Monthly Archives: October 2014

808 DAYS A DAD

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 17th 2014

6.45 am and my eyes snap open. In the murk before dawn, there’s little to see. I’ve woken off kilter, as though I’ve forgotten how to do it. I’m not convinced that I’ve even slept at all. Crash landed in the new day. Thoughts fly in unbidden and instantly I’m sixteen years ahead of myself, wondering how I’ll be making money when Leo turns 18 and I’m 60; when he’s up and gone and with him the child benefit and tax credits. It’s a kind of preemptive fear and it’s ludicrous, but I can’t quite bring myself to laugh. I’m right to be concerned – I’m as close to 60 now as to 28 and heading in the wrong direction, and becoming a single parent has left my finances in a patchwork state with the loss of any constituent part potentially disastrous, but there’s time to turn it around, surely? If there is time, it’s slipping away from me, down the cracks between the days, lost somewhere between work and Leo. It feels as if the thought has had me, not the other way round. That’s single parenting – no one to listen, no one to tell you you’re paranoid, and too busy to dwell on anything but the child before you until the quiet moments in the dark when the big picture assails you.

Thankfully Leo is awake and calling me by 6.45 – ‘DAAA-DEEEE’ from the cot in the next room and I take instant advantage and heed the clarion call, whipping him over the wooden rails for a hug and a kiss. For a time I struggled to adjust to his fresh starts, holding on tight to the comfort blanket of my late nights, but these days I’m ready and waiting for his summons. By 7.00 we’re cosy together in bed and read Dinosaurs After Dark and Dr Seuss’s The Lorax before a breakfast of porridge, blueberries, yoghurt and Maple syrup. I’ve been a dad for 808 days now, most of them, thankfully, spent with my son, and every one of them single.

After a brisk shower we head south to the Horniman Museum on Forest Hill. We’re first through the doors and head into the bowels of the building to explore African tribal artefacts – tall glass cases dense with twentieth century masks and costumes. Leo skitters in the gloom between exhibits, hiding between my legs in delighted mock terror from gaggles of adoring schoolgirls. Much ooh-ing and aah-ing – always appreciated, however familiar it’s become. We stop in the gents for a sharp nappy change and even the school boys are taken, ‘aw! So cute!’ We take in the stuffed menagerie in the galleries upstairs, a fusty collection of taxidermied beasts. Foxes and lions snarl in mute defiance, petrified for all time. Leo and I hold hands before the skeletons of an early Homo Sapiens adult and child. A mummy skull and a baby skull stare back, slack-jawed as if in disbelief that they found themselves here and I try to imagine how they lived, how they died, what they saw. Was there anything more for them than a brief and brutal struggle between birth and death, or did they laugh and sing? We duck down into the basement rooms and play music together before we’re ousted by a group of adults with special needs who make a sweet cacophony of their own.

Then out to the gardens on the hill overlooking the city where I hoist Leo up onto my shoulders and teach him the names of all the herbs and vegetables – ‘parsley, cabbage, chard, …I, love, you.’ I remember the old Fast Show sketch when the laird declares his love for old Ted and we play it out for ourselves, ‘I – potato – love – cabbage – you. Chard.’ Satisfied, we both nod off on the bus home, as we always seem to after the Horniman, but all the while something is building in me. Resentment towards Ellie, and worse. A kind of hostility. Anger at being left alone as a parent without even having felt what it might be to parent with a partner, to have to guess at what your own family might feel like. A father in exile.

Back at the flat, Leo stirs in the buggy. He’s not slept nearly enough and we struggle through lunch. He takes it as an affront and I can’t blame him. And all the while there’s something of my own I can’t digest. The situation, to put it euphemistically, the struggle. In the main it’s fine, I could even say I love it, but but there are times when I crave a break. Not from Leo, never from Leo, but a break from the cycle of chores, work and relentless hustle that supports us both. Some perspective. A hug from someone who isn’t two. Once the injustice of lunch is over I lay him down in his IKEA cot where he finally returns to the business sleep, just before his mother arrives. She’s dropping off his scooter and picking up flowers delivered here for her partner James, who it seems has been diagnosed with arthritis. Briefly I consider what the implications of this might be.

