Monthly Archives: June 2014

HAS HAVING A BABY SIMPLIFIED MY LIFE? KIND OF…

As a father – still a single one – (and still a parent with a ‘co-‘ for a prefix) (and other brackets, sub clauses and dashes of difficulty) in a situation that remains stubbornly complex, I’m more minded than I ever thought I might be to read the myriad pearls of wisdom, received or otherwise, on offer on-line on the already overwritten subject of parenting.  Frankly I never thought I’d need the advice, but that was before the ground fell away and the great unknown of single parenting yawned before me, with Leo still six months from being born.  And when a particularly shiny pearl of wisdom is offered up by the estimable Lauren Laverne, I sit up and take note.

You see I love Lauren Laverne.  And before she need fear the online stalker, it’s a particular love of which I speak.  There are many variations, after all – the Japanese have nine words for love I’m told, though I’m not sure which would apply best in this instance.  The wireless – the digital one – has become a trusted friend throughout the first 22 months of my son’s life.  In the intimacy of the hearth BBC 6music has soundtracked my two-member family, and many a home alone parenting learning curve has been played out twixt ten and one to the accompaniment of Lauren’s mid-morning show.

‘Having a baby will simplify your life’ she writes in the Guardian. I sat upright for that.  Your damn tootin’ it will.  A baby, as Lauren points out, is the pre-eminent agent of life-simplification.  I too have learnt this. With all the baggage of my childless adulthood dropped by the roadside, my toddler is now my teacher.  That realisation, and the power of love (not Huey Lewis and the News’ 1985 hit single, but the actual power of love, of an order you couldn’t have dreamt could exist within you until the person you made shot out into the world and put you in your proper place) are the two things that have the power to bring down the entire parental advice machine.

I remember a frame from a Freak Brothers comic book, in which a perennial virgin finally gets it on and gets with the programme.  “I CAN DO THIS!!!” shrieks our hero’s thought bubble.  I’ve found it’s kind of the same with being a parent.  My biggest shock was not all the staple fare of the lad-to-dad memo; the frequency of nappy changing and the fact that babies dribble and vomit and yada-yada-yada… – for some men, these seem to be discoveries akin to the detection of life on an alien planet.  No, the biggest shock was that it was actually quite easy.  Even doing it entirely alone for stretches of a week or more is straightforward.

And whenever I think I might slip, there’s my little genius of love to remind me how to do it, with his constant need to be fed, changed, paid for, cuddled to within an inch of his miracle of a life, bathed, taken swimming, endlessly read to with all the prerequisite voices and sound effects, and have his dad’s forehead pressed into his chest as I gabble whatever parent-child patois we’ve landed upon at that moment until his laughter is bouncing all over the walls.  Leo has been a joy from pretty much the outset, and my one-on-one life with him a rare privilege.

And yet for all that, in so many respects my life remains beyond Leo’s powers of simplification.  For one thing it’s split in two; life with and life without the captain of my heart.  I’d happily swallowed the line that I’d have the ‘best of both worlds’, perhaps out of pure relief that my son was to remain in my life in any meaningful way at all.  Now I’m not so sure.  The ‘with’ bit, when it’s mostly just the two of us, is positively Panglossian – the best of all possible worlds indeed.  Simple.  But the downtime, well that’s exactly what it is – down time, because I’m still with him even even when he isn’t there.  

Time away from Leo is time working in any case.  Friends and social engagements do indeed evaporate, as Lauren, me, and millions of others have discovered.  But they’re disappearing into the ether just when I need them the most.  At 44, and with the vast majority of friends fully occupied with young families, I’m out on a limb.  In my statistically inverted social sphere, I’m surrounded by nuclear families and suddenly I’m the only single in the village.  No drinks after work when your mates are heading back to hearth and home.  Opening the door to the cavernous silence that only an absent child leaves behind is chastening, and frankly frightening.  One minute you’re living in the moment, the next you’re here but not here.  Stop.  Start.  Stop.  Start.  And some pining in between.

Ah, family life.  Or whatever you call this.  You get greedy for it indeed, Lauren.  But my plate keeps getting taken away.  And when someone else is eating from it, well… Well.

And then there’s the juggling between two jobs and the other job that isn’t a job – the one that might be work, but you don’t want paying for and you certainly don’t want time off from.  Your little boy.  And there’s the childcare for him, the cost and the jigsaw of an arrangement that necessitates my dependency on Leo’s maternal family, a family of which I am no longer a part and yet remain beholden to without any support of my own to call on.

