How do you know if you’re ready to be a father? John Crace of The Guardian talks about his experiences being a dad and what it means to him.
I thought I was ready for fatherhood. I was 40, married, and had had enough of the good life to be able to imagine it ending. Yet parenthood still came as a surprise. This was partly because most of what I had been told about it came from mothers; I rarely spoke to my male friends about it.
My wife devoured books on motherhood, but the few I saw on fatherhood tended to be written by men who deludedly believed they were funny. The blokiness was deeply dull. Then there were the online guides for first-time fathers, giving advice on what to expect during pregnancy and life with a newborn. They were well-intentioned, but not hugely helpful. Nothing I read told me the truth about how I felt.
I was mightily stressed in the months leading up to the birth and spent hours gloomily contemplating how everything I loved about my life would have to be sacrificed. With hindsight, if I were writing a guide, I would start by reassuring dads-to-be that nature knows what she is doing. It can’t be an accident that pregnancy lasts nine months as it gives men time to digest the reality of what is about to happen.
For me, one of the hardest things was seeing my wife’s body change during the pregnancy; I was not emotionally prepared for how different she looked as her bump became ever-more pronounced, but it was hard to admit to, or share my thoughts because, as I discovered, no one much wants to hear a man moaning.
The pregnancy taught me another lesson that was to be invaluable following our baby’s arrival: the important stuff happens to the woman and the man’s role is to assist and cope.
Childbirth is like watching a film after having read too many advance reviews. You have been told about the part where you will scream and the bit where you will weep, so it comes loaded with expectations. From a father’s point of view, giving birth resembles Keith Richard’s description of being on tour: it is mostly waiting around. My wife was in labour for 35 hours, and for most of that time I was hanging about, offering what support I could.
Men should be prepared to see their partners enduring a pain no man can comprehend and to make difficult decisions on their behalf. Seeing my wife – usually independent, strong and wilful – left weak, vulnerable and reliant on me was a painful surprise.
A father’s role is to hold his partner’s hand and weep manly tears at the sight of the new baby arriving. I was so aware that I was meant to cry that I was stricken with performance anxiety. While my wife was furiously pushing out our baby, I was trying to recall the video to Drive by the Cars, in the hope of mustering a few tears. The sight of my wife giving birth was fascinating and freaky, but not tear-inducing: I just didn’t feel like crying.
Not only would I tell new fathers not to worry about crying, I would also tell them not to worry if the newborn baby looks decidedly weird. I knew I was meant to think my daughter was the most beautiful thing on the planet. I had been told that I would fall in love with her the moment I clapped eyes on her. Instead, I found myself staring at her little face, thinking: “My God, she looks like a tiny alien.”
If I was surprised at my lack of tears, I was equally surprised by how much watching my wife give birth affected me: simply put, I felt an intense love, awe and admiration.
Having a baby ruins your sleep. That is one of the fundamental truths about parenthood. Except, that is, if you are the father of a baby who is being breastfed, in which case there really is no reason to wake up in the middle of the night. The honest truth is that, after the initial couple of weeks, my sleep was largely unaffected. I had thought it would be totally different, but that was because the people who told me were women and, frankly, it is different for them.
Laila is now 10 months old. Before she was born, people kept telling me life would change after parenthood. I hated hearing that – if you rather like your life, why would you want to change it?
Of course, life does change, but I have found that the extent of that change is partly in your hands. I would tell fathers-to-be that the fear of parenthood is much worse than parenthood itself. When you are waiting for the baby, you can see all the things that are going to change, but you cannot imagine the new things that will arrive.
To the man, the baby remains an abstract right up until it pops out. As a result, men are less prepared for it than women. It also means there is the delightful surprise of finding out that not only are things not so terrible, but also they can be rather wonderful.
However much your life changes, though, you have to accept that you have become the person who once annoyed you so much: the new parent on the plane with the baby everyone is praying won’t start screaming, the man pushing the tank-like buggy along the crowded pavement, the dad who can’t resist boring his friends with stories about the little love. Don’t think you are better than them: you are them. SM
‘Now we’re free to have a different relationship. Not to be friends, though’
July 1992. Anna doesn’t breathe when she is born and is rushed to intensive care. She remains there for several days, and I get quite used to it. Once I know she isn’t going to die, I rather wish she could stay in hospital indefinitely so that a doctor will always be on hand. The reality of what it means to now be jointly responsible for keeping Anna alive 24/7 has only just sunk in. It’s probably something I should have thought about rather harder before becoming a father, but there you are. By the time we get her home, I am already way out of my depth. Nothing has prepared me for this moment, and I am scared shitless. I pick Anna up. “I love you to bits,” I say. “But it would really help if you could tell me what the fuck to do.”
Nearly 20 years later, Anna is still breathing. As is her brother, Robbie, who was born just over three years later. Anna is at university and Robbie has just finished his GCSEs: both are bright, funny and argumentative. They get on well together – mostly; they have many more friends than my wife and I, and are certainly much better looking. These days the separation anxieties are all mine: I was the one who sobbed most of the way down the M6 after dropping Anna at Manchester.
It feels much better this way. I can’t say I’m thrilled to be in my 50s – one of the unavoidable consequences of having (nearly) grown-up children – but life is now generally more fun than it was in my 30s. I don’t love the kids any more than I always have, but I enjoy them a great deal more. I was never that great with them when they were small: I did all the stuff fathers are supposed to do – took them to the park, took them to the latest Disney film, read to them – but I generally did so without much enthusiasm. Who wants to go to the same park in the freezing cold for the fifth day in a row to push a sodding swing? Who really wants to see the Little Fucking Mermaid? And who really wants to read the same book, night after night? Not me.
The feelings of joy other parents seemed to experience in their children’s total dependency on them rather bypassed me. I just felt the weight of the responsibility: the fundamental deceit of trying to instil a sense of routine and security in a world that was self-evidently random and the certain knowledge that sooner or later the kids would see through this and feel let down by me. That moment has now long passed and we can now all be a normal family without having to act like one.
There are losses. I miss all four of us always being under the same roof. And there are still anxieties, albeit different ones: such as where the hell is Robbie, why isn’t he back when he said he would be, and why is his phone going straight to answerphone? But – the odd sleepless night permitting – these are a small price to pay. The occasional three-line whip apart, if Anna and Robbie do something with me it is because they have chosen to do so and not because they have been dragged along. That never fails to make me feel absurdly flattered. And if they don’t want to do what I want to do, they can do something else as they no longer require constant supervision. Either way, those areas of my life that went on hold – going to away football matches, for example – while they were young have now been reclaimed.
I also love it that I can now admire them both for real rather than imagined achievements. Congratulating them for the tuneless recorder solo never came easily to me; being gobsmacked by a piece of theatre or artwork they have created does. I like it that in many ways my job as a father is done: they have a clear sense of right and wrong, an emotional sensitivity I never had at that age, and a passion for Spurs. I also quite like it that they think they know more than me. Even though they don’t.
So we are now free to have a very different relationship. Not to be friends – who wants a dad as a friend? A dad should always remain a dad; someone to cadge lifts and money off, someone to turn to when things are shit, and someone to ignore when things are fine. But they are now able to see me as a person as well as a dad. I no longer have to pretend – too much – to be someone I’m not. They know my strengths and weaknesses almost as well as I know theirs and love me anyway. Well, they say they do …
Then again there are still some weaknesses I try to keep hidden. Such as writing sentimental pieces like this. But, luckily, as no one in my family ever reads a word I write, that shouldn’t be a problem.
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