What I Wish I Had Known (About Parenting).

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Friends (especially those without kids) often ask ‘So what’s it like being a father now?’. Instead of the customary ‘It’s been wonderful and rewarding, and the best decision we have ever made,’ they are surprised when they hear me say ‘Well, it’s been a huge change and we are tired all the time, and some days I don’t even know how we get through the day.’

‘But it’s all worth it in the end, of course,’ they blurt out, trying to defend the cliché of the defeated but smiling parent at the end of the day. At some level, I think they are terrified themselves about this unknown entity called parenthood – a seeming inevitability to some of us, like starting school or a new job, and they want to be reassured that this scary new place is actually going to be okay.

Well, as a first time parent I just want to tell you this – that parenting is hard. That’s it. Nothing to soften the blow, no buts to follow, parenting is tough. It is almost taboo to paint a real picture about parenting but I can only tell you with measured honesty what my experience has been like.

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There is no exam to sit to be a parent, no four year preparatory course in university where you graduate with a Bachelor of Parenting (can one be a bachelor and a parent?). Somehow we are expected to make the biggest leap of our lives naturally and instinctively, without advice or help or training. God knows how we have done this generation after generation but let me tell you now – raising a child is hard, and it often requires a village. A small town, in fact.

Having a child is about the biggest life change you will ever experience, because:

1. Your complete routine changes.

Everything, and I mean everything now is done with consideration for your little ones. As Michael McIntyre, the famous stand-up comedian once said – ‘Things that weren’t even things, are now things.’

Leaving the house (once a mindless endeavour) is now a coordinated thirty minute affair – dressing the baby, dressing yourself, making sure that there are enough diapers in the diaper bag, making sure that there is enough food in the food bag, trying to get the cursed baby stroller (which requires a degree in engineering to open) to open with only one hand and then fighting off an angry tyrant who does not want to be strapped down in it.

As a parent, even the places you can go to are limited to whether or not they are safe and comfortable for your child – i.e. does the place have baby chairs, is there a changing room in the event of a poo-nami, will the kitchen microwave your baby food or offer you hot water to make its milk, and most importantly, is there alcohol (mostly for you, and a little for the baby bottle to help them sleep teeheehee).

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2. Say goodbye to sleep.

Uninterrupted sleep, that is. Say goodbye to casual lie-ins on a Saturday morning after a long workweek and a boozy Friday evening, in fact say goodbye to any regular sleep at all. Say hello to 3am and 5am wakes and eyeshoppingbags and your zombification (without the messy biting) and a whole new level of caffeine dependence. Sleep was the luxury that you took for granted before your child was born – no matter how much of an insomniac you were, it will never ever compare to how sleep deprived you will be after you have a child.

If you are pre-children and you have friends with kids, be prepared to hear them talk about how tired they are for the next 18 years or so.

The body, mercifully, in all of God’s wisdom, somehow adapts and if all else fails, you can always have your eighth cup of coffee for the day. Which doesn’t help your –

3. Anxiety.

Be prepared to be a whole new level of worried for your child. This is especially true for first-time parents who are looking at their bundle of joy right after birth, wondering how on earth they ended up here.

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No amount of books read or courses attended will ever prepare you for the real thing, and it is only the support of experienced family and friends and the Maternal Child Health Nurse that will get you through those tough first few months.

It is always a time of fragility and self-doubt (for the mother especially) so remember to always be supportive and kind. (I am looking at you, Breastfeeding Nazis). Listen and be patient with each other’s fears rather than minimising or arguing, and get all the help you can. It is a massive period of transition for you and your partner and it should be treated as such.

Slowly and surely, your confidence will grow as you ‘learn on the job’ but learn to ask for, and receive help as well. Parenting is NOT intuitive and not knowing what to do does NOT make you a bad parent – it is a skill to be learnt and developed like everything else.

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4. Annoyance.

The first 3 months is spent worrying whether or not you will accidentally kill your child, the next 18 years will be spent preventing yourself from wilfully doing it. I say it tongue fully in cheek of course, but your affection to your child will be tested by the 24 hours a day you spend with it, and also the many battles of independence and obedience you will fight for the rest of your lives. This is punctuated, of course, by the silly moments, the cheeky grins, the foot-shuffling apologies, the moments of laughter and love that make it worthwhile.

The best decision we ever made as parents was to put Lexie into childcare 3 times a week. This has two benefits – she has definitely grown in leaps and bounds socially, mentally (she was getting so bored at home and who can blame her? I fall asleep listening to myself sometimes) and also immunologically (I think we need to install some kind of antivirus into Lexie 1.0).

The other benefit is this – allowing yourself time away from your child will also make you a better parent in the times that you do spend with your child. One of the big things you lose as a parent is your sense of self – suddenly everything revolves around your child but one thing we forget is to care for the carer, that we matter too.

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Our rest, our physical and mental health, doing things that recharge our energy levels – those things are important, and can so easily be lost in society’s long-held adoration of the all-sacrificing parent and the worshipped child.

What creeps into a relationship when you are not rested is resentment, that little imp that insidiously melts the bonds of relationship between you and your partner. Suddenly a ledger springs up about who has spent more hours with the child, whose turn it is to do the twilight patting and shushing the baby to sleep, who did the last five nappy changes.

A date night while a baby sitter comes in for a few hours or time alone while your mother holds the fort is all that is required for you to exhale and then face afresh the journey that is parenting.

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So why be a parent at all, you wonder? I am writing this post for the third time, that’s how quickly I have vacillated in my thoughts about parenting.

Actually, the self-interrogation about your wisdom to start a family could change even from moment to moment, when your smiling toothless angel suddenly becomes the rabid Tantrum Monster because you wouldn’t let her play with your wallet (you have noticed all these suspicious credit card purchases of toys from Babies R Us).

