Looking after Barnaby

A couple of weeks ago one of my sisters-in-law was in Turkey on Guiding business when she started having seizures. She was taken into intensive care and put into a medically-induced coma to protect her from neurological damage. Heavy anti-epileptic medication and antibiotics were introduced intravenously and different bits of information got back to our family through my brother. There were the obvious problems of a foreign medical system and a language barrier to overcome, and to be honest we are still trying to find out exactly what happened.

All we knew for a few days was that she was asleep, on a ventilator, and not waking up; it was very scary.

Two of my brothers flew out to wait for her to awaken and to accompany her back to the UK. The rest of the family rallied around arranging care for Barnaby – her and my brother’s 7-month-old baby.


My parents did the lion’s share of the work; my Pops made eggy bread for his breakfast and a special bouncing playlist for his time spent in the door bouncer. My mum kept posting reassuring photos of Barney eating and having fun, and my brother kept us up to date on things in Turkey via Skype.

To our enormous relief, my sister-in-law did eventually wake up and was able to return to the UK. However it was obvious that after the trauma she’d been through, the industrial-strength drugs she was on and symptoms like double-vision, poor coordination etc. that looking after Barnaby on her own would be impossible when my brother returned to work. So I spent last week with Barnaby and his mum, having an instructive time discovering a bit about what is involved with caring for a 7-month old baby, and I want to reflect on what that was like.

The first thing I discovered is how quickly your world shrinks to the size of a tiny dependent person.


The first day of looking after Barney involved getting to grips with the amazing user manual compiled by my sister in law. It contains the basic outline of his schedule, his itinerary, suggestions for solving problems and instructions on some of the mainstays of his care such as nappy changing, bedtime ritual, bath time, suggested food for mealtimes (he can’t eat dairy or soya) and so on. As a newbie to baby care this manual was enormously helpful and I think that with the uncertainty and fear of the last few weeks, maintaining a routine has provided some predictability and order for the wee chap. I was happy to uphold the system! However it did mean that the things which normally fill my brain were replaced with stuff like “When should I be thinking of putting Barnaby up for a nap? Does he need changing? Does he look sleepy? Is he thirsty? Does he need a cuddle? Did he get enough roughage in that last meal?” etc. etc.

I will level with you: it was boring and difficult sometimes… I missed long emails with my amazing comrades, uninterrupted stretches of time in which to think, and the ability to wander freely about without Barnaby crying (he only likes playing if you are with him!) I also did not enjoy his favourite game of “let’s steal Auntie Felix’s glasses and chew them”.

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But it was also inspiring and rewarding sometimes. When Barnaby shines his gorgeous smile on me it feels like the sun has come out, and when he started to clearly recognise my face and put his arms out for a cuddle I felt a fierce turbolove that is hard to put into words.


Normally my role at family events involves bouncing all the bairns on my knee which is easy and fun but not at all on the same level as day to day care; there is stuff you can only discover through spending an extended amount of time with a very tiny person. For instance I noticed that Barnaby is really very attentive and that when he is outside, all of the sounds engage his interest. Wind rustling the elderflower bushes at the back of the garden; an aeroplane passing above; a motorbike zooming through a neighbouring street; the sounds of people talking in nearby gardens and the cheep cheep cheep of a sparrow… all bring an instant stillness and alertness in Barnaby’s face which is amazing to watch. It reminds me of the thrill I first felt – and still feel – when I am making field recordings. We spent some profoundly happy times out in the garden hanging out in Barnaby’s “listening nest” (his tiny tent with a sheepskin in it) just quietly listening together. It was brilliant.

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I also really enjoyed mealtimes with Barney… a messy affair, true, but my instinct with everyone I like is to try and cook something they will enjoy! I made banana pancakes and started a Pinterest board with my brother for DIY weaning treats for babies. I invented fruit purees and enjoyed putting together tiny selections of perfectly diced food items ready for Barney to try, to smear on his face and inevitably to drop on the floor. (I have nicknamed Barney “mittens” for the gungey, pudgey mitts he creates for himself at mealtimes and it’s amazing how indelible weetabix are once dried on a baby’s face.)

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On one of her better days I drove us into town and my sister-in-law treated us to lunch. I gained a new appreciation for baby-friendly restaurants and everyone was great about the carnage that ensued at Barney’s lunch. We had a job to get a very attractive flier out of Barney’s hands too – he was so excited about the beer and burrito deal it advertised that he apparently wanted to eat it.




I also enjoyed teaching Barney how to make monkey noises, playing the piano to him, reading his bedtime stories and introducing him to my long-term comrade and partner in crime, Monkl.

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It felt super important to try and make a good job of these things because I really didn’t want my brother or sister-in-law to be worrying about Barnaby whilst trying to recover from what they have been through. But I also really don’t want to be the useless auntie who has never changed a nappy or got a cranky child to go to sleep. When my friends have had babies I have thought they are really sweet, but my brother’s babies are a whole other level; I see my siblings’ faces in theirs and, watching them grow, I see the traces of our own childhood. They feel and look like kin and our connection is ancient, animal and wondrous. My niece and nephews have a big place in my heart and I feel privileged to have had an opportunity to get better at the practical stuff. I also feel a bit closer to all my brothers and sisters-in-law having had this intense exposure to what the last months of their lives (and in one case years) have been like. The annoying and boring bits, the amazing bits, the messy bits and the rewards.


Today it is amazing to be sitting here in my own home, back at my desk and the work of my own mission. I’m editing audio, sorting out book orders, writing this, drinking coffee… nobody is crying, nobody is disturbing me and, just now, nobody needs me. But I find I am distracted by thoughts of my family. I’m really missing my sister-in-law and hoping she is feeling a bit more like herself as the days pass. I’m still in awe at the incredible organisation she has put around Barnaby’s maintenance – the user manual, the immaculate nursery with everything in its place, the efficient systems for laundry and bottle feeds – and it strikes me that she is the true embodiment of the Girl Guides motto to “Be Prepared”. And I really miss wee “mittens” and find myself wondering what he is doing. If he enjoyed his breakfast. If he is listening to the sounds of cars and bikes out in the garden. If he is playing with Winston (his soft cuddly giraffe) and if he is having a good nap…

22 Responses to Looking after Barnaby

  1. Pingback: KNITSONIK 10 – EDDIE, my beloved digital sound recorder (Part 3) – KNITSONIK

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