When Salim met Felix

I last spoke to you about a week ago, the day after the birth of my son Felix, and I was about to catch a flight to the US to meet him. Well I wanted to talk to you about what happened after that, because I think it touches on quite an important issue.

I arrived in Houston around 4pm local time that Monday feeling exhausted. My friend Gustavo had given me a sleeping pill for the journey with instructions to take it an hour before boarding so as not to prolong the effects, but I'd forgotten all about this and only took it about an hour into the flight. I was away with the fairies most of the way so didn’t have time to really let the emotion of meeting my son wash over me, and felt like a zombie when I got off at the other end. I called my sister who instructed her friend Josh, who was with her at the hospital and had been present for the birth, to come and collect me. The plan was for him to take me back to the hospital to meet Felix and my sister, both of whom would be staying there for at least another night. But the drive from the hospital was a good hour or so and Josh was delayed in leaving, so I was left at the airport propping myself up with an extra large (in Texas, extra large means extra large) coffee from Starbucks for a couple of hours. This gave me time to think, and the uneasy feeling from that morning and the night before returned.

When Josh finally arrived he took me to the hospital. First we went to Suraiya’s room. I hadn’t seen my sister for over a year and we were in need of a big cuddle. Then we all set off together to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) where they were keeping Felix. Whilst walking there Suraiya asked me if I was excited and I said yes, but actually what I was feeling wasn’t excitement, it was something else. I wasn’t sure if I could identify the feeling, but it didn’t feel positive. It was actually closer to dread. I can’t explain why. This was the moment I’d been waiting for for months, years even. I couldn’t shake the feeling and I wanted more than anything to just feel happy. When we got to the entrance of the NICU I was greeted by nurses that asked security questions before letting me in. When they established I was the father I was showered with congratulations. It felt strangely intense, almost like I needed a moment alone in a room to breathe and gather my thoughts. I was then let into the NICU and told that Felix was down the hallway to the left, but that I’d have to wash my hands in the sink on the right. As I washed them I felt them tremble. I began walking down the hallway to the left and heard the beeping of machines, no doubt monitoring the babies in the room at the end of the hallway. As we approached the room, Suraiya got out her video camera and said she wanted to film my reaction. This made me feel worse. I felt pressured. Was I now supposed to cry? Or maybe jump for joy? Or pretend that I was feeling something, anything, more than I was.

We arrived at a small plastic incubator-type bed containing a baby. It was Felix. He was lying face-down hooked up to some sort of monitoring machine. He was wearing a hat to retain heat, his arm was wrapped in a bandage as there was an IV in it, and there was a tube in his mouth that covered most of his face.

I could only really see his eyelids as his eyes were closed. There he was. There was my son. And there was my reaction – a smile and a lame soundbite for Suraiya’s video along the lines of “Awwww so cute”. Suraiya said “I thought your reaction would be different”, i.e. more than someone who’d seen a cuddly toy in a shop window whilst waiting for a bus. I told Suraiya that I was tired after my journey, which was true actually. Lets not forget I was still feeling the effects of that sleeping pill, not to mention the usual jetlag. Going by the time difference I was effectively meeting Felix in the middle of the night having woken up super early. But to be honest I’m clutching at straws here because I don’t think this should make a difference when talking about your own children.

The nurse told me that the staff there was about to change shifts and they needed me to go away for 15 minutes during the handover. I was grateful for the escape. Suraiya, Josh and I went back to Suraiya’s room where we were greeted by a couple of Suraiya’s friends. They’d brought gifts for Felix and wanted to congratulate me. More people to convince that this wasn’t a complete head fuck. We chatted for a while and then they offered me a lift home (or rather to Suraiya’s home where Felix and I would be staying for the next three months were Suraiya, my mum and my three nephews), which I accepted. They wanted to see Felix on the way out so I took them back to the NICU.