Parenting for the first time will be this dichotomy of loving your child and yearning to have things the way they were. Parents will know the duality of wanting the day to end already when you have been tested by the boundless energy of your little one, and then cooing over their photos and missing them the moment they go to bed.

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It is one of the biggest life changes you will ever face and you can either see your child as a ball-and-chain imprisoning you or you can choose to see them as the anchor that keeps you grounded. (Even the word itself carries the dual meaning of being rooted, or of delinquent punishment!)

‘Yes, parenting’s tough, but you wouldn’t change it for the world, right?’ asks the hopeful friend again. Well, truthfully, it is about the most seismic shift we have had as a couple and some parts of your old selves will have to be put on hold or die completely in order for these new parts of you to come alive.

You may not fall immediately in love with your child, and that’s okay. You are still getting to know each other in those first few months (or years, even). But soon that all-crying all-pooping mess will have a temperament and personality of its own, to be moulded by nature and our nurture – a tiny version of you, our legacy in this world.

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It is at once exasperating, exhilarating, exhausting and expanding – your patience will grow as will your ability to love and forgive, you will learn how to not to sweat the small things (like milk posits or saliva stains on your shirt or eating things your child has dropped to the floor), you will also become more assertive as you shape your child to your will.

A whole new world you never even knew existed will open up – suddenly your conversations shift to baby diapers and poonamis and sleep-training and strollers and childcare and skin creams and clothes. Your emails are now peppered with sales at Baby Buntings and invitations to Pregnancy and Child Expos and your Facebook feeds eerily pump you with baby products. If you are not mindful, you risk alienating your friends who are not parents with all your child-rearing talk.

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One of the best things about parenting, if you’ll allow it, is an opportunity to pick at your cynical heart – children have a way of making the hardest hearts kneel to their eye-level – they invite you to be playful, silly, curious and to look at the world afresh again.

Someone once described their child as a walking piece of their heart that is beating outside of their chest, and the older Lexie gets the truer I find it – I am in love with her and my heart grows as she does. Just be prepared, however, for this uncaged part of your heart to be picked apart, bruised, ache, rage, swell with pride and burst with love as only a parent’s heart can.

The Day After Valentine’s Day.

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It was a pretty hectic Monday for the family – we had friends and family over, I was at work and couldn’t get home in time to shower Lexie. Dinner was a raucous affair and Karen as usual whipped up a feast for everyone. I was trying to flit between playing the good host and performing my Specialty Housekeeping Skill – Dishwashing. (I also do Advanced Ironing.)

The night ended lounging lazily around to the sound of some tunes and some horrendous guitar playing and some caterwauling by yours truly while Karen continued to potter around the kitchen, cleaning up the odds and ends that I had half-done.

We plonked into bed pretty exhausted at the end of the day – trying to juggle this parenting thing with any attempt at any semblance of normal living is hard work.

I was trying to get to sleep as I had an early start the next day, but I could see that Karen was upset. If there is one unwritten rule in our relationship, is that we never go to bed angry – we try and work things out before we put our heads down to the pillow.

Sometimes it is hard work trying to figure out what is wrong exactly in the midst of our minds still trying to process the day. Sure it has been a long, tiring day, but it was spent in the presence of good friends and loved ones. I guess we were all a little physically and emotionally spent from these early days of young parenthood while trying to juggle the demands of life at the same time.

Of all the things that we spoke about, something she said struck me which bore the crux of the problem –

‘You know, at some point tonight, I just felt like you have not thought about me or my needs,’ she told me in a small voice.

Sometimes I think as we are working out our relationships (and we are always working out our relationships), it is during these points – these precious moments of weakness and vulnerability when our truest wants come out.

You have not thought about me or my needs.

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How did I get here? How did I get to a point where I had been thoughtful and considerate to everyone except the one who should matter to me most?

Of course, it is not a malevolent indifference to her, but more a benign negligence – one that develops over years of familiarity. Sometimes we have become so close, we have started to become each other’s shadows – and you don’t notice your own shadow.

When I think about relationships that end up not working out, rarely do they ever fracture – seldom is there one big moment that destroys a relationship that has been going on for awhile. Instead couples become unstuck –  a more insidious ungluing of two pieces that were once inseparable.

It is the overfamiliarity – the taking of each other for granted where it slowly happens. It is in the distracted tone when she is trying to tell you about the day, it is in the seemingly harmless disparaging remark about an opinion she has, it is in the quiet resentment about how the other is dealing with their young child.

If we are not careful, we drift apart. Even the phrase itself is suggestive of how subtly we fall out of love.

The only way to save this, of course – is vigilance. The discipline of confession is so important in relationships – we need a safe space to be able to say when we feel unloved and to voice our needs. What we choose to do with that vulnerability will determine the longevity of our relationship.

I woke up on Valentine’s Day morning, and mindfully spared a thought for Karen and what she would like. I felt a little embarrassed about how infrequently I have had that thought recently. And so a quick trip after work to pick up her favourite sushi/sashimi platter, and we had a redemptive Valentine’s Day lunch and a great evening together.

More important than Valentine’s Day, then, is the day after Valentine’s Day, and the days after that, as the challenge is to remember not to take each other for granted, and to think about how to love, and serve each other better.

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A Little EXtra Affection.

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You were small, they said. Tracking on the 1st centile. Healthy, but tracking along the smallest of the small babies here.

So we decided to welcome you early to the world, and Mummy and I packed our bags and headed towards the hospital, where they would help open up the door a little so you would come out a bit earlier.

