How We Accidentally Conceived After Half a Year of Trying

On the morning of New Year’s Day 2012 I was deeply and irrevocably hungover. My wife wasn’t. Not even a bit. In fact she was chipper. She shouldn’t be chipper on the morning of New Year’s Day. It was wrong.

In fact, it was very right. She was pregnant. It seems that her unusual sprightliness was her body’s way of getting her attention. To say it had something important to tell her.

When she showed me the line on the stick the first thing I felt was a searing sensation in my face. My brain at that moment must have resembled a ginormous home computer from the 1980s. It didn’t have the processing power to deal with the information just fed into it. And it overheated under the strain.

That the news came as a shock was a shock in itself. We had been trying for six months after all. But we had reached the stage of introspection and self-doubt. I had looked deep into my own crotch and wondered if the issues were to be found there.

It was troubling to think that my own genitalia could be so obstructive to the thing we wanted most. Like they had declared independence and were acting directly against the rest of me. So one of the first things I experienced that morning was a warming sense of pride that me and my bits had collaborated to such productive effect. And I gave them a high-five (virtual obviously). We were impregnators.

The truth is that we had become a little more precise in our process. Nothing too taxing, just a simple case of knowing when ovulation was happening and acting on it. Egg-timing, I suppose.

We are confident in pinpointing the moment of conception to a night just before Christmas. I am fairly sure that I had inadvertently prepped my swim team by going ice-skating. When I say ice-skating, I mean ice-mincing. I mean clinging onto the side of the rink and at one point briefly yet violently interrupting a young smooching couple.

I am convinced that the ice had brought down the temperature of the lads downstairs. Apparently cool sperm are healthy sperm, and I’d just subjected mine to the equivalent of a fortifying Boxing Day swim in the Serpentine. They were just jiggling about for warmth.

It took a few weeks for me to properly get my chops around impending fatherhood. In this time I often sought sanctuary in John Lewis. There I would roam around the baby paraphernalia section trying to ascertain exactly what emotional and financial toll that my unborn child would bring. More often than not however I would simply ride up and down the escalators in a stupor. I still do that now. I regard it as a mindfulness technique.

The only thing I was certain of in this ocean of unknown was that again all of me would need to work together as a team. Hot face, cold balls, we were all in this together.

Any good?

The Odd Journey of a Man Through Miscarriage

I am slightly uneasy writing as a man about my wife’s miscarriage. Because it was exactly that: my wife’s miscarriage. I have always regarded myself as collateral damage in the affair. I did not suffer the bitter physical trauma that my wife did and therefore what I experienced was a kind of grief once removed.

But the truth is the news did strike me a vicious emotional blow. The sting of which was undoubtedly worsened by the utter shock, caused by my ignorance that such an eventuality was so common. So if a few paragraphs of my story even made one person more aware then it is a worthwhile endeavour.

My memory of that morning has faded over the last two years, but I remember that the clinic itself felt oddly reassuring with its oak panelling and fresh flowers. Plush and comfortable, more like the foyer of a country hotel. I also remember the inscrutable look on the specialist’s face as he peered at his monitor, forming his diagnosis. And I remember the very measured way in which he told us that this particular journey was over.

Only an hour before my wife had begun to experience pain. And she knew. But I told her that everything was going to be okay and I meant it. No bluff or bluster or false optimism. I didn’t know. I was unaware of such a possibility. No particular catastrophe had befallen our baby; it was genetically doomed from the outset.

Amid the shock I felt a peculiar sense of embarrassment. Recalling the previous weeks when we’d gathered our families and charged our glasses when the reality was that we were celebrating an already failing collection of cells.

And then as we left the surgery the grief pole-axed me, crumpling me into my wife with big shoulder-heaving tears. It was so unfamiliar it felt like I was watching myself down there on the pavement. I had no words of solace for my wife because very obviously everything wasn’t going to be okay. Through the blubbing I apologised to her, driven by the fear that I’d not met some outdated notion of a stoical impassive husband.

Days later the process had become so dramatic my wife was taken into hospital. She was haemorrhaging badly. We made many journeys to the hospital in those weeks, mostly to the ante-natal clinic. There some of the astonishing statistics surrounding early miscarriage were explained, both by staff and on posters and in leaflets. One in every four pregnancies ends in a miscarriage. One in four.

