When we were getting ready for baby number one, we were clueless. I didn’t know that babies cried, without giving any hint of why. I didn’t known their poo would be various colours and need monitoring like the changing weather. I didn’t know that some babies would never sleep in a cot, or a bed, or anywhere really except on a boob.
I also didn’t know that we needed ‘a place to change nappies’. Or even that babies needed nappies every few hours. The nurse explained this to us in the hospital, and I remember me and Michael looking at each other. I think we were both doing the mental maths that said, so, hold on a second, so we’ll have to be awake to do this, yes? Every few hours? So the eight hours of sleeping that we do, how does that work? That’s how clueless we were.
It was my mum who suggested we use our windowsill in the bathroom as our nappy-changing area. It’s a wide rectangle of plastic, suspended over a radiator, set into the wall like a baby-length cubby hole. She’s a very practical lady, my mum: a born home-maker. She walks into a room, and before she’s said hey, how are you, she’s assessed how you could better use the space, and add more storage, and has mentally ordered the stuff online. So we went to Ikea, got one of those blow-up changing mattresses, sat it on the sill, and we had made ourselves a changing area.
Little did we know that this would become a hub of joy, laughter and connection for years to come. That it would fill our bursting hearts with countless happy memories, yes sometimes crying, but mostly fun and calm. It did something to our babies. They would cry and cry, as babies do, and we would take them in our arms into the bathroom, lie them down there on the plastic mattress on the sill, and they would almost instantly be calm. For some reason, it was their happy place. So it was ours too.
Changing nappies has never felt like a chore. I have never (or rarely, it depends how far into my nails it gets) been repulsed by poo, or upset at accidents. I have loved carrying my tiny charges over to this place, laying them down, and having a quiet moment together. We’ve massaged oil into their backs, cream onto their belly, soothing ointment on their bums. We’ve made up silly songs, we’ve tickled, we’ve giggled, we’ve pointed out parts of the body, we’ve gone round and round the garden, we’ve roared like a tiger, we’ve picked up dropped cars, we’ve absent-mindedly picked off bits of cradle cap, softened by the bath, we’ve sung along to the plinky Sounds of Silence played by the musical bunny hanging on the window handle, we’ve been peed on (strangely enough, only by Charlie, never by Miko) and pooed on (Charlie) and we’ve bent down to inhale the babyness before it disappears. It’s sad that we cover them with so many clothes, and this was always a chance to reconnect with their bodies, to see how they were growing, to see if they had any eczema patches, to give them access to their own selves and to take them in at their most beautiful.
We had baby number two fairly quickly, so for nearly 18 months, we were double-changing in this little area. Armed with two piles of nappies, a soap dispenser full of olive oil (my brilliant midwife let us in on that secret) and nappy cream, we felt we were parents standing in this place, we were looking after them, helping them, connecting with them. We must have spent half of our lives here, standing at this spot.
We’d have the most ridiculous conversations with them, and sing the stupidest made-up songs, and latterly talk about bodily functions in a most frank and candid manner – hilarious to us, perhaps not to outsiders. Then we’d look up and realise the window was open and the whole building could hear our chats, amplified by the cold, hard courtyard.
This also happened when we had a crying baby lying there. It must have been so loud, especially the newborn cry which is heart-wrenching, rasping, urgent and able to travel through thick stone walls as if they’re net curtains. There were times when we couldn’t stop the crying, no matter how many songs we speed-sung or back rubs we administered. We felt so sorry for our neighbours. They must have thought we were the worst parents. Miko we could mostly calm down, but sometimes Charlie would cry for hours, even with a trip to the alcove.
We talk about why this place has had such a soothing effect on our babies. There are several reasons that come to mind. For one, as a baby, you spend a lot of time on the floor. The world is mostly giant and looming. Here, you’re at normal-people level, you feel at one with the world – in it, not under it. Then the simple fact of having proximity to mama and papa. Skin-on-skin contact, eyes so close you can touch eyelashes. It could also be an element of the light coming in. We live on the ground floor and it can be dark. Because of the size of the window, even without direct sunlight, the window is bright. Light makes a difference to babies I think. I so wish we could have moved out of here three and a half years ago.
I read an article once about how you don’t realise when the last time you do something with your child will be, but there will be a last time. The last time you breastfeed, the last time they sleep in your room, the last time they want a story before bedtime. Somehow, when I wasn’t watching, Charlie had a last time in the alcove.
He’s three and a half now, and we stretched our time with him on the changing sill far longer than we should have, even when his legs folded in two and his knees were at his chest. Somehow, with his progression to the toilet, we must have stopped lifting him up onto the sill. I still get the urge to sweep him up there and sing the song I made for him, Half-moon Eyes, when he would stop and stare and smile so wide, or rub my fingers behind his ear lobes, which I discovered is one of the few things that calms babies instantly, even when they don’t want you to touch them.
But I know that he’s moved on to better things. He won’t remember the alcove days, they’re all ours, and will live on only in our minds. But I hope that a snippet of a feeling for the love we transmitted to him at such close quarters remains in his consciousness forever.
We still have a few more months there with Miko, and we will make sure to treasure these as much as we can.
(A little sentimental I know. I always wanted to fix the words but never managed.)
Those little half-moon eyes
Send me to paradise
And that crescent smile
Makes a life worthwhile
And when you start to laugh
My heart beats oh so fast
Cause there is something wise
In those half-moon eyes
Those little tiny toes
That little button nose
Only a mother knows
Just how fast they grow
And when you look at me
Somehow there seems to be
Something so old and wise
In those half-moon eyes