We arrived in the dark of the night, and the doctor comes in. He feels for the opening of the door, and he is a little surprised, but it is already ajar. ‘Come back tomorrow morning,’ he tells us. ‘Sleep in your own bed tonight.’

We are a little bemused and somewhat relieved, and we head home with both our luggages – a big one for Mummy and Daddy, and a little one for you.

We get to sleep in our own bed as a couple for one more night before you come barrelling into our lives.

Back in the same hospital room the next morning, and the doctor comes in and puts a drip into Mummy. They start a medicine that will massage the outer bag holding  you, and he reaches in and makes a little hole in the inner bag holding you. A gush of water comes out, the warm pool you have been swimming in for the past 9 months quickly empties.

Come out of the pool, we say. It is nice and warm out here in the world, we coax you. It’s lies, but hey, you don’t know better – you weren’t born yesterday.

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Mummy starts to feel the pull of the bag inside her. It is pulling and twisting inside her as she tries to help bring you out into the world. It is painful, as promised, but she didn’t expect how painful it would  be. She sucks on some laughing gas from a tube, but she is not laughing. Another doctor is called and he runs a plastic snake up her back where more medicine goes in, helping her with the most painful thing to happen to a lady.

Daddy sits there, and he is helpless. He holds Mummy’s hands, and he cheers her on, a powerless supporter on the sideline. He massages Mummy’s back, and a list of his favourite songs is playing from his phone on the speaker behind Mummy.

And so 4 hours later, Mummy really feels the need to push. Daddy asks the nurse to check if you were almost out. Oh no no no she smiles it’s far too early. Could you please just humour me and check, Daddy asks. Sure she wears a smirk as she puts on a glove, and feels inside Mummy. Her smile quickly fades as she is surprised by your hairy head. Okay, some nice deep breaths! she says as Daddy hears the nurse’s own breathing become quicker and more shallow. I’m going to call your doctor.

The trolley comes in with the cloths and equipment he needs to help you come easier into this world. They put a machine on to hear your heartbeat and it becomes slower. The doctor knows it, the nurse knows it and your Daddy knows it. Mummy is totally focussed on pushing and bringing you out, so Daddy leans over and says to her – hey, Mummy, with the next one you really need to push.

The next moment goes quickly, in slow motion. As Mr Bon Jovi sings in the background, ‘I will always love youuuuu….’, Mummy gives one final almighty push, and your slimy head pops out. The doctor puts his finger around your neck ‘Ah, here’s the problem!’ and frees you from the cord that is coiled around it. He invites Daddy to come and deliver the rest of you, and then passes over the scissors for me to cut the cord, your own personal vending machine for these past 9 months.

You are quiet when you come out, and a little purple. Everyone is a little worried, it seems like we’ve all held our breaths together. We wrap you in a towel, and the nurse starts to rub you vigorously. She puts your whole being against Mummy, and finally, you let out the tiniest of coughs, expelling the fluid in your little airways, and let out a small cry. The whole room exhales in relief as your cries grow stronger, and everyone welcomes you with a little more confidence into this world.

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We wrap you in an old colourful spotted cloth provided by the hospital, and rest you against Mummy. Both of you are tired from all the morning exertions it has taken to help your escape from the womb. Both of you take a little nap. Daddy is in the corner, having just passed out from all the excitement.

(Kidding, Daddy’s quite strong and awake actually. He just needs to rest his eyes for a little whzzzzz……)

Mummy takes a shower and finally gets to eat. She is starving from having Tough Mudder-ed you in to existence, and gobbles up the hospital lunch. As she waddles to the toilet for a shower, she feels a little sick from all the medicines flowing through her, and sees her lunch for a second time in a vomit bag.

She showers, we sleep and by some miracle you sleep too.

Having a baby’s easy, Daddy thinks, on the first day. Asleep most of the day, just lying there looking cute, and surfacing for the occasional feed. Even your nappies are fairly small and empty. We’ve got this, Daddy thinks.

Daddy has no idea.

We move to another ward of the hospital away from the birthing suite after a day. Mummy’s going well and you are going well, so they are happy to watch us a little less. We are told that the whole hospital is pouring out of its ears with babies, and joke about how people always seem to assemble their babies around the Christmas holidays.

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The second day was mainly sleeping, and having some nice friends of Mummy and Daddy bring food over, because the hospital food in this new room, is well, hospital food. But then the night comes, and with it, your loud protesting cries. We are not sure what’s going on, because Mummy and Daddy are new at this – we check the diapers, we put you to Mummy’s boob (henceforth the Milk Maker ™) and we try and sing you to sleep. Nothing works.

Keep putting her to the breast, the midwives say, as they dance in and out of the room. You lose weight with each passing day and turn a little more yellow than your Chinese heritage allows, and they keep telling us to put you to the Milk Maker ™.

The next few days are a whirlwind of smiley faces of family and friends bringing food and gifts, everyone so excited to say Hi! and welcome to the world, and please be nice to Mummy and Daddy.

And then they leave, and it is quiet, and it is just you and Mummy and Daddy. And every night you cry almost every half an hour to an hour, and you lose weight and turn more yellow.

Mummy and Daddy are almost at their wit’s end by the third night, and this male midwife walks into the room. Let’s try a bit longer on the breast first, he says. We are trying to listen but we are distracted by his leathered skin and the ear-ring on his left ear. If it doesn’t work, we’ll just give the baby formula, because she looks hungry and Mummy needs a rest as well.

Formula? Mummy and Daddy thought. It seemed to be an ‘F-word’ (Erm…  go ask your Mummy) around these parts. We try once more and you are still crying every thirty minutes, and so we ask for help.

