For the novice single parent, still on your first child and without the benefit of previous experience to light the way as you stumble along with your one and only – and very possibly your last – straddled across your shoulders, there’s little by way of protection for your bruised heart. There’s no inoculation from the breezy brutality of the toddler.
Leo is my heart, flying out there into the world before me, but it doesn’t stop him reaching back into my chest, grabbing the happily tangled knot of muscle that propels me and tossing it with cheery abandon into the bacon grinder on a semi-regular basis. Like all children, he retains the capacity to disembowel those who gave him life. Any given Saturday will do.
Take last Saturday. We’re flying high for an hour shared at soft play. It’s too crowded to join him so I take my place among the former children sitting along the side wall, now indentured to their offspring and variously adjusted to that, minding the coats and shoes while they duck into whatever escape a smartphone, a Saturday supplement, or even a rogue paperback can offer them. I’m usually too busy glowing to seek out an exit route. It’s a chance to let loose the tether and just sit back and watch as my son careens between kids and tears around the circuit of padded obstacles and ball pits as if shot by a loaded spring into a giant pinball machine. Leo’s been welded progressively to my chest, back and shoulders for three and a half years now – one long hug down to the bone I thought I’d never want to end. And after all that time spent hovering within range in the playground it’s an unexpected and welcome novelty to just sit here. That’ll do. And I’ll keep the dopey grin.
On to the library then, and with another thirty minutes or so before handing over to mum, our Saturday morning floweth over as we cosy up with a pile of picture books in the corner of the kids zone. We’re reading ‘Rex’, the story of a Tyrannosaurus who accidentally adopts a foundling dinosaur hatched in his cave, and I’m enough of a ham to attract a small gaggle of kids away from their own books. ‘Rex’ is unadulterated father and son stuff, not a mummy T-Rex to be seen or heard; a tonic for me, and for Leo – well, it’s unadulterated dinosaur stuff. I’m aglow again and this time it’s radioactive.
But how abrupt the transition can be with a child. How strange the change indeed, from major to minor. When mum arrives fresh from her haircut, Leo’s reaction to her is Hollywood big, 3D IMAX. His message to me is every bit as definitive. ‘YOU.. GO!’ is the command, issued with a raised arm and a finger aimed with laser precision in my direction, a stance not unlike that of Donald Sutherland in the iconic final shot of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. I’m singled out here. Mum and I hang for a moment or two to tie up a few loose ends but it’s clear in abundance whose world Leo now needs to be in.
And that’s all as it ought to be, of course. If anything it’s reassuring. His mum and his dad live in separate worlds – always have done, and always will have done by the time he grows, turns and casts his mind back. Even if those worlds are bridged by a 20-minute hop down the Peckham Road on the 171 – if you could ever really describe that journey as a hop – it’s clear that Leo has grown into the fact. It’s not notional, nothing to wrap his head round, it’s his life. It’s concrete now, set, and that’s the way he needs it.
The overlap between his parents is hardly broad, conducted as it is largely over the phone and through these regular handovers. There are occasions when we’ll all three of us share the same space for more than a minute or two – school visits, nursery assessments – and we’ll undoubtedly run up more time as whatever kind of unit we are as Leo grows into the world and the obligations and appointments mount. There was a time when he’d bounce between the two of us in a paroxysm of joyous disbelief – ‘MummyDaddyMummyDaddy!’ Whereas now he seems to have established some sort of equilibrium, he’s down with it. He’ll dandle on either parent’s lap during those periodic intersections – ‘hey, this is my mum, this is my dad, they spend less than 1% of the year in the same space and that’s fine with me’.
I exaggerate, of course. I got my hug. I got my kiss. And that’s the way it always is for both mum and dad even if Leo can, on occasion, require a prompt from a (possibly needy) parent. But there’s still that nanosecond of annihilation, when your guard is breached and you realise that, for the time being at least, you no longer exist. You just clocked out.
But while there may be intent, there is, it need hardly be said, no real brutality. It may lodge in the softened hearts of those who dote, but that is our lot. They break and remake our hearts over and again, and being a single parent has nothing to do with it. I may break into paranoid sweats whenever it appears Leo may be expressing a preference for his mother or, indeed, for her partner. But any four year old girl can turn to her agreeably enslaved father and declare, ‘you’re not my daddy anymore.’ Like a beleaguered Premiership manager, we’re liable to get the sack at any moment. It’s little wonder that much of the world’s most celebrated literature for children is built on the premise that a child’s parents aren’t who they thought they were after all, just as they’d secretly hoped. And when they disown us it is in fact a strange kind of a tribute. It’s a demand that we be there regardless of how they may be feeling, an expectation that we are there even when we’re not alongside them.
That’s what the deal is, just to be there. It’s the minimum requirement, paragraph number one on the parental contract – they didn’t ask to be there themselves, after all. We saw to that, by design or otherwise. Leo recognises his world is halved. And there are times when my part is simply to facilitate the transition between the two; to cycle or bus him down, hand him over, plant a sloppy kiss on his cheek and pass on any relevant notes to mum – time awake, current state of appetite, amusing anecdote etc.
All of which means knowing when to keep your distance and ring-fence your emotions, even if that can feel like trying to sweep a boulder under the living room rug. When you’re challenged, the simplest error of all is to involve your own feelings. It’s the mother and the father of all parental pitfalls, the beginner’s mistake deluxe, and it’s weak parenting. Just as you ought never to meet their anger with your own when they’re railing against the injustice of, say, a lovingly prepared meal, you ought never to make a display of your attachment when it’s not required of you. Being attached is the easy bit, the bit I never anticipated but now have tied down after three and more years of parenting alone. It’s the detachment that blindsides you. Dealing with that is the work of each parent and, I suspect, a daily rehearsal for the final slackening of the tether when Leo’s days as a toddler are just memories. And when the time comes to let go I imagine I’ll tumble back to earth like a spent rocket booster, burning up on re-entry while my son achieves escape velocity. I wonder if another fifteen years’ rehearsal will be enough to escape my near certain fate…