HOW MANY IS ENOUGH?

Whenever asked how many children I’d ideally like to have, by Ellie or whoever else, I always fell back on the same tired joke – ‘Three. One of each.’ The two of us spoke so often about having children and from such an early stage of our relationship that it seemed the only matter to be resolved was the number. It was as though the future were already written. In our minds the kids were already beautifully clad and suitably named. There was no ‘if’.

Later that worn out line was to resolve itself into the germ of a grand idea. Why not have three, indeed? And why not one of each? A boy, a girl, and an orphan. I’d struck upon the plan at a party thrown to celebrate the tenth anniversary of a restaurant I’d once worked at. Happy and hugger-mugger with friends amid a throng of faces old and new, with barely room to raise a glass mouthwards, elbows pinned to our sides and every word shouted over the cheery din that hung in the air, a couple we knew – happily married and busy raising the archetypal nuclear family – quizzed me on family plans. Madonna had been kicking up headlines at the time by adopting a young Malawian named David Banda, and swept along by the spirit of giddy – and faintly unrealistic – anticipation and generosity which the subject of kids aroused in us then, I suggested we might perhaps like to follow suit and give a home to a child whose need was great.

Initially my companions were confused and assumed my puppyish eagerness to consider adoption might have arisen out of a problem – were we unable to have kids of our own, they wondered? I assured them that wasn’t so, arguing the case instead for altruism. It was myself I was convincing, of course. Though my views haven’t changed to this day – in the face of arguments against interfering do-gooders trying to throw their arms around the world by rescuing but one child, and in doing so breaking the hearts of the many, I would always contend that if you have it in your power to change, if not the world, then one child’s world, do so. One child is never ‘just’ one child.

But how relieved I am now, for all the upheaval of the last two or three years, that our future remained unwritten and the blue pen was taken to the script. Our reality proved in the end to be little more than stage scenery, a construct whose removal caused havoc in my life for no short time. But destruction is often the first act of creation, and a brutal and beautiful reality at least has filled the void. ‘The truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable’ – whoever said it first, James A Garfield or Gloria Steinem, it bears repeating. There was to be no orphan to take its place alongside the girl/boy axis of our nuclear family. There’s just Leo. And of course he can never be ‘just’ Leo.

How glad I am to be off-plan once more, to be swept up again in life’s currents, however buffeting the ride. What could have been more anti-life than to plan a family? How I regret that we’d opted to terminate a pregnancy in the summer of 2005, a promise of life that Ellie had sensed as we drove an exhilarating 3,000 mile loop of open road through every conceivable combination of weather and terrain, beginning and ending in San Francisco. It had been and remains the adventure of my life thus far; it seemed the road was rising to meet us. In Istanbul Liverpool had won the Champions League for the first time since my childhood in a manner that could only be described as miraculous, and I could hardly read that as anything else than an augury that life was opening up, the future bright and welcoming as the Californian sunlight. Could there have been a happier way to conceive?

And though I felt terror when we returned to London and a positive test, in my gut I still wanted the ride. I demurred and took on the passive role of support as I felt was right – or I felt was expected, I have never been sure – it was her body, and consequently her decision. Not for many years was I to register the distinction that it was in her body. ‘I want more time for just the two of us’, Ellie said. We’d had four years to ourselves. How much time did we want? We took our time, we agonised, and afterwards we moved on. I cannot know what Ellie endured alone, and have nothing but respect for her decision. And there is no percentage in weighing up the parallel life, or pondering what might have been for us. How can I care for what’s never been?

But soon I was to understand why friends would urge me to get on with it. Among all of my contemporaries or, to be more specific, the guys I played five-a-side with on Tuesday nights, only I was yet to start a family. When asked in no uncertain terms ‘so when are you going to whip the johnnies off, then?’ I could only blush and splutter into my beer, frothing about the insecurities of money and work. I thought, of course, that I was being sensible, putting the horse before the cart as it were. I saw it as dangerously lazy to assume that ‘everything would fall into place’ around a baby. I’d been missing the point. I was getting in the way of my own path. I’d allowed myself to be lulled into thinking about life as though it were a profession.

And now that I’m on the other side, how can I possibly think of a child as a mistake?

As for the notion that we ought to live our lives without the taint of regret, that’s the stuff of popular song and the tyrannical mantra of self development. Far more heroic, I think, to admit to regrets. To acknowledge them and move on. Give them a quick cuddle, even. They’re part of us. The failure is to live in them, to dwell in the house of regret, as it were.

Now, even though I don’t have what I’d hoped for, I’m contemptuous of the notion that we ought to do anything but live with the unintended consequences of our lives, however duty-bound we may feel. If anything, I’ve been liberated by living the life of the single parent even if it has been thrust upon me. I’ve come to see the stark differences in our respective approaches to parenting, where once there was only cosy consensus. I’ve awoken alone, apart from from the reverie we once shared to discover that I’m no longer a part of the me generation school. In fact I never was. It’s as though I’ve come to my senses.

I’m relieved to put Leo first, struggling not with the long days I spend alone with him but the infinitely longer hours away, cut adrift from the purpose I feel primed for. The empty flat I dread returning to, eerie in its emptiness, the lifeless aspect of the toys tossed to one side and the suffocating blanket of silence left in his wake – those are the shadows I wrestle with. The claustrophobic sense that for all the work, for all the love, the cushion of hearth and home has been whipped away at the very moment I was sitting back on it. Just as my heart has grown with the birth of my son, so too a layer has been stripped off of me…

The future used to be a map, now it’s not much more than a morass of entangled permutations that refuses to be read and there is little percentage in thinking too far ahead. Not long ago, short of breath as I ran to the nursery clutching spare clothes for Leo, I ran into an old flame at the gates. She had been and still is the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in my life, her luminous face had hammered through my heart long after our affair had petered out. How odd, how nice, so many years after I’d found myself at times almost incapable even of coherent speech as she shone before me and my heart threatened to batter its way free from my chest, to see us cross paths so briefly as she dropped off the youngest of her three children. Hearing my story, she cocked her head to one side and offered up her sympathy. ‘Oh, that’s… shit. That really is shit.’ I insisted on cheery disagreement, feeling particularly English that morning, though I still wonder about what she had to say next. ‘But it’s ok for guys, you know. You can keep on having kids.’

At 44 that seems like a possibility, if only technically. With my life now out of joint with those of my friends, whose children are by and large older, and virtually all of my time without Leo spent working, this hardly seems ‘the best of both worlds’. That was the vision of my future Ellie saw. It was Panglossian in the extreme; indeed it’s she who enjoys the best of both worlds, able as she is to devote time to her new relationship. It certainly seems the ‘best of all possible worlds’ when I’m with Leo but without him it’s a grind and a social life of any real kind, never mind a love life, requires a lot of imagination and time I no longer have.

The idea of more children is a fine one, but I sense it might remain just that. And I wonder whether two kids means twice the happiness; does the joy increase exponentially? Having Leo has brought completion, and yet paradoxically I’m entirely alone in that feeling. The odds certainly favour Ellie for now. As much as I hope for a brother or sister for Leo, and the broader base of love and support that would continue to offer him into the future, I find myself selfishly calculating the effects. Would another child for Ellie establish a family unit from which Leo would resent being separated when with me? Or would he revel in the undivided attention which only I could then offer him?

With a largely sublime dynamic between the two of us cemented I’m loathe to shatter it and even the prospect of a partner would feel intrusive in some way. It feels almost impossible that I could admit someone into the nights he spends sleeping here, however sensible that might be in some respects. Having been made a single parent before his birth has engendered a strong determination in me to go it alone and to have him to myself, to the extent I often find myself daydreaming of all the circumstances that might lead to that. But there’s also a fragility to being alone as a parent, an unbearable lightness. One person is my entire world. Where is my broad based coalition?

And money, or lack of, rears its head and militates against. How many parents in London I’ve met already of one child who must now hesitate before adding another. And for myself, the financial challenges posed by separation and raising a child alone on an average income are enough to grip my heart in fear for long and lonely moments in the night. London no longer does ‘average’, and the spectre of eventually having to leave looms. The feeling that I’m running a business sometimes descends upon me, and how much further could I be from the spontaneous joy of family life? Of more children just happening along?

If the last three years have taught me anything at all, it’s that if your partner of ten years and ten months can leave you for someone else six months before your first child is born then anything can happen. Anything. But you forget what ‘anything’ really means, sometimes…

IT’S A MIRACLE

It’s no more a miracle than eating food and a turd comin’ out of your ass…

Bill Hicks on childbirth

I’m starting to think the late, great Bill Hicks got it wrong. Childbirth is a miracle. And children are, too. Or my son is, at least. I laughed at the time, sure. After all I wasn’t the target. I was no sentimentalist like the bright eyed and bushy tailed newbie parents he lampooned, and he had a point, right? ‘There’s too many fuckin’ people in the world. Someone needs to say that…’ And I was glad it was Bill. To my mind, teetering as it was on the cusp of adulthood – it hasn’t stopped teetering yet – kids were like bad news on the TV. It happened alright, just to other people.

And now it’s happened to me, I’m back in the grip of childlike wonder. As a boy I’d gaped at textbook pictures and TV documentaries filmed in utero, agog at conception, a scene from inner space. In my febrile pre-teen imagination, it seemed utterly alien. Not hostile alien, not deep-space-stomach-bursting-humans-must-die-alien, but unknown nevertheless, wondrous and shockingly beautiful. Something from nothing. A Big Bang no less cosmic for all it’s incalculable frequency.