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He walks in with a bottle of formula milk, picks you up in confidence, and gives you your first full feed in your first few days here on earth. You finally go to sleep and we also finally get to go to sleep as well. Your yellow colour goes away each day and you start to put on weight as we feed you the formula while Mummy works on filling up the Milk Maker ™.

The male midwife is your unexpected saviour, a voice of reason amidst the army of midwives who cannot see beyond the breast. You are now happy, and soon a rested Mummy’s milk comes in, and you start to put on a bit of weight and look a lot less yellow each day.  We feel less guilty and confused, and almost a little angry at how no one showed us in the first couple of days what you really needed.

We bring you home on the fourth day, a new adventure awaits us now as a family. More tears and laughter awaits us outside the hospital doors.

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And so welcome to the world Alexa Jia Xuan Cheok. In case you were wondering, the name Alexa means ‘Defender of Man’, not because we want you to become a lawyer (haha! How Asian parents of us!) or Lexie Warrior Princess. We hope that you will be part of the solution to making the world we live in a better place, defending us against cynicism and destruction, sowing hope and life instead.

And Jia Xuan means Good News, which you have already heralded with your healthy birth despite all the things we were told when you were still in Mummy’s tummy, and may you continue to bring good news into a world that so sorely needs it.

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We Need To Talk About The First 12 Weeks.

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I know I have promised you the story about how we came to find out we were pregnant, but also to let you in on what kind of a hell the first trimester can be.

Let’s just say this pregnancy came as a bit of a surprise.

All those in this season of your lives know the annoying ladder of questions that you always get asked:

‘So are you seeing someone yet?’
‘Oh when do we get to meet him/her?’
‘So when is he going to propose?’
‘Oh, I’m so happy for you I’m starting to tear up, so when’s the wedding?’
‘Congratulations! And when’s the first child coming?’
‘Oh, they’re great, aren’t they? When are you going to have a second one?’

On and on the unremitting glacier of questions keep coming.

I always find it odd when people ask – have you been trying? Which is the polite way of saying ‘Have you been trying to fall pregnant?’ but actually sounds a lot more like ‘Have your matrimonial intercourses been calculated and forced instead of playful and spontaneous?’

(Have you been trying? Sure.

Yeah, but, have you been actively trying? No, I just lay there and she does all the work.)

Karen and I are in the que sera sera camp – we have been hopeful but not actively trying. Sure, there’s the urgency of time because you know, you’re not getting any younger, but let’s just say we had in our minds a trip planned to Italy to eat all the cheese and drink all the wine in the middle of this year. We would then come back from the trip and then go full active, if you know what I mean.

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Like Titanic active you know? 

Which is why the phone call at work came as a surprise.

You see, Karen had been feeling a little unwell lately. We were emceeing a good friend’s wedding in January and she did not touch very much of the wine, which for her was a little odd. (Yes, she enjoys it responsibly. No, she does not have a problem.) We came home the next day and she then proceeded to complain about how she has been feeling rather bloated and constipated of late, and just a little tired.

I put my Emergency Doctor hat on, stroked my chin thoughtfully and came to these conclusions:

i) she had a gluten intolerance
ii) she had a lactose intolerance
iii) she was housing some kind of parasite

which was why I recommended she saw our family doctor to have it checked out.

I wish you could have seen the look on my face when I took the call from Karen that day at work. ‘Erm, hon. So the GP asked me to pee onto a stick, and erm, I’m pregnant!’ I burst out laughing incredulously and kicked myself for being the World’s Stupidest Father/Husband/Doctor. I walked past the curtains in a daze.

‘Sorry for interrupting our conversation,’ I told my patient. ‘That was my wife on the phone. Erm, I, erm –  we’re – erm, pregnant.’ which made the patient and her husband forget her worries for awhile to roundly congratulate me.

They were the first ones I told. Like the announcement of Jesus to some random shepherds and unknown wise men, I shared the news of our pregnancy first with complete strangers.

The second person I told was a fellow colleague of mine, a female ED consultant.

‘Erm, I just got a call from my wife. You know, she has been feeling tired and bloaty these last few weeks, and…’

‘Oh, she’s pregnant! Congratulations!’ came the quickfire reply.

HOW DO YOU KNOW?’ I shot back, surprised. Was I really such a terrible doctor? ‘I was telling her all kinds of other things she might have been suffering from like you know, parasites…’

‘That’s because you’re a boy…‘ she concluded, correctly, with a dismissive wave of her hand.

And that’s how I found out we were pregnant.

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The First 12 Weeks

Let’s see, how should I phrase this?

This is the single most crazy thing you can do to your body. Not a poorly thought through tramp stamp, not a tongue piercing connected by a chain to your nose piercing, not even swallowing a sword to impress your street audience. Pregnancy is the most unnaturally natural thing – the craziest thing you can do to your body.

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The World’s Worst Superpower (and we’re not talkin’ ’bout North Korea)

If you could have one superpower (Marvel, obviously, not DC), what would you ask for? Would you want spider senses and the ability to climb walls? Or perhaps you want to be able to read people’s minds, or take down a tree with your laser-blasting vision. You know – cool, useful stuff.

When you’re pregnant, you can smell everything. And I mean, everything – you can smell what your neighbours are cooking, you can smell if someone had smoked in your office four hours ago, you can probably smell the colour purple.

The hormones drive up your sense of smell by a thousand fold. I don’t even understand how this is a protective mechanism for mothers carrying a life in their bellies. Karen could tell if I had used softener in our laundry (which I have, since I have known laundry) and politely asked if I could stop using it (otherwise she would kill me in my sleep). Part of the reason we had to give up the dogs was because she suddenly became really sensitive to the way they smelt, especially Toby (a.k.a. Sir Pee-A-Lot).

