t was father's day here in Australia this month. Last year you were too young to be aware, but now, surrounded by talk of fathers at childcare, and in books, and on TV, you’ve started to wonder, and to ask.
This was our biggest test of handling the Dad question so far.
We've been figuring out how to talk about it since my nephew first asked, three and a half years ago. We're going back there.
You're six days old. I apprehensively pack my things and prepare to be discharged. It’s been a surprisingly idyllic little sanctuary, this hospital room. No demands on me except gentle ones from you, people regularly dropping in to say hello, and I'm so hungry that even hospital food seems ok. That and medication are delivered when I need them; painkillers, iron supplements and laxatives which I feel utterly dependent on thanks to the disturbing haemorrhoids that came with childbirth. I'm not sure I'm ready to leave yet, but we have to start our real life together sooner or later. And we won't be alone, not yet.
My mother arrives to take us home. I carry you and she wheels the suitcase. It feels almost comedic, the weak leading the weak, as we make our way through the hospital to the car waiting just outside. It's your first time outside, breathing fresh air, seeing trees, birds and the sky and I take a deep breath and gaze up, as if it's my first time too.
Your bassinet is ready, on wheels so you are always near me. I establish breast feeding stations in different parts of the house, equipped with shaped pillows, lanolin for cracked nipples, water, snacks, baby care books and the iPad with an app to time feeds and keep track of which side we're up to. I'm obsessive about this, creating data to back up my unreliable memory. I seem to need something concrete as I figure out what I'm doing and whether I'm doing it right.
Midwives comes each day for the first week. I really look forward to their visits. They take their time, let me ask questions and talk, and make me feel that I'm doing well.
In contrast, when the child health nurse comes she succeeds in making me insecure about your routine, or lack of routine, about my general approach to parenting, and even about how crowded our coffee table is with books. She has such an abrasive manner, that my mother and I both feel like we're back at school and in trouble with the principal. I'm instructed the routine should be: sleep, feed, change, play, sleep, and feel guilty and inadequate that I can't seem to do it.
My mother is busy all day everyday, from this day, for months, cooking and feeding me, making cups of tea for visitors, fielding phone calls, rocking you to sleep when I've run out of steam. I honestly don't know how I could do this without her. And to be clear, the food isn't average. She's an amazing cook and a food writer, and right now she's cooking as if our lives depend on it, which, in a way, I guess they do.
Time is a blur. There's not much to differentiate between night and day other than daylight and my mother’s company. Even though we're often in different parts of the house, not interacting, I'm comforted by knowing she's there. I've lived alone for years and always needed my own space, but I don't want to be all alone with you yet. I'm not strong enough. I feel scared when she goes out. The house seems big and empty and I look around the corners of the room and don't quite know what to do with myself. Actually it's not that I'm afraid to be alone with you. That feels like the most natural and comfortable thing to me, as if there's nothing more I need in my life now that you're in it. But I'm afraid for me. All the strength I have is for you and I can only offer it because my mum is looking after me.
My nipples are sore, but it's not terrible. Some days I have to brace myself as you latch on to endure the first few seconds of pain, but after that it's ok. I'd had so many fears about breastfeeding, whether we'd be able to do it, whether there's be a problem, whether I'd have enough milk for you. Once again I'm one of the lucky ones.
The letdown is powerful. Your little sounds and cries cause me to fill and leak immediately. A friend tells me for her it's enough just to see something cute! And they don't just drip, they squirt! Fine droplets on the bathroom floor after a shower, across the iPad screen, inside the car door. I wear cotton breastpads to try to avoid visible wet patches. I have to wear a bra all the time, day and night, to soak up the drips. Even so, I often wake up with wet sheets. I'm quite happy I’m single for this bit.
Friends start to visit as I get stronger. They bring cards and presents, and more arrive in the post, from Sydney, from Stockholm, Chicago and Oslo, from the countryside. I had no idea this is what people do when you have a baby. I just can't get over the kindness, the generosity, the outpouring of love and good will. I needn't have feared judgement, even from the most conservative people I know. Everybody is so happy that you’re here and they want us to know.
I've read you books about unconventional families all your life. We even have a book about a single woman having a baby with donor sperm. I want you to know your story and for it to be normal, so you don't experience the shock of discovery. It's difficult though when pretty well all the children you know have a mum and a dad, including our cousins. I keep hoping lesbian mums, gay dads or a single mother by choice will send their kid to childcare with you. Better yet, all of them!
You first asked me why you don't have a dad before you were three. I was flustered and did my best, but didn’t feel I'd done well. It didn't take long for you to ask again, and I did a little better. Now I've had 5 or 6 goes, and I never come away feeling I've really got this under control. It's hard, and it will keep being hard.
I was grateful for the sensitivity of the wonderful women at your childcare. The kids made cards and yours meant so much to you that it came to bed with us every night that week.
When the day came, you had the afternoon with Grandpa all to yourself. And he had you all to himself too.
This is an independent production made by me, Sophie Harper, supported by generous donors and the Australian Cultural Fund. Music by permission from the artist: Sofia by Versus Shade Collapse. Music from freemusicarchive.org - CC NC License:
Opus 4 by Dexter Britain; Red Danube by Lee Rosevere; Note Drop by Broke For Free.
"Father's Day this year wasn't easy."
Thanks to my family, my friends and my daughter, for allowing me to record and for your endless support.
I'll be back in three weeks, after a short break, to tell you some of my plans for the future. In the meantime, find a friend who's new to podcasts and show them what they're missing out on!