The trouble with new babies is that they come without reference points. It’s often lamented that newborns should ship with a manual: I suspect, though, that if they did, it would be very much like the manual for our car, which seems to have been sold in an almost limitless range of variations, such that when consulting the manual you trawl through endless exciting paragraphs rhapsodizing all these whizzy features and zappy functions before reaching a terse little sentence that notes that, of course, none of this applies to the cheapy bottom-end model you drive, you penny-pinching little tightwad. (Not that I produce bottom-end children. I just imagine that it’s more expensive to get children with the “actually sleeps” enhancement, or the “cooing and gurgling instead of high-pitched shrieking” upgrade, or the “photogenic at the newborn stage, in precisely the way that Winston Churchill and Gollum weren’t” add-on.) So, lack of manual I don’t mind, but I have both times been deeply unnerved by the fact that I had no sense of what was normal for this child. That’s why, in the early days with The Bird, my Google search history included such terms as “newborn breathing frequency normal”, and “newborn legs skin tone normal”, and “newborn waking every 20 sodding minutes normal?”. The only thing that solves this anxiety is the passage of time, which teaches you that yes, this is normal for this kid. It was normal for mine, at one stage, to nurse twenty-one times in a twenty-four-hour period; it was normal for her to hate being swaddled; normal for her hair to fall out in a pattern that made her look like a mildly disreputable monk.
Those things aside, The Bird has grown up into the kind of kid who, for all her challenges, does not so far burden the NHS overmuch. Despite what her nickname might imply, The Bird in fact has the constitution of a Shetland pony. (And the temperament. And the hairstyle.) She has mercifully never yet needed a trip to A&E, and only once been to the out-of-hours doctor, for a dramatic and colourful gastrointestinal bug. In other words, I’ve got used to the idea that babies are basically pretty robust, healthwise. And when The Bee arrived at a higher birthweight than his sister (despite a three-weeks-shorter gestation), with the build of a prop forward and a flawless set of observations in hospital, I assumed we’d be in for more of the same. Then, on his second night on earth, I woke to the sound of him choking. I looked into his Moses basket and saw him lying with his back arched, gagging and foaming at the mouth. And I panicked.
I picked him up and patted his back, and he switched from choking to a strange high-pitched cry. I held him for a minute, both our hearts racing, then shook The Bloke awake. “I don’t like this,” I said. He didn’t either. The Bee pitched away from me and I clutched him tighter, wiping away the stuff that was coming from his mouth. More of it followed. His little chest heaved in and out. I grabbed my phone. 111 or 999? I vacillated, then hit the ones. The Bee was still arching and choking, and The Bloke took him from me as the call connected. I climbed out of bed and started, hopping and one-handed, to get dressed. The hospital bag was still packed where I’d left it when we’d come home the day before. The operator said, “Hello, can I take your name please?”
I said my name. Only I didn’t. What came from my mouth was a sort of rasping sound.
You see, the greatest physical damage I’d sustained during The Bee’s birth wasn’t to the parts you might expect to take a pasting in a vaginal delivery. Nope, what I really effed up was my larynx. You see, natal hypnotherapy notwithstanding, I was not quiet during labour. I didn’t manage to breathe my baby out or go all silent-intensity woman-power bastion of strength. I had started out humming through contractions in what I imagined was a primal, whale-song, in-touch-with-inner-power sort of way, but progressed pretty rapidly to metalcore vocalist. (My neighbours continue to pretend breezily that they didn’t hear anything, and that is why it is important to live among the British.) I’d had a touch of laryngitis a day or two before labour began; it seemed to disappear on the day contractions started but returned with a vengeance once he was here. And now, with panic constricting my chest as well, I found I couldn’t talk. The operator asked for my name again, and I croaked out something that she decided she could work with. Then she asked me what was wrong.
“Urgh hurrgh murgh,” I explained.
There was a moment’s silence on the phone. “I’m sorry, can you say that again? The line is very bad.”
I tried again. I must’ve managed somewhat greater clarity this time, because “You’re calling about your son,” she surmised in the end. “And what’s his name?”
I was very tired and scared, and he was choking. Tears sprang to my eyes. “He hasn’t got one,” I tried to say. “We haven’t named him yet.”
“Okay, but what are you calling him?”
The Bloke and I were actually still locked in a war over what he should be named. For the time being we were just calling him The Christmas Baby, which was what we’d been telling The Bird all year long we were going to get her for the holidays. Or Monster Munch, which had been his bump nickname. Neither of these seemed quite the sort of thing the NHS computer system would want.
“I just need a name,” she said.
“We haven’t named him at all,” I tried to say. “He’s only two days old.” As he gagged and struggled in my arms, tears sprang to my eyes. He was so, so little. “Can you just put Baby? Baby [Insertsurnamehere]?”
Weeping, it turned out, did not make my voice clearer. I broke down completely and thrust the phone at The Bloke, grabbing my baby in exchange and holding him as tightly as I could. I cried all over him.
The Bloke’s cooler head and more functional voicebox prevailed, and we spoke to a laconic nurse who was happy that The Bee’s colour was staying good. As we spoke with him, the choking fit ended, and The Bee latched on for a feed and settled down. I did some more crying. The nurse booked us in to the out-of-hours clinic for first thing next morning, and we hunkered down to grab a scrap of sleep beforehand.
When we arrived at the clinic they didn’t have us on the appointment schedule. After some discussion we worked out that the mysterious “Baby Harrison” on the roster must be what my ruined voice and the operator’s pragmatism had christened our little boy.
This story has a happy ending. The out-of-hours GP checked The Bee over thoroughly and concluded that, as was quite clear by now, there was bugger all wrong with him. He wrote up some notes that essentially said “Baby is monkey; mum is paranoiac”. (A friendly midwife we saw later the same day explained that he had probably been bringing up mucus swallowed during the birth and not expelled during his back-to-back delivery.) The Bird had a whale of a time playing in the waiting room while her aforementioned paranoiac mum nervously eyed the very obviously genuinely sick other children handling the same toys. And we came home, having concluded The Bee’s first-ever wasting of NHS resources, and resolved to name the blooming child ASAP.