And so we were captives in our own home, trapped in the only bedroom in our house with a ceiling fan, blowing away the co-mingled smells of sickly sweet laundry softener and wet dog fur, while praying this sickness would pass.

I was talking to some of my female colleagues at work to debrief, and someone said she would get nauseous and throw up even at the sight of McDonald’s golden arches.

At least she is not sensitive to how you smell, they laugh. And they tell you stories of men who had to sleep in the living room just because their wives could not stand the smell of them.

I silently vow to shower more often.

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The Hunger-Hurling Cycle

With the smells came the vomiting. Like on your knees vomiting. Like Friday night after 20 ill-advised vodka shots vomiting. Like wishing you would die vomiting.

But then you would be ravenously hungry afterwards. The hunger itself makes you want to vomit. And your poor husband, who can only cook instant noodles and make terrible sandwiches is now cursing his lack of cooking prowess in the kitchen as he is stirring in your sixth cup of Milo for the day.

So much Milo.

And so hungry for carbs. You start to eat rice like your husband does. He joins you in your eight meals a day and then he, too, ends up with a food baby.

And then you rush home from the restaurant and you hurl the contents all into your toilet bowl.

And then he makes you your seventh Milo.

Hungry, hurl, eat, hurl, Milo, hurl, lie in bed, hurl.

We went to the GP and we got a whole arsenal of medications – maxalon tablets, ondansetron wafers. Works for some women, doesn’t work for you. You start stocking up chocolates and dry biscuits in the drawer next to your bed.

That’s actually the only thing that helps – snacking small amounts throughout the day. Of course you still vomit, but at least you keep some of it down. It is about survival.

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It Is Like A Chronic Illness 

If you are lucky, the morning sickness only lasts for three months. If you are extremely lucky, you might just feel a little nauseous without throwing up for the whole nine months. If you are really unlucky, you vomit the whole nine months (although it gets a bit better after the third month).

I cannot describe to you how miserable Karen felt during those first three months. Each day dragged on like a week, and each week dragged on like a year. We got a glimpse into what living with a chronic illness must be like – it is not like a passing flu, or a week of gut-cleansing diarrhoeal purge.

It is waking up not knowing whether today would be a good day or a bad day. It is fearing that you would spend most of your day in bed being afraid of the next time you’re going to throw up. It is not being able to enjoy the things used to bring you joy in life – wine, cheese, any kind of edible food, really. It is the taste of acid and undigested food burning your gullet and your tongue. It is throwing out your back from vomiting so violently and so often. You have gone from a working independent woman to being a prisoner of your bed.

It is hell.

I am told many women who suffer severe morning sickness take time off work just to get through these difficult first few months. I can see why now.

You Are Helpless

I watch from the sides as the frustrated husband.

On the one part, I feel responsible for this, you know? You alternate between the guilt of doing this to your wife, and helplessness of watching the pills not work and not knowing what to do next. There are times when you see her through the gap in the toilet door, one hand holding her hair and another bracing the toilet bowl, and you think Seriously, again?! A tiny voice is convinced your partner will not survive these crazy protracted, vomiting episodes.

I have spoken with other husbands and fathers who are watching helplessly from the side too. Some are adamant they would never have another child or at least take a good break before having the next one, because of how much their wives have suffered during this pregnancy.

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But they tell you it is worth it in the end.

They tell you that all is forgotten once you hold that bundle of joy, and then all of these things fall away.

I must say the second trimester has been a good one. Karen’s energy is back, she is working again and the nausea has well and truly abated. The house is filled with the smell of her cooking. Out of habit, I no longer put softener in my laundry. The days are flying past and we have
been to two ultrasound scans which show a healthy baby girl who we have dared to give a name to already.

It is easy in these moments to forget just how hard the first few months were. I write this to remember but also to encourage all the couples out there, that you are not alone in your journey. Just as we were not alone in ours. This is a written form of all the verbal encouragement and wisdom we received from our friends who have told us, hey, it’s not easy, but it will be okay in the end.

They pat us reassuringly on our shoulders and comfort us –

‘Wait till the baby comes. Then you will know what true suffering is.’

The End of One Adventure…

It has been almost a week now, and the house is deafeningly quiet.

On Monday, we made the hardest journey we have had to make for a long time. A few things have changed for us in the past couple of months, and after much discussion and heartache, we made the very difficult decision of rehoming Toby and Tootsie. After 7 months of pats, snuggles, training, licks, walks and eternal feeds, we finally said goodbye for the last time to team Toto.

The main thing that has changed for us is this:

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But that is a story for another post.

The thing about being pregnant, however, is that you are suddenly gifted with the unwanted superpower of a heightened sense of smell. This has made Karen really sensitive to the dogs around the house to a point where she can’t even pat them without rushing to the toilet for an almighty spew. Which meant that for the last 2 months I have had to be both the breadwinner and caregiver to both a really ill Karen and these two dogs, and I must say, it nearly broke me.

There were some nights when I would wake up at 1 am, make Karen something to eat after she has had a big vomit, wake up at 4 am to deal with the mosquitoes that were eating us alive in the summer heat, and then be woken up by the dogs again at 6 am to feed them and train them before heading off to work. This went on for a few weeks, and it really started to take its toll on me.

Toby especially was confused by the sudden change of attention from Mummy, who could no longer reach down to pat him or lift him up for a customary cuddle, and he became really sad and a bit withdrawn. You know he is love-starved when he suddenly comes to me for attention. This translated into him peeing anxiously around the house, and our couch in particular which meant that Karen could never come downstairs due to the noxious mix of dog urine and laundry smells (you would understand this as a vomiting pregnant lady), which made us captives in our own house.

