It’s funny what fatherhood does to you. I’ve been a dad for a little while now, and it hasn’t necessarily altered my life in the way I thought it would – as far as I can tell, you have a child, you imagine a world of unutterable change, like you’re going to grow giant-size. But then you still go to work, you still have many of the same worries that you had before, you occasionally still even socialise, with actual people. You don’t just magically become a “DAD” overnight.
Take me for example. I witnessed the messy miracle of childbirth, I wept a tsunami of tears as an unfamiliar face squeezed from a very familiar orifice. I took the little bundle home, and placed him in a little basket and watched him sleep for days on end. I vowed to always be there (to protect and to serve etc.), and I even acknowledged that I was no longer the axis around which all things rotate. The world was his now. He looked up at me, gargling, his face the picture of heavenly beauty. Then he shat all the way up his back and started screaming. My place on the Ladder Of Importance was cemented in that moment. I was to be the third rung, the shit clearer-upperer. The useless 3am cheerleader, attempting to stop the entire world from weeping by doing a clumsy tearful tap dance.
In fact, fast forward to now and not a great deal has changed in that sense. My son has learned to walk, then to run, and then to say vague approximations of sentences, and yet – while I’m much better than him at all of those things – I’m still somehow lagging way behind. No one is impressed when I go to the toilet ON THE TOILET, or when I manage to drink a whole glass of water without pouring most of it onto my trousers. At just two years old, I’d even go so far as to say that my son is currently the closest thing I have to a boss (I’m a freelance writer – an absurd way to make a living!). He’s my puppet master, dictating my every move like I’ve been hypnotised. Every action I take is filtered through my supposition of what his reaction to it will be. Some afternoons I find myself in the park, staring out to the distance while he shouts at local dogs, without actually knowing how I got there.
Yes, kids are funny little creatures. On the one hand, it’s a genuine pleasure to watch them grow, but on the other hand, you realise that they’re lazy, they’re the very dictionary definition of ‘selfish’, and for the first year at least they just cry, shit, and nuzzle on a big pair of breasts, like they’re celebrities. They are, and I say this without wanting to offend any babies that are reading, the most basic, unsophisticated Tamagotchis you could imagine. And yet – AND YET! – for those early months of parenthood in particular, I was absolutely all over the shop. Where my boy’s mum tended to her cub like a graceful lioness, having somehow transitioned into Beyoncé during a five-hour labour, I wandered around with my mouth open, looking entirely gormless, unable to hide the simmering panic bubbling under the surface. Was he OK? Was he going to be OK? Was I going to be OK? WAS EVERYONE GOING TO BE OK? Where she took to motherhood like a duck to water, I initially took to fatherhood like a duck to public speaking.
With Father’s Day looming, I’ve been thinking about my own father, and how our relationship has been over the years. I thought about those early days when I was a tot. How, despite being just 28 years old and already having three kids before I came along, I’d always filtered his behaviour through a series of preconceptions that I deemed to be grown up and “dadlike”. But the reality is that he was probably just as uncertain, just as gormless and just as barely able to hide his simmering panic as I am.
Because that’s the thing, I’ve seen behind the curtain, and like the iconic scene in The Wizard of Oz, I can now see how it all works. How your stern “telling off” face can often mask the truth, which is that you’re thinking of something else. Or how when your child cries sometimes you want to cry too, or how when you watch your son running across a park playing with his friends, your heart swells up and you feel like it’s going to burst. That’s how my dad would have once viewed me – full of unfettered love and adoration, before my awkward teenage years, before the numerous occasions when he would be my bank and my bailout, before I became a clumsy Tetris of human emotion.
Just knowing this, for me, has undeniably brought us closer together. I now hug him without resorting to an inordinate amount of back-slapping to make it feel less poignant and more “masculine”. I can be more open, and more affectionate with him, because I can now understand precisely what he has done for me over the years. And when he looks at me now, I like to think he sees not just a son, but also, like him, a father. Almost, I dare say, an equal. Almost.
I asked him before I wrote this what fatherhood had taught him about himself, and he replied with these words:
“Until I had children I didn’t know if I was capable of unconditional love. Turns out, I was.”
Now stop crying, and go and give your old man a hug.