They enjoyed seeing Felix but of course it was very much the usual reaction – "Sweet baby. Oh well, must dash" kind of thing. The funny thing is, I felt the same way. I just wanted to get to bed. While we were there the nurse said that they were about to feed him some milk in case I wanted to watch. She wasn’t inviting an answer, but I remember thinking that I didn’t particularly want to watch that and that there was something wrong with me. In the end one of Suraiya’s friends thankfully suggested starting the long drive home, so I left with them and said my goodbyes until tomorrow.

When I got home I saw my mum, again for the first time in over a year so lots of kisses and cuddles followed. After we put my nephews to bed we talked about Felix and I casually mentioned that I hadn’t reacted the way I would’ve expected when meeting him. I played it down though, opting for “I was less emotional than expected” as opposed to “I was dead inside”. My mum was pretty good actually, responding as if it was a complete nonissue, even laughing about it. She said that kind of love grows over time and not to worry. It made me feel a little better but I was still far from what I’d consider ‘normal’. I hoped I’d feel better after sleeping on it.

The next day I woke up feeling terrible. Nothing had changed. But I knew I had to snap out of it because it was onwards and (hopefully) upwards from here. What would a normal person do in this situation? They’d jump in the shower and get back to the hospital as fast as they could in order to spend time with their newborn child, so I gave myself an imaginary slap in the face and started getting ready. In the shower I continued to fight the feeling but it kept coming back. I was almost in tears. Why was I feeling like this? What was ‘this’ anyway? Fear? Anger? Regret? None of the above seemed right. I didn’t want to change what had happened. All I knew was that I somehow felt unsettled. I fought back the tears and came out of the bathroom wearing my Oscar-winning happy face.

I got a message from Suraiya saying “Call me! They’re giving you a room!!” I called and she told me that Felix would be staying in the hospital for another night and she’d managed to arrange a room for me to sleep in with Felix. This was great because its something normally reserved for mothers fresh out of labour. I of course agreed. That morning I’d been thinking about the previous day and had concluded that part of the problem was the pressure. I’m not good with reacting the way people expect me to. This arrangement with the room sounded exactly what I needed – quality time with Felix, just the two of us.

Josh came to pick me up and we headed back to the hospital. Suraiya and Felix were waiting for us in my new room with a nurse. As I walked in saw Felix in his bed, now with no tube in his mouth and no IV. Already I felt better, clearer. The nurse said he was about ready to be fed if I wanted to do it, which I did. I sat in a chair and she handed him to me. He was wrapped in a blanket and looked like a pea in a pod. I held him in my arms for the first time, this delicate helpless thing. I remember feeling his weight on me, his hot skin, the softness. I could feel him breathing. I looked down at him and his eyes were closed. He was a tiny little person. He was mine.

There it was.

I felt it. I felt a part of what everyone talks about – the connection. Don’t ask me why it took till then to feel it. It may have been the jetlag, it may have been the pressure of a thousand eyes on me expecting a scene-stealing performance, it may have been the weight of the sudden shift in responsibility in my life, or maybe a mixture of all of the above and more. I don’t know, but I’m glad it happened.

In the week that followed, the feeling has only grown. Remember in a previous blog entry I said that I’m most looking forward to him looking up at me like I’m everything? Well its not quite as clean cut as that. He does look up at me and of course that does feel amazing, but the best thing about him can’t be singled out like that. The best thing is the feeling of just being with him, of having him in my life. I enjoy watching him look around the room, following his eyes as they explore. I love the fact that every time I touch my finger to his hand he will always, no matter what, grip it. It makes me laugh the way he pouts when he’s hungry and the way he screws up his face when he poops. Even his cry is beautiful to me. How naive I was to think the best thing would be him looking at me like I’m everything, when its actually the other way round.

This is exactly why I thought it was important to talk about what I went through. The thing I was most looking forward to is a perfect example of it, of that idealisation of the instant parent-child bond. Its like we’re sold that perfect picture of an instant spiritual bond. I’m sure for most parents it is like this, and that’s great for them, but for some of us it doesn’t happen immediately and I want to tell you all that that doesn’t matter, you're not a bad parent and you will love your child. Give it time. It may take a day, it may take a week, but at some point it’ll come and knock you for six.

And when it happens, everything before that day becomes a blur.