Thousands of years ago, when my 10-month-old daughter was born, I was convinced I had fatherhood pegged. “I’m a decent, relatively stable human man,” I’d reassure myself.
“I’ve read the books and I know enough of my own fears and flaws not to pass them down to my kid. And if I disintegrate into a weeping wreck of panic and ineptitude, I have a caring, organised and superhumanly capable teammate – my wife, my daughter’s mother – to fall back on. How hard can it be, this parenting lark?”
Then I had a drink with my friend, Dan.
“What, you’re doing controlled crying?” he laughed when, a few weeks back, I told him we’d adopted the technique of training our baby to fall asleep on her own by leaving her to cry before going into her room to comfort her over gradually increasing periods of time. “Mate, you are going to f**k your kid right up.”
I was crestfallen. “What’s your method?” I asked.
“Respond, respond, respond,” he offered. “Never leave them to cry it out. Those early traumas can turn kids into emotionally stunted wrecks with, like, psychological defects and stuff. Your kid’s going to be a murderer, mate.”
The next morning, I asked my wife what she thought. “We can’t go in every time she wakes up,” she sighed, “Do you want to get up every two hours to soothe her back to sleep?” I confessed that I did not.
Also, some say it’s as likely that rushing in at the faintest whimper stands as much a chance of turning a baby into a needy adult as controlled crying might make her a murderer?
The truth is, it doesn’t matter: there is no strong scientific evidence to back either argument.
Still, that’s not the only way I might be destroying my baby’s adulthood, apparently.
“Oh, you should only allow your baby to play with wooden toys,” a new mum told me the other day. “It cultivates the imagination.” We tried that, and not only do they cost more than if they’d been whittled from The Magic Faraway Tree itself, but they sound like Satan’s gym playlist when bashed repeatedly against a radiator.
Another guilt trap is baby-led weaning, whereby you sit them somewhere and let them eat whatever’s in their hand, hoping it isn’t your phone or a fiver.
We had to try it because a bunch of other parents we know said it was the only way to make your child a less-fussy eater. Until we realised it takes forever and leaves your kitchen looking like the scene of a fruit and root-veg massacre.
So, really, the most bemusing part of being a new dad isn’t so much what people don’t tell you, it’s what they do. From co-sleeping to attachment parenting, swaddling to ‘elimination communication’, the world of parenthood is a battlefield of advice, instruction, judgment and guilt. And it’s only going to get worse when we navigate such choppy waters as potty training, screen time, social media and curfews.
Everyone has an opinion. And child-rearing, for some people, is a competitive sport.
What I’ve decided is that none of it really matters, so long as I’m present and engaged. Science shows that the two most positive things a father can give his child are love and time.
Happy parents make happy babies. So long as she eats nutritious food, sleeps enough and has me and Mum to catch her when she launches herself face-first off the sofa, I’m pretty sure she won’t turn into a murderer or, worse, a London property developer.
And from my perspective so far, fatherhood has been at once the most challenging and magical thing I’ve ever done with my life. She melts my heart at least twice a day – and all she has to do is grin, blow a raspberry or scrunch up her face when she farts.
As the poet Philip Larkin wrote, “They f**k you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.”
If anyone’s going to screw up my daughter, I really think it should be me. Her loving, doting dad.
Find out more on Shared Parental Leave here.