Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Adam and Effie

Name: Adam
Child and age: Effie, 7 years
Location: Prestwich, Manchester

Expectations of Fatherhood: I knew that I was going to be a Dad and that I was going to be very tired but that’s pretty much where I allowed my expectations to end. I was certainly a bit scared of all the unknowns (of which there were clearly a lot) but not to such a degree that I felt compelled to confront them. Thinking back I guess there were a number of reasons for this.

Primarily I think it was down to me being a rather naive sort of person who tends to expect the best of situations. I knew that whatever happened I’d get through it. The notion of ‘How hard can it be? People have babies all the time.’ was my mental comfort blanket and it carried me through the pregnancy. That this mindset was naivety bordering on stupidity, and that I was soon to learn this, was beside the point. It worked for me.

I also backed off from preparing the ground as part of a concerted effort to be unlike some of the Dads I encountered at parenting classes, who were ‘hands on’ to a degree that seemed domineering and interfering. One man in particular stuck out. He showed an obvious relish for the more gorey aspects of childbirth and made it very clear that there wasn’t an area of the pregnancy, the birth and everything beyond that he wasn’t going to be deeply involved in. I didn’t want to be that kind of Dad and, judging by her winces whenever he spoke, his wife didn’t want him to be that kind of Dad either. Having met him I resolved to distance myself from the whole process a little more than I otherwise would have.

My wife, Emma, made this easy. Emma is hugely organised, incredibly responsible and has acted as the rudder for my life for the last 16 years. Everything I have that I consider worthwhile is down to her guidance and support. Because of this she had done all of the reading and planning, which essentially allowed me to outsource the expectations to her. I knew she’d have it all covered and that left me free to paint the nursery and assemble furniture, looking forward to my imminent excuse to go to toy shops and watch cartoons. I also didn’t tie myself in knots fearing a problematic birth or stressing about any number of other potential problems, I just assumed the best. In retrospect this was a good thing for Emma as it meant she didn’t have to deal with a flapping, clucking husband ramping up her own fears. However, it did make me a clueless man-child whom, had I been the subject of a broadsheet cartoon would have been depicted smiling idiotically, completely unaware of the ‘Parenthood’-branded anvil plummeting toward me.

Reality of Fatherhood: It’s hard to get into the realities of Fatherhood without doling out well-trodden lines. That you start to turn into your Dad (and don’t even mind the fact), that it’s a massive financial kick in the pants and that your bare feet will become well acquainted with the agonies of Lego are well known to everyone. But my take on it is that fatherhood is a bit like joining a cult. 

Like a cult member I’ve given almost everything over to being a Dad and am aware of having chopped my life into two distinct pre-Dad and Dad sections. I class pre-Dad as part of my protracted childhood. I had responsibilities but nothing like the ones I have as a Father. At 24 I was married with a management job and a mortgage but I was still largely infantilised, spending most of my money on selfish pleasures, coming and going as I pleased and losing entire weeks on my Playstation. However, aged 29, I joined the Dad Cult and all of that disappeared. For the most part I don’t even miss it. My PS3 has, for some years now, been nothing more than a black box that plays Pixar movies. I won’t say that I don’t occasionally stop to think of the number of zombies that have gone unshot because my wife and I chose to start a family or that I don’t pine for the free time that was once mine but this usually only happens when I step on Lego (see above). Speaking of which, parenting tip: always wear slippers. Dad ones.

Joining the Dad Cult also made it alarmingly easy for me to set aside my personal aspirations. One thing in particular that has bewitched me for most of my life is a desire to play music for a living. It’s occupied my thoughts since my mid teens and I honestly thought, and actually said this to people (the shame), that I would die if I didn’t make it. I didn’t and I haven’t and, largely because I’m a Dad I honestly don’t care anymore. I’m now in a situation where I have several musician friends, including my best friend Alex (with whom I was in my first band), who are touring the world and paying their bills through music and I don’t have a shred of the envy that might at one point have been like a dagger in my chest. As I type, Alex is preparing to go on stage at a festival in Hyderabad and I swear that I’d rather be at home, cuddling up with Effie and watching TV than in his shoes. Instead I’m simply proud of him. And considering a nice cup of tea. I still have dreams and goals (to become a writer, mostly) but being able to free up other, once essential ones feels oddly liberating.

Perhaps this has made me a more boring person than I was in the pre-Dad era but, based on my reactions to things in the Dad era, it’s probably made me a nicer one. I think a lot of that is down to the intense emotional upgrade I received when Effie was born. It totally overwhelmed me and made me feel like a different kind of person altogether. It’s been said before but I realised that until I became a Dad I’d been living a kind of emotional half life. What I’d previously thought were strong emotions now seemed like what a stubbed toe is to a fall from a building. When I held Effie for the first time I clearly remember a surge of emotion that felt like the top of my head was going to pop off. This was somewhat tempered at the time by a midwife yelling “I can’t stop the bleeding!” and rushing to fetch a doctor to stitch up Emma, who had yet to experience the joy of holding her own daughter. I wanted Emma to feel what I could feel. To pass Effie over to her and say “You have to have a go on this. It’s amazing.” And I can honestly say that I still feel that sensation every day, 7 1/2 years later whenever my daughter hugs me. And I’m not even going to qualify that with a line about it being cheesy because it’s not, it’s brilliant.

