements such as: "Gosh, two hours of sleep last night, how delightful!" or "Isn't loud high-pitched screaming delightful?" or "Wouldn't it be delightful if someone unexpectedly urinated over me?".

At first, parenthood seemed to be working out fine for us. In his early days, our baby boy was blessed with good looks. He was undeniably the handsomest child in the neonatal intensive care unit -- so much so that I felt sorry for other parents having such plain offspring. Jennifer even worried that his movie-star attractiveness would result in a shallow personality.

But, alas, subsequent events have not been kind to our son's appearance. A bout of cradle-cap has robbed him of his luxuriant hair, and a diet of cholesterol-rich breast milk has seen his girth increase like a self-inflating life raft. "It's uncanny how much he looks like Rodney Hide," said our midwife the other day.

Even worse, Little Rodney (as he has subsequently been dubbed), seems to have inherited some of the behavioural habits of his namesake. In direct contradiction to the Plunket book -- which authoritatively states that a baby should sleep for sixteen-and-a-half hours per day -- our Little Rodney prefers to live the lifestyle of a hard-working right-wing politician.

He screams at his incompetent staff during the day, and then spends his nights partying, guzzling food, and fooling around with women's breasts. His endurance record -- so far -- is a fifteen-hour drinking marathon from 7 pm to 10 am, with intermittent vomiting to cleanse his palette à la the worst excesses of the Roman aristocracy.

Above: Spot the difference.

According to the hospital midwife, this antisocial conduct is the result of a rare medical condition known as "being a greedy little pig". Naturally enough, it plays havoc with Little Rodney's digestive system. His tiny stomach roils and gurgles like a fermenter, and mysterious intestinal gases build up to tremendous pressures.

The power of these gases is frequently exhibited during nappy-changing time, in a manner that -- even for a right-wing politician -- can only be described as severely inappropriate. Little Rodney's prowess at long-distance defecation is nothing less than awe-inspiring. With a fully-loaded bowel he can easily deliver a payload to the wallpaper on the other side of the room. For an encore, as his stunned parents wring their hands in horror, he likes to urinate over his own head.

Frankly, it seems to me that the constant screaming, the sleeplessness, and particularly the projectile defecation might be an indication that something is wrong -- but our midwife assures us that such things are very common in babies. In fact, regardless of the behaviour or symptoms, she seems to respond with the diagnosis that everything is perfectly normal. The following conversation hasn't actually occurred, but I feel that it would be entirely plausible:

Me: I'm a little concerned because yesterday our baby disbanded the public health system, instituted a voucher scheme for education, and privatized the police force.

Midwife: This is absolutely textbook behaviour for a baby of his age -- very, very common. Anything else you want to ask about?

Me: Well, during the night, he built a spaceship.

Midwife: Not to worry, almost all babies do this -- it's completely normal. Don't give it another thought.

Of course, my fear is that Little Rodney's problems are due to the actions of his parents. Namely in topping up his breast milk with the dreaded baby 'formula'. This takes place in accordance with instructions from the hospital paediatrician; but that's hardly reassuring if -- like Jennifer and me -- you've recently been to a spine-chilling presentation by the breast-feeding lobby (or 'The Breastapo', as they're more commonly known).

The presentation was also attended by a crowd of wholesome mothers who sat around beforehand exchanging vegan recipes, breast-feeding their school-age children, and comparing patterns for making underwear out of hemp. Their conversation died to an awed hush as the lactation consultant mounted the stage, and then began her electrifying proclamations: "Ich frage mich: was ist in unserem Land schiefgegangen? Wem geben wir die Schuld?..."*

To be honest, my German language skills only stretch as far as those "Was ist deine Weltanschauung?" conversations -- but, even so, I managed to grasp the general tenor of her speech as it reached crescendo point:

Lactation expert: Eine Mutter! Ein Kind! Ein Nippel! FÜR ZEHNTAUSEND JAHRE! **

Wholesome mothers: HEIL! HEIL! HEIL!

According to the information provided to us by the Breastapo, giving 'formula' to your baby is tantamount to injecting it with polonium. And so, naturally, we feel deeply guilty for inflicting such a life-threatening product on Little Rodney -- even if (according to the paediatrician) it would be rather more life-threatening not to do so.

An added problem, of course, is that -- unlike breast milk -- 'formula' does not magically replenish itself. At times, Little Rodney's gargantuan eating binges have caught me short, and have necessitated an emergency visit to the 24-hour supermarket in the small hours of the morning.

This is the time-slot in which only the most hardened of check-out ladies are willing to work. These fear-provoking women -- who, frankly, wouldn't look out of place stirring a cauldron in a production of Macbeth -- always manage to drop a few blood-curdling gems of baby-rearing wisdom into our check-out interactions.

Check-out lady: My friend had a baby just like yours -- only slept for about five hours a day, she told me.

Me: [putting on a brave face] Yes, well, I suppose they grow out of it in the end.