Soon of course, the mechanics of reproduction became apparent, and not through textbooks or the BBC. And in the wake of physical and sexual – if not mental and emotional – maturity, soon I, too, like Bill before me, was ‘wiping entire civilisations off of my stomach with a grey gym sock’. Nothing miraculous about it, quite the opposite in fact…

Leo’s eventual arrival, along with my simultaneous separation from his mother, was as tumultuous as a planetary collision and as the debris coalesced and our orbits realigned I found myself happily revolving around him, and once again in touch with the awestruck child inside me.

His very existence owed a deal to fortune. The timing couldn’t have been tighter. After seven months of trying, his conception coincided almost exactly with his mother meeting her new partner James. There’s a significance to that I’ve long since given up trying to unpick. That coincidence, entirely unbeknownst to me, accounted for the odd ambivalence in Ellie as the test brought the news, a fluctuation in her that registered with me immediately. Leo was on his way, but it felt like a ghost had entered the room. Another presence, someone other.

When, three months into the pregnancy, that presence finally revealed itself in the person of James the task at hand, even as the world swum around me, was to establish whether or not I was in fact Leo’s father. Cue tortuous phone conversations, consultation of dates and reassurances from the GP. Leo had been conceived only days before his mother’s life changed. My final act. I’d been only days from a life without him, and possibly a childless future. A parallel life now, of course, a life unlived, but one I can still catch a glimpse of on occasion. It’s the only reminder I need that Leo is miraculous.  For the remaining six months there was very little sense of the miracle to come; the day to day wore in even as the seismic shifts between myself and Ellie played out.  Any youthful fantasies of introducing myself to Leo as he grew inside her remained just that, as the space between us grew.  I knew full well Ellie was conducting her new relationship away from home and across the city – and indeed at home when I was away – and could not bring myself to talk to him when she asked me to.  What game were we playing?  How was I to act?  When she offered me her belly to feel him curiosity swayed me, but I reached out as a gynocologist might have done.  The gesture was automated; informed by interest but joyless and robotic.  All intimacy between us had evaporated, leaving me artless and clumsy in my own home.

But as I stop to consider Leo, the miracles stack up. Putting aside his conception, sadly miraculous in itself for so many less fortunate couples, what were the odds that, of all the bars in all the world, I’d walk into the one his mother worked in back in 2001? For that, indeed, was how we met. What then the odds of compatibility, never mind the lightening strike of love, intimacy – all of which seem chaotically random when you’re on the outside, however naturally they fit when you’re part of a couple? And the odds of our own respective existences? The chances that my own parents, both perhaps anxious of being left on the shelf, should run into each other in fifties London, or that two divorces would pave the way for Ellie’s parents to cross each other’s path and start again?

The existence of humanity is, in itself, a miracle of almost ludicrous magnitude when one starts to unpick the clusterbomb of coincidences that facilitated our rise. That this hunk of rock we’re still struggling to value should find itself snug in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of a star of just the right size, power and age to enable the creation of exactly the atmosphere required to help cook up the primordial soup and begin the evolutionary journey to us, a species capable of music and mutually assured destruction, Bach and bombs.

All coincidence, of course. Even the creation of the universe itself may be best understood as nothing more than coincidence. The right quark in the right place at the right time. Why, after all, would we describe anything as miraculous when it’s already happened, when it’s fact, when we can reach out and touch it and it’s and all we know? But if we are simply the products of maths, that’s a realisation that has limited appeal to our innate sense of story and our intuitive feeling that we’re special. In turn, that sense of our own specialness is challenged by sheer weight of numbers. We’re back to Bill and overpopulation. How can we believe in billions of miracles? Surely it’s counterintuitive…

And shrinking the scale once again, what else would I say about my own son, other than ‘he’s a miracle?’ Even if I can’t see it in the faces of all the other kids in the playground, even if they’re blobs in buggies to me, what else would I think of him? When you’re 44, innocence is a miracle. And when you can see, however fleetingly, your father in your son’s face, when that father wreaked havoc and the boy before you is bursting with all the possibilities of life, then it’s a miracle.

We forget that we’re miracles, each and every one of us. It’s necessary, even – a defence. But having a child weakens that defence, and sometimes I wonder if we’d be better off remembering – lifting the scales off our eyes, as it were, choosing love over hate just as Bill Hicks exhorted us to. He never had kids himself. He left too soon, returning to his parents home to die aged only 32. And he didn’t mean it, of course. By telling us our kids weren’t special, he was simply asking us to open up our tired eyes. He knew just how special we all are. He put it better than I ever could, ‘…the eyes of love …see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now… Take all that money we spend on weapons and defences each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.’ Amen.

For myself, as I sit on the edge of the sandpit with the all the other mums and the dads – pushed to the sides of our lives, as Philip Larkin had it – pushed out of my old life, out of my old future, and into this new life with nothing between me and the stars, a glimpse of the miraculous helps light the way…

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LOVE AND MARRIAGE. AND KIDS.

Now if you’re stuck for a while consider our child
How can it be happy without its ma and pa
Please stick together
Come on, come on let’s stick together

You know we made a vow
To leave one another never

Wilbert Harrison (with thanks, of course, to Bryan Ferry)

‘Bastard’ is an awful word. However casually lobbed, however worn through overuse, it retains nonetheless its capacity, if not to shock, then certainly to hurt. ‘You were born out of wedlock’ may not be the direct translation running through the mind as it’s uttered or received, but the clarity of its barbed meaning remains… ‘you don’t belong‘. It’s not a word, so much as a weapon. By 2016 half of all British children, my son among them, will be born ‘out of wedlock’. The phrase itself, not quite yet the anachronism it deserves to be, reeks of institutionalised prejudice. But 2016 will be a significant milestone all the same and if it proves a tipping point, if we see finally that our children are to be prioritised over the institution and not vice versa, then there are grounds for optimism.

We came so very close to marriage, Ellie and I. Suitable venues, mostly large rooms above pubs, had been scouted, registry offices duly approached. Were it not for the lack of a disposable grand or two at the right moment, we certainly would have made the leap. Not that it seemed a leap to us, rather a natural progression. I don’t think we had any illusions about the importance of marriage per se, for ourselves or within society at large, other than it being a private and public declaration of commitment. And love, I suppose. Yes, there was that. That, and a good excuse for a party. We may have had some guiding notion of the proper sequence of things, some unspoken sense that it was live together, travel together, buy a flat together, have cats together, watch box sets together, get married, have kids. It needed to happen in that order, somehow.

The sudden arrival of a new love in Ellie’s life, like a deus ex machina, changed the course of the traditional plot irrevocably. And, I see now, for the better. Though we’d spoken of kids from the off, and never as a possibility but as a certainty, our eleven years together suddenly seemed an illusion to me when, three months into her pregnancy, Ellie decided her future lay with James. It was as though we had awoken from the dream. The reality of co-parenting lay ahead. Now, as the aftershocks fade, the proper sequence of things is simple. Leo comes first. And that’s it. And that’s as it should be. Marriage – theirs, or even mine, will be the icing on the cake. Certainly not the foundation.

If that sounds in any way like a simplification, it’s because it has to be. If the day-by-day remains at times a struggle, from my own point of view at least, the basics stay in place regardless. We have a child. As we sat in the kitchen amid the ruins of our own relationship with Leo three months inside her belly, like state leaders at a summit drawing up the accord that would see him through into the world, Ellie joked over tea that one day we’d be guests at each other’s weddings. I didn’t laugh, and it remains to be seen. Meanwhile as parents we’re travelling in parallel, gliding along like icebergs with very little on show to each other bar what’s necessary. Who knows what lurks beneath.

At present Leo revels in my undivided attention on one the side and bathes in the glow of their new love on the other but I wonder how important it might be for him, ultimately, to see the two of us together? Heaven forfend he should want to see us reunited, as the more naive among my male friends were convinced might inevitably be the case – as though this were a Disney rom-com with only one palatable outcome, however circuitous the route. No, he’ll need to make sense of his own story, to see the central protagonists sitting around the same table from time to time at least.

All this raced through my head during a recent handover, as Leo threw himself from one of us to the other, oblivious to the sterile space between us, propelled by joy and a love that sees no division. ‘MUMMEEE!!’ ‘DADDEEE!!’ I couldn’t help but note how curious it was that, given we all share the same space only fleetingly and at irregular intervals, how natural it seemed to him. Perhaps it was a relief? I found myself hoping, as I fastened down the Velcro straps on his trainers, that this joyful outburst wasn’t induced in some way by the uncommon triangle we made.

I’m outside of the real triangle. They form the trinity – Ellie, Leo and James, the family in the foreground with their respective extended clans populating the backdrop, delighted by the child that’s swung into their twin orbits. Either I’ve learned not to envy this or I’ve simply adjusted down through the days to a tableau that is, after all, invisible to me. Either way I’ve come to cherish the dynamic of my own immediate family – me and him. Largely free of the claustrophobia that two years ago I feared might envelop me, we enjoy in the main what can only be described as ‘quality time’. The cheap Americanism serves here as this really is a rare privilege and the movie moments, shared by us both and remembered by me alone, are coming thick and fast. No, really. But that’s another piece.

