Routine and all that
Two babies are born that summer. Both are emergency caesarean and both babies give their mothers difficult, dream-shattering births but make themselves into beautiful rewards. The scars will heal and the pain is forgotten in the joy of new life. Both have a due date of 14th June. But that is where the similarities end.
Eve’s little flat in Putney is a happy, warm sanctuary with a contented baby boy propped against tit all day long, eating when he feels like it, happy to spend hours nestled against his mother in the long sunlight from the back window. Her kitchen is willy-nilly, the detritus of breakfast still on the counter, lunch cooked by a relative and cups of tea boiling in the kettle all day long. This new Mamma sits on the sofa in her bra, eating, chatting and feeding the blooming baby, full of joy in her new son, full of love and acceptance of her new role. He sleeps next to her on the sofa and she strokes his head. She does not put him upstairs in his cot. She cannot bear to be apart from him.
Not far away, another new Mother sits in her living room, waiting for the Set Time. Not a cushion is out of place, nor a dirty cup in the sink, God Forbid! in this house. She is content but bored and the housework is done. Her house smells of Pledge and bleach. She misses the gossip and speed of the day of the office, twenty miles away. Maybe she will go back to work early after all, she thinks, yawning. It has been a month and her maternity leave stretches before her, a stark, boring prospect. The house is quiet, dead. She could always do with the money for all the little extras, the weekends away at nice spas. She has already booked one for when the baby will be three months. The bathroom toilets sparkle, the kitchen is black formica, empty and cold. She has ordered a new radio because the silence of the house is killing her. She has washed and blow dried her hair straight and wears a full face of make-up. Soon a friend will come for a late lunch with her toddler and she opens the white wine for a small, pre-lunch refreshment.
Suddenly her baby girl cries on the monitor, a plaintive, tinny cry. Barb looks at her watch. It is only 1pm. She is steadfast though her T-shirt becomes wet with baby milk and makes a circle of wet stickiness on her nipple. She frowns. How irritating, it is not yet time, she thinks. Baby is sleeping on a set routine and has already started sleeping 7 hours a night at three weeks of age. Baby is on a schedule. Let her weep, let her cry. No one will come until half past six! No feeding outside the schedule, no sleeping outside it. Keep to the timetable tacked to the fridge, hour by hour, the interminable days ticked off with tasks with military precision. The only thing allowed outside schedule is to piss and shit and even this is highly inconvenient and would be, ideally, remedied. Hopefully there will be a new book out soon on the subject. She will be first in the queue.
This Mummy will take her baby in her arms to feed at exactly 2pm and will feed her for a half an hour on each breast. No longer than that. Not allowed. She often forgets to burp her because that is not on the timetable. Oops! Baby sometimes makes a posset of yellow sour milk, puking whatever she eats, but that’s tough! No top ups here. Mother will stick to the schedule no matter what. Maternity nurse Mary, hired for two weeks like an efficient, organised whirlwind of advice and brisk orderliness, had left strict instructions as she left. ‘Keep to the Routine,’ she said. ‘If you don’t you will Pay!’
The baby is small and scrawny for her age and looks like a newborn, red faced and thin. She has barely put on weight in this first month and her skin hangs loosely from her legs like chicken wings, folded up to her like a fledgling chick in a small cross. She looks as though she is literally starving, and gazes about her with unseeing eyes, a little apathetic, finding comfort in her hunger in sleep and a newly acquired dummy. Her mother gave her the dummy to stop her sucking on her hands in quiet desperation in the night, a sucking sound so loud it woke her parents and worried them. There is nothing about that in The Reference Book with its timetables and lists. Surely she is getting enough milk, after all she is feeding properly at the allotted times as decided by the Duchess Maternity Nurse and her Childless Virgin Queen of Scots, Miss Gina Ford, The High Priestess Of Routine?
Her friend, arrived for lunch, gasps when she sees the baby. An old school friend, they have nothing in common except the trials of a shared boarding school past. They are like distant cousins and accordingly, they have overlooked the fact they have nothing whatsoever in common. They used to love each other as sisters but as time passes they grow further and further apart. The friend is a professional writer, an aspiring artist and earns pennies. Barb makes a small fortune as a number cruncher. She has come mainly out of guilt. My babies were all at least 8 and half pounds when they were a month old, she thinks to herself, shocked. She looks around her at the immaculate house but does not say anything. She looks at her friend’s make up, sees the cracks in the mask. Senses her quiet desperation but says nothing. What can she say? She does not want to argue. She knows all too well that Barb will only deny it. She pretends to admire the modern furniture and fittings. Where are all the baby things? She thinks, perplexed. The only sign that there is a baby living there is the baby chair set up on the decking outside. Of course! Baby’s things are neat in the nursery. Barb looks at her friend’s ethnic jewellery and the grubby toddler’s ripped jeans with wry amusement. At 2pm precisely, she feeds the baby, holding her with a smug smirk. ‘Your babies would have slept properly if you had instilled a firm Routine,’ she says, an expert of three weeks. Friend, mother of three, snaps inwardly and regrets the decision to come. She tries to practice tolerance though, restrains herself from ripping the hated timetable from the fridge and tearing it into tiny pieces. She resists the urge to scream ‘Feed Your Baby, Bitch!’ She clings to the mantra: ‘Mothers know Best’, even when clearly, they don’t. This woman has intimidated her since they were small with her obsessive compulsive disorders and her violent temper. Go Home and Brood, Coward!
In Putney the baby steadily puts on weight, increasing by a nearly half a pound a week in his first month. He becomes plump and bonny with multiple chins and chubby, cuddly arms. In the other Surrey village, the baby does not fare so well. She is loved and showered with kisses when she is held according to the proper times on the schedule, but routine is more important than human desire in this sparkling, immaculate household. ‘You have to show the baby what is what,’ says her Grandmother. This, coming from a woman who lodged her sensitive, frightened, bespectacled daughter at boarding school at the tender age of six, to see her once every two weeks when her social life dictated it was convenient.
‘Routine is everything.’