A civilised breakfast for father and son – precision feeding, minimal collateral mess as porridge and blueberries find their targets – and we scuttle uphill fuelled by slow-release wholegrain, across the park for a whole new play group experience.
It’s not that we really need a whole new play group experience, in all honesty – being the only dad squatting cross-legged on the mat singing Wind The Bobbin Up has been no great burden, even if I feel my presence did inevitably alter the dynamic.
In my salad days as a solo dad-on-the-mat I was often put in mind of the Heisenberg Principle, also known as the Uncertainty Principle. You know, the theorem that the act of observation itself influences the thing being observed. The principle, Werner Heisenberg’s career defining contribution as a particle theorist of some renown – applied to the behaviour of subatomic particles but has since been proven to be spot on in the mind of many a reality documentary producer cursing camera conscious subjects, and might just as well be applied to heretofore all-mum play groups on the introduction of a keen but nervy first time father. Heisenberg had seven kids to feed with his principle, including one set of twins, but I doubt he ever found himself the only dad in play group. Or even in play group.
I’m guessing my presence won’t have any detectable influence on the behaviour of the group we’re heading towards now, however. This is all dads. How Heisenberg might like to drop a mum into this one. Leo and I have previous in this area as occasional visitors to a local group – loose formed and without any real structure, a smattering of fathers strung out across a purpose built playroom for two hours every other Saturday. No voices raised in song, handsets in evidence and football scores monitored metronomically. I never felt that we penetrated the circle – it seems most play groups, whatever their constitution, have a circle to be penetrated – though that may be down in no small part to my own innate wariness.
These dads were corralled by a well-meaning volunteer named Tim, a self-declared, self-appointed child guru who wasted little time in back-combing my already semi-erect hackles. I’d no idea this was a class. Forgive my cynicism, but any man who declares that “children are my passion” clearly doesn’t have any. Children, that is, not passion. The very word has been long since over-used to the point of meaninglessness in any case. My morning latte is made by people for whom coffee is their passion. My lunchtime sandwich is designed and and hand crafted with passion. Please don’t playgroup my child with passion, can we just have fun?
Tim fields questions from uncertain dads with the earnestness of the man in whose mind this is a science, and an exact one at that. X amount of time on the naughty step, we’re told. Now not for a nanosecond would I wish to give the impression that parenting is a frothy coffee and cake walk, but to nourish the idea that there are textbook answers can only be counter-productive. Once we’re disavowed of that slippery notion, then parenting becomes in a trice a far less daunting prospect, and a far more manageable proposition. We have instincts. We, in fact, are the experts on our children. Our own children, that is. We just need reminding of it on occasion.
Parental anxiety is natural and, to a degree, necessary. We need it like the performer needs nerves, or the athlete needs adrenaline. But anxiety in the parent is fed, and an industry has been built to service it. An industry that sells answers to our questions.
I can be overwhelmed by fear. As a single parent, I’m beset with a miasma of phobias and paranoias. What if something happens to me when he’s staying over? What if I lop off one of my fingers when I’m distracted by him in the kitchen? What if I take a ride on a stray toy of a cylindrical or wheeled nature and bust that worried little head of mine wide open? What if I don’t wake up? Who’ll miss us if he’s not due back with mum for another whole day?
And none of this is about me, you understand, this is what happens to him? Where will we live? How will I afford a place with a room for him on less than £25,000 a year in London? What kind of a relationship will he form with his mother’s partner? Just how do you meet women again, anyway? In the supermarket? Where is the time for it? Meeting women, that is, not the supermarket – I’m lost in there on a near-daily basis. How do I let someone else into his life in any case? Will it be us against the world – or just the two of us, with apologies to Bill Withers? You get the picture…
Then there’s the anxieties that lie in wait, entrenched for now but ready to go over the top and hit you square in the sternum at some point in the near future. It gets harder, right? When he’s no longer a cute and (relatively) compliant blob who, between wowing the crowds on the buses, requires your ministrations only when tired, hungry, dirty, or in distress.
What happens when he asks questions, and not just the machine gun repetition of why? why? why? – which actually sounds like fun – but the questions you don’t know the answers to yourself, the kind of questions that keep rattling around the cage of your mind like apps running in the background when the lights are out. What happens when he turns around and clocks the shock of your fallibility, when he sees that you’re winging it?
