Another whirlwind round of social engagements for Leo, and the front door swings open and shut for much of the week. I half expect to find dignitaries from far-flung territories shuffling down the garden path, laden with gifts and all come to file past the Moses basket to lay eyes on the infant child.
The last of these visitors is a sister with more than a little experience of babies, having ushered into existence no fewer than six herself, and she instantly proves by far the most adept of Leo’s callers thus far. She’s soon giving a masterclass in baby whispering, and Ellie and I take the opportunity to relax, watch, and learn. Leo is obliging and doe-eyed and, appreciative as I am, I swallow my envy whilst reassuring myself that I simply can’t compete with what I’m watching so long as I’m male. Incipient paranoia brought on by impending isolation as a parent and competition with a. n. other male, no doubt.
We talk dad, i.e. ours – what was he like with me when I was Leo’s age? Was he a ‘hands on’ dad, as so many fathers who actually change nappies, and actually soothe their babies, and actually cart them to and from playgroups, and actually feed them, and actually end up with milk and vomit all over their shoulders, and actually take them along to the GP for vaccinations, and actually do the things that mothers have always done in any case insist on calling themselves? (I’m a fully-fledged, card-carrying ‘hands on’ dad myself, naturally). The answer, to my mild surprise, is yes. Actually. Although, less surprisingly, only on occasion.
I’ve never been aware of this, and I ask now only to suppress a fresh attack of the fears regarding my own future capabilities as a father. These mild bouts of fear and loathing in the family home have been visiting me on a semi-regular basis for a while now, usually in the dead of night after a shift with Leo, alone and perspiring on the cold leather of the sofa. I’ve been keeping them to myself, it goes without saying. That’s one of the logical consequences of embarking on life as a parent while your ex-partner and her significant other plan their life with your baby. The fear rises in the back of your throat and stays there, slowly choking you.
But I’m curious, too, having of course no memory of my time as a three-week old. It seems the old man was perfectly happy to pop me on his knee and have me gurgle at him. On occasion. It was only when I grew into a (semi) independent entity, capable of thinking, talking and walking (frequently simultaneously), that, as they say, our troubles began. The euphemism is easily explained – he a depressive alco-forwardslash-rageolholic who in all truth should never have had children, me a healthy and (to all intents and purposes) happy child looking dadwards with ever-increasing concern. Not ideal.
Contemplating fatherhood without contemplating one’s father – well, perhaps there are those who don’t. Perhaps there are those who don’t need to. And perhaps there are those who can’t. For myself, I was a beneficiary of the school of how not to, and in the first days of Leo’s life have probably shown more direct interest in him than I myself received from my father in the twenty years we shared. And here I use the word shared only in is more basic sense. We shared a roof, two trips to the match, and half an hour every Wednesday evening at nine to watch MASH on BBC2. And though it was said we had the same dry sense of humour it was rarely shared among ourselves alone.
Shame lingers, and has no doubt contributed to any fear of fatherhood that may have lingered on after Leo’s arrival. But sis is on the money, and straight-talks me to my senses.
Leo’s needs and their ministration are in any case unremitting, and remorselessly squeeze out any room for self-doubt. The following morning the most mundane of tasks assumes landmark proportions in our small cottage kitchen. With his six pound weight perched on my lap, I cradle his head with my left hand and with my right push the sterilised rubber teat all the way in and tilt the plastic bottle of expressed milk up, and lift-off. Instinct kicks in and as his cheeks suck in and out with a rhythm that is automatic – the first bottle feed for Leo from his father.
It’s a tiny labour of love carried out simultaneously across the globe in any variety of circumstances by millions of mothers, fathers, carers and nurses – and yet here within these four walls we have a miracle, and I’m overwhelmed by a sense of the ineffable. As he feeds is eyes lock onto mine. They are ageless. At once I’m looking down through the generations and into the future, as if staring down along a hall of mirrors, and I can see us all. I see him, I see me, I see Ellie’s father, I see my dead father. It’s a trip.
From a more prosaic point of view, this is a small step for us all – for Ellie, of course, but for myself it is a giant leap forward into my coming life as an independent father. In terms of nursing and raising Leo alone and overnight in my own newly-secured flat down the hill in Brixton, this is a breakthrough.
More than anything, though, the bond between the two of us has grown deeper. When hungry he’s at his most frail, and if he can rely on me at his most dependent then I’m happy past expression – it is, in a peculiar way, the most exceptional form of flattery. Once fed he lies spent by the effort, slumped in woozy abandon like a tiny old man in an opium den, and as I cradle him I’m overwhelmed. Reluctant to let go or lay him down, I sit astonished at the strength of the feelings that now percolate inside of me.
But what are those feelings? I’d now happily give in to my inability to describe them with any degree of accuracy, so powerful are they now. ‘Humbling’ is the closest and most tangible my mental fumblings can get me to the realignment I feel within.
It’s said so often, and often so glibly, that your children are like ‘a part of you’. And yet it seems a feeble thing to say, falling so far short of the truth as it does. My right arm is a part of me, my liver is a part of me, and yet I’d happily be parted with either – though admittedly perhaps not with a smile upon my face. At this early stage at least, they are not so much a part of you or, indeed, separate from you so much as they are an extension of you, and you in turn an extension of them. As Leo struggles to get to grips with the mechanics of being alive, I breathe with him and will him on. At the risk of belittling the experience with a footballing analogy, I kick every ball for him. I love him fiercely.
In other news, as I sit in the kitchen with him sat on me, we’re told by BBC radio that there is now thought to be an increased likelihood of autism and other similar conditions being inherited by children of fathers over forty. My forty-two year-old brain takes note. It seems a twenty year-old father will pass on 25% of mutations as opposed to the 60% a 40-year old will hand down… Much to ponder as I wipe the milk from his chin. Regardless of my advancing years, I’m satisfied that Leo’s genetic inheritance would have contained no more or no less surprises unpleasant or otherwise had he sprung from my twenty year-old loins. And as well for him that he didn’t. But of what, I can’t help but wonder, will he be the son and heir?