Monthly Archives: April 2013

THE DAD ABIDES

Day 23  (I think.  The days run away…)

With my head in the shed, our latest feeding session descends rapidly into farce.  Generous quantities of what appears to be cottage cheese – but not the kind you’d like to eat – spume freely from the nozzle, with little of it reaching its intended target.  Indeed most of it is heading my way, and far too much is coating Leo’s face.  Welcome to formula.

It’s a happy scene, nonetheless.  For so long, almost the span of a pregnancy, this cottage flat had been my suburban Marie Celeste.  Life was elsewhere, and I waited for it.  Now it’s come home, it’s dandling in my lap.  Soon it will be me that’s departed, bound for the childless quiet of the next empty space, but for now this moment, this clumsy dance, this gentle, firm persistence, this patient steering of bottle to a learning, yearning mouth, this getting-to-know-you is all there is.

By increments Leo fills the space, claiming it for his own.  With his smells – the warm density and tangible fug of his moss-greened nappies to the soft deja vu of the downy hair still barely amounting to a wisp.  With his infant voice and its burgeoning palette of sound, a constant source of joy and surprise to tired ears – not the cliched ear worm of the BBC sound effect baby’s cries, but the burbling chirp and tender mewling of a suckling cub.

In time he’ll establish dominion over his various and separate territories, both Ellie’s and mine.  He’ll no longer be the object in the corner as a friend so brusquely refers to the pre-crawling/walking memory of his own young children.  How I long for it, though, even if I do end up in thrall to the sovereign lord of all he surveys, and even if I am witness to his growth and development on a part-time basis.

Briefly, I wonder how unsettling it might prove to shuttle continuously from one flat to another – with baby and without – and from a house that will forget me to a flat yet unknown.  But feeding Leo trumps all, and the thought is consigned gladly to the back of the queue with all the other mental clamour that’s threatening to turn my life into an eternally self-replenishing to-do list.

And yet wherever I find myself, the need to forge a solid rapport with Leo – and, in view of the circumstances, to establish primacy with him, is paramount.  In my fledgling parent mindset paranoia escalates – as gross a violation as it is to know he’s on intimate terms with Ellie’s new partner already, it must be faced.  Whose smell, whose touch, whose voice will he respond to?

Perhaps, then, to the GP with this welter of mental insecurity – there, no doubt, to hear everything that I don’t want to hear.  The realisation is growing, silent like cancer, that my weeks-old son may in time emerge as a part-reflection of an influence that is other, foreign to my own.  It’s knowledge that can hollow.  But over time I must endure – the dad must abide.  And this is no man thing, this is about being a father.  And as a father I can make no apology for aiming to be, alongside his mother, his prime influence.  That, after all, is what I am here for.  What the other he is here for, remains to be seen…

…WELL, HOW DID I GET HERE?

Day?

Much to my continuing (and not to mention pleasant) surprise, fatherhood has brought with it the unexpected gift of time.  I’d envisaged a day-in-day-out struggle to prise precious moments free of the daily grind – moments to be spent wisely.  But as I take up the watch from Ellie and the late summer evenings stretch out as Leo sleeps between feeds, I find that pockets of minutes become hours to be filled, even if they might once have been more usually spent asleep. And what wiser way to spend these unexpected time credits than to waste them?  A gift from nowhere – time to think, time to watch TV.  Time to watch a late night documentary on fatherhood, time to watch a succession of divorced fathers share experiences of varying pain and frustration, time, with the shock of self-realisation, to see myself in them, and time to wonder ‘…how did I get here?’

Cradling Leo I watch a series of stories from recent decades charting changes in family law that have shifted the ground beneath the feet of separated fathers, too often leaving them stranded and bewildered, washed up on strange shores, uncertain of the way forward and with no direction home.  As Leo sleeps, cresting the rise and fall of my chest, panic percolates from deep and barbed knots of anxiety are tied ever tighter.  No pleasure greater than the child asleep on your breast, no pain more gratifying as you refuse your own comfort in favour of theirs.  But it’s a pleasure that drives down deeper than passion; it’s a tether of primal force, and the thought of its severance threatens sanity and health.

