Santiago

I felt overcrowded, but intimately connected to Anna. Simultaneously, I was alone, as if everything was only happening in my mind. Finally, a head appeared, but lifeless – tiny, limp, a bloody head facing down. With a sharp stab of despair, I remembered it wasn’t just Anna tackling something momentous and suffering physical trauma. There was this new human being – unknown, unknowing, fragile, my own flesh and blood – doing the same. A sudden cry burst the seemingly eternal silence of the stuffy room, which in hindsight had not been silent at all, and with that cry I was transported from the point of losing consciousness under the weight of fear and hopelessness to the greatest relief I have ever felt. Relief immediately gave birth to joy. “It’s a penis!” Came the very next thought, “… and a disproportionately large scrotum.”

This tiny, new human, covered in blood and vernix, was gently placed on his mother’s chest, his miniature eyes looking at her face for the first time. They stared at each other for a long time, as if some secret that had always existed for them both had finally been revealed. And with that, little Santiago entered the world – and the world, suddenly no larger than that room and that moment, immediately shrank in his honour.

*****

Forty weeks earlier, to the day, Santiago had his first birth. His initial appearance came in two faint pink lines on a pregnancy test, intangible, unreal. I didn’t really believe those two lines until we went for a scan a few weeks later and somehow a couple of microscopic cells had already formed a beating heart. On seeing and hearing that tiny heart beat, a new kind of love and fondness began to grow within me, in symbiosis with the little creature developing inside Anna.

Without thinking, I began being protective, worrying about car accidents, fumes, dodgy food and Anna tripping over. Forever a pessimist when something good looks like happening – perhaps for reasons of perceived protection from disappointment or loss – I couldn’t quite allow myself to take it for granted we were going to have a child, let alone a healthy one. But as the weeks went by, everything seemed to be going as it should.

The 20 week scan revealed a clearly human-shaped growth inside Anna’s belly: arms, legs, feet, hands, nose, ears, eyes and mouth – facial characteristics imaginable. We had decided not to find out whether it was Sofia or Santiago. Anna had begun to feel movement and kicks, and some weeks later so did I. Gradually it was becoming more real, but for me at least, still far from being part of my reality.

It was difficult for Anna, as it is for all mothers, to have her body change so quickly and dramatically, but the increasing limitations seemed to be easily offset by the constant amazement that her body could actually create, cultivate and nurture a new being. During the second trimester it was as if the baby was giving Anna life rather than the other way around – she was glowing with an almost superhuman health. As Anna’s belly became larger and more round she received evermore frequent reminders she was carrying another life, as it moved around its ever more cramped aquatic home.

It is however, the birth that we assign the beginning of age – the second birth – that truly changes the world.

*****

It was Friday the 19th and our due date was the 20th, but neither of us expected our baby to come on time, particularly Anna, whose genetic make-up seems to include habitual lateness. It probably hadn’t even started getting ready yet! But come 11pm, it seemed things might be starting. Initially, we didn’t know if what Anna was experiencing was just a normal part of the late stages of pregnancy, rather than the early stages of labour, but soon it became obvious.

Anna was up all night with a tens machine applying a gentle electric pulse to her lower back muscles, distracting some of the pain from contractions that were arriving in waves, becoming stronger and more frequent like a gathering storm. Between calls to the hospital for reassurance that we needn’t rush in, I tried unsuccessfully to nap.

At 6:30 we called our midwife Emily. After some discussion we had decided to go through the public system, within the Midwifery Group Practice Scheme. Part of the deal with this scheme is agreeing to an early discharge from hospital, but receiving regular visits from your midwife at home for two weeks. We had been meeting Emily for months and she had become an essential part of how we had prepared for the birth. We hadn’t just met Emily, we had got to know her. So when my phone call diverted to Kimmy, who we had only met once, Anna began crying and I began pretending it was all fine. Emily was on leave. Every time Anna had played through in her mind what giving birth was going to be like, Emily had been there, not Kimmy.

After short-lived devastation, at 7am we decided to go to the hospital and check what was going on, expecting to get sent home for a few hours or more. We packed up our things and hoped we wouldn’t have to speak to anyone from the neighbouring flats as we walked to the car.

“You’re eight centimetres. Your baby will be here in a couple hours!” said the nurse.

“Bloody hell,” we thought. “This is easy.” We were moved up to a birthing suite as we talked excitedly about how, even if it was really tough, it would be over in a couple of hours. The nurse phoned our midwife to come in, put a band around Anna’s stomach so the baby’s heartbeat could be observed and we settled into the charmless utilitarian room. After about half an hour Kimmy arrived, and very quickly we wouldn’t have wished for anyone else. She was caring, gentle and in control.

We still didn’t know what to expect. Anna’s cousin had helpfully described her birth experience as, “like being stabbed in the stomach with a sword several times, then being forced to sprint 100 metres, over, and over.” We’d also read that it wasn’t quite so bad, more like “trying to pass a bowling ball out your butt.”