Check-out lady: Yeah, but her baby turned out to be mentally retarded. The doctor reckoned it was the lack of sleep that did it.

Such cheerful possibilities give me something to dwell upon as I drive home through Christchurch's darkened suburbs. The post-midnight journey provides a strange contrast: rows of houses filled with peacefully snoozing citizens; and then, eventually, our own house -- ablaze with light, and reverberating with Little Rodney's screams.

We can usually count on an hour or two of slumber just before dawn. But, even then, Little Rodney is far from the ideal bedroom companion. He grumbles and growls irritably, writhing and grimacing in his sleep, and occasionally punctuating proceedings with loud yells. From time to time he descends into a deeper doze -- at which point he begins to snore with astonishing volume.

When Little Rodney awakes, which is usually sooner rather than later, he is utterly ravenous. And unless he is immediately transported to Jennifer (where, according to her description, he goes for her breasts like "the most drunken, fumbling boyfriend imaginable"), the air is rent with horrific screams -- of the sort normally reserved for use by people whose entire families have been massacred before their eyes.

Little Rodney: [exhaling] "Mmwhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!
[inhaling] Sob, sob, sob, sob, sob...
[exhaling] "Mmwhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah
[inhaling] Sob, sob, sob, sob, sob...
[etc., etc.]

In an attempt to deaden the noise of Little Rodney's peaceful slumbers, Jennifer constructs what she calls her "bunker". This is a rather grandiose name for a pile of pillows and cushions into which she bravely thrusts her head. She claims that this asphyxiation-risking approach has allowed her to get as much as half-an-hour of uninterrupted sleep.

I prefer to let Little Rodney's groans and shrieks become a feature of my dreams. This has some interesting results:

David Slack: [Mysteriously appearing beside our bed] Hey, just thought I'd pop round to tell you that I'm growing a beard... Oh, and to show you my new digital watch...

Me: Oh, right... cool. The beard suits you, dude...

David Slack: Yeah, and check out the alarm on the watch -- it totally rocks...

Alarm on watch: Mmwhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Sob, sob, sob, sob, sob... Mmwhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Sob, sob, sob, sob, sob...

Me: Dude, that's a f**king appalling noise...

David Slack: Yeah, it's great isn't it? I'll turn up the volume...

Alarm on watch: MMWHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!...

Part of Little Rodney's sleeplessness turns out to be the result of a "bum crack" rash. This was diagnosed by his Plunket nurse, who interrogated us on our bottom-wiping techniques.

Me: Er... I just, you know, wipe his bottom with those hypoallergenic 'baby wipe' things...

Plunket nurse: Oh my God! 'Baby wipes' are the last thing you should be using on a baby's bottom -- don't you know that they're packed full of chemicals? You should just be wiping him with warm water and a soft cloth.

So we switch to warm water and a soft cloth -- which makes the rash get even worse. And thus we end up taking Little Rodney on his first visit to the local doctor.

Doctor: [peering into Little Rodney's bum crack] Bloody hell! I've never seen anything like this in my life! He's got bum crack ulcers! What do you use to wipe his bottom?

Me: Err... you know, just warm water and a soft cloth.

Doctor: Water! Are you crazy? That's the worst thing you could be using -- it's far too wet! You should be using hypoallergenic 'baby wipes'.

Given what we've all been through over the last few months, it's slightly ridiculous that I should find this diagnosis to be so upsetting -- but something about the phrase "bum crack ulcers" made me want to burst into tears; although, I assure you, I am not the kind of person who is easily moved to weeping.

Of course, if the doctor had told me: "Your baby has bum crack ulcers. And, by the way, he also has polonium poisoning" -- I know that the latter would be more worrying. But there's just something so sad and pathetic about the phrase 'bum crack ulcer'. I had no idea that medical terminology could be so emotion-laden.

The doctor's ingenious cure involves blowing a hair dryer into the infected bum crack after each nappy change. This has been a remarkable success. After a brief look of astonishment, Little Rodney's mouth goes into the shape of a little 'o' of happiness. It has roughly the same effect that could be achieved by telling the real Rodney Hide that all women on the DPB were going to be compulsorily sterilized. Although in the case of Little Rodney, it has the additional side effect of producing a torrent of happy urine.

Such happiness, even at the cost of copious urine-mopping, is worth more than gold to us. After a decent dose of the hairdryer, Little Rodney will often doze off into a light slumber. We sing soothing songs to help him relax -- 'Blue Smoke' is one of his favourites -- and as he drifts away into deep sleep, a little crooked half-smile steals across his face.

At such moments he looks utterly angelic, and... well... delightful, I suppose.

Above: A delightful moment.

Update:

We have subsequently discovered that our baby boy has been suffering from severe acid reflux as well as an allergy to cow's milk protein. Thankfully, over the last month or so, a combination of medication and diet has resulted in a significantly improved situation for all concerned.

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