Those stagey performances around the table may become more naturally and richly inhabited in time; one can only hope so. On Leo’s second birthday – hosted on neutral ground at his grandmother’s house – I rarely escaped opening night nerves, failing to find the lines. Dry mouthed and marooned on the sofa, a stranger in a house in which I was once family, I watched on, partly with a kind of morbid curiosity, as Leo flitted between me on the periphery and the family at the centre. Every word from my mouth felt stilted, my voice as foreign to my ears as if recorded and heard on playback. The love and the tenderness I held for him as he turned two could find no natural expression and I yearned for escape, and a time when it could be the two of us once again. But time brings change with it, and there is plenty of time yet before gaps within his world become evident to him.

He’ll know his parents as wonderful individuals, but as individuals, two component parts however cooperative. The idea of us ever having been together will be illusive, impossible – and unpleasant – to grasp, the stuff of prehistory. But such is the sex life of any parent to any child. Though the mysteries of what lies between us may yet animate a febrile imagination. You don’t miss what you never knew, of course. But you may wonder. I never had grandparents. Nothing was lost. But as a child in a world generously populated with grannies and grand dads, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question, ‘what if…?’ As a couple we’ll be tucked away in Leo’s hinterland, and whether or not he turns around to look will be up to him…

Marriage may be in sight for Ellie; I’ll wish her well though doubt I’ll be in attendance. As though I’d be invited. For myself the prospect remains entirely conceptual, an oasis for now, as much the shimmering mirage as a house or a mortgage. The strain to preserve marriage for its own sake, and with it the sacred cow of traditional family life, the denial that there could be anything beyond it, can lay waste to what it seeks to defend. That was the unfortunate experience of my own childhood. I have at least the opportunity to get the order right this time; to raise and cherish a child and to build a foundation for him. I’ll put being a father first for now. In the meantime I’ll expect the unexpected, and should marriage ever find me I’ll take it for what it is – not an institution, nothing upon which to build a society, not a reason to legislate against the single parent or those who choose another way, just a chance to look her in the eye and say “I love you” in front of a lot of people.

HAS HAVING A BABY SIMPLIFIED MY LIFE? KIND OF…

As a father – still a single one – (and still a parent with a ‘co-‘ for a prefix) (and other brackets, sub clauses and dashes of difficulty) in a situation that remains stubbornly complex, I’m more minded than I ever thought I might be to read the myriad pearls of wisdom, received or otherwise, on offer on-line on the already overwritten subject of parenting.  Frankly I never thought I’d need the advice, but that was before the ground fell away and the great unknown of single parenting yawned before me, with Leo still six months from being born.  And when a particularly shiny pearl of wisdom is offered up by the estimable Lauren Laverne, I sit up and take note.

You see I love Lauren Laverne.  And before she need fear the online stalker, it’s a particular love of which I speak.  There are many variations, after all – the Japanese have nine words for love I’m told, though I’m not sure which would apply best in this instance.  The wireless – the digital one – has become a trusted friend throughout the first 22 months of my son’s life.  In the intimacy of the hearth BBC 6music has soundtracked my two-member family, and many a home alone parenting learning curve has been played out twixt ten and one to the accompaniment of Lauren’s mid-morning show.

‘Having a baby will simplify your life’ she writes in the Guardian. I sat upright for that.  Your damn tootin’ it will.  A baby, as Lauren points out, is the pre-eminent agent of life-simplification.  I too have learnt this. With all the baggage of my childless adulthood dropped by the roadside, my toddler is now my teacher.  That realisation, and the power of love (not Huey Lewis and the News’ 1985 hit single, but the actual power of love, of an order you couldn’t have dreamt could exist within you until the person you made shot out into the world and put you in your proper place) are the two things that have the power to bring down the entire parental advice machine.

I remember a frame from a Freak Brothers comic book, in which a perennial virgin finally gets it on and gets with the programme.  “I CAN DO THIS!!!” shrieks our hero’s thought bubble.  I’ve found it’s kind of the same with being a parent.  My biggest shock was not all the staple fare of the lad-to-dad memo; the frequency of nappy changing and the fact that babies dribble and vomit and yada-yada-yada… – for some men, these seem to be discoveries akin to the detection of life on an alien planet.  No, the biggest shock was that it was actually quite easy.  Even doing it entirely alone for stretches of a week or more is straightforward.

And whenever I think I might slip, there’s my little genius of love to remind me how to do it, with his constant need to be fed, changed, paid for, cuddled to within an inch of his miracle of a life, bathed, taken swimming, endlessly read to with all the prerequisite voices and sound effects, and have his dad’s forehead pressed into his chest as I gabble whatever parent-child patois we’ve landed upon at that moment until his laughter is bouncing all over the walls.  Leo has been a joy from pretty much the outset, and my one-on-one life with him a rare privilege.

And yet for all that, in so many respects my life remains beyond Leo’s powers of simplification.  For one thing it’s split in two; life with and life without the captain of my heart.  I’d happily swallowed the line that I’d have the ‘best of both worlds’, perhaps out of pure relief that my son was to remain in my life in any meaningful way at all.  Now I’m not so sure.  The ‘with’ bit, when it’s mostly just the two of us, is positively Panglossian – the best of all possible worlds indeed.  Simple.  But the downtime, well that’s exactly what it is – down time, because I’m still with him even even when he isn’t there.  

Time away from Leo is time working in any case.  Friends and social engagements do indeed evaporate, as Lauren, me, and millions of others have discovered.  But they’re disappearing into the ether just when I need them the most.  At 44, and with the vast majority of friends fully occupied with young families, I’m out on a limb.  In my statistically inverted social sphere, I’m surrounded by nuclear families and suddenly I’m the only single in the village.  No drinks after work when your mates are heading back to hearth and home.  Opening the door to the cavernous silence that only an absent child leaves behind is chastening, and frankly frightening.  One minute you’re living in the moment, the next you’re here but not here.  Stop.  Start.  Stop.  Start.  And some pining in between.

Ah, family life.  Or whatever you call this.  You get greedy for it indeed, Lauren.  But my plate keeps getting taken away.  And when someone else is eating from it, well… Well.

And then there’s the juggling between two jobs and the other job that isn’t a job – the one that might be work, but you don’t want paying for and you certainly don’t want time off from.  Your little boy.  And there’s the childcare for him, the cost and the jigsaw of an arrangement that necessitates my dependency on Leo’s maternal family, a family of which I am no longer a part and yet remain beholden to without any support of my own to call on.

Has my son simplified my life?  He’s certainly simplified me and our life together is a simple one, revolving as it does primarily around eating, reading, playing and sleeping.  But the business of life is Byzantine in its complexity, each week in the shared diary a Gordian knot at the outset.  My life as a single co-parent right now is a matrix of complexity, constructed in order to maintain one steady simplicity at its heart.  Me and Leo.  A whole lot of work for a whole lot of holiday…

FATHER’S DAY

So it’s upon us again.  I think.  Or has it just slipped by?  It may have been last weekend, it may be next.  It might just have well fallen in January, or be pencilled in for December – but then you probably couldn’t sell as much stuff you want but don’t need.  I wouldn’t know.  Apparently it’s unmissable, given the volume of media coverage, the cluster bomb of commercial opportunities and attendant advertising bonanza.  In my TV-free utopia I’m (almost) blissfully ignorant, but a feature on this morning’s Woman’s Hour has the rusty penny teetering before it finally drops.  I refer, of course, not to the beautiful game’s return to its spiritual home in Brazil – my utopia may be TV-less but it’s anything but football-free – no, it is, apparently, some time around now, Father’s Day.  Only I’m far too busy being a father to notice…

For some of Father’s Day I will be a father.  I’ll be a dad in the morning, or at least up until 11am.  I’ll hoist Leo up and out of his cot at seven and he’ll run tottering into my room and hook his right foot up and over the top of my bed and we’ll read stories under the duvet until eight, each one preceded with the pomp of a now-ceremonial kiss on the cheek from him – a mutually understood bargain or a signal to begin, I’m not sure which.  Then into the kitchen for a Sunday-slow breakfast and inevitably, having been lulled into a false sense of being time-rich, the pell-mell rush to Waterloo to deliver him to mum who’ll be en route to a Sunday more leisurely and reassuringly Sunday-shaped than mine.  Thence across Waterloo Bridge, swallowing down the vague sense of discombobulation and mortal panic that always bubbles up like bile in the minutes after I’ve left him, to the coal face to put in a shift and thereafter to the pub with childless drinking partner to reassure myself within the span of a pint or five that my life might after all be, in some way I’m yet to notice, normal…

That’s discombobulated and panicked not simply on account of going from my hermetic existence as a full-on single parent to two days without Leo throughout which the silence he leaves behind will be deafening, but because I know my son will be spending the majority of Sunday with a man I never see but who, it would appear, considers himself to be every bit as integral to my son’s life as I am.  So if this is Father’s Day, just who is it for?

‘We’ never did Father’s Day.  ‘We’ being me and Leo’s mother – I retain the inverted commas as the decade-long span of our relationship seems surreal in the memory now, a montage of scenes half-remembered from another life, and not necessarily mine.  Leo and I are now the only reality I know.  ‘We’ didn’t do Mother’s Day either, in the interest of balance.  Valentine’s Day survived the massacre and limped on in the form of a few handmade cards and some very cosy meals for two or three years.  The only days deemed important enough to be granted due weight and observance were prefixed with ‘Christmas’ and ‘birth-‘.  All others were derided, wisely it seemed at the time, as the spawn of American greeting card houses long since mutated into consumer-fests for fools.

