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