I often think about my friends without kids and struggle to not be evangelical about being a parent. Of course people have their own very good reasons for not having kids (for example, the musician friends I have who prioritise cigarettes and plectrums over food) but I feel the same way about people who choose not to be parents as I feel about people who choose not to read; they’re missing out on so much. But then there are people who would say the same to me, but about exercise, and I’m never much convinced by their arguments either so I tend to keep my opinions to myself. Instead I mention the notion of the ‘emotional upgrade’ to existing members of the Dad Cult and they reply with words of enthusiastic agreement and a faraway look in their eye. This might just mean that they’re just tolerating me but I like to interpret it my way.

Three other bitesize realities: 1) I am never, ever bored because I don’t have the time to be. 2) When I am with Effie I lose my inhibitions. If Effie asks me to sing, dance or do something ridiculous in public I will do it; I am her puppet. 3) A lie-in now means any time I can remain in bed after 7am (this never happens).

Taking your child home for the first time: I clearly remember my fear when placing Effie in her child seat for the first time before our journey home from the hospital. Though she was so swaddled in layers of clothing that I could have bounced her off the ground without her noticing, I strapped her in with a sense of terror that I might somehow break her tiny bones. I drove home at Nun-speed, checking my rear view mirror every few seconds to make sure that she was still alive. And that I was a Dad. Then internally mutter ‘OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD’ because I’d started to realise that not preparing myself for this was incredibly stupid. But we reached our street without her exploding or me having a seizure. Emma remained an oasis of calm throughout, though she was probably preoccupied with being very sore.

We pulled up at our little terraced house, carefully carried our small, delicate package up the path and opened the door, bracing ourselves for a symbolic moment of parental contemplation as we stepped over the threshold. We didn’t get it. Rita, an elderly widow from over the road, came darting down our path and up behind us before we’d had a chance to shut the door, eager to see the street’s latest resident. The street’s premier curtain twitcher, she’d been keenly watching our movements over the previous few days and now that the baby had arrived she couldn’t contain herself. Once she’d had her fuss she made her excuses and left us to be parenty together. My memories of the period following that are a bit blurred. I know that shortly afterwards both sets of our parents turned up, my Dad found a dead rat in our garden and a lot of tea was made. And that I was very, very scared.

Best advice: The best advice I was given came from my Mother-in-law during our first week as parents, and that was to get into a routine as early as you can. Once you break the day up into feeds, activities, bathtime, story and bedtime it becomes manageable. During the baby era I regularly took on 1am feed duty and every day would get up with Effie when she would wake at 4am, which she did almost every day for the first 3 years of her life. While I spent those years stumbling around like a man who’d been struck with a poison dart, I think it was the routine that got me through. Knowing that there would be an end to it and ultimately that you would get to sit down and rest had a value beyond measure.

Worst advice: There was a fair bit of bad advice knocking around that directly affected Emma but looking at it strictly from a Dad standpoint, as I guess I should here, I didn’t get a lot of advice and very little, if any, that I would consider bad. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Or maybe I was just incredibly tired and wasn’t paying attention. Either way, I’ve been fine.

The hardest part of being a father: It changes with time. At first fatherhood knocked me for six. I spent the first few months ravaged by sleep deprivation and trying to decifer the lexicon of screams at 2am while being squirted with so much gungey body waste that I felt like a contestant on an extreme edition of Double Dare. Effie developed colic early on and it remained with her for months, causing to her cry uncontrollably for hours and with a strength a consistency that seemed to drain the life from me like a nefarious super power.

But all that passes. What I now think is the hardest part of being a father is caring that much about another person. Of course I deeply love my wife, but the concern you have for a child is on another level altogether. Two occasions in particular brought this concern into sharp focus. 

The lesser of the two came last year when I was taking Effie home one evening and she whizzed down a side street on her scooter and out of my sight. Seconds later I heard her scream in a way that I’d never heard before. I ran toward the sound and saw her staggering toward me with blood pouring down her face. I ran to her and found that a big chunk of flesh was missing from the bridge of her nose. I fished her up in my arms, grabbed her scooter and ran home with her, thinking that I could somehow fix her up as blood flicked all over me. I quickly realised that I couldn’t and rushed her to A&E and to someone who knew what they were doing. On the drive there she kept passing out and I had to yell, “Don’t go to sleep” whenever she nodded off, thinking she was going to die and not knowing that this was just a symptom of shock. I had never felt so scared in all of my life. Or thought that was the case until I remembered what had happened six years earlier when I was taking Effie out of the bath one night and she suddenly stopped breathing.