But of course I’ll be his dad when he’s away on the train, when he’s in the other half of his life, when I’m rolling home drunk, when I sleep, when I wake.  And this weekend, or last weekend, and however much the head says no, this proud, bruised single father is wilting just a little as he discovers that Father’s Day is pretty much ubiquitous after all, and I wonder – do I want the sweet benediction of that card after all?

Do I deserve recognition? Do I need it?  On a day like today, maybe.  To the pool early for Leo’s swimming lesson.  ‘We’ do swimming and ‘we’ alternate – last week was mum’s turn, and when asked after me – mistakenly referred to as ‘your husband’  – by the instructor, declared ‘oh, he’s just the dad.’  That ‘just’ hung around for the rest of the day and might be worth a piece in its own right.  ‘Just’ dad’s day, perhaps?  There’s an almost cosmic irony in being, frankly, an exemplary father (hey, if I don’t say it who else will – that’s the whole point of this piece, right?) in as much as I do it all myself and I love doing it all myself, and being… alone.  And not just alone but, without wishing to break out the violins, entirely unvalued.  I guess it’s the relative isolation and the entire lack of real emotional support that has me pining for some token expression of appreciation.

Isn’t fatherhood it’s own reward?  Ah, ‘its own reward’ – how that phrase might have jarred had it been suggested to me before I had a son.  And yet I’d have discarded the sanctimony I wanted to hear and guessed at the truth in it, and of course I’d have been right.  It is its own reward and how liberating to know and feel that each day, even if at times I do feel a little like an a one man show with an audience of …one.  Though he is some audience.  Very receptive.

Some dads will be feted, treated, celebrated, lionised even and sure, it would be nice.  But I suspect I might breathe a sigh of relief to have given the Radiohead CDs a swerve this time.

Card or not, and let’s be fair, his crafty little digits aren’t yet two – though that hasn’t stopped him producing a glitter-encrusted Easter card courtesy of a thoughtful child-minder – I’m fortunate.  Indeed, partner or not (and right now I honestly prefer not), I’m fortunate. I know there’ll come a time I can tell my son that one sun kissed Saturday I crouched down to him and kissed him as he wrestled with the high drama of end-of-day fatigue.  In the kitchen with our bare feet still encrusted in the afternoon’s sand and grime, I squatted down and sang him The Byrds’ cover of Mr Tambourine Man as it played on the radio and as he nuzzled into me and we butted heads I knew I had the only show of appreciation I needed. And I marvelled just at being loved by him, and had the sense to know that these were the days of my life.

Might put that in a card and post it to myself…

Tagged

PICTURES OF LEO

IMG_1394

Week 78

Sitting in the front room staring at the Mac, I can just about catch the frosting of my breath from the corner of one eye, and I suspect it may be cold enough to hang meat in here.  My son Leo, meanwhile, is fast asleep in his cot at the foot of my bed in the back room.  And, of course, he’s feeling the full benefit of the ideal temperature at which the bedroom is kept over night.  Financial readjustments are already making it hard for me to justify heating any room not occupied by the light of my life.  Heat is money, and its spent on my son.

Back in the icebox I’m trawling through a monumental wall of pictures, put in mind as I do so of the statistic you may have heard quoted recently, to the effect that 95% of all photos ever taken have been taken in the last five years.  Or something like that – it’s a kind of a shaggy dog stat, I suppose.  Who’s counting, but in any case, we get – pardon the pun – the picture.

Looking at this bank of images, I’m beginning to wonder if 95% of all photos ever taken are in fact pictures of Leo taken by me on my iPhone over the last 16 and a half months.  Spread across the wide screen before me are hundreds of little Leos, in all his myriad outfits, throughout each season of the year, in states of undress and occasional distress, and in nearly all of them beaming.

These are a mere sample of the photos I’ve taken of him since his birth, some sixteen months ago.  That’s 1,429 and counting – an average of 2.6 for each day of his life thus far.  ‘Take one a day’ gushed my fellow fathers, and indeed the habit is now deeply ingrained – albeit somewhat to my surprise.

Nearly each and every one is a selfie, of sorts.  Virtually no-one else appears in any of these shots bar Leo in the starring role and myself in support – often literally.  As a visual metaphor for our lives together, that’s pretty much perfect.  This is the extent of the prematurely fractured family, after all, the nucleus rent asunder – just the two of us…  There is, of course, the occasional cameo – the visiting relative, the friend passing through – and the cast of extras from various playgroups.  But in the main we’re the leads in this show.

The photographic record began on day one.  In fact, it began much earlier, but we’ll come to that… On that day, a day which I still feel compelled to call the proudest and happiest of my life despite the events and circumstances that overshadowed it, Ellie naturally featured heavily in the photo shoot, too.  The very first picture of Leo, taken moments after he’d slipped out onto the hospital bed – a shockingly skinny rag doll, red raw and too quiet by far – is a beautiful one.  His pink face wrinkled as if the eldest in the room, topped with a white cap and eyes tight shut, a stranger in a strange new land, perched atop mum in blind search of his first feed.

A more naturally beautiful scene you’d be hard pushed to conjure, and yet how I’ve wished in the darker moments since – the times when I can’t find it in me to look back with unalloyed joy – to crop it, to excise her from it just as I had been exiled from my own paternal destiny.  I never have, of course, it would be an abject act of miserly vandalism, a kind of small theft from all of us.  Should Leo ever wish to rewind that far, if he can ever stomach viewing the vast shot-by-shot testament to his life I’ll have constructed by the time he shows any interest, he and his mum shall remain together and unedited.

But the life in montage shall of course be largely for my benefit alone.  Ever since my early insistence on keeping and digitising the freeze frames from the scans, the compulsion to chronicle has grown.  When we first saw those spectral little kicks inside her and let rip synchronised and involuntary gasps as we reflexively clasped hands despite it all, there was a kick inside me, too. Whatever the difficulties, a kind of freedom settled on me then.  The black and white portrait fluctuating before me, to the accompanying gallop of his heartbeat, had me in its thrall.  Love at first sight, inarguably, and all cares swept before it.

So what drives me is not so much the urge to capture or distil.  There’s been enough recent research and general guff on the deleterious effect our urge to snap has on our future memory.  By now we’ve all been at the gig where we’re distracted by the sea of raised handsets floating between us and the stage, we’ve seen tourists robotically snap exhibits they’re not even looking at.  It’s a truly modern folly.  We’re not allowing for memory, but rather feeding a hard drive we may never even refer to.  No, what drives me is a kind of disbelief – a) that I’m actually a father, and b) that I’m actually the father of this beautiful boy.

I’d always wanted children.  Of my own, that is.  Overcoming indifference towards other people’s had nearly always been something of a conscious effort until Leo’s arrival.  Bizarrely, I’d fantasised about being a parent even as a pre-pubescent, though when I watch kids with dolls I realise that’s perhaps not such an outlandish notion as it may at first seem.  But I never quite believed that it would actually happen and now that it has, it’s as if I need constant photographic affirmation of the fact before my heretic eyes.  And thanks to Steve Jobs, I’m now affirming on a daily basis.  The true purpose of the iPhone, evidently, is to whip it out from your jeans pocket and show off your first born to enthusiastic, tolerant, or despairing friends whenever words fail.  Which, I find, they do.

It’s the stuff of a thousand dad blogs, the big before and after story.  From lad to dad.  From dating to mating, and from mating to doting.  The reluctance with kids that gives way to selfless adoration, as our hero stumbles upon hitherto hidden internal dimensions hitherto hidden and unguessed at.  I, too, passed the parcel when it headed my way.  Now the parcel’s mine.  And I can barely let go.

I’d been similarly indifferent to the life photographic, both the taking of and the being in.  Landscapes were routinely committed to film on my travels, and my ex would regularly point out, with some justification, that she featured less than heavily in my work behind the lens.  The plea to ‘take a photo’ could freeze the blood coursing through my veins.  Why halt the flow in the effort to capture it?

And yet here I am, a snap-happy daddy, a serial offender.  Author of a monolithic visual record of a quite remarkable presence, a smile in 99% of its constituent shots.  Each one texted between separated parents forms a bridge of sorts, and though I can only guess what Leo might ultimately make of two distinct collections, I can have no regrets.  That, or I’m addicted.

But for all my marvelling at my progeny, I suspect the reasons behind my photographic rigour are quite prosaic.  And perhaps a little sad.  As yet, it’s still just the two of us.  There’s no-one else there, no pillow talk, no comfort in shared joy or amazement.  And in the absence of anything approaching a conventional family life, my guess is that I just need to prove it’s all real.

Because there are days and nights, long ones when he’s not around and I’m listless and unbalanced, when suddenly I’m a ghost haunting my own life and I need reminding I’m a dad.  And I find myself staring at the Mac…

ADDENDUM (PICTURES OF HER)

There’s another wall of photos.  The one I never look at.  A bank of images from another life, a life as distant to me now as  starlight from a far-off galaxy.  The life before Leo.  And what to do with these?  I’ve snipped away judiciously, editing my past, whittling away but retaining the core.  A decade of memories are still largely intact, and I haven’t the heart to consign them to the trash.

Some corner of me may be clinging on yet, but the stay of execution is for Leo’s benefit.  It’s occurred to me more than once that he’ll have no direct experience of, nor memory of, his parents as a unit.  Right now we’re doing well to be in the same room.  Indeed the notion of the two of us ever having been intimate may well seem as surreal as the moon landings to him, little more than a curiosity of history.