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He was still the baby of the house, the more sensitive of the two, and Toby would lie outside the toilet door, watching on with what I can only imagine is a mix of pity and disappointment as Karen emptied her guts into the toilet bowl from all the smells in the house.

Tootsie, on the other hand, was oblivious to everything. One thing I have come to realise about her is this – Tootsie could only love one person, and that was herself. I didn’t know any different at the beginning because this was my first time owning dogs, but it has been pointed out to me that as a dog she doesn’t really give all that much emotionally. What I had taken for insanity was actually a little more complex than that.

She was the Narcissist of the doggy world – everything Tootsie did was driven by the need to soothe her own anxieties and fulfil her own agenda, be it pushing Toby aside in the competition for pats, forcing herself onto your lap for a cuddle, barking at you to wake up because it is time to play or lunging at other dogs to defend her territory.

The most dramatic of walks happened about two weeks ago – twice Tootsie slipped from my grasp and faced off against two dogs. The first one was a boxer cross who towered above her. I rushed down the road to catch her leash but I also watched to see what would happen – a friend and fellow dog owner told me that he let his new little dog loose in a dog park and the dog started barking annoyingly at other dogs. The other dogs barked back and gave a warning bite which caused his dog to stop barking or annoying them. That is how they learn to play well with other dogs.

This boxer cross barked back at Tootsie and started attacking her; the middle-aged female owner yelling at it and pulling it back violently to keep it in check. Instead of backing down, however, Tootsie stood her ground and started going even harder at the other dog. She is a fighter, is our dear Tootsie. I managed to scramble and get Tootsie back after a couple of attempts, and walked quickly away, the angry stare of the lady owner burning into the back of my head.

I don’t even remember how she slipped away a second time, but this time Tootsie took down a small spitz and continued attacking it even though it had turned onto its belly in submission. I apologised profusely but once again the owner did not take too kindly at how our badly-behaved dog had traumatised hers. 7 months of daily walks, and I am certain we were developing some kind of a notoriety around these parts.

The thing that worries me the most is that I have seen Tootsie heighten and bark at little children as well, and there is no way we are going to be able to manage her and a little child safely at the same time.

Toby and Tootsie

It is not that Tootsie is beyond salvation. We have seen her in the hands of a competent experienced dog trainer who was not afraid to discipline her to reduce her negative behaviours and reward her positive ones. It is just that I won’t be able to consolidate her learning by myself in this season.

We have tried our best with these two, truly we have. We have gotten in two separate trainers to try and work on their issues as rescue dogs – Toby’s anxious need to mark everything around the house, and Tootsie’s immense self-gratifying behaviours. Add to that caring for a very sick Karen during a tempestuous first trimester, and well, I was truly at breaking point.

It was Karen who was able to take a look at the big overall picture and it was she who had the courage to raise the very difficult discussion that I was not willing to have – we had to rehome Toby and Tootsie – both for their sakes, and ours. To be honest, I was very conflicted at this point of time, not wanting to give up on the dogs, but also realising that they were not happy and that we could not train them in a meaningful fashion during this unexpected season of our lives.

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I was most frayed on the Monday when I had to go for the surrender meeting. We were returning them to Second Chance Animal Rescue – we had to go in for a session to explain why we couldn’t look after these two any further and for the rescue to see if they could be rehomed. I feared to think what the alternative was, because we were clear that we could not look after them anymore.

Karen had said initially that she would follow me in for the meeting, but then things unfortunately cropped up at work which she couldn’t get out of, and I had to bring the dogs in by myself.

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I tried to hide it, but I must say that this really upset me. Toby whimpered the whole way to the shelter while Tootsie just enjoyed the car ride, but there was a storm of emotions brewing inside of me.

The folks at the shelter were nothing but kind and amazing, and understood our need to rehome the dogs. They heard our problems, and came to the same conclusion that we did – that Toby and Tootsie would do well in a new environment but also away from each other. I feel like Tootsie needed special 0ne-on-one attention from an experienced hand and Toby needed to be away from her so that he could grow in confidence. She told me to bring them back next week and they would look at rehoming the dogs.

Later that evening after dropping the dogs home, I picked Karen up from work. I was still very angry about the whole thing but I felt I could not yell at my pregnant wife about how I was feeling. How do you negotiate your anger when the person who has always been your Safe Space was now the Object of your Wrath? All this negativity translated into a certain passive aggressiveness – I was very abrupt in the way I spoke to her, and once I even thumped the car door in anger when I almost took down a speeding cyclist who had beaten the lights while turning up Victoria Street.

When we finally sat down to dinner, I could not take it any more. I felt like I had to speak up what was inside of me or it would continue manifesting in all these unhealthy ways.

And so I spoke as calmly as I could about how I was feeling. That I promised that the dogs would be our idea and not hers even though she was the one who wanted them in the first place. How unfair it was that I was the only one looking after them for the past two months, (even though, of course, Karen could not help it). How alone I felt when I had to go in for the surrender meeting by myself today.

Karen took everything that I had blurted out serenely, although I think she too was a whirlwind of emotions but tried her best to speak calmly back to me.

‘You know, I am upset too that we are having to give up the dogs,’ she said. ‘I have loved them as much as you have but you know that we are doing this for them, and for us.’

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And then my wife, the love of my life, the woman whose wisdom continues to astound me says this –

‘You know, I think you are grieving for the dogs.’

In that one simple sentence, she disarms me.

She stands her ground as I charge at her in full Hulk mode, and she stops me dead in my tracks with a gentle raised palm against my forehead. That one phrase unlocks me, and I lay down my weapons. The heavy gloom that has been hanging heavy over my head lifts in the light of this revelation.