The perverseness of the situation was that this information would have been helpful before the miscarriage and not after it. But I defy any reasonable-minded person to learn about a loved one’s pregnancy and immediately give them the dampening warning of a potential miscarriage. And that is why campaigns such as #MisCOURAGE run by the Tommy’s Baby charity are so important in encouraging awareness of the fragility of pregnancy.

We were lucky that we were able to conceive as soon as possible after the miscarriage, and I felt armour-plated in those first ten weeks against what misfortune might come to our tiny child. Armour-plated by knowledge.

I am watching that child now. He is nearly two and healthy and bonny and boisterous. And I am comforted by the illogical thought that we would have never have met him without the miscarriage. But that doesn’t stop me thinking about it.

For more information about the Tommy’s #MisCOURAGE campaign click here.

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Gas and Air and Haribo: A Dad in Labour

Witnessing the birth of my children as a father was an odd experience in some ways. It’s the most momentous, brilliant thing that will ever happen to me but at the same time it wasn’t about me at all. It was about my wife and the medical team assigned to extract the peculiar little creatures living within her. I was a minor character in the action, an extra loitering at the back of set. Albeit with a small cameo towards the end.

My wife had issued me with the remit to sit quietly and only speak was I spoken to, like a Victorian child. This chimed with my passive, reactive nature so throughout both labours I squirreled myself away in a corner with a multipack of salt and vinegar Hula-Hoops, playing puerile games on my phone and awaiting any instructions.

Unaccountably both my sons were reluctant to come out and meet us and had to be induced. There was no high-octane dash to the hospital on either occasion, just a measured journey to be admitted to the induction ward.

The induction ward is what I would guess an olden-days military field hospital was like. On the induction ward you are never more than a yard away than a woman beginning to experience what I imagine is the acute sensation of having her undercarriage dismantled from within. Most mothers-to-be at least suffer these early ravages in the privacy of her own homes, but during induction only a thin vinyl curtain separates them from a strange man awkwardly immersing himself into a mobile version of The Sims. Naturally I felt that my presence on those wards was intrusive.

During our second trip to the induction ward, there seemed to be urgent demand for Entonox, or gas and air. Unfortunately it was only available in one canister which had to be passed around the ward via a nurse like a suspicious cigarette at a student party. My wife’s pain was exacerbated by an ovarian cyst, a situation noted by a kindly midwife who ushered us discreetly through to an unused ward to provide my wife her own space and crucially her own drug supply.

Midwives are among the best people I’ve met. The ones I’ve worked with most effectively are able to adapt to each delicate situation by either offering sweet reassurance or a full and frank slap in the face. Like a good cop and a bad cop in the same well-pressed uniform, a person who might greet you with a lovely warm meaningful hug but then punch you in the tit for not hugging hard enough.

I am convinced that the addition of a few Haribo Tangfastics rendered the gas and air more powerful that night. During the first birth, my wife inhaled a small cloud of the stuff but described the feeling as ‘being a bit pissed’ but with no reduction in pain. Another unforeseen side effect was a bizarre misplaced paranoia that she sounded like the American drag artist RuPaul. This lead to a temporary obsession with RuPaul and his career.

The disappointing impact of the Entonox on that occasion was partly the reason that my wife decided to have an epidural. She viewed this as some kind of failure, but she was the only person in the room that thought this and we all gave her our fulsome support. We were also a bit tired of RuPaul.

The epidural was left in the needle second time round and the delivery team explained that the option of a water birth was available. I’ve heard stories about dads stripping off and getting in the tub with the mums or being equipped with a net to fish poo out like the worst fairground game ever. But my responsibility was to remain outside and hold my wife’s head so as to prevent her plunging underneath the water as she pushed, thus avoiding an impromptu witch-trial.

Before the first birth I had resolved that during the final pushes I would station myself close to my wife’s head and away from the business end. But when it came to it I was magnetised towards that area, until I my face was only a yard or so away from the action. What I witnessed there was like the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen. More specifically being taken step by visceral step through the greatest magic trick and still having no clue how it was achieved. The miracle of childbirth may be a cliché, but it’s definitely true.

Any good?

