Being a new parent is scary and overwhelming and you can forget that it’s also full of happiness. Simon Day shares the moments of joy that have pulled him through the first eight weeks of being a new dad to twins.
It’s 3:36am and I’ve just fed, changed, burped, and put my twin boys back to bed. I’m watching them on the monitor as I type, silently begging them to keep their eyes closed. There is an unusual calm in the house, the only sound is a white noise track on repeat washing out of the nursery. During the day there is the constant whir of a household trying to stay one step ahead of the boys. And the boys make a lot of noise too.
They’re nearly two months old and in that short time, the way my world works has shifted on its axis. Our sole purpose for the last seven weeks has been keeping these two tiny humans alive. It’s already hard to remember what life felt like before they existed but I know for sure it involved more sleep and a better diet. Now nothing seems to matter beyond the next feed, the next nappy, the next load of washing, and the next sleep.
The last two months have been the most challenging and rewarding of my life. It’s been intensely demanding. Born at 36 weeks, the first eight days of the boys’ lives were spent trapped in our tiny hospital room ensuring they were gaining weight and learning to feed. The hospital stay was also an eight-day parenting crash course for us. There’s nothing you can do that can prepare you for this role and the psychological shock of becoming a parent. But the midwives and doctors were patient and kind and we learned fast. We had to.
Suddenly, we were at home and without all the support that the hospital came with. It felt like we’d forgotten everything we’d learned. The next four weeks were the slowest and fastest of my life. The days would disappear in the claustrophobic monotony of three-hour eat, shit, sleep cycles. We felt trapped in our own house.
Sleep deprivation is one hell of an experience. It breaks you emotionally (do not watch Forrest Gump within three weeks of having children), it destroys your motor skills (I keep walking into things and find myself stumbling around the house with only one shoe on), and everything becomes hilarious until it becomes traumatic.
Our existence is precarious. One day the boys might gift us four hours of sleep in a row, the next we are in hospital because one of them is struggling to breathe through the phlegm of a cold and his heart rate is high. Keeping them alive is the biggest burden we’ve carried.
But it is also our greatest achievement. Surviving each day feels worthy of celebration. As I watch them sleep, desperately hoping that their gurgles and wiggles are the motions of sleep, not awakening, I’m in awe of the way I love these two little boys. From the fog of the exhaustion and the intense fear that I’m fucking it all up, these are the tiny achievements, the small moments of clarity in the haze that have become the greatest joys I’ve ever known.
Without a doubt, the greatest single joy of being a new parent is successfully dislodging a bubble of gas from your child’s digestive system. That feeling of concrete tightness through their spine and stomach suddenly releasing with a giant belch that signals the prospect of peaceful undisturbed sleep makes me fist pump and congratulate the boys as if they’ve just achieved a giant physiological feat.
Sometimes it happens immediately, sometimes it takes an hour to massage, pat, squeeze and urge the burp out. But when it does happen and you feel the tiny baby relax and decompress in your hands and the tension leave his face, the world becomes calm and you know there is a god.
Sometimes parenting in these first few weeks feels robotic, a formulaic assignment based around ensuring the boys get the right inputs and cleaning up the outputs. But bath time is my daily dose of true quality time.
The boys are at their most peaceful in the water, alert but relaxed. We wash them in our big kitchen sink and I get up to my elbows in the water, my face close to theirs. It’s at this time each day that I’m sure they know I’m their dad and that they think I’m pretty cool.
Each morning when the boys wake, first they will stir and gurgle letting us know they’re up. Then they will start farting. Big, long, loud farts as they stretch their little arms above their heads. Often these are accompanied by a squeak of alarm. Lying in bed listening to them fart themselves awake – just before they start to scream – signals the start of a new day. It brings nervous anticipation – because you’re never sure which way it’s going to go – but it’s also exciting. And beyond the fact farts are just objectively hilarious, it’s a sign the boys’ growing bodies are doing the things they should be. Babies are born with underdeveloped digestive systems; they develop a lot of gas. The farts are a sign they’re processing it and getting that painful wind out of their system.
Working out if things are going right in these early stages is really hard. The boys’ direct feedback is cryptic and unreliable. Yet there is one basic measure that affirms we’re on the right track – weight gain.
Because the boys were born at 36 weeks, ensuring they were putting on weight was one of the preconditions of leaving the hospital. I’ve never felt more defeated and deflated than when, after three days of focused feeding, both dropped weight at their weigh-in and we had to face up to at least another 48 hours in the hospital. But I’ve never felt more elated than when the hospital scales showed they’d put on weight and we were told we could start preparing to go home.
My proudest moments of their short lives happen whenever the midwife or Plunket nurse visits and we get to weigh the boys. I’ve already checked the previous weight and I’m nervous in anticipation as the numbers on the scale tick up while the boys wriggle naked on the tray. My brain has never processed maths as fast as I subtract the old weight from the new and proclaim to the room the growth figure.
I never quite realised how helpless babies really are until Freddie got a cold. His nose was so blocked that he was struggling to breathe. After a week learning from the midwives and paediatricians in hospital I basically considered myself a surgeon, so I was ready to operate. We’d received a mouth-operated aspirator in a baby starter kit and my favourite role as a father is vacuuming the snot out of his nose. The trauma is acute as I suck the mucus out of his nostril, but watching the instant relief when he realises his airways are clear is highly rewarding and validating of my parenting. Pulling out giant crispy boogers with tweezers is a two-person operation with equal amounts of satisfaction.
The public health system
I feel very lucky that my boys were born in New Zealand. During our stay in hospital, the care we experienced was (mostly) genuinely empathetic, empowering and expert (the cracks in the system’s communication and the aggressively didactic attitudes of some midwives is for another story). We were always made to feel like no question was too cautious. The hospital staff were as invested in our health as our babies’, and the two nights the midwives observed us at the end of our tether and offered to look after the boys until morning so we could sleep were essential to our survival.
Once we got home the weekly visits by our midwife were essential opportunities to check we were doing everything right and the boys were hitting their KPIs. Knowing we could text her once she left at any time we had any concerns was deeply comforting. The advice about nappy rash, changing eating patterns, blocked noses, and projectile vomiting was a relief anytime we experienced scary changes in the boys.
We’ve had free visits to the GP, a free trip to the Rangatira Children’s Ward at Waitakere Hospital, and every time we’ve been told that we’ve done the right thing. That it’s impossible to be too cautious, and if we’re ever concerned, to never feel shy about coming in. At six weeks old our babies were vaccinated for free.
Each step of the way it’s felt like there was a network of services set up as a safety net for the boys. They’ve taught us how to stand on our own feet, but every time we’ve felt overwhelmed or out of our depth there’s someone waiting to help us.
The sacrifice parents make for their children is something you can’t ever truly appreciate until you’re covered in spew, buried in nappies, and living off four hours’ sleep a day. It’s too bad the boys won’t remember this period. And they’ll never realise what they put us through until they have their own children (in the thick of the emotion during our hospital stay I called my mum to explain how I finally understood what she’d gone through). But even in the eight weeks since they were born they’ve already changed so much, and they’ll never be this cute again, even when they are covered in shit and screaming like enraged pterodactyls.