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…