She pokes her head around Leo’s bedroom door before stopping to chat for a moment in the kitchen. We discuss the new wellies I’m about to buy for Leo and she dips into her blue leather handbag to show me her current reading, a true life account of an allied soldier’s war. We rarely wander off topic and my mind, for once, is unreceptive to suggestions for new reading matter. The details of the book, usually taken in as if by osmosis, elude me. I’m edgy, hovering between the need to have her leave and some nameless need to have her stay. She’s still his mother…

We hold eye contact momentarily, something that’s been a struggle lately – whether for her I’m unsure, but certainly for me. Suddenly I remember, as if in flashback, who she was and who we were; both of us used to be somebody else, more than just separated parents being admirably sensible, that we shared over a decade of our lives before the switch to parallel tracks, that there wasn’t once a vacuum between us. I haven’t remembered ‘us’ for a while. And then whatever it is that’s lodged in my gut today, the animus fuelled by injustice now grown hard like a gall stone, melts. I cannot hold onto it.

We say goodbye after she’s checked in on Leo again, who’s slept throughout. I take the chance for a quick nap myself, ten minutes of black to slingshot me back into the day. Instead I find myself sitting on the edge of the bed crying. I’m not sure why, but it’s as if a wall has come down. I can’t find it in me to hate. Most of the time I’m strong enough not to – most of the time – but it’s visited me in my weakness today. Tired of the effort of being alone, vaguely hypoglycaemic and hunched like a dray horse over a buggy that seems to be pushing back, I’ve caved in. Fleetingly I recall the hoary nugget of wisdom from a divorcee I once watched interviewed for a TV documentary, ‘love your children more than you hate your ex.’ I’m running a marathon with my ex here, and now feels like the time to stop sprinting and drop the animosity. It’s giving me a stitch.

It’s a kind of refuge, hate, an invisible shield that costs energy to maintain – energy which, at 44, I can’t afford to waste. I can’t hate her, I can’t hate being left high and dry on the cusp of family life, I can’t hate paying London rent for a two bedroom flat while she plans an extension, I can’t hate the mornings I wake and remember he’s not with me, I can’t hate never coming home to him. I can’t hate the glimpses I catch through the curtains of my son in a stranger’s arms. I can’t hate the fact that here I am, high and dry, behold the reconstructed male, in fact the male that never needed a real overhaul, who was raised by his mum and sister, who never needed to be taught to respect women, who was faithful if perhaps the flame was flickering, who was class swat at antenatal, who held hands at the scans and wiped the vomit off the floor after the jabs and dutifully massaged his pregnant partner even as she rapidly and dramatically became his ex partner, and who learnt to look after a baby on his own.

I’m brimming with love for my son. Most of the time the only struggle is to believe I had a hand in his creation. At times it can destabilise me to think that the intimacy I share with my son runs in tandem with the intimacy he shares with someone who remains an outsider in my life, and that while he’s my entire world, I’m but a part of his. But mercifully I’m too busy for such thoughts to remain in focus. When it’s us, it’s just us. The phone, to my frequent relief, puts the cushion of distance between me and his mother, and with physical proximity and all it brings back removed from the equation, the wonder of it is still visits me – we made someone, we made him. And if our hearts are unbound, then he carries them both.

Leo’s awake before I can quite squeeze off the nap I need. But I swing my legs over the side of the bed, feeling a little lighter all the same. For a brief and sudden instant I miss all that we were, and in my mind I see all that we could have been, everything I’ve blocked out. She was my girl. But that was then. In the three strides from my room to his I skip from the slough of the past and leaning down to his cot, and I doubt I could even find it in me to hate Man Utd. I swing him up and over for the second time in a day and squeeze him tight.

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HOW MANY IS ENOUGH?

Whenever asked how many children I’d ideally like to have, by Ellie or whoever else, I always fell back on the same tired joke – ‘Three. One of each.’ The two of us spoke so often about having children and from such an early stage of our relationship that it seemed the only matter to be resolved was the number. It was as though the future were already written. In our minds the kids were already beautifully clad and suitably named. There was no ‘if’.

