When comedian Sam Avery became a first-time dad to twin boys, nothing could have prepared him for the flood of milk, nappies and emotion that followed. He shares what he learned from totally winging it.
I have always wanted kids, but then again, I have always wanted a loft conversion. Both are pretty easy to put off as they’re very expensive and tend to wreck your house. As much as I wanted to become a dad ‘someday’, I viewed parenthood with a certain level of suspicion. It looked like lots of fun, but then so was going out for dinner once a week, having absolutely no responsibilities and lying in bed till midday at weekends…
I was 36 years old and had, luckily, never needed an operation. Zac had one within 36 hours of being born, to correct a blockage between his stomach and his bowel. Thinking back, I was very calm about the whole thing. Waiting for him to go down to theatre wasn’t the wrench I thought it would be; I just convinced myself that he would be OK. I even joked with the surgeon, when he told me we’d barely be able to see the scar, that it would be great if he could make it noticeable enough so that we could tell him apart from his twin brother Ben.
I went back to see Zac that evening feeling this awful parental sickness in my stomach. These feelings were all new and not enjoyable in the slightest: I was looking forward to watching them at sports day or sticking their first painting to a fridge, not seeing them hooked up to medical machines on day one of their lives.
I watched him sleep for about an hour. He looked pretty good for someone just over a day old who had already gone under a general anaesthetic and been operated on. The staff, all staggeringly helpful, told me that he was on the right track and they’d try to feed him in the morning to see if the op had been a success. I considered signing him up for Tough Mudder (the hardcore obstacle race), but instead gave him a kiss and headed back to Ben and my wife Rachel. I hoped that every day as a parent wouldn’t be this taxing.
Day three. A voicemail message from Alder Hey Children’s Hospital asking me to call them about Zac. My breathing becomes shallow and the shake of my hands made it nearly impossible to dial the number. Was something wrong? Had his condition worsened? None of the above. He was coming home.
The sun was shining as we set off from the hospital with Zac’s car seat strapped into the back, so I opened his window slightly, recalling those public service announcements about the dangers of hot cars. Then I remembered they were about dogs so I shut the window again. I made conversation with him all the way, starting off with an apology for forgetting his clothes and then telling him how his twin brother couldn’t wait to meet him properly. Halfway home I convinced myself that he’d stopped breathing so I pulled into a bus stop to run around to check.
And then we were home. All of us. Rachel had put Ben on the playmat and I got the camera ready to capture their first proper meeting on the outside. We put him and his brother together as I got ready for a classic YouTube click-bait style moment: ‘These twins were separated at birth. What happened when they were reunited will blow your mind.’
And guess what happened? Nothing. They lay there in silence until Ben filled his nappy, probably with all the emotion. It was the happiest I had ever felt.
We spent the rest of the day huddled together on the sofa, alternating who held each twin. No machines. No tubes. No doctors. Just a young family making up for lost time. We’d made sure all the cards we had been sent were up for when Zac arrived home. I don’t think he noticed, but you can’t be sure. And who knows, maybe one day he’ll read this.
Arguments by proxy
When kids arrive, tensions run high. It’s the happiest time of your life (so you’re told) and you should apparently ‘enjoy every moment’, so why do you feel like you want to scream? Well, let’s review the evidence. If you are a new parent please tick the box if:
❏ Your sleep has been cut in half.
❏ Your free time has evaporated.
❏ The taste of a still warm cuppa is now a distant memory.
❏ You’ve left the house with numerous stains on your clothes.
❏ The most relaxing thing you can do is a hard day’s work.
All this adds a certain frisson to your relationship with your partner (and to any single parents reading, I doff my cap: you are legends).
The first couple of years of being parents together takes your relationship by the scruff of the neck and forces it on to an assault course. A misplaced inflection on a word can cause a squabble. Leaving clean washing in the wrong pile is a potential flare-up. And accidentally putting a dirty nappy in the washing machine will definitely throw your marriage on to the rocks.
I’ve spoken to people who try for a baby to ‘save’ their relationship but I can’t think of anything worse for a failing marriage than throwing a newborn baby into the mix. There’s something about the early years of parenting and sleep deprivation that at times turn you into an unreasonable monster. I remember one morning when it was my wife’s turn to do the early feed and the boys didn’t wake up until 8am. I should have been pleased for her, but I was fuming. It just wasn’t fair.
We didn’t have full-on arguments, but we did have a ton of by-proxy digs at each other through the boys. The jibes would start off as a bit of fun but tended to escalate out of control.
‘I thought Daddy would have done that washing-up by now.’
‘Well, it’s OK for Mummy to say that as she had a lie-in this morning.’