NCT Classes: Come For The Biscuits, Stay For The Friendship

Overall I found my experience of NCT classes much like donating blood: painful and draining but with free biscuits. My bleakest memory of that time was the requirement to wipe a dollop of French mustard from a doll’s bum. It’s not even my favourite type of mustard. Presumably French mustard was selected as it most closely colour-matched the real thing, although with the experience of my own sons’ output I can tell you that an entire Pantone chart of colours is possible, covering all the mustards: English, American and most dispiritingly, wholegrain. Lurid yellows, greens, blacks and obviously browns, browns beyond the comprehension of the human eye.

The doll experience provided scant preparation for cleaning up my sons’ bottoms. The mustard didn’t expand and loom like a B-movie monster appearing from a lagoon. And the doll didn’t gyrate its way through a variety of yoga movements with the seeming intention of smearing the mustard down into the crevices of podge up the back and on the thighs, knees and arms.

I found that NCT was scant preparation for anything. I was mainly enticed by the prospect of free lemon squash and of course custard creams. And to support my wife obviously. It’s expensive. Our course cost £320, which worked out at £40 for a two-hour lesson. £40 which could have been spent on a cheap dinner out or a cinema date with popcorn and pick-n-mix or preferably just a really really big bag of pick-n-mix.

It May Not Be These Actual Biscuits
It May Not Be These Actual Biscuits

Our course leader was a Dutchwoman who railed against national stereotype by being stridently anti-drugs. Anti-anything to do with hospitals actually. I think if she had her way all babies would be delivered not only entirely naturally, but in a lovely forest by squirrel-doctors and badger-nurses administering only dock leaves for pain relief. Like a suggestible cult member I actually got slightly caught up in all this ‘midwives-are-evil’ nonsense, writing up a laughable birth plan which planned to preclude my wife from taking anything stronger than an aspirin for her pain. With the benefit of hindsight it is bizarre that I should have any opinion on this other than wishing for the safe delivery of my baby and whatever my wife wanted.

The NCT course has an unhealthy preoccupation with labour, given that it represents on average about 0.0002% of the time it takes to raise a child. Six of our eight lessons were given over to the birth, meaning that for a lot of students learning about the event takes longer than the event itself.

One of the other lessons focused on breastfeeding which happened on the evening I was due at Excel to watch the Olympic boxing tournament, the only Olympic tickets I had managed to secure. On another occasion the discussion became so involved, so heavy, so vaginal that all the menfolk were corralled off to the pub to talk about cars and the footy and birds. This suited one man in particular, who earlier in the course had hit upon the winning strategy of turning up half-cut after an afternoon session on the lemonades. He spent the most of the lesson in a grinning stupor, the sinister teachings of our leader just bouncing off him.

At the beginning of the course I took stock of my male colleagues, who between them gave off a heady combo of fear and diffidence. One guy appeared to have started blushing before the word ‘breast’ had even been mentioned. It later transpired that his wife was employing a doula to support her during her labour which made total sense given his apparent total discomfort at anything to do with fannies.

As a kind of icebreaker the Dutch lady asked each couple to conceive a way in which the dad could offer physical support to the mother during the birth. To my surprise a variety of vaguely tantric positions were rolled out with gusto using walls, floors, a chair and a fire extinguisher. My wife and I unfurled your everyday common-or-garden hug. Both through a lack of imagination and because fundamentally that was what I really needed at the time.

A few weeks after my son was born, perhaps as some sick practical joke, my wife revealed to me that she had agreed for us for speak to the students of the next course to talk them through our experience of childbirth and to show them what a baby looked like. I informed an increasingly aghast semi-circle of men that most of what they had learnt up to this point would probably fly immediately out of the window the minute their partners went into labour and then within a couple of days become completely obsolete.

And after all this we found our NCT classes indispensable. A lot of friends have said to us that their classmates the course went on to form a slightly synthetic, yet nourishing community of comrades alongside whom to go into parenting battle.

By a geographical quirk our course was held in salubrious Notting Hill so our course was mainly constituted of French and American financiers, who were all transient workers with light affluent tans and talk of private maternity suites. Most of them have left this country now.

Happily there was one couple who looked normal and relatively poor. We naturally gravitated towards them and have remained friends ever since. They are our community. And yes, obviously it was the drunk man.


Any good?