Later that worn out line was to resolve itself into the germ of a grand idea. Why not have three, indeed? And why not one of each? A boy, a girl, and an orphan. I’d struck upon the plan at a party thrown to celebrate the tenth anniversary of a restaurant I’d once worked at. Happy and hugger-mugger with friends amid a throng of faces old and new, with barely room to raise a glass mouthwards, elbows pinned to our sides and every word shouted over the cheery din that hung in the air, a couple we knew – happily married and busy raising the archetypal nuclear family – quizzed me on family plans. Madonna had been kicking up headlines at the time by adopting a young Malawian named David Banda, and swept along by the spirit of giddy – and faintly unrealistic – anticipation and generosity which the subject of kids aroused in us then, I suggested we might perhaps like to follow suit and give a home to a child whose need was great.

Initially my companions were confused and assumed my puppyish eagerness to consider adoption might have arisen out of a problem – were we unable to have kids of our own, they wondered? I assured them that wasn’t so, arguing the case instead for altruism. It was myself I was convincing, of course. Though my views haven’t changed to this day – in the face of arguments against interfering do-gooders trying to throw their arms around the world by rescuing but one child, and in doing so breaking the hearts of the many, I would always contend that if you have it in your power to change, if not the world, then one child’s world, do so. One child is never ‘just’ one child.

But how relieved I am now, for all the upheaval of the last two or three years, that our future remained unwritten and the blue pen was taken to the script. Our reality proved in the end to be little more than stage scenery, a construct whose removal caused havoc in my life for no short time. But destruction is often the first act of creation, and a brutal and beautiful reality at least has filled the void. ‘The truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable’ – whoever said it first, James A Garfield or Gloria Steinem, it bears repeating. There was to be no orphan to take its place alongside the girl/boy axis of our nuclear family. There’s just Leo. And of course he can never be ‘just’ Leo.

How glad I am to be off-plan once more, to be swept up again in life’s currents, however buffeting the ride. What could have been more anti-life than to plan a family? How I regret that we’d opted to terminate a pregnancy in the summer of 2005, a promise of life that Ellie had sensed as we drove an exhilarating 3,000 mile loop of open road through every conceivable combination of weather and terrain, beginning and ending in San Francisco. It had been and remains the adventure of my life thus far; it seemed the road was rising to meet us. In Istanbul Liverpool had won the Champions League for the first time since my childhood in a manner that could only be described as miraculous, and I could hardly read that as anything else than an augury that life was opening up, the future bright and welcoming as the Californian sunlight. Could there have been a happier way to conceive?

And though I felt terror when we returned to London and a positive test, in my gut I still wanted the ride. I demurred and took on the passive role of support as I felt was right – or I felt was expected, I have never been sure – it was her body, and consequently her decision. Not for many years was I to register the distinction that it was in her body. ‘I want more time for just the two of us’, Ellie said. We’d had four years to ourselves. How much time did we want? We took our time, we agonised, and afterwards we moved on. I cannot know what Ellie endured alone, and have nothing but respect for her decision. And there is no percentage in weighing up the parallel life, or pondering what might have been for us. How can I care for what’s never been?

But soon I was to understand why friends would urge me to get on with it. Among all of my contemporaries or, to be more specific, the guys I played five-a-side with on Tuesday nights, only I was yet to start a family. When asked in no uncertain terms ‘so when are you going to whip the johnnies off, then?’ I could only blush and splutter into my beer, frothing about the insecurities of money and work. I thought, of course, that I was being sensible, putting the horse before the cart as it were. I saw it as dangerously lazy to assume that ‘everything would fall into place’ around a baby. I’d been missing the point. I was getting in the way of my own path. I’d allowed myself to be lulled into thinking about life as though it were a profession.

And now that I’m on the other side, how can I possibly think of a child as a mistake?

As for the notion that we ought to live our lives without the taint of regret, that’s the stuff of popular song and the tyrannical mantra of self development. Far more heroic, I think, to admit to regrets. To acknowledge them and move on. Give them a quick cuddle, even. They’re part of us. The failure is to live in them, to dwell in the house of regret, as it were.

