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…