If he asks, he’ll be answered, and the memory bank will be opened for him.  He’ll see where he came from.  I’ll pick some nice ones, some sunshine and smiley ones, and he’ll see that, whatever the subsequent course of our personal histories, he came from a good place.  He came from love.

ADDENDUM (THE DARK SIDE OF THE MAC)

There’s another side to this Mac.  Once a shared computer, it’s now my own little digital fiefdom but her half remains intact if unvisited.  And there lies another wall of images yet.  Time now to clean these up.  These are shots not meant for my eyes.  Pictures of Leo, mere days in the world and still adjusting to it, lying on the bare chest of Ellie’s partner James.  His first trip outdoors since emerging from the maternity ward.  It’s only the second time I’ve felt able to confront these images, and on this occasion they’re to be deleted.  If only I could delete the feeling that curdles inside me.

But on this occasion Leo is with me.  He’s almost 18 months now, and we’re seeing out a rainy day indoors.  And from the toy-littered floor he raises his head.  And he sees these images.  And he says “da-dee”.  And my heart stops.  And it’s not happening.  “Da-dee”.  And in panic I hoik him up onto my lap.  And this time I bring up pictures of me.  His dad.  “Da-dee!  Da-dee!”  The knot in my heart unties, I breathe a little steadier.  I tell myself it’s just a word after all, an incantation of his.  But hasn’t there been some kind of visual association here?

An inconvenient truth would be the correct euphemism here.  Until Leo’s old enough for conversation, and perhaps past then, I am perhaps destined to be one part of a kind of composite dad, albeit the dominant part.

I click and drag James with Leo, and drop him in the trash.  I pull the plug.  Someone else’s memories.  Pictures.  Just pictures.

Tagged

A CHRISTMAS DIARY

Jumping through time, we fast forward a year to further festivity…

Week 72

Monday, December 23rd

It’s 6.45 am and I’m standing in the kitchen making porridge.  Outside all is dark, and Leo is yet to stir – such a good sleeper that I’ve learnt to hide his talent for slumber from other, less fortunate parents than I.  There but for the grace of God…

Mum is away, celebrating Christmas early with her partner, leaving me to make the Monday morning run to the childminder before a dash to the West End for a last day at work before the holiday.  She’ll return on Christmas Eve, in time to be with Leo for Christmas Day.  Any sense of iniquity I’m harbouring is countered by the fact that Leo and I will have been together now for five out of seven nights by this evening. Still and all, ’tis the night before that’s best, and I ponder Christmas futures.  Christmases when Leo will awaken to the magic, and awaken to the fact that dad is elsewhere.

Mission accomplished, and much of the rest of the day is given over to budgetary deliberations.  To spend or not?  An austerity Christmas, or one final fling with the plastic to ease myself through the season before battening down the hatches and sealing the wallet in the new year?  Given that I’ve recently learnt I’m to emerge from six years of joint property ownership with the smallest four-figure sum imaginable, a period of retrenchment inevitably beckons with its bony finger.

And yet, it’s Christmas.  It’s the season to be entirely illogical in regard to one’s finances.  One look around me is all I need for a quick reminder of that.  Town has emptied out somewhat, thousands fleeing from London’s lead grey skies.  Inclement weather incoming.  But those left on the good ship are making a scrum of it, scurrying from shop to shop like the recession never happened.  Who am I not to join in the fray?

In the full and certain knowledge that I face a second successive gift-less Christmas, I cave in to self-pity and, in the nauseating and infantilising advertising argot of the day, decide to ‘treat myself’, splurging on a bottle of Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon (it’s no longer Christmas in this brave new dawn without The Pogues at Brixton and a sour mash whiskey) and a copy of Charles Schulz’s Complete Peanuts 1967-1968 – the year of its zenith, I’m assured.  Added to Leo’s pile is a cuddly ‘Enormous Crocodile’, copyright the estate of Roald Dahl.  Not especially enormous, or even particularly crocodiley.  Retrenchment can wait.

Make the dash back south to Leo’s nan in increasingly hostile atmospheric conditions, skies apocalyptic.  By 8.00 Leo is drifting off on my chest, hearing for the first time how the Grinch stole Christmas.  It’s warm in here with him, and outside the wind is whipping around the flat, licking at the door and generating the near-hysterical whistling you’re more familiar with from films.  Inside, the reassuring rumble of the boiler and soft whistle of Leo’s exhaling breath.  Kiss his hair before laying him down between Eep-Eep and Morgan Jr.  The day couldn’t end any better.

Christmas Eve

By lunchtime I’ve ferried Leo to his nan’s, and spend the rest of the afternoon facing the madness of Christmas crowds. At 23 minutes to five I’m missing him fiercely, but have at least got the shopping in under the wire.  I’ve opted to have myself a Merry LIDL Christmas, and join the bazaar to toss smoked salmon, pistachios and the like into the basket for half the price.

But with the shops closed, the deadline met and the door shut behind me, the hush descends and the harder it gets.  From here on in it’s all about the anticipation and the kid within me stirs – but no playmate.  The problem is that I love Christmas – and if you love it, you can’t ignore it.  My Christmases have evolved down the years into a ritualistic observance of traditions old and new – the obligatory pilgrimage to, and weep over, It’s A Wonderful Life, the Pogues gig, Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart, the over-indulgence on Christmas Eve and the price paid in the morning.  To those indifferent, I imagine it must be quite easy to ignore.  But tonight the ghost of an alternate Christmas haunts – a Christmas from a parallel life, a Christmas with a family.  And again, the ghost of Christmas future – Leo’s stocking prepped elsewhere…  Periodically I remind myself that I don’t have to wrap his presents tonight, that I won’t actually see him tomorrow save for a conversation on Skype.

The flat may be empty, but the fridge at least is unusually full, and sleep comes easy.  Waking up will be the hard part…

Christmas Day

Stepping out of the bath tub after a long soak with a glass of bourbon and half a packet of Quality Street (toffees and fudge only – finally, the prayers of those who eschew the soft centre have been answered) I reach for the iPhone by the bed.  Just a reflex, I suppose, as I’m unsure who I might possibly be expecting a message from at this late hour.  I see we’re seventeen minutes into Christmas Day already.  Impossible as it is to ignore, right now it’s snow quiet and not a creature is stirring, but there’s no sense of anticipation, just a quiet dread that I swallow back down at intervals.  Dry off and slip between the covers.

Hours later I’m staring at the curtains.  Christmas Day is fingering its way around the edges.  Resistance is futile, and I swing my legs over the edge of the bed.  Traditional breakfast – bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon to the accompaniment of 6music.  A picture of Leo is texted over – brimming with festive glee… Then, the Skype call – mum and dad avoiding eye contact (though it’s curiously hard to look away without seeming rude or distracted on a video call…) – but soon Leo is on hand, kissing the screen in between circuits of the room, filling it with a joyful racket.  For Leo, every day is Christmas…  For me, he’s far away, so close…

After a hasty lunch, to Highbury Corner – I’ve volunteered to help out at a temporary shelter for the homeless run by the Quakers.  Wheeling north up bus lanes without buses, weaving through tourists on Boris Bikes, I’m still unsure as to what’s motivating me, or what I may be hoping to get out of the day.  This is a first for me – I confess  I’m not the type to volunteer ordinarily, and could hardly even classify myself as being charitably inclined.  Indeed I’ve even on occasion suspected that a great deal of charity is about the feelings of the giver rather than the benefit of the recipient.

The inescapable truth is that I have nothing to do on Christmas Day. My son is with my ex, family are outside of London and in no circumstances would I consider throwing myself at the mercy of friends, who are en famille to a man.  Rather than act the Christmas gooseberry, I’m intent on turning the situation around and focusing on someone else.  On the final approach along Upper Street I realise I’m afraid, and now I know why.  Without a family home and with barely a penny to show for it, I’m living in a flat I could conceivably lose at any point, and with an annual income of less than £25,000 and considerable debt face the prospect of housing myself and my son in London, where the private rental market is tearing strips off of couples and families.  Paranoia?  I hope so, but on the days that chew at me days homelessness can loom in the rear view mirror.

Hours at the kitchen sink with Gill help me overcome my nerves.  She’s a cheery and determined middle-aged divorcee who’s maintained a close friendship with her ex.  I’m all ears.  We cope with the brunt of a hundred-plus Christmas dinners, occasionally mingling with those we’re here to serve.  There are the alcoholics and habitual drug-users, and the victims of life-derailing childhoods.  There are men accompanied by dogs who’ve offered them more solace than any human.  Some seem haunted by the men they might have been.  One man sits hunched throughout, intent on a copy of Economics Explained.  I wonder whether he’s asking how he got her or looking for the way out.  I hope he finds enlightenment.

At five o’clock I’m sent on a mercy mission – with forty quid in my pocket I’m dispatched to find two carving knives.  I haven’t the heart to question the likelihood of finding a pair of knives on Upper Street on Christmas Day so gamely set off with the hopes of all resting on me.  Make it as far as the 24-hour Co-op garage where my request has a carful of patrolling policemen in stitches.  On hearing the dilemma, they suggest sharpening the knives we have blade-to-blade, cliche French chef-style.  I sprint back and we make like Boy Scouts.  Christmas is saved.

The workload hits a critical mass after dinner and though I flag, my spirits are high and I realise I’ve made the right choice in coming along.  I may have set out to do something for myself – ie distract myself from a Leo-less Christmas – but in doing so I’ve given of myself, putting my shoulder to the wheel for the benefit of others.  And it feels good.  All around is cheery chaos, only the dogs are fighting.  Merry Christmas, we wish each other over hot chocolate.