Now, even though I don’t have what I’d hoped for, I’m contemptuous of the notion that we ought to do anything but live with the unintended consequences of our lives, however duty-bound we may feel. If anything, I’ve been liberated by living the life of the single parent even if it has been thrust upon me. I’ve come to see the stark differences in our respective approaches to parenting, where once there was only cosy consensus. I’ve awoken alone, apart from from the reverie we once shared to discover that I’m no longer a part of the me generation school. In fact I never was. It’s as though I’ve come to my senses.

I’m relieved to put Leo first, struggling not with the long days I spend alone with him but the infinitely longer hours away, cut adrift from the purpose I feel primed for. The empty flat I dread returning to, eerie in its emptiness, the lifeless aspect of the toys tossed to one side and the suffocating blanket of silence left in his wake – those are the shadows I wrestle with. The claustrophobic sense that for all the work, for all the love, the cushion of hearth and home has been whipped away at the very moment I was sitting back on it. Just as my heart has grown with the birth of my son, so too a layer has been stripped off of me…

The future used to be a map, now it’s not much more than a morass of entangled permutations that refuses to be read and there is little percentage in thinking too far ahead. Not long ago, short of breath as I ran to the nursery clutching spare clothes for Leo, I ran into an old flame at the gates. She had been and still is the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in my life, her luminous face had hammered through my heart long after our affair had petered out. How odd, how nice, so many years after I’d found myself at times almost incapable even of coherent speech as she shone before me and my heart threatened to batter its way free from my chest, to see us cross paths so briefly as she dropped off the youngest of her three children. Hearing my story, she cocked her head to one side and offered up her sympathy. ‘Oh, that’s… shit. That really is shit.’ I insisted on cheery disagreement, feeling particularly English that morning, though I still wonder about what she had to say next. ‘But it’s ok for guys, you know. You can keep on having kids.’

At 44 that seems like a possibility, if only technically. With my life now out of joint with those of my friends, whose children are by and large older, and virtually all of my time without Leo spent working, this hardly seems ‘the best of both worlds’. That was the vision of my future Ellie saw. It was Panglossian in the extreme; indeed it’s she who enjoys the best of both worlds, able as she is to devote time to her new relationship. It certainly seems the ‘best of all possible worlds’ when I’m with Leo but without him it’s a grind and a social life of any real kind, never mind a love life, requires a lot of imagination and time I no longer have.

The idea of more children is a fine one, but I sense it might remain just that. And I wonder whether two kids means twice the happiness; does the joy increase exponentially? Having Leo has brought completion, and yet paradoxically I’m entirely alone in that feeling. The odds certainly favour Ellie for now. As much as I hope for a brother or sister for Leo, and the broader base of love and support that would continue to offer him into the future, I find myself selfishly calculating the effects. Would another child for Ellie establish a family unit from which Leo would resent being separated when with me? Or would he revel in the undivided attention which only I could then offer him?

With a largely sublime dynamic between the two of us cemented I’m loathe to shatter it and even the prospect of a partner would feel intrusive in some way. It feels almost impossible that I could admit someone into the nights he spends sleeping here, however sensible that might be in some respects. Having been made a single parent before his birth has engendered a strong determination in me to go it alone and to have him to myself, to the extent I often find myself daydreaming of all the circumstances that might lead to that. But there’s also a fragility to being alone as a parent, an unbearable lightness. One person is my entire world. Where is my broad based coalition?

And money, or lack of, rears its head and militates against. How many parents in London I’ve met already of one child who must now hesitate before adding another. And for myself, the financial challenges posed by separation and raising a child alone on an average income are enough to grip my heart in fear for long and lonely moments in the night. London no longer does ‘average’, and the spectre of eventually having to leave looms. The feeling that I’m running a business sometimes descends upon me, and how much further could I be from the spontaneous joy of family life? Of more children just happening along?

If the last three years have taught me anything at all, it’s that if your partner of ten years and ten months can leave you for someone else six months before your first child is born then anything can happen. Anything. But you forget what ‘anything’ really means, sometimes…