I was always going to be the wrong guy sometime, I suppose. Co-parenting a child who’s now almost five since, well, his mother and I managed to separate before he was born, means I’ve developed a sanity-saving sangfroid whenever he calls me the wrong name. For purposes of clarification, my name is Dad. Bouncing all the while between homes and equally happy in both, my son has earned the right to call me Mummy whenever things get a little blurred for him, which is usually when he’s too tired, distracted or excited to note that I’m male. He may even have a point. As a single parent I’ve been a mum to him more than occasionally, too. Which is to say, there is nothing I haven’t had to do for him, nothing that’s anyone else’s job. In my house, it’s just me and him. Being called Jimmy, however, is quite another matter, though over time even being called by your ex-partner’s partner’s name while you’re melting over the hob has a way of bouncing off your ever thickening skin.
But waiting outside class to find my son weeping at the sight of me as he emerges, able to blub through his tears only ‘I want my step-daddy’, has been a test of skin thickness that, in the days before Father’s Day, I’d prefer not to have to sit.
All parents are rejected by their kids at some point. How many hear ‘I hate you?’ How many mothers have faced a toddler who won’t rest until she’s got her daddy, or vice versa? As kids grow, it’s the norm for many to entertain fantasies of other, ‘true’ parents, in accordance with one of the most common tropes in children’s literature. But to be rejected in favour of another who occupies a space in parallel to your own – that’s no fantasy, and it carries with it an existential threat. If I’m not the go-to guy, then who, what, am I? In the part of his life that I catch a glimpse of only every now and then, there’s someone who can replace me. There was, after all, never a time for him when it was only me.
None of which crosses my mind as I sit on a bench to bring him face to face and comfort him, before being brought up short by the absurdity of the situation. I’m comforting a child that doesn’t want me to be me. There’s no succour in the thought that he doesn’t mean it when, of course, he means it. He doesn’t want me to be there and, for a split second, I don’t want to be there either. In that one vertiginous moment I’m a needy wreck, not a thing in common with a single parenting soul around me, grasping for a purpose I’ve been robbed of and suffocated by the fear that I’m not preferred. I have, however, seen parents demand love and respect like feudal landlords insisting on fealty and it’s abhorrent. So for now I can only flick the switch to auto, wipe his tears and hand him his snacks before we trail across the park and home to the Monday evening routine, his hand, for once, not in mine and a diplomatic silence maintained.
For a time I’m parent-bot, back at the hob and wondering whether this can all be be put down to a child’s underdeveloped sense of time. It isn’t Monday in his world yet, after all. I try to reassure myself that, as a child, there was no such thing for me as loving someone ‘more’ or ‘less’, it’s just a metric brought to bear by the insecurities of the adult mind. Then, from across the room, ‘daddy, I really really love you.’ A child’s love can come to you like benediction sometimes, and it almost feels as if I’ve been pardoned. I can’t help but wonder if this was a spontaneous offering or whether I have a more politic four-year old than I’d imagined. But in my mind’s eye there’s a shaft of light penetrating the kitchen, eradicating the gloom, and I’m able at least to stay steady, if diminished, for the remainder of the evening. After his dinner I sit and do phonics with him, we watch Transformers together, I read him two stories and put him to bed and then cook and eat before writing for a couple of hours. Then half an hour of Netflix before bed. It’s Monday.
This will be the fifth Father’s Day that’s sailed by unacknowledged since my son was born, and each has been a little more trying than the last. I was a nonbeliever once. The breezy complacency I shared with my son’s mother before his birth, the conviction that it was all nothing more than a commercial jamboree forced upon us by the American greeting card industry (or so our theory went), all of that evaporated upon coming into contact with the realities of single parenthood. Now that Father’s Day is everywhere, I want a piece of the action. I’m like an atheist won over by Christmas, or at least the bit when you get presents. Maybe it’s agnosticism. I’m open now to the idea that Father’s Day can, at least, be what you make of it. I’ll be back at through the school gates on Friday and if my son’s teacher has had the presence of mind to have my son make of it a scrawled on, glittery folded piece of cardboard with a stick man bearing an unarguable resemblance to me on the inside, then I’ll accept my first Father’s Day card with gratitude and pride. Every invisible moment I’ve had with him will be that bit more visible, and Monday just another day.