And then there’s the third wave, the big stuff that will roll down and break on you like a tidal wave when you’re sitting bewildered in front of the news. Will he get a place in school? Will he find fulfilling work? What temperature will this planet be by the time he sees its in premature peril unless we pull at least one finger out? What if he supports Man United?
But fear is like the dark – the day rolls round, the dread event rears its gorgon head and lo, the light is switched on, the dark turned off. But in the meantime that’s enough anxiety in your half-empty cup, and what I can’t get in a lather about is looking after him – that I can do, and do well, thank you and good night.
So no teacher in the play group, please. In fact, no cottage industry in symbiotic cahoots with the wellspring of parental uncertainty. Love is all you need, they were right, it’s the bedrock that enables everything. Well, love and a cardboard box. You figure it out, instructions not included (or necessary). Ok, and maybe a copy of Dr Miriam Stoppard’s Complete Baby And Childcare on the shelf for moments of self-doubt – common sense cover-to-cover, and nothing a quick dip into the index can’t assist with.
But we digress. To a community hut on the periphery of the park, then, and the periphery of what else, I wonder, as we trundle through the estate it nestles in – is this the end of the line for men? The hall has seen better days and within are a scattering of men who have, too. I’m welcomed with tea and chocolate Hobnobs by my new comrades-with-babes-in-arms, all happily scruffy with the wear and tear of parenting, jeans worn at the knee and t-shirts in the various stages of staining.
Some are primary carers, having ditched ‘eclectic’ careers (i.e., like myself, no real one to speak of) to shoulder the burden while partners strive in the workplace. Some politely express mild surprise at, and seem impressed by, the hours I’m putting tout seul at my own domestic coalface, confessing relief when mum arrives at day’s end. I allow myself a brief, private moment of modest self-congratulation, reminded of my own feelings when mum returns and spirits Leo away to home, or from home, I’m unsure which. Feelings, invariably, of loss and listlessness.
But I certainly got what I wished for – perhaps I should have been more careful of that. The genie granted me the biggie, I’m a certified stay-at-home dad, but the other wish – work-from-home-dad – is proving to be, along with looking after myself, the real challenge. Like many of the men I’m eyeing over the brim of my mug, I may want to raise my kid myself, but I want everything else that ever made me a man, too, and I’m left with the vaguely discomfiting feeling that not only has all of that evaporated, but I’m not sure I ever really knew what it was anyway…
Though my by now trusty single-dad-dar isn’t picking up any fellow lone travellers, I am picking up on an energy once described by Louis de Bernieres in his poem Every Other Weekend as ‘much too jolly by half’. Though these fathers seem, by and large, to be placed near enough to the centre of their children’s lives, the unmistakable fug of overcompensation hangs heavy in the air. There is a pleasing outlaw flavour to proceedings, however, as though this were a guerrilla group of rogue dads, albeit cuddly ones.
But by the time singalong is in full swing I’m unable to muster the required energy – happy to try, but reluctant to try too hard. And I’m definitely getting that here. There’s an energy too close to fury driving the singing – not directed at the kids, heaven forfend, but the relentless nursery songs become adrenaline-barbed incantations. We can do this, too, mums is the mantra. Our chorus leader is exhausting me with his efforts and as he bangs his drum, literally and metaphorically, my eyes are drawn to the bead of sweat that’s plotting a course south from his brow. The sweat of effort or a tear of suppressed rage? I’m reminded of the scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien in which the ship’s onboard scientist is revealed as an android traitor by a single tear of biomechanical fluid tracing the contour of his jaw, and I wonder what secret mission our choirmaster might be on and whether he’ll complete it before he self-destructs.
As babies and toddlers are hoiked into carriers and buggies and this band of brothers disperses for another week, I can’t help but feel relief. I like these people – how could I not? And a modicum of overcompensation is easily forgiven. However socially acceptable the idea of dads as primary carers has become it is still, for many people, just that – an idea. Little wonder the reality works up a sweat making the point. Most of the buggies we pass on the walk home have mums leaning their weight into them, I note.
Yet somehow I know we won’t be back, though I wish them all well and hope our paths may cross outside the walls of this community hall. The search for our grail will continue – a play group that’s not a mums’ group or a dads’ group. Neither one thing nor the other, but a parents’ group – mixed, easy-going, messy and happily chaotic, and with no point to prove.