Of course I was grieving the dogs. These past two months I have been the one to play with them, walk them, feed them and cuddle them. My heart has filled with actual joy when I was playing with Tootsie at home or cuddling Toby. And now, after 7 months of being family – of loving them, being angry and impatient with them sometimes, feeling so proud of how far they’ve come – I now, – we now, – had to say goodbye to these dogs.

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These dogs have certainly turned our worlds upside down. They have shown me that I could actually love and care for dogs when I was so clumsy and uncertain at the start, they have taught me the meaning of unconditional love, they have given us the joy of coming home to such eager, anticipating faces and they have instilled in me some confidence of being a parent. Toby and Tootsie certainly will have a special place in our hearts and in our family story.

Thank you all who have shared the journey with us. Thank you for those who have read and encouraged us in our hardest times, thank you for your kindness and understanding when we first considered rehoming the dogs, thank you especially to those who have had the privilege to play with, and taken the time to look after Toby and Tootsie. We are grateful for all your love, and we know you share our grief.

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Right now, Tootsie has been rehomed with a lady who has no little ones and who is an old hand with dogs, while Toby has been placed in a new family already. I would like to believe that they are in a happier place than we could provide them in this season of our lives.

Their absence is already felt so strongly in this household but they will live on in our stories and our memories.  It is time now to remember, but soon it will come a time for new stories – and new adventures.

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In The Shape of An L on His Forehead.

Dog with a first aid kit. Isolated on white.

Q: What do you call a doctor who does not have a first aid kit at home?

A: You call him an ambulance. Like now. Please?!

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So I was out walking the dogs today while the house was being cleaned so that we wouldn’t have little tracking pawprints on a freshly mopped floor.

I was starting to hit my stride walking these dogs, starting to believe that I am, indeed the Professional Insane Dog Walker. It now takes me 4:28 to assemble the food for the walk, another 1:24 to slip their harnesses on, 0:12 to place two empty doggy litter bags into my right pocket, 0:10 to get the house key into my left one and then a quick snap of my left wrist to shorten the leashes and I’m out of the house.

6:14 flat.

I don’t want to brag, but I am indeed a well-oiled dog-walking machine.

Bicycles don’t figure on my worry list no more, other dogs *shrug* yeah so maybe there’ll be one or two lunges with wild barking from the Toots. Nothin’ I can’t handle. One quick snap of my wrist and we are around a corner or a car, out of sight. Barking Tootsie. Food. Barking Tootsie. Food. Quiet Tootsie. Walk. Pity treat for well-behaved Toby. No flippin’ worries, mate. The suburb I now know like the back of my hand, and I walk with the confident strut of a determined Prancerciser.

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We cross the road, no problems. One shout of ‘Quick’ and the dogs bolt across the street, pulling me with them. I’m in control. It looks like I’m out of control. I’m in control.

And then Tootsie suddenly crosses in front of me, pulling the leash in front of me. ‘Hey Tootsie!’ I bark, ‘cos I’m the boss of her. ‘You watch where you’re go-‘

TWANGggggggggg!!!

I had slapped my head against a road sign. A big yellow metallic 20 km/hr sign with a bump on top of it. The same bump that was forming on my forehead now. No, actually it wasn’t a bump. It was more like a slow sickening scratch of my tender forehead against a rough metallic edge. Like someone was trying to John Woo’s Face/Off me.

I started seeing stars. Alanis Morissette, to be precise.

and isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? a little too-ooo ironic, well I really do think.‘ she coos in my ear.

‘IT’S LIKE RAEE-AIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY!’
‘IT’S A FREE RIDE WHEN YOU’VE ALREADY PAID!’
‘IT’S THE GOOD ADVICE, THAT YOU JUST DIDN’T TAKE!’
‘AND WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT IT FEEEGURES!’  Alanis yells in my head.

Shh, I plead. Miss Morissette, I am trying to walk the dogs here. Just. Quiet.

I stagger a bit and walk on, trying not to trip over the dogs. The skin burns on my forehead. Uh oh. I feel my forehead with my left hand. Surprisingly, there is no blood. I look at me looking back at me as we pass some parked car windows. Strangers walk past and judge the most vain dogparent they have ever come across.

I somehow complete the walk but the burning doesn’t go away. I look into the mirror and there it is – two bleeding lines running across my forehead. I am surprised it is not in the shape of an L.

They say children add to your worry lines. I didn’t know it’d be this violently.

How’d you get the scar Heng? they’ll ask. Gang fight, I’ll say. You should see the other guys, I’ll boast.

I look around the house for an antiseptic to treat the cut. I can’t find any. I am a doctor, and I cannot find an antiseptic in my own house.

Alanis steps up, takes a deep breath and grabs the mic again.

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Love And Other Drugs.

There is nothing like the love from your dog. It is an unconditional, all-giving kind of love. The kind of love that scratches at the front door excitedly when they hear your car pull in, the kind of love that bursts from one end of the house to another simply because Daddy’s home, the kind of love that pushes itself under your hand for a few loving pats. The kind of love that sits near you whatever you may be doing – working on your laptop, sleeping or even brushing your teeth in the toilet. The kind of love that follows you around like a shadow even if you are just going downstairs for a glass of water, the kind of love that stands at the edge of your bed first thing in the morning, breathing heavily and wagging its tail, making you wonder – ‘Ermm… so how long exactly have you been there watching me sleep for?’

