So, I’ve put my mind to it and I think I’ve come up with an answer to my existential quandary – why am I doing this?
Selfishness. That’s what it boils down to. Total, unfettered selfishness.
Way back at the start of this whole adventure – at the fun, steamy, sweaty end – I was absolutely certain that I didn’t want to go ahead with raising a new human being if I wasn’t going to be pretty integral to that process. Useful beyond the spermally willing, now-I’ll-go-make-money-and-support-us-all kind of useful. We’d spotted the APL legislation and thought ‘hey, perfect!’, and with Nick Clegg’s (yeah, remember him?) wife in full support, there was nothing to stop us. Well, me. I’m the most important.
What it boils down to is my refusal to be left out of any part of the person-growing process. At the end of our antenatal classes, I was so pumped up by absolutely all of it. Fair enough I didn’t have to endure endless hours of labour, milk-engorged boobs that leak at the sound of crying, or relinquishing control over my physical and mental faculties for an undefined length of time. But I was looking forwards, actively excited by, just about everything else: nappies, bring ’em on; night-feeds, yes please; unreasonable amounts of vomit coming from a stomach the size of a marble, sign me up!
For the first month of The Small’s life, I was on night-duty. I insisted. We’d decided early doors that we were going to combination feed right from the start. Stories of lazy, bottle-fed babies refusing the nipple, babies getting confused by being fed from two different sources, and myriad other you-have-been-warned tales abounded. Maybe we’re lucky, but we’ve had absolutely no problems. What’s more, those nights in the first few weeks of The Small’s life were magical. Lack of sleep be damned! I’ve got a recording on my phone of one of her night feeds – a seven minute snippet of it at least. The clucks, whirs and gurgles don’t really happen anymore, nor do her lighthouse eyes fill the room in quite the same way; she’s far too interested in what else is going on around her. I’ve not played it back to myself yet, but I really love the fact that its there – that I was there. There was something beautiful, radiant about how elemental her relationship with food and simple comfort was at that point. We’d pause after a few ounces, both wrapped in the same dressing gown, and read a few pages of T H White’s The Once and Future King before a change and going back down again. It’s not the same as the breastfeeding bond, I know – can’t possibly be – but I wanted to get as close as I possibly could to that. Those times were amazing. They were just me and her and nothing else in the whole world mattered. Which is selfish of me I know. By the by, if you clicked on the afore-linked article, there ain’t much in my experience (apart from having milk-producing nipples) that means men can’t ‘nurse’ babies. No I didn’t let The Small suckle me, but I do have a heartbeat, warm skin, a recognisable face and a cracking singing voice – The Small had a preference for bluegrass; see the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack for ideas!
I also wanted (selfishly) to avoid being the back-up parent
At the beginning of parenthood, neither party knows what the hell they’re doing. You leave the hospital with a baby in a box (car seat is still known as ‘the box’ chez nous) and you’re on your own. For the first few weeks you’re making it up as you go along. You work out what cry means what, how long your new Small is likely to go between feeds, how often and for how long you can coerce it into sleeping – and letting you sleep. This is how you gain confidence. Together. You’re Small-knowledge is equal and grows together. You negotiate and communicate. At least that’s the theory; there are still a few fathers who don’t even take the first two weeks’ of leave.
They say that practice makes perfect. In the case of new parenting it’s more like ‘practice makes narrowing down the possibility of doing the ‘right’ thing more likely.’ If I was going to work every week day of The Small’s first year, I wouldn’t be practicing. I wouldn’t be confident. I would be looking to Co-parent for hints and tips, eventually deferring to her entirely as it would be easier (and less cry-y) than working it out myself. It’s a very easy and comfortable dynamic to fall into. Someone gave us a card just after The Small’s arrival. On it, a cartoon Dad held a cartoon baby out to cartoon Mum and said ‘of course I know what he wants. He wants you!’. I really didn’t want to be that Dad.
If I was that Dad, I thought, it’s a hop and a skip to being the reserve parent for the rest of her life. Who knows, maybe I will end up being second fiddle, supportive, ‘do-what-you’re-mother-says’ Dad. But I’d really like to not be, if possible. I want to be equal. Selfishly. Because I’m selfish.
Back in the few weeks pre-Small, the breast-feeding guru at our antenatal class talked about our decision to ‘co-parent’ as if it was some alternative life-style choice. (She also had a few things to say about mums returning to work, but that’s for another time perhaps.) Surely, a child with two confident (well, kind of) and not-too-clueless parents is a good thing, isn’t it?
I am also lucky in that my wife had ‘some reservations’ about being redefined as a mother after The Small arrived; she kicks ass in her profession and has gained national – nay, global – recognition in her field in a staggeringly short space of time, loves what she does and sees it as a massive part of who she is. Therefore she was as keen (and selfish) as I was for me to share the parental leave.
Whilst her perspective has shifted a little and the count-down to going back to work was difficult for her, a week in and we both think our – sorry, my – decision was the right one.
Of course I would – I’m selfish!
Pause. I’d like to state quickly that there’s nothing ostensibly wrong with dads not being primary carer, hands on, stay-at-home, 24/7. I, personally, don’t find financially supporting my to be a fulfilling role in and of itself. I’d much rather be getting mucky, emotional and playing that part. My professional life is fulfilling and purposeful, but not as fulfilling as I knew this time would be. Besides, the accumulation of capital in order to line the nest has never motivated me. If it were, I don’t think I’d have gone into teaching… If that stuff is for you, cracking, brilliant, go for it, enjoy the higher levels of testosterone you have compared to me. As long as you feel fulfilled. But I’m still sexy.
There will always be individual circumstances in each case, but I’d encourage a bit more selfishness on the part of fathers in this. We’re pretty useful in our own right apparently. And if we want to be taken seriously as parents and dispel the old ‘father-as-breadwinner, emotionally absent, loving-but-hopeless’ stereotypes then we need to step up and get messy and emotional, do our fair share. Because face it gents, chances are you enjoyed the pregnancy more than she did – free lifts, a lack of discomfort, being able to pee as normal – and probably enjoyed the sweaty beginnings at least as much as her.
So stop being so selfish.
The Other Parent