A cluster bomb of fears detonates, thoughts proliferate and pinball wildly.  Where am I in this?  Like the shellshocked, hollowed-out divorcees I’m watching, I too find myself without map or compass.  Am I at a disadvantage?  Clearly, though the shape and nature of the disadvantage remains indistinct – blurred and out of focus, hovering on the periphery of my vision.  We’re unmarried and consequently ‘undivorced’, with no legal framework of any kind to fall back on should there be any need to do so.  I am dependent entirely on mutual trust and goodwill, and therefore obliged to ensure we maintain the easiest terms possible.  Will the burden of that obligation prove suffocating?

As the film unfolds the importance of family ties, particularly for the child, are stressed.  The pattern those ties may adopt, however, is in a state of flux.  Families now come in all shapes and sizes, we are constantly reminded.  Even Ed Miliband has been at pains to point out to a Prime Minister intent on promoting and rewarding the traditional family – ie the one with a married couple at its heart.

The Labour leader has not been the only prominent figure in my life to point this out.  Ellie would routinely elude to the ever-evolving nature of the family in answer to my fears for the future.  As if the knowledge that break-ups and mutated families are commonplace could in any way assuage the pain and fear that renders you virtually non-functional when your future with your as yet unborn child is, at best, shrouded in confusion.

The very idea that we are a family of any mutation is, for now, as palatable as concrete.  It implies the accommodation of an entire stranger, a man peripheral, even unknown to me, and yet central already to the life of my child.  Waiting in the wings… It speaks of an arrangement between parties, decisions taken and compromises made.  I cannot be said to have arranged anything whatsoever, having had no choice at any point.

Whatever the shape or the size of the family and whatever its constituent parts, there needs to be a unit – a hub to which the child is secured.  That hub is ideally a couple – of any variation whatsoever – but now I find myself outside of the unit.  The whole is splintered, and Leo will make his way alternately between the parts. It will have to work.

A final onscreen word from a father who has at least found some comfort in perspective.  Having put his own working life on hold to care for two young children while their mother pursued a career in law, he found himself fighting to stay in their lives after she left him for another man.  ‘Never hate your ex more than you hate your children’.  No sooner are the words spoken than I grab hold of them for myself.

How I’d love to be able to say I’ve not hated her, not hated them.  Wait.  I’d not love to be able to say that.  I’d not love to be able to lie.  Of course my heart had been torn and constricted with all the rage of impotence as he lay beside my unborn child, of course I’d wished them dead as they planned a future with my son.  I’d wished myself dead, unable to face the childless days and nights that lay in store for me, unable to accept a life redrawn by the lives of others, unable to countenance the thought of my child in an alien embrace.

But amidst the shameful rage and self-corroding hatred lies the way forward.  A child to whom a future is owed – and who has one, with or without me.  The pain and despair, and the anger born from it, the fear and the loathing, all were inevitable to all but the most enlightened of souls.  I needed to go there, but to stay there would have guaranteed a kind of death in life.

I don’t know what kind of father I am, just that I’m some kind of father.  I don’t know if I’m part-time, full time, co-parenting or absent, real or just biological.  I do know that there are only two real types – good, and bad, as Louis Armstrong might have had it.  I know what a bad one is, and I’ll be damned if Leo ever will…

ALL THINGS MUST PASS

Day 19

Two weeks’ token paternity leave have come to an end and the coalface beckons once more.  As I freewheel downhill and take a  right into the main artery to thread through clots and clusters of cars, buses and HGVs towards the West End I make a mental note to hurry along and start a second family sharpish so that I can benefit from any impending Nordic-influenced liberalisation of parental leave.  Fourteen days to forge a bond seems scant for any man when a newborn’s senses are so underdeveloped he or she can barely see as far as the wall or distinguish one face from another.  That’s quality time in inverted commas.

