I thought I had my thirties all worked out. I got married, bought a house, started a business (a side-hustle while working a full-time job to keep the dollars rolling in) and had a baby. Sure, a few years in, my marriage was not exactly what I pictured it was going to be, the house was seriously hard work and financial stress began taking its toll, but that’s what adulting looks like, isn’t it?
When anything went wrong I could always find the silver lining. Think positively and it will all work out, right?
I was in for the shock of my life.
Nothing had prepared me for what my reality was about to become.
In 2010, I had my son Isaac. A few weeks later, his dad moved interstate for work. We would be lucky to see him one weekend a month. Our already strained marriage was about to become seriously tested.
Clare: 'Hope was keeping me alive when reality battered me.'
The newborn stage was a blur of sleep deprivation and learning what this little piece of delicious needed from me.
It became sink or swim in trusting intuition.
I was not blessed with a ‘sleeper’. I was, however, blessed with a mostly easy breastfeeding experience. Which as it turned out was lucky in ways I could never have imagined at the time.
In August, my six-month-old baby had an anaphylactic reaction to dairy. I had tried him on formula when he was about three months old, in the hope that it might help him sleep longer. Maybe what I was giving him wasn’t enough? He took the bottle without any problem, once a day for a week.
Then, on day number eight he refused, pursing his lips shut. Cemented shut. He never took the bottle again, no matter what I tried.
So at six months, beyond exhausted from the accumulated nights of sleep deprivation, I added some formula to his rice cereal, hoping to bulk it up and maybe give us both the good night sleep we so desperately needed.
Listen: The Sleep Whisperer shares some sanity saving tips on teaching your baby to self-settle. (Post continues after audio.)
I’d had a particularly tough couple of days. I hadn’t even managed a shower. From a two showers a day woman to a shell of my former self. The smile I plastered on my face for the world to see disguised the desperate pain I loaded myself with inside. My mother had always spoken of how much she loved being a mum of four. She’d told us that when we were little was the best time of her life. I really wasn’t feeling like this was the best time of my life. Deeply in love with this little sleep deprivation machine yes, but not feeling like it was the best time of my life.
My eldest sister Simone has five children, my other sister Wendy had two, and here I was not coping with one.
The day in question started like all the others, me bleary-eyed after seeing every hour on the clock, again, and Isaac pretty much screaming unless he was feeding or I was holding him.
By the time a knock on the door came mid-afternoon, it was safe to say I was a basket-case.
Thankfully the knock at the door was Wendy, who just ‘had a feeling’ she needed to call by on her way home from collecting her daughters from school. After falling apart in my sister’s arms, she and her girls looked after Isaac so I could enjoy a long and very necessary shower and regain some headspace.
Calm and clean, Wendy and her girls had no sooner left than I had another knock at the door. This time big sister Simone had arrived with dinner. Had Wendy called her? Nope. Just the sisterly intuition we had been lucky to share our whole lives. Dinner at 4:30pm and I did not care. Simone held Isaac and I ate.
Full belly, clean body, my sisters had filled my cup. Maybe I could do this parenting thing after all.
Clare with her son. Image: supplied.
I prepared Isaac’s rice cereal, complete with formula to fill him up. We were set for an early night and a desperately needed good night’s sleep.
No sooner had Isaac swallowed the first tiny mouthful of the new and improved rice cereal, his face went bright red and he screamed. He screamed a scream I had not heard before. The look on his precious little face was like nothing I had ever seen. What on earth was wrong with him?
I immediately picked him up, trying to console him. He was getting louder and redder.
I tried to breastfeed him. He wasn’t having any of it. That’s a first.
The shrill continued, louder and louder.
His face like a little angry beetroot now.
His body was writhing.
I raced him upstairs to run a cool bath. He was getting so red and hot.
With my baby in my arms, I ran the cool bath and lay him down.
What I saw before me almost took my own breath away. Isaac’s lip was enormous. Like something out of a horror movie. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.
On the 000 call to emergency, I was grateful to be speaking to seemingly the calmest person in the world, who after hearing what had just happened, assured me an ambulance had been dispatched and would be with us soon.
“Clare, you need to go and unlock the front door ready for when the ambulance arrives. Is your front light on? Put your light on. They’re not far away now Clare. Does Isaac have any allergies that you know of? Is he turning blue? Is Isaac still breathing?”
After what seemed like forever, but turned out to be maybe 15 minutes, the ambos arrived and tended to Isaac.
“We need to get him into the back of the ambulance right away. Clare, this is going to be harder for you than it is for Isaac. We need to give him a shot of adrenaline to get him breathing again. He’s gone into anaphylaxis.”
At this point, all I could think of was Pulp Fiction. They were about to jab a needle into my tiny baby’s chest.
3, 2, 1 ...
As it turns out, my Pulp Fiction education of adrenaline administration was (thankfully), a little off.
Moments after the needle went into Isaac’s leg, he began breathing more calmly, colour finally draining from his strained little face, big brown eyes still fixed on me. His body relaxed at last.
As we made our way to the hospital, I finally exhaled too.
As I sat in that hospital bed, nursing my baby boy, waiting for the procession of doctors and nurses to make their way and determine what had gone wrong, I made all the necessary calls to family to let them know what had happened.
Little did anyone know at the time this would not be the last time I would be rushing Isaac to hospital in the back of an ambulance. As fate would have it, Wendy was only a couple of streets away at rehearsals for a play she was in. She was on her way. What none of us knew at that time either, was how fatally sick Wendy was.
She didn’t even know herself. Tragically, I would lose my beloved sister within years (I wrote about that for Mamamia here in a letter to Samuel Johson after he lost his own beloved sister).
Life as we knew it was about to get intense, and Isaac’s anaphylaxis was not going to be the worst of it.
Tears of relief that my baby was breathing, rolling down my cheeks, I held him tight, whispering to him:
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy, everyday.
You’ll always know baby boy,
how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”