Anna was managing the rising pain well, adopting all of the breathing and posturing she’d learned about in the preceding months. It was “uncomfortable, but not at all overwhelming.” Fast forward several hours. With the pain steadily increasing, but birth seeming no nearer, it had become overwhelming. Seeing Anna in such intense pain was staggering, somewhat akin to watching your loved one being tortured. I must have appeared close to fainting a few times because I remember Kimmy forcing me to sit down with my head between my legs.

Things should have progressed by this stage. Kimmy broke the waters, which was followed by another couple of hours of increasing pain, but no progress followed. He was so close, but not budging.

“Is this going as it should?” Anna groaned.

“No,” replied Kimmy, “we might have to consider Plan B.”

“Is Plan B an epidural?”

“Yes.”

“Anything that will make the pain stop!” pleaded Anna.

A needle entering Anna’s spine scared the hell out of me. Within half an hour though, the epidural was set up, Anna hadn’t been paralysed and her pain was dulling. But an hour and a half later, he still wouldn’t leave his home of nine months. A “couple hours” had turned into a slow and exhausting nine hours.

The Ventouse was employed and we were warned that the doctor only had three pulls because any more could damage the baby’s head. I had seen the tip of that little head by this stage, which had begun to wake me to the fact that it wasn’t all about Anna – I should be worried about another human being, one likely to be much weaker and more vulnerable than his mother. I began fearing for the life of this tiny being and letting tragic ‘what ifs’ creep into my mind.

How could a doctor leaning back and pulling with all his strength on a sucker attached to a tiny rubbery head not cause damage? Two prolonged pulls, and nothing. Then the third… finally the head came out, and after a moment of appearing lifeless, his whole body appeared and he let out the most beautiful cry.

That small cry was transporting. Suddenly, we were in a beautiful place, as if we had been wrenched from a nightmare into a lovely dream. I stared in wonder at our baby, all pug face and covered in the muck of birth – somehow still the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Yes, it seems he even has the power to make clichés seem profound. In a deep joy cradled by a delirious calm, I sat with my finger being held by his tiny hand, as he lay on his mother’s chest gazing at her face. Everything was so small, yet perfectly formed, and it was a boy! For some reason, we had both been expecting a girl.

We each held him for about an hour. Wide awake the entire time, he stared at our faces – the mystery of those voices he’d been hearing at last revealed to him. For someone who had just changed worlds, he seemed relaxed, serene.

We hadn’t slept for 36 hours. As Anna was recovering and being seen to, the nurses helped me dress Santiago and showed me how to swaddle him for sleep – I had no idea. Dressing him frightened me. He seemed so fragile I thought I was going to break his arms or fingers.

He went to sleep in the Perspex bassinette next to our hospital bed. Anna was told to feed him every three and a half hours. We couldn’t stop looking at him and checking for his breath, but the next I knew it was two hours later and I was awaking to the sound of his screams. Anna was on the bed exhausted.

Santiago had vomited a huge puddle of mucus from his lungs and rolled his head in it. I had to clean, change and dress this precious distressed little thing – without breaking him. Weariness is a powerful force – it can alter the mind, change reality. Internally, I had a melt-down.

Eventually I managed to do what had to be done with the help of a nurse, but the entire time on the point of breaking down, with the words “I can’t do this”, “how do I get out of this?” going through my head. I got back into the hospital bed and stared at the ceiling. I was sweating, convinced I couldn’t cope and that there needed to be some way out, there had to be, but there wasn’t. This irrational hour or two was laughable a couple of days later, but laughable with the slight awkwardness of something that in its moment was frighteningly real.

*****

The next morning, after some basic checks, we were on our way home. It was lovely to be back in our familiar little flat, but daunting that, apart from a few visits from our midwife, we would have to work out what we were doing on our own so quickly. There was an underlying fear amongst the comfort, causing us to check Santiago was breathing every half an hour for the first week or two.

Our tiny angel has such strong powers that time and space alter for him. Rarely in those first two weeks was the world any larger than our little flat. Broad reality was irrelevant. We were living in a microcosm and under the spell of a strange high for about a week – a glittering delirium. But then the ‘drug’ wore off and we came down. For two days, we struggled, wondered what we had done and how we would cope.

We climbed back up, but our emotions were different, more exposed and vulnerable. We couldn’t watch or read anything vaguely emotional without getting teary and started craving lightness, seeking television shows like Spicks and Specks whilst avoiding any form of drama. Perhaps this emotional fragility, apparently common for men and women after the arrival of their first child, is caused by an adjustment required to accommodate a new kind of love – unquestioning, unconditional – a love at once tinier and so much greater than any love that had existed before.

Santiago made me feel animal, connecting me with things that would be most fundamental to a primitive human being: comfort, shelter, safety, warmth, love, family, community. At times too, my instinct to stroke and groom made me feel like an ape.

