On only the very first day of 2017, the political scene on Scottish Twitter seemed to be in full-flow silly season. Like the daftie I am, I rolled my sleeves up and ploughed myself head first into melee
First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon was celebrating the unveiling of the ‘baby box’ policy. Which to me personally, regardless of any political bent or belief I have, is a policy I absolutely endorse. In some regards, it’s not the most ground breaking intuitive ever announced. Inside the box will be some of the necessities parents will need for their bairns in early infancy, nappies, wet wipes, a baby grow and so on. This is all very similar to the Bounty Pack that my mother was entitled to when my younger siblings were born, and that new parents are entitled to even today. The main difference is the container. The box that houses these essentials is also able to double up as the babies first cot. This is copied from the Finnish model, where they have been the norm since the 1930’s.
Some have seen this as a cynical move on behalf of the SNP. A not-so-furtive attempt to dazzle us with yon Nordic way of living, with their high quality of life and successful governance in a small independent oil-rich nation – the dastardly SNP have tried to lure us in with freebies for our new-born weans! With added poetry no less! Stashed in amongst the information leaflets offering guidance to first time parents, is a poem written in Scots by our Makar, Jackie Kay. These heartfelt few stanzas celebrating the sonsie wee bundle of joy that’s just arrived, have been derided by some as a Machiavellian ploy from the sleekit nats to win your illiterate baby’s vote from the very moment it leaves the womb.
Some demand that we should means-test beneficiaries, while others are outraged at the mere suggestion that a universal policy that treats all newly borns indiscriminately might tackle the equality gap, they say that we should wrestle with education policy to do that. They doubtless have a very good point, but might I suggest that an equal footing from the moment of birth – although not a solution to the bigger issue of social equality – is however, a good place to start.
But what do I care? I’m just a loud-mouthed actor who dabbles in a bit of activism on the side. A middle-aged, divorced, childless man with little prospect of a wee yin arriving into his care anytime soon. Sometimes I’m not the best person to be in charge of myself or even my twitter account, never mind the thought of me being a faither. So, why would I give two hoots unless I’m whatever the polar opposite is to #SNPbad. Right? Wrong.
For me the bigger issue, if not the main issue here, is the impact that the baby boxes might have on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), also known as Cot Death. In Scotland, a baby dies on average every nine days from a Cot Death. We have no real idea what causes it. We know that if you refrain from taking the baby into your bed or put them to sleep on their back that it reduces the risk. We also know that if you have a subsequent child after a Cot Death, then following children have a higher risk of dying. I was one of those higher risk babies. I was born five years behind my sister Nicola who stopped breathing for no apparent reason at three months old. As were my younger sister and brother.
I can barely fathom what my parents endured or what my aunt and uncle endured when it happened to them. My mother was a decade and a half younger than I am now, but she had to keep on keeping on because she had my two elder sisters to tend to, one of whom was Nicola’s twin. Twin sisters, cared for in exactly the same way, nurtured and lavished with the same amount of love, yet one was suddenly and unexpectedly gone. And we don’t know why.
I can’t imagine what that would be like. I can’t speak to my parent’s grief or my siblings sense of loss. I only know my own, and it’s a strange one. Sometimes I can feel a bit fraudulent, because I never knew my sister, I never met her, I was never even on the face of the earth at the same time as her, but she’s an ever-present absence in my life. I often mix my tenses when I talk about her, I find myself saying “I have a sister that died before I was born”, though grammatically incorrect, it actually makes sense to me – because in a way, she’s always been with me.
I can’t remember a day when all of a sudden I found out I had an absent sister. It was as though I just always knew, the reality of what happened was never brushed under the carpet or kept from us. Nicola has always been a fact of my life. As a wee boy, I used to imagine what she would be like, how different my life would be if I was one of six children and not one of five. When I was in a grump with my family, I used to imagine that if only Nicola was alive she would understand me, she would stick up for me and she would make it all better. As a grown man and ambassador for the Scottish Cot Death Trust (SCDT), I often talk very matter of fact about my sister or the issues surrounding SIDS. But then right out of the blue and when I least expect it, her name can catch in my throat, or my eyes well up. Sometimes I just full-pelt have a greet.
I don’t dare talk of this experience to engender any sympathy or to persuade people that baby boxes are the magic wand that will solve the issue of SIDS in Scotland. I don’t desire to blindly endorse the SNP or suggest that this policy is enough. As much as I applaud this measure, The Scottish Cot Death Trust can only go so far in fully understanding, researching and combatting this syndrome when they get only 2% of their budget from the Scottish Government. A total of 86% of the SCDT funding relies on fundraising and charitable donations to keep them going. There is no question that the Scottish government could do more.
Some of the people who have questioned this scheme have done so on the basis of proof. They ask where the evidence is that baby boxes affect mortality rates given that Scotland in 2016 is a much more advanced nation than Finland was when they introduced them in the 1930’s? So, to them might I suggest that the main problem is, we don’t understand this killer syndrome. We are still at pains to pinpoint the reason it takes one baby and not another. We are dealing with an elusive enemy so we must take unique measures against it. It might seem like a big hammer to take against a wee nail, but given the many the many negative policies currently being pursued by Theresa May’s government in Westminster, are baby boxes really worth this degree of exasperation?
Whatever you think of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, whatever your feelings are on the cause of an independent Scotland, please, just take a step back and look at the bigger picture here. This policy is a step in the right direction with regards to social equality, but more to the point, at its heart this strategy aims to literally save babies lives. If means testing is your sticking point, remind yourself that SIDS doesn’t discriminate by class. If it’s social equality, look at this as a small part in that bigger jigsaw and hold the First Ministers feet to the fire on the pieces yet to fall into place. If it’s evidence you need and the Nordic model isn’t enough, then let us be the evidence, let us show the way.
I once heard a lovely thing about the Finnish baby boxes. I was told that besides using them as the first cot, they became the child’s ‘memory box’. It made me grin to think that the boxes handed out in Scotland on the first of this year, will one day be littered throughout attics and stuffed with the future artefacts that make up the remembrances of lives these three-day old bairns have yet to live. But to finish, I once did a play and the great folkie John Tams wrote a song about men dying at sea. He sang “How high the price, how deep the water. It is not fish you’re eating, it is men’s lives.”
It might be a six million quid policy, but we’re not talking nappies, poems or boxes here. We’re talking about wean’s lives. I for one, could not put a price on that.