I remember holding her up and shaking her gently, yelling her name in an absurd, panicky voice that even at the time I was aware sounded like a mewling Ian Beale. Her wet body felt strangely rubbery and unreal in my hands and I recall thinking “Oh God. This is it. She’s actually dead.” as her face turned pale and her eyes bulged. But I snapped out of it, recalling something I’d learnt during a first aid course at work. I flipped her over, lay her along my forearm and tapped her back a couple of times. I swooned with relief as I heard her take a big gasp and start crying just as Emma arrived in the bathroom. She’d realised that something was up (she hadn’t married a man with the voice of a mewling Ian Beale) and had rushed upstairs to find out what on earth was going on. I explained and we both burst into tears, knelt on the bathroom floor and hugged Effie and each other until it became uncomfortable and I got a cramp in my leg.

But for me that’s the hardest bit about being a father. Fear of losing everything and getting a taste of what that feels like. My big brother died 5 years ago and it is a constant marvel to me that my Mum manages to go on. I guess it’s because she is not only the single toughest human being I have ever met, but that she also has three other children to live for. We just have Effie and, focussed on her as we are, I’m pretty certain that if anything happened to her, Emma and I wouldn’t be able to carry on. It’s a heavy realisation and one that I don’t expect will ever leave me.

The best part of being a father: For me, being a father gets better all the time and certainly the best part is happening now. Getting to watch Effie’s personality develop over the last few years has been one of my greatest pleasures. She has her own strong opinions and tastes, her own quirks and mannerisms and her own circle of friends whom I love watching her interact with. Her taste in music makes me proud (she’s a hardcore fan of The Smiths through no intervention on our part) and her cheeseball sense of humour has me so in stitches that my body has developed a new, throatier laugh in order to compensate for it. She is also now socially aware to the degree that I can tease her, which never gets boring (for me at least). Telling her I’m getting a Justin Bieber cut whenever I go the barbers never fails to create amusing squeals of embarrassed distress. These entertain me now but when she’s older and they happen just because I exist I’m sure I’ll find them less of a wheeze.

But I guess if I have to pick a best thing, it’s the time that just the two of us get to spend together. Whilst I love our time together as a family I particularly relish those moments when Effie and I get to be together. Whether we’re messing around, singing songs (our rendition of Ivor Cutler’s ‘Pickle Your Knees’, with actions, is a masterpiece) or snuggling up reading I’m aware of a magical time that we have together that I know won’t be around forever. However, I’m most fond of our mornings together. We’re both early risers (mercifully she now prefers 6am starts over 4am) and her senses are particularly tuned to my movements. I get up, put some coffee on and start to prepare breakfast, waiting for the small thud upstairs announcing that Effie is out of bed. She comes into the kitchen, gives me a sleepy-eyed squeeze and we head to the sofa to cuddle, eat breakfast and harshly critique the birthday cards on CBeebies until Arthur comes on at 7am. Nothing sets me up for the day better than this. But it’s a double edged sword; nothing makes me not want to go to work more.

Hopes for your family: I’m in a dilemma about my hopes for the future. I want Effie to be able to sidestep the agonies of heartache and the gut-wrenching pain of disappointment but I know that this has value and makes you a more complete person.

However, as I was horrendously bullied at high school and often see the vulnerabilities in Effie that made me such an easy target I don’t think she’d be a lesser person if she ducks that particular life experience. What she does have that I didn’t is a stubborn, determined streak and a disinclination to follow her peers if she’s not interested in their activities. As such I think she’ll be fine but I’ve still got a feeling that I’ll be spending a decent percentage of the next few years comforting her for one reason or another. Though I guess that’s my job.

Without wishing to be a pushy parent, I want Effie to be the best that she can be and both Emma and I push her quite hard. My own parents were very free and easy with me and while I appreciated that I didn’t achieve as much as I should have and wasted my time at school and Uni. I don’t generally allow myself to live in a world of regrets, but spending my years at art college scraping by instead of capitalising on every second is one of the few that I have. I don’t want Effie to do the same and luckily she is as hardworking and diligent as I wasn’t, so I’m sure she’ll do okay.

And finally, ultimately, I want to be a Granddad. We moved into this house last year and I can already picture our Grandchildren visiting us here. If that comes to pass I hope Effie’s family remains nearby. Not only for selfish reasons but because my parents and my in-laws live 120 and 170 miles away respectively and I know that not having family nearby for support makes parenting that much tougher a battle. 

What advice would you offer to new and expectant fathers: When you’re exhausted, stressed, your baby is relentlessly screaming at you and you feel powerless, leave the room, take a deep breath and take five minutes out. This will stop you jumping out of the window.

If you are offered the opportunity (as we were) for your mother-in-law to stay with you for the first week of your parenthood, grab it. Having that support close at hand when we were just finding our feet was priceless. 

And don’t worry if you start to care less about the family cat. It’s totally normal. You’re not a monster, you just have your priorities right.

Adam can be found on Twitter as https://twitter.com/InsidePrestwich

1 comment:

  1. Adam that really is a lovely and brilliantly written blog, what a lovely family you all are