I like institutions. As a rule they play to my sense of natural justice and speedy sense of injustice when systems go wrong. They have a comforting intractability and strangeness, even when you are a clear outsider fumbling to understand the rules. The weirdness of our hospital stay was enhanced by being in an isolated room with barrier nursing – a danger to others and possibly ourselves if allowed to roam freely on children’s ward. Even if this hadn’t been the case, Newborn was restricted by his oxygen pipes – tethered to the wall much to his fury whenever he had a burst of energy.
But hospitals are strange places. They leave you prone to magical thinking (last time I stroked his legs, his oxygen saturation didn’t dip below 90 percent; when he was in his blue pyjamas he tried to walk; if I hold him then he improves etc). They play on fantastical reckoning that becomes increasingly deranged – if I never, ever bitch or complain or moan about him or his brother then he will be okay; if I’m nice to everyone then he will get better; if I make a pledge about my life to come and promise to do things differently and better, we’ll all get a second chance; if I stay awake and never stop looking, I can will him to not get worse with the force of my eyes.
And they feast on guilt: if I had done one of many things differently, would it have come to this? Was I right all along? I wasn’t supposed to have a second baby, the Gods were clear about me as a mother, I didn’t deserve this chance, this baby. There were barriers to it, they should have been warnings. I’ve ruined the world by defying what I knew was true, and now, because I did that and because HE IS SO FUCKING PERFECTLY UNBELIEVABLY BEAUTIFUL AND AMAZING they are going to take him away from me and everyone else. He will be punished for my moral impertinence and moments of faith and hope.
They also drive you quickly feral and primal. Scared if I left for too long he would deflate and die, I only showered once, when his father could hold him for me. I was ripe for the picking by the time we got back.
When is food? Is there food (no, not if you are a breastfeeding mother but your child’s only source of food is not breastmilk)? How do you get food? (You can go to a café but it is only open for odd hours each day, and to go you have to scrub down and leave the baby). Neither of these are rants, not at all, and I hesitate to mention the immense realistic kindness of the people who did help me get food and drink when I wasn’t allowed to leave as I’m scared some of them would be in trouble.
They are bewildering too, even if the play specialist does bring you some wiped down mega blocks and a car which can be thrown from the cot right over to the door. In what order do things happen here in this strange new world of squeaky floors and beds that move? Who is in charge? Does anyone know the answer? Am I allowed to talk when they are examining him? When is ‘rounds’? Who is *our* nurse? Who comes when I hit the button?
There’s so much more that happened, over those long days, just me and the kid for much of the time outside visiting hours. We were somewhere we shouldn’t be, where we didn’t belong, but we felt checked out of real life, in a movie somehow. And my, was I struck by what a privilege those hours were even when they seemed so interminably boring and scary and lonely I thought my voice would disappear in the hot hospital air forever. Boring and scary, by the way, like many hours of labour for some women, are the worst combination of any two ‘states’ in my view.
If I want to find meaning in my search for self and happiness though, I’d say three things. Texts, tweets, hugs, chats – those things help so much more than I could have imagined, and somehow more than last time as I think this time I really thought our number for happiness was up. I don’t think any doctors thought Newborn wouldn’t make it, but I did. And it is hard to articulate that even now.
More brightly, it was astonishing though to have been offered that window into only childness again. To have that one on one with a baby who has always been part of a differently enriched family landscape. It is amazing what a second child can do in intensive solo parental company. So, for all its awfulness we had quite a bit of fun – throwing toys, playing peep-bo, rallying so beautifully.
And, Newborn started talking. No, really, perhaps to drown out the infernal beep alarms when his monitors detached and it sounded all US medical drama. He built on his Beyonce ‘Uh oh’ refrain and seemed to use it to refer to the monitor machine. He started saying ‘HIYA’, with a loose commitment to the opening ‘h’ in the manner of a loud gregarious stereotype in a play about women of a certain age from the North of England, and he perfected his ‘bye bye’ with accompanying wave, playing with the meaning to gesture contempt for the faces who brought nebulisers and monitoring wires to him. ‘Bye’ he’d wave as they walked in. Awesome passive aggression my lad.
Of course he was happiest of all when his brother came a-visiting. For all that mum time and natural resistance – he kicked a radiographer with the force of a bear, and headbutted a quite junior doctor who loosened her grip whilst pinning him down – and all the chocolate buttons he snaffled from nice visitors, one thing truly cheered him and made him relax. Spider-boy’s arrival would see his brother perking up, laughing his head off, looking well enough to leave before wilting at bedtime, and seeming for the only time in his stay in that room on that ward like he belonged somewhere.
When we left, finally, with bags of washing, greasy hair and faintly shocked relief, he smiled again in his bear suit coat, an older version of the one he wore home from hospital the first time. That time my sister drove us home, this time another carried our nappies, Lucozade and general detritus and he was big enough to make his own farewell. He glanced back at the monitors on the wall and said with satisfaction ‘bye bye uh oh’.