Nine hours later and eight hours richer I slog back uphill through late summer rain to stand dripping wet and disbelieving in a cottage kitchen that seems to shrink a little each time I return to it.  The unwelcome and unyielding presence of a third party in what was formerly known as my family life, and historically my love life, has had a way of sharpening my hitherto dormant faculties for detection, but I barely need them to know that James has been here.  It appears the surest passage to his heart traces much the same route as to mine or any other male’s – a direct line to the stomach.  And the evidence of a long afternoon of leisurely grazing lies all around.  Nothing on the hob for pater, and no leftovers in the fridge.  I’m glad.

Ellie tarries in the corridor for the time it takes to say goodnight and turns to head to her quarters, leaving Leo to my care as we head into the night.  Perhaps it’s moral outrage tempered with self-pity that has me reach for the puritanical simplicity of a can of baked beans – a hair shirt in a tin.  Perhaps it’s because there are mere minutes before Leo will be actively hunting his next meal.

Feeding Leo still retains the ineffable – it’s no smaller a miracle now to lock eyes and gaze down into an endless corridor of beauty as he clamps down on sterilised rubber.  And yet all the while thoughts unbidden career ceaselessly around the tired and empty spaces of my mind like pigeons trapped in the rafters of an abandoned warehouse.  The honeymoon is most definitely over, and the end of this chapter – in which our protagonist heads for the exit – is upon us.  I don’t live here anymore, I just work here, and now all I want is my son and my life back.  And a good, firm mattress.

As for Ellie and I, we’re back in the waiting time now and the silent, moment by moment struggle for things to say, or things not to say, begins again.  We’re walking a tightrope of civility, me ever mindful of the fatal outburst that will send us tumbling into the void, and slowly choking on those very feelings held in check…

And yet life goes on, it’s business as usual – baby on board.  As the hours become smaller I clock off and negotiate the dimly lit corridor, softly padding through no man’s land from my territory into hers with Leo in arms, his lung-power belying his insubstantial weight.  As ever, I feel unable to stay – how strange, how sad to feel I’m intruding on a scene of intimacy as my son breast feeds – so I sign off my special delivery and head back to the clammy embrace of the sofa.

My mind hurtles through the darkness, pushing sleep ever further away, and a faint and persistent impulse grows.  I’m drawn to the bedroom and find a clearly exhausted Ellie asleep with Leo sated in her arms, and both far to close to the edge of the bed.  A deft scoop and Leo is soon resting in his Moses basket, and I head back to lie restless in the front room.

Night turns into day and, alone again, my mind seeks diversion.  Turning to the papers online I scan through a celebrity questionnaire and my eyes alight on one answer – “my kids. I think kids deliver on all the romantic stuff love only promises. I am in love every day.”  A quick glance up to the question, “who, or what, is the greatest love of your life?”  How hard it suddenly is to imagine romantic love, now it’s gone.  Just as it was once impossible to imagine being single in the comfort of a long-term relationship, romance now seems a dream from which I’ve awoken – nothing more than a hypothesis, a theory.  Ellie’s views on the matter are no doubt admirably different.

From where I’m standing it’s already clear that my own love for Leo, however binding and intoxicating, will not be enough in the end.  It cannot exist in a vacuum, it cannot be all there is for me, lest it collapse under its own weight like a dying star as I scrabble around for happiness in a thousand kickarounds, burger buns and story times.  So there will need to be someone else, for Leo’s sake as much as for mine if he’s to avoid his certain fate as son of gooseberry dad.

Though an attractive enough concept still, romantic love had once been an article of faith for me.  That sense of destination, the it-had-to-be-you trajectory of life absorbed through the heartache and hope of a hundred Hollywood movies, was bullet-proof.  Now I feel like the child post-Santa, and I’m inclined to bracket romantic love alongside religion – I suspect it’s there for those, or perhaps even in those, who believe.  And I remain resolutely agnostic.  Which at least means I’m open to reviewing new evidence if and when it should present itself…

Early evening brings Leo back to me and he’s strapped on as I prepare the evening meal.  George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass soundtracks the fading of the light and with the evening touched by autumn, the mood is crepuscular.  My remaining evenings here can now be counted, and there’s a mounting sense that Ellie is doing just that.  And all the while, the same phrase undercuts the harmony of the music as it worms away in my ear – you’ll always be his dad.  But as I serve I’m scrambling for its meaning.