Has my son simplified my life?  He’s certainly simplified me and our life together is a simple one, revolving as it does primarily around eating, reading, playing and sleeping.  But the business of life is Byzantine in its complexity, each week in the shared diary a Gordian knot at the outset.  My life as a single co-parent right now is a matrix of complexity, constructed in order to maintain one steady simplicity at its heart.  Me and Leo.  A whole lot of work for a whole lot of holiday…

FATHER’S DAY

So it’s upon us again.  I think.  Or has it just slipped by?  It may have been last weekend, it may be next.  It might just have well fallen in January, or be pencilled in for December – but then you probably couldn’t sell as much stuff you want but don’t need.  I wouldn’t know.  Apparently it’s unmissable, given the volume of media coverage, the cluster bomb of commercial opportunities and attendant advertising bonanza.  In my TV-free utopia I’m (almost) blissfully ignorant, but a feature on this morning’s Woman’s Hour has the rusty penny teetering before it finally drops.  I refer, of course, not to the beautiful game’s return to its spiritual home in Brazil – my utopia may be TV-less but it’s anything but football-free – no, it is, apparently, some time around now, Father’s Day.  Only I’m far too busy being a father to notice…

For some of Father’s Day I will be a father.  I’ll be a dad in the morning, or at least up until 11am.  I’ll hoist Leo up and out of his cot at seven and he’ll run tottering into my room and hook his right foot up and over the top of my bed and we’ll read stories under the duvet until eight, each one preceded with the pomp of a now-ceremonial kiss on the cheek from him – a mutually understood bargain or a signal to begin, I’m not sure which.  Then into the kitchen for a Sunday-slow breakfast and inevitably, having been lulled into a false sense of being time-rich, the pell-mell rush to Waterloo to deliver him to mum who’ll be en route to a Sunday more leisurely and reassuringly Sunday-shaped than mine.  Thence across Waterloo Bridge, swallowing down the vague sense of discombobulation and mortal panic that always bubbles up like bile in the minutes after I’ve left him, to the coal face to put in a shift and thereafter to the pub with childless drinking partner to reassure myself within the span of a pint or five that my life might after all be, in some way I’m yet to notice, normal…

That’s discombobulated and panicked not simply on account of going from my hermetic existence as a full-on single parent to two days without Leo throughout which the silence he leaves behind will be deafening, but because I know my son will be spending the majority of Sunday with a man I never see but who, it would appear, considers himself to be every bit as integral to my son’s life as I am.  So if this is Father’s Day, just who is it for?

‘We’ never did Father’s Day.  ‘We’ being me and Leo’s mother – I retain the inverted commas as the decade-long span of our relationship seems surreal in the memory now, a montage of scenes half-remembered from another life, and not necessarily mine.  Leo and I are now the only reality I know.  ‘We’ didn’t do Mother’s Day either, in the interest of balance.  Valentine’s Day survived the massacre and limped on in the form of a few handmade cards and some very cosy meals for two or three years.  The only days deemed important enough to be granted due weight and observance were prefixed with ‘Christmas’ and ‘birth-‘.  All others were derided, wisely it seemed at the time, as the spawn of American greeting card houses long since mutated into consumer-fests for fools.

But of course I’ll be his dad when he’s away on the train, when he’s in the other half of his life, when I’m rolling home drunk, when I sleep, when I wake.  And this weekend, or last weekend, and however much the head says no, this proud, bruised single father is wilting just a little as he discovers that Father’s Day is pretty much ubiquitous after all, and I wonder – do I want the sweet benediction of that card after all?

Do I deserve recognition? Do I need it?  On a day like today, maybe.  To the pool early for Leo’s swimming lesson.  ‘We’ do swimming and ‘we’ alternate – last week was mum’s turn, and when asked after me – mistakenly referred to as ‘your husband’  – by the instructor, declared ‘oh, he’s just the dad.’  That ‘just’ hung around for the rest of the day and might be worth a piece in its own right.  ‘Just’ dad’s day, perhaps?  There’s an almost cosmic irony in being, frankly, an exemplary father (hey, if I don’t say it who else will – that’s the whole point of this piece, right?) in as much as I do it all myself and I love doing it all myself, and being… alone.  And not just alone but, without wishing to break out the violins, entirely unvalued.  I guess it’s the relative isolation and the entire lack of real emotional support that has me pining for some token expression of appreciation.

Isn’t fatherhood it’s own reward?  Ah, ‘its own reward’ – how that phrase might have jarred had it been suggested to me before I had a son.  And yet I’d have discarded the sanctimony I wanted to hear and guessed at the truth in it, and of course I’d have been right.  It is its own reward and how liberating to know and feel that each day, even if at times I do feel a little like an a one man show with an audience of …one.  Though he is some audience.  Very receptive.

Some dads will be feted, treated, celebrated, lionised even and sure, it would be nice.  But I suspect I might breathe a sigh of relief to have given the Radiohead CDs a swerve this time.

Card or not, and let’s be fair, his crafty little digits aren’t yet two – though that hasn’t stopped him producing a glitter-encrusted Easter card courtesy of a thoughtful child-minder – I’m fortunate.  Indeed, partner or not (and right now I honestly prefer not), I’m fortunate. I know there’ll come a time I can tell my son that one sun kissed Saturday I crouched down to him and kissed him as he wrestled with the high drama of end-of-day fatigue.  In the kitchen with our bare feet still encrusted in the afternoon’s sand and grime, I squatted down and sang him The Byrds’ cover of Mr Tambourine Man as it played on the radio and as he nuzzled into me and we butted heads I knew I had the only show of appreciation I needed. And I marvelled just at being loved by him, and had the sense to know that these were the days of my life.

Might put that in a card and post it to myself…

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