Monthly Archives: February 2013

I CAN SEE IT IN YOUR EYES

Day 16

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?

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TWO OF US

Day 14

A last home visit from our designated midwife, then, before Leo is to be discharged into the care of his parents – plus one other, plus the state. I can’t help but feel for Karen. The three of us came a long way down the road only for a bout of food poisoning to keep her away just at the moment it became the four of us (five of us, for those keeping count, but four as far as she’s been concerned). Nonetheless she’s here to dot the i’s, cross the t’s and sign Leo off with a cuddle before nudging him off into the stream of life. She’s early and as Ellie is on her way back with Leo we sit and drink tea in the living room.

Waiting on mother and child, and alone with each other for once, we fill the time with a spot of dad talk. How have I been finding things, then? Things? …hmmm. Things are… interesting. Really interesting. But she’s asking about me and Leo so I talk about me and Leo.

I tell her that I have to admit it’s been surprisingly easy thus far, and I wonder why I feel ever so slightly guilty as I do. Perhaps it’s simply because I know that for the time being it’s undoubtedly harder on Ellie than it is on me. The relentless three-hour cycle of feeding continues apace, and she is naturally feeling the strain. When I do sleep, I’m unlikely to be interrupted within three hours because Leo needs to latch on to my breast.

More likely I feel I should instead be talking through some problem or other because, well, that’s what having a baby is like, isn’t it? Problematic. Hard work. The situation is problematic, no doubt. But no need to go there. And it’s certainly hard work. But I don’t have a problem with that.

In terms of myself and Leo alone, my confidence with him has been something of a revelation – to myself, if not to anyone else. Just handling a baby, even the thought of it, seems fraught with all manner of anxieties for any number of new fathers. Certainly, in my childless years – that previous life now gone forever and fast receding from memory – I’d heard a good deal about the care one takes, about the nerve-shredding frailty of a baby. I’d heard a good deal of fear.

Not that I myself had ever volunteered first to hold the baby – be the baby nephew, niece or firstborn of friends. I’d taken my turn of course, plopping the nonplussed tot on my lap for what seemed the shortest socially acceptable period of time permitted before offloading it onto the next, and invariably more enthusiastic incumbent. It was just a baby, after all. It wasn’t mine.

I wasn’t entirely cynical. I saw friends reshaped by parenthood and if anything envied them their progress, suspecting that it was I who was missing out; I certainly didn’t assume they’d been brainwashed or lobotomised. I sensed even then that the feelings I saw in them lay dormant in me. I’d caught a glimpse of a future in which I too was a father. But it was only one future among many, and it wasn’t my baby – not yet. I knew that something would fall into place when (or if) it finally happened to me, but I saw little point in second guessing it. Whatever that something was, I had no need of it. Not yet.

They’re a different species, babies. For the most part cute – adorable even – but for all that mere visitors in your (relatively) untroubled existence. Then one happens to you and you see they’re not actually babies at all. The invisible barrier that up until now had separated you from them is now gone. Now, for the first time, you see them for what they are. And they are in fact tiny human beings – brand new ones, new models and genetic revisions of you and your lover. Or ex-lover. Or friend. Or casual acquaintance. There’s no rule.

Bill Hicks was wrong, it is a miracle. Yes, it happens all the time. Billions of little miracles arriving at what may well be an environmentally catastrophic rate, and destined largely for less than miraculous lives, but miracles one and all nonetheless. But it only happens to you once. Twice if you’re lucky. Any more that can be considered a bonus. Or a burden.

Up until now there’s been nothing at stake, nothing invested. It’s been years of you, her, your family, her family, the cats, your mates, your football team. But then one winter morning you sit alongside your ex as she lies on a hospital bed and you peer into the world of the unborn in the spectral gloom of the ultrasound scan and you see a child as yet sexless become manifest before you and you feel the tectonic shift within you just as surely as you feel the tears rolling down your face and you snatch a look at each other and for now it doesn’t matter what’s happened between you or how you’ve hurt each other, it doesn’t matter at all, and here it comes…

And then it’s with you and it isn’t a baby anymore, and it’s certainly not an it – already I can’t stand to hear ‘it’, or ‘the baby’. He’s a human being. He’s Leo. He will grow, laugh and make others laugh, work, play, learn, sing, cook, earn money and pay taxes, party, hurt and be hurt, love and be loved, break hearts and be heartbroken, grieve, raise children of his own, grow old and die. He is mine. He is everyone’s. It’s terrifying, it’s liberating and it’s beautiful.

Ellie and Leo arrive, and he wastes little time in surging through the 6lbs 4oz mark. Now it’s the four of us again, and the talk turns to matters of family, as well it might. A family is what Karen is looking at, after all. She brings up ‘plans’, and the subject of our next child and contraception is raised. We certainly have plans, but the prospect of another child is deftly batted to one side. We’ve had a bit of practise now.

In closing, we’re given an end of term report that betters most I ever received at school. It seems we’re deemed savvy parents, role models even. And at last, I’m glad she doesn’t know… That time may come, should we meet again, and I can’t help but wonder if our midwives might be all the more impressed were they to know the full story. But still, we’re not here to be graded.

I grew to be vaguely envious of our midwives in one respect. It was the clarity of their evident sense of vocation. Midwifery has, as the novelist Michael Chabon has noted, ‘a fair claim to being one of the most fascinating jobs a human being could undertake to do.’ I can hardly disagree, even if I won’t be volunteering to retrain just yet. Karen has closed the door on the drama of one birth and will within hours begin opening new doors to many others. As Chabon says, ‘it’s just sort of a job, and at the same time it has all of this amazing charge around it.’

As she leaves we’re invited to return soon to antenatal class, there presumably to dispense pearls of wisdom to the poor lambs plunged into the unknown from the perspective of those who have been there. We readily accept, and as I close the door I ponder what is perhaps the greatest irony of the new status quo. Here I am, the ideal parent, whatever that may be, most boxes ticked. Headhunted, even. And yet, turning back into the flat, I stand alone. And yet that’s not it. I’m not alone, and never will be. And how glad I am. Oh, the ironies…