At the debrief we’re invited to finish in silent prayer.  It’s then I realise that I’m the only non-Quaker in the room and as their eyes close or meet the floor, I allow my faithless gaze to study for a moment the faces I’ve been working with.  Good souls, all.  No piety or sense of self-satisfaction.  No-one has asked them to give of their time on Christmas Day, and they’ve asked nothing in return.  If there is such a thing as the spirit of Christmas, I suspect it may have just passed through this draughty room.

Feel sufficiently emboldened to yell a full-lunged Jimmy Stewart-style ‘Merry Christmas everybody!’ as I set off down the side streets of well-heeled Islington.  Cross back over the river as the weather becomes biblical and all the rain in the world is hurled at me, and the driving gets festive.  Plunge into a waterlogged pothole in Brixton, and bike frame meets groin with force.  Home by midnight.  Bath, bourbon, Quality Streets, bed.

Tomorrow, Boxing Day is Christmas Day.

Boxing Day

Or Groundhog Day.  At least until Leo arrives.  Languish in the half light of the pit until 9.30 before dragging my bones into the kitchen for a repeat of yesterday’s breakfast.  Time enough for a whistle stop tour of the encircling Sainsbury’s locals in search of brandy butter.  Success.  Before long Leo is trundling down the steps in buggy, mum behind.  It’s business as usual in the kitchen – a quick drop-off, a quick ‘how was yesterday?’, then Ellie to work and Leo and I are left to turn, belatedly, to matters Christmas.  It takes a few moments for me to realise that not one seasonal greeting of any variety has passed between Ellie and I.  We’re still locked in an ice age…

The remainder of the day is spent in the kitchen, and though of a decent size it seems to shrink as the hours pass.  Leo bounces happily between me and the cupboards for the duration, but learning to cook a ham with a toddler in a space like this is not an experience I’ll be in a rush to repeat.  One eye on Leo and one eye on the ham is not enough eyes.  Pull a tile from a fridge magnet poetry set out of his mouth and waste precious time confiscating the whole set from off of the fridge door.  Suspect the word ‘fusillade’ may well be working its way around his digestive tract as i do so.  It’ll all come out in the nappies…  With the giant fist of meat finally glazed and in the roasting tray, I take the opportunity to lay Leo down for a brief siesta.

We’re interrupted by a thump from the general direction of the oven.  It’s a thump with a metallic undertone and I assume it’s the sound of a roasting tin readjusting to life under heat.  I’m wrong.  Leaving Leo to doze I return to the kitchen to find that the ham has exploded.  The picture behind the glass door is an ugly one, reminiscent of the meaty mess left in the teleporter pod in the closing scenes of David Cronenberg’s cult shockfest The Fly, in which Seth Brundle attempts and fails to rid himself of the insect DNA that’s making life so inconvenient.  For a moment I’m scared to open it.  On doing so, a fleshy apocalypse reveals itself. Matter coats the inside of the door and charred gristle is welded to the inside walls.  Refusing to buckle, I drain the oil from the beast, have a hasty clean up, turn down the gas a little and resume the experiment, fingers crossed all the while.

After dinner bedtime beckons for Leo, and I hoik him up onto the big bed for his first e-book on the iPad – Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, a beautifully illustrated story of a young boy’s coming to terms with his fear of the dark and a delight to read aloud, voices and everything.  Once he’s slipped from shallow sleep into the deep and true stuff, I slip next door to my own dinner and a robust red.  After a day of cooking the unventilated kitchen resembles a sweat shop, rivulets of meat infused moisture coursing down the walls.  Approaching midnight on Boxing Day now and still not a present wrapped.  Grab a bourbon and the half-full box of Quality Street to help as I remedy this, and in short order I’m stealing back into the bedroom as he breathes in and breathes out, and I rest an armful of silver-wrapped toys on the floor at the foot of his cot.

The day is soon fingering its way around the curtains once more, but it’s no Groundhog Day.  Here’s Leo, standing up in his cot, head peering over the footboards, calling for me.  I sweep him up with one arm, gather his presents in the other, and we bundle onto the bed for the big unwrap.  Carefully sourced toys are duly discarded, and Leo is soon revelling in piles of the best wrapping paper he’s seen in his life.  And he’s learnt a new trick.  A kiss for dad.  Merry Christmas, son.

Subsequent investigations revealed that the ham should in fact have had its skin removed before its fateful journey in my oven.  Beginner’s mistake.  It was, however, all kinds of sensational…

LOOKING IN THE MIRROR

Most Weeks

‘Most of the time, I’m strong enough not to hate.  Most of the time.’

Bob Dylan

 

So it’s time I nailed this – for my own sake, dear reader, and, perhaps, yours too.  I’ve been made a single parent at the eleventh hour, ejected from my home and left dangerously impoverished.  But now I’m looking in the mirror.  Am I feeling sorry for myself?  Have I, in the midst of turmoil, been lulled into sleepy submission by the deadening self-administered hug of pity?

I know that, by many a separated man’s measure, I have no right even to the dubious luxury of complaint.  Throughout most weeks I’m now actually the primary carer, dutifully pinging off photos to a mum missing her baby at work.  It would be pedantic of me to say that I can’t see my son ‘whenever I want’.  True, I can’t very well knock on the door of Ellie’s flat and pop in for a quick hug (with Leo, not her) when the mood takes me, as it often does.  Our time is allotted and recorded in our shared Gmail calendar, our son’s life mapped out in blocks of bold colour – green for mum, red for dad.  Don’t strain for any symbolism in the contrasting hues, there’s none.

I enjoy instead the comparative luxury of the one-on-one quality time that an odd combination of sole parenting and flexible working allows.  Consequently I spend more hours with my son than many fathers in secure employment and steady relationships can manage.  My heart will always go out to any father in exile who finds himself in despair and in lycra, impelled by the the most unjust of circumstances to don a cheap Halloween Spiderman outfit and seek the spotlight, and justice, halfway up the nearest crane to Tower Bridge.

And yet I find myself in this position courtesy of a high-wire act of my own.  Maintaining relations of a civil note requires constant balance on a juddering tightrope, the most primitive of emotions to be kept in check lest I plunge into the chaos of the broiling waters below.  That may, I suppose, work both ways, and yet Ellie finds herself with every emotional and practical advantage – a new partner in support and an extended family in the locality, whilst I find myself adjusting to the disorientation of sudden isolation and nights in the kitchen eaten by emotions of an unexpectedly savage nature.

In truth a relentless schedule is all but swallowing any extended opportunity for wading in my own mire.  Now that Leo overnights I’m truly in harness, and days without him are given to work.  And already the life of the single parent seems more than rewarding.

It’s one of love’s curiosities that life without it seems unimaginable when we’re lost in its throes, and a life in love seems equally fanciful when we’re bereft of it.  Intimacy is slipped into with ease, yet when worn away seems alien.  Your own recent past seems, indeed, to become another country.  And rapidly.

Similarly, I’d now have to strain to conceive of any other way of parenting.  The nuclear families that I pass on the pavement, two tiny hands enclosed by the loving fists of the parents on either flank, evoke nothing more than a kind of inquisitive speculation in me.  They’re visions from a parallel universe, an apparition of what might have been but for a fateful and untimely fork in the road.  The absence of any real jealousy is a small kind of tragedy in itself I suppose – it’s just that can’t relate to these particular manifestations of happiness, having no experience of it myself.  Again, another country.

My own way with Leo is now the only way with Leo, and while the dynamic may not quite be us against the world, it is certainly just the two of us.  In fact that’s on Leo’s pre-bedtime playlist. Can you truly miss what you never had?  I never had grandparents either, and consequently they’ll be forever notional, though the ghost of the idea can haunt from time to time…

But despite the unexpected consolations of sole parenting and the fortuitous division of parental labour, I find that my troubles don’t simply fade by way of comparison.  A loss must be adapted to, after all, and is made no less painful by the presence in the world of those whose loss is greater than our own, however inspiring we may find them.  Inspiration is a beacon to show the way, perhaps, but no magic wand.

And let us be clear at this point, the arrival of Leo has been as sunrise to a bleak and war torn landscape, a dawning of immeasurable love.  If the master bedroom in the mansion of my heart has been locked – for now – then the doors to a previously undiscovered ballroom have been flung wide open.  Let’s dance.

If self-pity takes root then yes, it can be seen as a measure of defeat.  A measure of self-pity, however, might best be seen as a form of necessary self defence – a temporary retreat back into the shell, there to lick wounds and take stock in the muse-less, mojo-less days that humour can’t reach.

To put it bluntly, melodramatically even, there’s been a violation here.  That the end of the affair coincided with the entrance of Leo – desperately sad, but ultimately palatable.  A new life, a new love, a new focus – a job to be done.  The constant off stage presence almost immediately after conception of an unknown man in my son’s life, however – still, and perhaps ultimately, unpalatable.

Please, feel free to stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before, but the certain knowledge that your unborn child has been been spoken to in soft tones by a voice it might well become familiar with before it knows your own, that it has heard the pre-gender nickname given by its father uttered by another …well, that knowledge brings with it one small mercy.  It is surreal, stubbornly intangible, and that in itself, at least, is a shield of sorts.