There have been challenges. Santo has a talent for depriving his parents of sleep. I clocked up hundreds of kilometres in the first weeks of his life. Driving to Huonville, New Norfolk and Sorrell while listening to podcasts of Richard Fidler interviews at midnight seemed to be the only way he would sleep for a while, and if I stopped driving for more than a few seconds, say for a red light, he would wake and cry.

Modern advice on babies refers to “wonder weeks.” These “wonder weeks” are certain periods during the first 20 months of a baby’s life when they experience a developmental leap. These leaps occur at specific times and cause a baby to broaden its perceptual and sensory awareness. Babies effectively suffer from brain overload as they attempt to process each leap.

In short, during a “wonder week” a baby goes mad and generally doesn’t sleep well. I suppose when a baby experiences certain major realisations it is the equivalent of its whole world changing. Imagine how your world would change if, for example, you suddenly realised those hands were part of your body and you could control them, or that when someone leaves your field of view it doesn’t mean they have left forever. Discovering the time table for “wonder weeks”, which for Santo was like clockwork, was very comforting and I began to think that perhaps he wasn’t possessed by an evil spirit after all.

*****

Santo has finally gone to sleep on my chest. I put my nose on his sleeping head and breathe him in. That smell – it seems to be the smell of life. I am amazed by him, proud of him, even though he hasn’t really done anything yet. Life has changed, priorities shifted, but both I think for the better.

I look at Santo’s face, then up to an old photograph on the wall of a young Scottish man about to head off to war. He’s my father’s father, a grandfather I never met. I wonder if there’s not something in his face that’s also in the face of my baby son, peacefully sleeping before me. Could there be some physical memory of his great grandfather in Santiago, the shape of his nose, cheek structure or eyes? Then I wonder, if it’s so common to inherit appearance and susceptibility to illness, then it follows that mental characteristics are passed on too. Santo might have some of the same secret anxieties, dreams, hopes or senses of humour that an ancestor had – a familiar voice in his head – and it could be from an ancestor I have never met.

Having a child has been an acute reminder of the cycle of life. I have always loved and respected my parents, but the realisation that they have had all these incredible feelings for my siblings and for me brings a new kind of appreciation. What a mother does during pregnancy, birth and parenting is one of the world’s wonders. Anna will always now be more amazing to me than she was in the world before Santiago.

There is a part of me that has become more detached and cares less about what is going on in the world, as I have become more focused on caring for this baby and his mother. But another part of me cares more deeply, desperately wanting the world to be the best place possible for him – not merely his world, but the world in which he will live.

He smiles now, even giggles, and watches and absorbs everything that happens around him. He’s gaining confidence in his new world – as are we. We’re getting to know each other. His character is gradually forming and revealing itself, and we are learning to recognise it. What will he be like?

Now that he’s become accustomed to the cycle of night and day, at around 7am he slowly wakes, grunting and rustling about, gradually adjusting from dream to day. Some mornings I sneak in and watch. After a minute or two I say good morning and lean over his cot. His little face lights up with the purest of smiles and his body short circuits with joy, arms and legs flailing with excitement. No sight has ever been kinder to my soul.

Sometimes his light blue eyes, like the tiniest oceans, surrounded by the truest white, seem to look inside me and ask, “Is it okay?”

“It’s okay. It’s okay,” I whisper softly.

Those eyes have not seen sadness or horror, only love, care and adoration. They look up, so innocent to the world that will soon begin to infuse those tiny oceans. I dream of keeping them pure, uncontaminated, but no ocean can remain wilderness. I hope to be a competent guide on his journey and a loving place of refuge whenever he needs it.

Santiago is not named after the Chilean capital or any of the other towns or cities with his name. We liked the name, how it sounds, and I think it is a well-balanced elegant-looking word, but the question having been regularly asked has made me think there is something of a city within our son. As I witness Santiago revealing and developing his character, it seems we have many of the qualities and complexities of a city: we develop our open avenues and our dark hidden streets; our parks of quiet contemplation and traffic jams of confusion and frustration; our weather shaping the moment’s mood and the pollution that can sneak into any realm; we have our successful suburbs and areas in which we struggle; our heritage and cultural identity; we have our planned pathways and our organic spontaneity; our broken infrastructure and our new works.

There is constant excitement in the magnitude of this thing that so many millions around the world experience – the huge responsibility, of helping another human develop and find its way. There are amazing people in the world who achieve incredible things, whose lives would make a wonderful read. But there is now a sense that this most familiar experience, shared by hundreds of millions of people the world over, beyond history and beyond species – the creation and raising of offspring – is equal to any feat. I feel some ancient knowing that this is, and will be, my greatest work as a man and as a human being – helping this human city to grow and to thrive.

I gently lay you down in your cot and pull the soft blanket up to keep you warm and secure. A strange shiver passes through me, as I listen for your soft breath and watch you sleep so silent and still. “Remember Santo,” I think, “you breathe the same air as presidents and peasants.”

Santiago my son, I hope the halo I see above your head is never heavy.

Forever yours, Daddy

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