I feel a little like Edward Snowden here but it has to come out sometime. Someone will blow the whistle eventually… There is no first baby of the New year! I know each hospital in every city competes for the honour. And then, at least in Canada, there are the provincial competitions, and even national winners… But it’s all a diversion. Smoke and mirrors. The first baby is almost like -dare I say it?- a sasquatch: a nice myth, but hard to recognize, let alone prove. Clocks in hospitals are far from synchronized to Greenwich mean time -or even with other hospitals in the city- so time claims are like low-hanging fruit: you pick the best.
I realize the event has been news fodder for as long as there have been clocks, and why not? It seems like a good idea: acknowledge and celebrate the first baby born into the fresh and untested New year. A perfect symbol of renewal and hope; a chance to begin again untainted by the past. Pure. A tabula rasa with nothing yet written on it: no blemishes, no mistakes, nothing crossed off or erased, nothing hidden. Another triumph of hope over experience -albeit in a different context from that used by Samuel Johnson.
As I said, a good idea, but the attempting to link it to a single, unique event is fraught with problems. In principle I suppose it is fairly straightforward: as the baby’s head emerges from the birth canal, look up at the clock on the wall; if it is a second after midnight, it qualifies -maybe even wins… Or should it be when the whole body is out? And yet, on more sober reflection, maybe it makes even more sense to mark the time from when the umbilical cord is clamped because then the baby is a truly independent agent. Truly in and of this world: no longer fetus, but baby. I suppose the same could be said of its placenta though, because for the entire gestation the one has been entirely dependent on the other… So should the birth of the placenta have some place in that equation? Or only the entity we name? I guess we have to stop somewhere.
But I realize I am splitting hairs here; I am missing the spirit of the game. We all want to commemorate firsts: the first person on the moon, the first person to have a heart transplant, a lung transplant… So why not the first baby of the New Year? Why am I being so curmudgeonly about the issue? Is it because I want to deny some mother and her baby their moment on the pedestal? Deny people the hope that there can be a new beginning -a car-wash for their lives? Or is there a more mundane, political reason -like, I am out of sorts because I have never delivered the New Year’s first baby for the city? Have never shared that pedestal, basked in that momentary glory, had my masked face and soiled-gown outfit featured in the local paper? Well, in response, I can only say that I’ve been close, and it was fun.
As the New Year’s Eve midnight approaches on a delivery ward, the nurses and doctors all start focusing on whichever parturient might have a chance of delivering in the right time frame. Multips are the best, because, having had children before, their probable delivery time is a little more predictable. And they’re generally in for the game. Nowadays, with epidurals to take away the pain of labour, mothers in the process can enjoy the challenge along with the rest of us.
As the time draws ever closer and the minute hand slowly creeps around the numbers, a watcher from the door can see the frequency of clock-checks increase. Intimate conversations with the nurse intensify; glances at the machine monitoring contractions become more noticeably intertwined with sighs, and explorations of the ever changing abdominal contour by sundry anxious hands increase. The importance of that moment thickens while time knife-edges. The excited nurse tries her best to diffuse the tension and the performance pressure on her patient -although pressure is what we all want and frequently inquire about. Not psychological pressure, you understand -that is a given- but pelvic pressure which might herald imminent delivery as the head enters and begins to navigate the lower depths of the birth canal. With an epidural in full effect, however, this pressure is sometimes difficult to detect, or at least to quantify.
It’s a fine balance, delivery. So many things have to coordinate: position of the baby’s head in the vagina, ability to push effectively, size of the baby, frequency and efficiency of the uterine contractions -even the experience of the mother-to-be… And to time it so that whatever we decide is birth occurs precisely at midnight is, well, a lottery at worst and a raffle at best.
I don’t know about other hospitals, but I have always felt that it would be cheating to count the time of delivery when it is assisted by forceps, or vacuum extraction, or -and especially- Caesarian Section. I mean, come on! Even if they are indicated for fetal distress, accepting them in the competition would be akin to driving a marathon runner over the finish line and recording the time.
No, it has to happen naturally -i.e. on its own, without assistance, without cheating. There must be no telling her not to push that last little bit because it’s only 2359 hr. on the clock… No saying, “Well, I know that clock’s not correct, because it’s not the same time as on my watch…” If we’re going to play the game, we have to use the hospital clock so no one can be accused of -what?- approximation? I use that word because in the glow of ‘almost midnight’, time becomes unduly, if understandably, flexible. Stretchable. Mouldable… Unruly.
My only brush with fame came in another city. In another time. We all had high hopes for winning the city’s accolades for the first baby born, but alas, it was at least 15 seconds after midnight when it could be well and truly accepted that the little girl had been born. Out. Crying… And then came the inevitable phone call from our competitor hospital across the city -a hospital whose history was fraught with rampant disregard for the integrity of its clocks- that they had delivered a little girl at -yes- one second after midnight… And penguins can fly, you could almost hear each of us thinking.
Elated as we all were with the health of our little girl, however, there was the sense that we had missed the lottery by only a few numbers. And questionable ones at that. One nurse, however, the one who had plopped the baby onto the mother’s abdomen for a little skin-to-skin contact -something that was not widely practiced at that time- smiled broadly. She was clearly not one to accept defeat -especially at the hands -or clock- of a rival hospital.
We all looked at her. Why was she smiling? Was it mere bravado in the teeth of a near victory? Knowledge of a hitherto unannounced but bureaucratically acknowledged error in our room’s clock? Or had she missed the point entirely. When she noticed our perplexed expressions she pointed to the baby, by this time happily, although tentatively, sucking and snuffling around her mother’s nipple. “First breast feeding newborn in the New Year,” she said. “I timed it at 32 seconds after midnight,” she added smugly.
“But it’s not really breast feeding,” said the pediatrician who had not been needed and was leaning casually against the bassinet. “The baby’s probably not even getting much colostrum yet (the first antibody and protein-rich fluid from the breast before the ‘true’ breast milk comes in).”
“Come on, Dr. Felder,” the nurse piped up, excited by her ingenuity. “It’s what sustains the baby until mom’s milk comes in! Gotta call it breast feeding, eh?” We all looked at each other and nodded. “Right,” she said. “I’m phoning the papers.”
And she did. But the idea never caught on; I never got my picture in the paper holding the special newborn that had obviously accomplished an even more sophisticated first than just being born. I suppose life is full of these almosts though, isn’t it? Even at the beginning of a new and unwritten New year. There’s a lesson in that somewhere…