There’s a new baby in our family. My sister has become a grandma, and I’m a Great Aunt. Born on 1 January, she arrived with the New Year, and just when we were all flagging – too full of food, feeling stodgy and lazy, depressed about diets and returns to work – she lifted our spirits to such an extent that we are now basically fighting to get our hands on her.
I visited when she was just a few days old and realised how much I’d forgotten about newborns. Nervous about taking her in my arms, I sat down carefully and then had her handed to me as if I were a novice, a teenager, imagining I would inevitably drop her.
It’s so long ago since I used to march up and down the stairs holding a baby face outwards, bouncing the burps out of her. Another used to lie along my arm, while I did chores with the other hand. But now holding a baby feels strange and unfamiliar.
For about five minutes. And then suddenly, looking down at her face, with her eyes screwed shut and lips pursed disapprovingly, it all comes flooding back and my arm remembers the precise quality of the weight, my fingers remember the softness of baby skin. I remember that she’s not made of glass but is firm and warm like a hot water bottle.
She’s in that elusive state somewhere between waking and sleep. A creature only just alive, only just breathing air, only just out of the darkness, only just hearing our voices without the underwater muffle. Every now and then she startles, like the full body jump as you’re falling asleep. Her hands flap wide open, her legs kick out. Then she settles again, and is still, interrupted by brief moments when she whimpers like a dreaming dog, or quivers like the surface of a pool.
The four adults in the room do nothing but stare at her, then talk about her. A new baby is better than any mindfulness app for dragging you fully into the present moment. The here and now feels both refreshingly empty – nothing is really happening! – and yet also full to the brim, rich with potential, overflowing with promise.
We admire the softness of her vest, the nice pattern on her Babygro. The smartness of her cot, the ingeniousness of her carrier. Somewhere below the surface of all this loveliness is a conversation we’re not having, about the difficult bits of the birth, which hasn’t yet quite settled into being a funny family anecdote. That will happen later.
It reminds me that I now blithely recount the arrival of my twin daughters as if it were something I took in my stride, when in fact it was one of the most shattering days of my life. I joke about the fact that “Where Do You Go To My Lovely” was playing, and I join in with eye-watering conversations where mothers outdo each other with our battle stories. But I choose not to dwell on the fact that I was truly frightened, or that when my babies were taken away to their incubators my whole body rebelled, though I accepted it quietly and obediently as I had to.
I’m lucky though. Everything worked out fine. I went on to have the happy experience of a single baby, born at full term, who was allowed to stay with me, and spent his first evening in the plastic box beside my bed, where he lay and looked at me with eyes as black and beady as a squirrel’s, like he was scanning my face for information, like he already knew everything about me.
And I don’t know anyone with kids who doesn’t have a tale to tell. Childbirth: so quotidian, so brutal. The end of pregnancy becomes tiresome, drags on, weighs you down, and then suddenly comes to such a screaming pitch of drama that you can’t believe you wished for it to end. Anything to go back to the comfortable safe dullness!
The comfortable safe dullness which never returns. Instead, all being well, you start the next day in your new life, with yourself no longer at the centre of it.
And as I now realise, the joy of this fact radiates outwards. So I am currently spending my days refreshing Instagram, hoping there will be another picture of my great niece doing nothing. Perhaps curling her fingers. Or wearing a hat. Just being new. l
Next week: Kate Mossman
This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?