An abnormal situation remained defiantly normal throughout the remaining months of the pregnancy.  Despite the succession of texts meant for him that were inadvertently but repeatedly sent to me (insert psychological case-study here), despite the love notes left on the passenger seat of the car in which I ferried Ellie up and downhill, despite her lover’s visits to my home when work took me away, and despite the chill and ill wind that blew my way, I stuck to the task as agreed.  I held hands through the jabs, mopped up the vomit, I cooked, I drove, I did the classes, I went the distance.  Alone.  Until Leo showed up.

And if I jacked up on a measure of self-pity in the cavernous hours spent shrinking back into the shell, then I can’t beat myself up in retrospect.  A small dose administered here and there, well …it bolstered the defences, helping keep me immune from psychological ills of a more damaging nature.

Inevitably, in isolation one turns inwards.  And, on the last lap to fatherhood, to find oneself grappling with loss and violation with little fallback save for the occasional beer with a disbelieving mate or the snatched phone call to a geographically removed (and similarly disbelieving) family member, and all the while smiling at the midwives and fellow prenatals like nothing ever happened – and you do because you want to be just like them, living in the land where nothing ever happened, your future bringing nothing but the certainty of another life – well, that’s isolation.

And yes, on that last lap there were occasions of disarming warmth and honesty between the central protagonists.  Lunches shared, even if they felt more and more like final observances, two sets of thoughts turning elsewhere and less and less to say.  There were tears at times, cried in recognition of the end times.  But in the main that last lap was run in my own lane, the bottom line from her camp loud and clear – tough shit.  Which, indeed, it was.

There were the storms of crippling rage which surged through the body and which, on subsiding, brought shame.  There was the talking to oneself.  There were the debilitating realities that faded and swung around time and again like blazing comets.  I wish I could describe what it is to gaze agape at a picture of your newborn slumbering outdoors on the bare chest of a man you don’t know, and who has barely acknowledged you except by proxy.  The picture has been left on your hard drive, and you never get round to deleting it because you can’t bring yourself to look again.

But I can’t describe it.  It’s as if it were happening to someone else – is what I’m seeing real?  Does he actually think he’s the father?  Seeing that widescreened on the Mac was akin to disembowelment.  The realisation of the potential loss of sole paternity was worse than physical, it was somehow existential – to share your continuation in this world with someone you can bring yourself to refer to only as him has hollowed the soul.  And in the meantime salt upon salt is being vigorously rubbed into the gash where your heart once beat.

So yes, for a while, defeated.  On the floor in various pieces.  But at least those pieces are scrabbling around to find each other, like the scattered components of the killer android in the final reel of The Terminator.  No symbolism there, either.  After all, it’s not whether you’re knocked down, it’s whether you get up.  It’s now what happens to you, but what you make of it.  And other pithy sporting analogies.

Will I always be angry?  I guess the anger will lurk, but the key will be not to fall into it.  And in time the black hole will shrink, the universe will survive…  I shall follow the unspoken rules and expect that, over on the other side of no-man’s land, they’ll follow them too.  I’ll never speak ill of her in front of him, and I’ll endeavour always to love him more than I hate her when i do give in to that.  And in time I’ll strive not to hate her at all…  All sound advice from talking heads on the TV I never thought I’d need to heed.  I’ll observe the grammar of the separated.  I’ll punctuate each text with an ‘x’.

But I’ll forever wonder whether ‘I want a child with you, but I want to be with someone else’ was the most selfish, or the most generous, or just the most honest thing that I ever heard.

LONG NIGHT’S JOURNEY INTO DAY

NOTE TO READER

Forgive the non-linear approach, the hopscotching through time and space from one parenting episode to another.  I hope what may emerge is, if not a story, then a map, of sorts.  A map of fatherhood…

Week 20.  Christmas.

Attentive readers will by now have noted that the final frontier has been duly conquered and my boy Leo now overnights once more with his ol’ pa after a lengthy period of daycare only.  I paraphrase Captain James Tiberius Kirk and his words are not lifted lightly, as for some time in that long cold descent from autumn to winter the prospect of four-month old Leo living with me – and consequently taking up residence in two homes – seemed indeed as remote as the possibility of weekly warp-speed travel between galaxies and routine sexual congress with green-skinned alien goddesses who invariably possess a startlingly commanding grasp of the English language.

The challenge that loomed Himalayan on the horizon was not so much his being with me, as his being without mum.  The logistical aspect of the puzzle – i.e. milk, was whittled away over a period of weeks.  Mother’s milk was dispatched live and in person at intervals, and supplemented by expressed and frozen sachets of said milk that were ferried downhill from Streatham to Brixton, there to nestle among the herbs and the plastic trays of chicken stock cubes upon the top shelf of the freezer until called for.  These would be warmed and applied to the maws of the firstborn with paternal love in the absence of Ellie.  And with the addition of formula to the milk menu – gratefully received and adapted to by a compliant Leo – thus was he weaned from maternal dependence and freed to roam happily uphill and downhill between parental settlements, from one pole to the other.

The true hurdle, the one to bring the athlete head first into the cinder track but yards from the finishing tape, lay in the mind.  The mind of the apprehensive single father contemplating sole responsibility in the small hours that make up the long corridor from early evening through until the light of day.

Practical advice has been taken, and ideas mooted from a variety of sources including the practice nurse at the surgery during routine vaccinations.  Suggestions have ranged from the old school to the technical – an unwashed t-shirt of mum’s perhaps for olfactory reassurance, a recording of her voice on the iPhone or a photo looming large on the iPad should my twitchy finger find itself hovering indecisively over the panic button.  There must be an app.  At least, should Leo crash beyond reach of paternal comfort, there’s Skype, I tell myself, shelving for now any concerns re premature screen exposure.  Whatever gets him through the night…

Thus far Leo has been reassuringly adaptable, relishing his frequent rotation between venues.  Not in the slightest does he seem put out by falling asleep on one parent and waking on another a mile and a half away – a kind of cosy teleportation.   He’ll know nothing else, we tell each other.  Or tell ourselves.

Consistency is the watchword and a bedtime routine devised, rehearsed and perfected at moon base mama is to be replicated and adhered to down at dad’s basement outpost.  An A4 sheet folded four ways contains the instructions, a map to guide me on a night with no compass, and the procedure couldn’t be neater – on this crumpled paper, at least.  Forty-five minutes for bath time, bottle, book at bedtime, bed by 7.45.  The four B’s.  Then a mid-sleep bottle prepared before my head meets its pillow, midnight approx.

Leo, however, is not a five-point plan but a late summer child yet to see his first Christmas, and in his father’s mind, wracked with rookie nerves, there can be no knowing things will be alright on the night until they are.

Fittingly, ’twas the night before the night before Christmas that Leo first stayed, an early present dropped off by Ellie en route to a pre-holiday getaway.  This in stark contrast to the previous year’s festive season, when we celebrated as an expectant couple, weeks from our own apocalypse as Leo lay embryonic.

With Ellie coastward bound and the plan mentally embedded, Leo and I embark upon the first stage of our own new adventure – albeit via Tesco’s, Brixton, and to top up the electricity key at the corner shop on the way back.  In the supermarket the aisles are churning, no quarter given to the pappoosed parent wading against human traffic, a scrum of shoppers hurtling towards the Christmas deadline, oblivious to us as we head together into the night, abroad and on to our own new country.

Beetling home through the chill darkness I realise the master plan isn’t glitch-free, after all.  We’re without the smoke alarm I’d intended to purchase, but taking him home – taking him home, I repeat to myself, I’m too happy to care, content to muse that the fates surely won’t sanction the incineration of man and child on the eve of Christmas Eve.

In the kitchen there’s no need to consult the road map.  Like Luke Skywalker pushing his onboard guidance computer to one side and trusting to the force, suddenly all is clear and I know what to do.  Parental autopilot – or instinct – kicks in as the new ritual is ministered without fault.  The bottle is sterilised, the milk warmed, the cot mattress, pyjamas and sleeping bag gently toasted with a hot water bottle, curtains drawn and nursery lights lit, teddy bear (take a bow, Maurice Jr.) and cuddly alien (likewise, eep-eep) take up their posts – one to each top corner – as night watchmen.  All due observances paid.

Bathed, dried, fed, read to, kissed, cuddled and marvelled at, kissed again, I lay him down.  It’s as tender an act as I’ve undertaken in a lifetime.  Asleep already, in repose he’s beatific, arms spread wide as if bestowing the gift of peace upon the night in this basement flat that’s now a home.

And all through the house, indeed, not a creature was stirring, with the exception of the father who cooked and pottered in the warmth of the kitchen, eschewing for once his beloved 6music as he savoured the new quality of peace that had settled upon the place, silent as snowfall.

I check in metronomically, of course.  And it’s not anxiety that spurs me from the kitchen table to the cot at the foot of my bed, but the relative novelty of his presence at this late hour.  That, and a sense of wonder.  It’s not every parent that stands above the cot peering down through the soft light in a daze of bleary stupefaction, and now I wonder at those who never do.  Not for the first time – nor the last – I marvel that I could have had anything at all to do with the creation of what I see below me, beauty that defeats description.

Moving to a new rhythm now, flying by wire, I rush through prepping the night-time bottle so that I can get under duvet as soon as I’m able.  With the milk perched on the corner of the headboard I sink my feet down to meet their own hot water bottle and drink in the detail as I turn off the bedside light.  Too thrilled to read I lie in the warmth of the darkness, hands clasped behind head, listening to the steady metre of his breath rising from just beyond the footboard.