‘But Daddy isn’t pumping out breast milk, is he? Even though he looks like he’s got all the relevant equipment…’
Yet somehow I was always able to rescue any cross words between us with the most romantic gesture of them all. No need for trips to Paris or expensive jewellery, just turn to your partner and whisper, ‘Babe, I’ll have the baby monitor on my side of the bed tonight if you like.’ What a smoothie.
Despite the odd quarrel, by the time the boys were a month or so old we were settling into a decent routine at home. Our big problem was that it took ages to feed each baby and by that I mean that it would be quicker to read the entire terms and conditions for iTunes than feed both twins separately.
My wife kept talking about this mystical ‘tandem feed’ that we should employ but I kept brushing it off. The thought of trying to feed and burp the boys at the same time filled me with dread. But I was a grown man now, and a father, so I put Ben on my lap and reached for Zac. By the time I’d got Zac into position, Ben had wriggled away like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. He ended up face-down on the sofa so I grabbed him, and while I did this Zac opted for the same pointless escape route.
I knew I needed to pin them down to maintain some form of order but the last thing I wanted to do was accidentally hurt them. So I put my hand on Zac’s chest and tried to manoeuvre Ben back into position. I grabbed a bottle with each hand and aimed for the boy’s mouths, getting Ben in the ear and Zac in the stomach. I had another go. This time I hit the jackpot and both teats landed in their mouths. I wanted to wave to the crowd like a golfer who’d just put in a birdie but I didn’t have a free hand and there was no crowd. So I didn’t.
Solo Dadding (and a new level of respect for my wife)
As much as I was desperate to be a hands-on dad, so far Rachel had been there to guide me through everything. I was pulling my weight but she was project manager. She’d flown solo loads of times since I’d returned to work, but now it was my turn to sample being outnumbered by babies as she went back to work.
It was a real wrench for her to leave them for a full day. As much as she’d considered herself ‘ready’ to return to work, she didn’t want to leave the house. I gave her a hug and told her to think of all the cups of tea she’d be able to enjoy while they were still hot and this seemed to cheer her a little.
I waved goodbye. ‘Right, boys, it’s just us.’
They seem happy on their mat, the kettle is on and there are some biscuits in the cupboard. Get the cricket on, sit back and enjoy the bonding. Right, let’s get that telly on! Although I should probably clean the kitchen first. And wash those bottles. And put a wash on. And strip their cots. Better hop to it, then. It’ll only take five minutes.
40 minutes later.
I’m knackered. And that cuppa’s gone cold. I know, I’ll get some brownie points by cutting Zac’s nails. Rachel hates doing it. He’s fast asleep so this will be a doddle. Right, do the little finger first. Nice. Now for the next one. Perfect, this is easy. Now for the thumb. Oh s***. I’ve cut him. He’s crying his little head off. There’s blood everywhere. Definitely a hospital trip. Probably a social services visit, too. I’ve failed big time. As a human and a father.
‘Don’t cry, little man!’
He’s in actual pain. This is awful. This isn’t hunger or tiredness. It’s an open wound. Need to find that cotton wool. What if he needs a blood transfusion? I’ll give him all of mine. Every last drop. OK, he’s quietening down now. Although, is that a good thing? You need to keep your hand still, little fella! Every time he moves it starts bleeding again.
I am an awful human being. I think Ben is waking up now, too. Has he pooed? I can’t smell anything. Time to open the nappy. Feel like I’m on Deal or No Deal. Please make it a good one. That’s not a good one. Not at all. Where are the fresh nappies? Why aren’t they here where we change the nappies? OK, this will do. Although this brand often leaks. Nappy on. Clothes next. Either this body suit is too small or I’m being a bit rubbish. Can’t fit him into it. Don’t want to break his arm for fashion purposes. That’s one arm in. Come on son, help me out here. Wait, is this upside down? How have I managed this? There we go. Time for a sit down. I am pooped. Best make a fresh brew as I never got round to drinking the last one.
Great. Ben has been sick all over his new outfit. I’ll say one thing, his timing is impeccable. Need to clean that up. Where’s the cloth? How can it have gone missing? It’s the most used item in the house.
‘It’s OK, boys. Don’t panic! Daddy’s got everything under control and Mummy will be home in another five hours…’
This is an edited extract from Confessions of a Learner Parent: Parenting Like a Boss (An Inexperienced, Slightly Ineffectual Boss) by Sam Avery, to be published by Seven Dials on 5 October, price £12.99. To pre-order a copy for £10.39 (a 20 per cent discount) until 8 October, visit you-bookshop.co.uk