He was just three months old when Alice needed a babysitter for the day. Archibald, poor lad, a sign of things to come, I wondered, had been a perfect baby – up to that point – Alice told me.
‘Looking after a baby is easy. There’s so many books on the subject: “Looking after your first baby”, “Feeding for life”, and’, she said with an exultant air, ‘the Holy Grail, “Angela’s baby compendium – The complete guide for those difficult early years”. I’ve put it in the plastic box, just in case.’ As she spoke, she deposited a large, pale blue, plastic box, bigger than the child on the kitchen table. ‘Nappies, wet wipes, bottle feeders and food,’ she added without opening the box.
Alice also gave me clear and carefully written instructions in ink on a single sheet of paper. I glanced at the sheet and noted at the bottom her work telephone number along with her doctor’s number and the National Health Service emergency helpline. As a new and protective mother, she had tried to consider every situation. She ignored the fact that my wife and I had raised three children ourselves, in the dark ages, before she was born! Perhaps, I should more correctly say my wife had raised… but I would cope; hey, I’d been through it too.
Every hour or half an hour or so, something needed to be done- change nappy – feed – sleep – play – bath – cuddle – bed, not necessarily in that order. Nothing could be clearer. If Archibald were a computer then there would be no problem. The instructions were precise.
‘No problem, it’s all clear.’ I said just before she left at nine o’clock.
I looked at the little wriggling bundle, which lay in a small, 45° angled, metal-framed, brightly-coloured, canvas baby rocker. I waved to Alice as she pulled away in her Ford Fiesta.
Now it was just him and me. I told him in that loud cheery voice adults use when slightly apprehensive, ‘Choo-chi-choo-chi-choo!’
He smiled, or was it a grimace? Was he doing something?
10:00am Nappy change and face wash. This seemed easy enough on paper; getting Archibald to lay still was not. At least there was no giant safety pin to hold the nappy secure. I was sure I had pierced each of ours on the odd occasion when they were babies.
After wiping pooh from everywhere and fighting a now crying Archibald, I managed to get the ‘baby-gro’ back on. His lungs were fine and his small muscles seemed well adapted for wriggling. Nappy change complete! Now, to wash his face while he was still crying seemed cruel. Should I follow instructions or ignore the second in the list of instructions?
I left his face and soon he stopped crying. Common sense had triumphed, I felt.
10:30am Feed (210ml). Alice had given me precise instructions as to the amount of the bottle feed, but she had not told Archibald. With less than half consumed he stopped! Now I remember clearly not liking my greens, yet my mother would say, ‘You can’t leave the table until you’ve eaten your greens!’ Despite my mother’s siren, long-departed voice and Alice’s inked instructions, I put the bottle to one side.
11:00-12:30 Play. This seemed clear when I read it, but how do you play with someone who can’t read, talk or listen? I put him in his inclined canvas recliner with a few fluffy cuddly toys. After a while, there was a sulphurous smell.
Nappy Change . This was listed without a precise timing but by now, I knew the routine. I changed him adding more vocabulary such as ‘Pooh,’ and ‘There’s a lovely boy.’ But these words just seemed to increase his crying volume.
There were bizarrely no instructions on ‘Crying’.
Time is a great healer and after what seemed like half an hour but was in reality only five minutes, Archibald had exhausted his crying performance.
12:30 -2:00 Nap. There is no switch on a baby labelled ‘Nap’. There’s no ‘snooze control’ button anywhere. Laying him in his cot seemed to have the opposite effect to nap. Perhaps she should have written ‘12:30-2:00 Scream!
I remember those words about sleep. I wrote a schoolboy essay on ‘Sleep’ – and I still recall the words: the harder your try the less successful you will be. So I decided to ignore his plaintive cries and leave him. At least I wasn’t going to try harder. It worked! For an hour or so, I had a chance to eat lunch and re-read the remaining instructions.
2:15 Feed (210ml). He awoke hungry and consumed his temperature-controlled feed without fuss, sucking continuously at the teat, without appearing to breathe. Now, I was in control and becoming a master of this baby business. Although, ‘Well done,’ and ‘There’s a good boy,’ had little effect, but there again there was no instruction to say this.
2:30-4:30 Play. The hour and a half play in the morning was unsatisfactory. So I felt I needed to be more ‘hands on’. So I picked him up and swung him round. Perhaps I should have waited for a little longer after his feed, which now lay polka dot fashion on my jumper and the floor.
There was no mention of don’ts on her list; I must tell her about the need for don’ts as well as dos.
Anyway, he seemed a lot happier after this event. But that tell-tale odour percolated the air shortly after. Nappy change was now a well-understood routine. I should not worry about his crying and just get on with the little job. This time, it was everywhere. The nappy had been badly fitted or was too small or both and his baby-gro was caked in it too.
Easy enough to change the nappy but there were no spare clothes! No instructions either. I had a supply of hand towels and even Jesus was lain in swaddling clothes, I recalled. I wrapped him in two hand towels, one green and one yellow. It was only 3.30pm. There was one more hour of ‘play’, but how can you play when you are trussed up in towelling? Archibald didn’t seem to mind and lay in his recliner with a smile. This was a most encouraging development.
4:30 Nap. I knew from experience the best thing was to ignore his cries. I was sure that trussed in towelling he couldn’t do much and he was probably too hot to cry for long anyway.
5:30 Feed (90ml). Although I was tempted to make 210ml as he had vomited most of his afternoon feed over me, I stuck with 90ml. 90ml was finished in no time and he wanted more judging by his crying and red-faced ire! But the instructions were clear, 90ml.
6:00 Bath time –test water temperature with elbow. Perhaps, I should have rolled up my jumper when I tested the water with my elbow (as advised) because the water was evidently too hot for darling (he had became ‘darling’ to me by this time) Archibald when I lowered him into the water. He let out an earsplitting howl. I soon adjusted the temperature and the bathing passed off fine. He did look cute after his bath, wrapped in green and yellow towels.
6:45 Feed (180ml) This was no problem as it was the fourth feed that I had administered. He sucked away and swallowed most of it. Yet it reappeared quickly afterwards on the towelling, which had possibly been too tightly bound around him. All the towels were dirty now. I only had my old college scarf as a suitable binding. After I had bound him up, he looked like a future undergrad.
Cuddle. (I’ll be back around 7:00pm). As he lay in my arms in the red and yellow scarf, he fell asleep, not even the doorbell woke him. I put him gently on the sofa and walked to the door. Alice had returned.
‘How’s he been?’ she asked anxiously.
‘No problem, your instructions were clear.’