You know, this kind of a love:

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Image of the actually nice Laina (Overly Attached Girlfriend) from dangerouslee.biz

I was just reading up the other day on some new dog training material that we had received. One of the lines that struck me was that ‘Dogs are not capable of abstract thinking, they only know what works and what does not work.’ It gave me an M.Night Shyamalan movie flashback to all the times when I have been ‘loved’ by our dogs; you know, the flashback where you realise that the dogs never loved you all along, and had possibly killed you at the start of the movie and you were just a ghost remembering what it was like to love dogs?

(‘I see dead poodles.’)

Yeah, that kind of a flashback.

If dogs were not capable of abstract thought, then are they actually capable of love, an abstract concept?

It was a disturbing realisation, to say the least, but true enough, one that was good for their training. Whenever we go for walks, I realise that the primary reason that I run out of food so quickly is that I essentially have a beating marshmallow where my heart should be, and that I give in to Toby’s winning smile every few seconds and throw him a treat. Judge me for being a softie, but I mean, look at that cute mug:

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How could you resist throwing food (and potentially all the spare change you have) at that face?

But after reading that manual, I have decided to be the strict parent, and only give them treats to distract them from bikes and other dogs, and only when they do some thing I tell them to. Interestingly enough, this has worked well – Toby now rarely gives me this cute face whenever we walk (because he realises it doesn’t work), which makes for a truly sad walk, but on the plus side – we rarely run out of food before the end of a walk.

This realisation both comforted me and disturbed me all at once. Are dogs capable of actually loving you if they are not capable of abstract thought? Do they actually know you for who you are – what work you do, what your hobbies or values are, or which football team you support? Can they love you meaningfully?

Or do they only recognise you as the person from whom all food blessings flow, who soothes their separation anxieties with your presence and a pat? Would they know the difference if you were someone entirely new tomorrow, who did the exact same things to fulfil their primal need for food and affection?

I don’t really have the answer to this unsettling conundrum, and sometimes there is the temptation to be a little cynical especially after the next disappointment of them lunging at other dogs, or peeing on another piece of furniture or waking you up with their piercing barks in the wee hours of the morning. I don’t need a Father’s Day card from you, but a little consideration would be nice, you know?

And then Toby goes and does something like this.

Karen and I have been playing a game for 2 players on the Playstation called Ibb and Obb. It is a nice little relaxing puzzle game which causes Karen to yell out whenever she misses a jump or dies in the game. Whenever this ‘Aaaah’ of excitement or distress happens, Toby’s ears perk up, and he instinctively stands, and then leaps on her to comfort her with his paws.

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‘There, there,’ he seemed to say. ‘We are going to get through this bad game together. Don’t be sad.’

It was really heartwarming to see Toby do this, this almost human reaction to Karen’s distress bringing me closer to the answer as to whether some dogs are capable of a higher kind of love. (It soon got a little Hovering-Mother annoying, however, after he repeatedly kept interrupting the game to comfort Karen, which left her unable to see the screen with all the fur in her way. We have a game to finish, Toby!)

Maybe this was it. Toby, the sensitive, loving dog would come comfort us in our moments of deep sorrow.

I tried it myself, you know, to see if he would come running. ‘Aaah!’ I yelled.

Nothing.

‘Aaaah!’ came my bloodcurling scream. ‘Aaaah!’ came my broken heart. ‘Aaaah!’ came my ‘I’m trapped in the well, Lassie, go get Mommy!’

Nothing.

Not a turn to look at me, not a flicker of his ear, not even a batted eyelid. We know who’s going to survive a disaster in our house if it comes knocking. (Hint: Not me.)

So yes, a very confusing foray into the world of how dogs think (or don’t), and how they love. It is both wonderfully unconditional (it doesn’t matter who you are) and also unpleasantly unconditional (it doesn’t matter who you are) and it can be so hard to read them at times. I am sure all the dog owners out there will have their version of how they know their dogs love them, especially.

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Toby and Tootsie spend the night in our bedroom nowadays, which I know some dogparents out there are clucking their judgmental tongues and shaking their heads at, but it has been impossible to sleep with them being so unsettled overnight. We have had some visitors over the holiday period which has caused them no end of heightened anxiety, and they respond even more crazily to any sound in the night – other dogs barking, passing cars, someone thinking. They would run downstairs to bark at least three or four times overnight, and so we let them into the room to see if they would settle down.

It was surprising how much they did settle down – those extra five to six hours of just being in your presence really did make a difference to their overall inner peace. The days have been mostly better since we have let them into the room – Tootsie no longer demands that you play with her every spare moment of your waking hours; and Toby, well, Toby is just happy to be alive.

Whenever they do get desperately out of hand though, we do what comes most naturally to loving parents of anxious children – we load them with drugs.

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This is Rescue Remedy (RR), a herbal over-the-counter medication that was recommended by one of my veteran nursing friends when I told her about my problems keeping up with their boundless energy and resulting behavioural problem sometimes. It is made of the extraction of 5 flower extracts (ironically one of the flowers is named Impatiens) in a grape alcohol solution. (Wait a minute, grape alcohol solution – am I just loading my dogs with wine?)

Anyways, a few drops of this over-the-counter concoction and suddenly the dogs turn into these magically well-behaved pets – quiet, sedate and crashing into furniture with their drunken walk. (Kidding.) Unfortunately, this good behavior lasts only a couple of hours before it wears off and they are their normal rambunctious selves tearing down the place.

We got the Rescue Remedy because we wanted to cut Tootsie’s nails, which had gone from Fashionable to Fatal in these past few weeks. A previous trip to a groomers resulted in our money being refunded because no one could get near her nails. So, a huge dose of RR, and magically – she still almost clawed our eyes out when we approached her with a clipper. Looks like a trip to the vet for some sedation (just for nail-clipping! Unbelievable!) is up soon.

Love and all her potions are still not enough to calm our dog’s primal fears.