As a child, when too excited to sleep, my mind racing from the American comics, the Doctor Who paperbacks, and the abridged classics I’d gorge myself on before lights out, I would often imagine I was on a journey through the darkness of the night.  My bedroom was a cabin, and the small semi-detached in which it lay a carriage.  And all the neighbours houses were carriages, and the street a night-train bound for …where?  The destination was irrelevant, the adventure all, and my mind took me far and away, and down into sleep.

Tonight I’m on the move once more, my son with me, the steady cadence of my his soft breathing guiding us ever closer to the dawn.  For a while I fight off the weight of slumber, aware I’m charged with precious cargo to deliver through the darkness and into day.  But duty cannot keep my eyes from closing, and as he breathes in and breathes out he lulls me, and I let go as he takes me down with him to new dreams.

See you there, Leo.

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HE BANGS THE DRUMS

Week 36

A civilised breakfast for father and son – precision feeding, minimal collateral mess as porridge and blueberries find their targets – and we scuttle uphill fuelled by slow-release wholegrain, across the park for a whole new play group experience.

It’s not that we really need a whole new play group experience, in all honesty – being the only dad squatting cross-legged on the mat singing Wind The Bobbin Up has been no great burden, even if I feel my presence did inevitably alter the dynamic.

In my salad days as a solo dad-on-the-mat I was often put in mind of the Heisenberg Principle, also known as the Uncertainty Principle.  You know, the theorem that the act of observation itself influences the thing being observed.  The principle, Werner Heisenberg’s career defining contribution as a particle theorist of some renown – applied to the behaviour of subatomic particles but has since been proven to be spot on in the mind of many a reality documentary producer cursing camera conscious subjects, and might just as well be applied to heretofore all-mum play groups on the introduction of a keen but nervy first time father.  Heisenberg had seven kids to feed with his principle, including one set of twins, but I doubt he ever found himself the only dad in play group.  Or even in play group.

I’m guessing my presence won’t have any detectable influence on the behaviour of the group we’re heading towards now, however.  This is all dads.  How Heisenberg might like to drop a mum into this one.  Leo and I have previous in this area as occasional visitors to a local group – loose formed and without any real structure, a smattering of fathers strung out across a purpose built playroom for two hours every other Saturday.  No voices raised in song, handsets in evidence and football scores monitored metronomically.  I never felt that we penetrated the circle – it seems most play groups, whatever their constitution, have a circle to be penetrated – though that may be down in no small part to my own innate wariness.

These dads were corralled by a well-meaning volunteer named Tim, a self-declared, self-appointed child guru who wasted little time in back-combing my already semi-erect hackles.  I’d no idea this was a class.  Forgive my cynicism, but any man who declares that “children are my passion” clearly doesn’t have any.  Children, that is, not passion.  The very word has been long since over-used to the point of meaninglessness in any case.  My morning latte is made by people for whom coffee is their passion.  My lunchtime sandwich is designed and and hand crafted with passion.  Please don’t playgroup my child with passion, can we just have fun?

Tim fields questions from uncertain dads with the earnestness of the man in whose mind this is a science, and an exact one at that.  X amount of time on the naughty step, we’re told.  Now not for a nanosecond would I wish to give the impression that parenting is a frothy coffee and cake walk, but to nourish the idea that there are textbook answers can only be counter-productive.  Once we’re disavowed of that slippery notion, then parenting becomes in a trice a far less daunting prospect, and a far more manageable proposition.  We have instincts.  We, in fact, are the experts on our children.  Our own children, that is.  We just need reminding of it on occasion.

Parental anxiety is natural and, to a degree, necessary.  We need it like the performer needs nerves, or the athlete needs adrenaline.  But anxiety in the parent is fed, and an industry has been built to service it.  An industry that sells answers to our questions.

I can be overwhelmed by fear.  As a single parent, I’m beset with a miasma of phobias and paranoias.  What if something happens to me when he’s staying over?  What if I lop off one of my fingers when I’m distracted by him in the kitchen?  What if I take a ride on a stray toy of a cylindrical or wheeled nature and bust that worried little head of mine wide open?  What if I don’t wake up?  Who’ll miss us if he’s not due back with mum for another whole day?

And none of this is about me, you understand, this is what happens to him?  Where will we live?  How will I afford a place with a room for him on less than £25,000 a year in London?  What kind of a relationship will he form with his mother’s partner?  Just how do you meet women again, anyway?  In the supermarket?  Where is the time for it?   Meeting women, that is, not the supermarket – I’m lost in there on a near-daily basis.  How do I let someone else into his life in any case?  Will it be us against the world – or just the two of us, with apologies to Bill Withers? You get the picture…

Then there’s the anxieties that lie in wait, entrenched for now but ready to go over the top and hit you square in the sternum at some point in the near future.  It gets harder, right?  When he’s no longer a cute and (relatively) compliant blob who, between wowing the crowds on the buses, requires your ministrations only when tired, hungry, dirty, or in distress.

What happens when he asks questions, and not just the machine gun repetition of why? why? why? – which actually sounds like fun – but the questions you don’t know the answers to yourself, the kind of questions that keep rattling around the cage of your mind like apps running in the background when the lights are out.  What happens when he turns around and clocks the shock of your fallibility, when he sees that you’re winging it?

And then there’s the third wave, the big stuff that will roll down and break on you like a tidal wave when you’re sitting bewildered in front of the news.  Will he get a place in school?  Will he find fulfilling work?  What temperature will this planet be by the time he sees its in premature peril unless we pull at least one finger out?  What if he supports Man United?

But fear is like the dark – the day rolls round, the dread event rears its gorgon head and lo, the light is switched on, the dark turned off.  But in the meantime that’s enough anxiety in your half-empty cup, and what I can’t get in a lather about is looking after him – that I can do, and do well, thank you and good night.

So no teacher in the play group, please.  In fact, no cottage industry in symbiotic cahoots with the wellspring of parental uncertainty.  Love is all you need, they were right, it’s the bedrock that enables everything.  Well, love and a cardboard box.  You figure it out, instructions not included (or necessary).  Ok, and maybe a copy of Dr Miriam Stoppard’s Complete Baby And Childcare on the shelf for moments of self-doubt – common sense cover-to-cover, and nothing a quick dip into the index can’t assist with.

But we digress.  To a community hut on the periphery of the park, then, and the periphery of what else, I wonder, as we trundle through the estate it nestles in – is this the end of the line for men?  The hall has seen better days and within are a scattering of men who have, too.  I’m welcomed with tea and chocolate Hobnobs by my new comrades-with-babes-in-arms, all happily scruffy with the wear and tear of parenting, jeans worn at the knee and t-shirts in the various stages of staining.

Some are primary carers, having ditched ‘eclectic’ careers (i.e., like myself, no real one to speak of) to shoulder the burden while partners strive in the workplace.  Some politely express mild surprise at, and seem impressed by, the hours I’m putting tout seul at my own domestic coalface, confessing relief when mum arrives at day’s end.  I allow myself a brief, private moment of modest self-congratulation, reminded of my own feelings when mum returns and spirits Leo away to home, or from home, I’m unsure which.  Feelings, invariably, of loss and listlessness.

But I certainly got what I wished for – perhaps I should have been more careful of that.  The genie granted me the biggie, I’m a certified stay-at-home dad, but the other wish – work-from-home-dad – is proving to be, along with looking after myself, the real challenge.  Like many of the men I’m eyeing over the brim of my mug, I may want to raise my kid myself, but I want everything else that ever made me a man, too, and I’m left with the vaguely discomfiting feeling that not only has all of that evaporated, but I’m not sure I ever really knew what it was anyway…

Though my by now trusty single-dad-dar isn’t picking up any fellow lone travellers, I am picking up on an energy once described by Louis de Bernieres in his poem Every Other Weekend as ‘much too jolly by half’. Though these fathers seem, by and large, to be placed near enough to the centre of their children’s lives, the unmistakable fug of overcompensation hangs heavy in the air.  There is a pleasing outlaw flavour to proceedings, however, as though this were a guerrilla group of rogue dads, albeit cuddly ones.

But by the time singalong is in full swing I’m unable to muster the required energy – happy to try, but reluctant to try too hard.  And I’m definitely getting that here.  There’s an energy too close to fury driving the singing – not directed at the kids, heaven forfend, but the relentless nursery songs become adrenaline-barbed incantations.  We can do this, too, mums is the mantra.  Our chorus leader is exhausting me with his efforts and as he bangs his drum, literally and metaphorically, my eyes are drawn to the bead of sweat that’s plotting a course south from his brow.  The sweat of effort or a tear of suppressed rage?  I’m reminded of the scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien in which the ship’s onboard scientist is revealed as an android traitor by a single tear of biomechanical fluid tracing the contour of his jaw, and I wonder  what secret mission our choirmaster might be on and whether he’ll complete it before he self-destructs.

As babies and toddlers are hoiked into carriers and buggies and this band of brothers disperses for another week, I can’t help but feel relief.  I like these people – how could I not?  And a modicum of overcompensation is easily forgiven.  However socially acceptable the idea of dads as primary carers has become it is still, for many people, just that – an idea.  Little wonder the reality works up a sweat making the point.  Most of the buggies we pass on the walk home have mums leaning their weight into them, I note.

Yet somehow I know we won’t be back, though I wish them all well and hope our paths may cross outside the walls of this community hall.  The search for our grail will continue – a play group that’s not a mums’ group or a dads’ group.  Neither one thing nor the other, but a parents’ group – mixed, easy-going, messy and happily chaotic, and with no point to prove.

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