Friday, 27 September 2013

Jeremy and Albert

Name: Jeremy

Albert, 14 


Expectations of fatherhood:
I’m not sure I had any clear expectations of what fatherhood would be like, to be honest. I suppose I always felt like I wanted to be a dad, but I don’t think I had a strong image in my mind of what that would be like, or what kind of father I wanted to be.

I never really bought into the idea that women are necessarily better and more ‘natural’ at caring for children, but my upbringing certainly taught me to keep a check on my emotions, and I think I was trained to focus much more on workplace success than on matters of the heart. Perhaps because we didn’t have much of an extended family, my experience of children was also quite limited. So looking back, I think I was guilty of allowing myself to conform to the stereotype of taking a back seat whenever they were around, and could easily have slipped into being a rather distant father.

Unsurprisingly, then, I don’t remember ever making a conscious decision that I was ready to have a child. It felt more like being swept along in an inevitable drift; my then wife wanted children and I accepted that this was the next logical step.

When I found out I was going to be a dad, I do remember a bubbling excitement. But it was the kind of feeling you might get about a nice holiday you’ve planned – something new and interesting to look forward to, rather than a passion about to be fulfilled. As I write this, I’m horrified at how disconnected I must have been, and the extent to which I allowed myself to stumble into something so huge!

Reality of fatherhood:
When Albert arrived, the reality of fatherhood hit me like a ton of bricks, right there in the delivery room. We had a water birth, and I remember watching him arrive in the water, with his eyes closed, all silent and calm. He seemed to be there for ages – as if he could have stayed submerged forever - and I felt this sudden rush of awareness that we’d made this amazing, beautiful thing, whose life was in our hands. 

A few minutes later I found myself alone with him for the first time, all wrapped up and meeting my eyes with this really clear stare. Waves of pure, unconditional love ran over me, like nothing I’d ever experienced. In those moments I think it finally dawned on me the seriousness of becoming a father - whatever else, he was now without question the most important thing in my life, and suddenly everything else was secondary.

Parents feel like this, of course - it’s how we’re made. But for me it was a total revelation: like my heart had suddenly changed channel; like the axis of my world had shifted. I remember thinking that I must look different, and looking around to check if people were staring at me!

It’s not always easy being a dad, but that sense of him being at the centre of everything has never left me. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to experience that.

Taking your child home for the first time: Albert was born in August, and at the time we were running a guest house in the Lake District. So I remember the very surreal experience of cooking breakfasts for a house full of people, just a couple of hours after he’d been born – trying to get everyone’s orders right when I’d just had the most mind-blowing emotional experience, had had precisely no sleep, and had only got back to the house ten minutes before they all came down. Not my finest hour as an hotelier, I suspect.

Albert was born in a midwife-led unit where they really took the time to get breastfeeding established before sending you home, so he didn’t come home until about day 5. So I spent those first days screeching around the countryside between the hospital and home. When we brought him home I remember being paranoid about him waking up the guests in the night, but in fact our part of the house was far enough away for it not to be too big a problem and even then he was a pretty chilled out character, not prone to whingeing, so his outbursts usually turned out to be mercifully brief. Saying that, I do remember singing songs to get him to sleep for what felt like hours, and in the first few months I got to see plenty of our little corner of Cumbria by moonlight.

The best/worst advice: I don’t remember people ever giving me advice on the subject of fatherhood, but I remember fondly one of the midwives showing me how to bathe him. For her this encounter will have been entirely routine, but for me it was an absolutely key moment in which, with patience and skill, she passed to me the confidence to hold and wash my boy safely and effectively. Such a little thing, which I could have worked out for myself if she hadn’t shown me, of course, but by taking a couple of minutes to share her experience, she made me feel like I mattered. I really think that helped set me off on the right track as a fully independent, confident hands-on parent. So for that I will be forever thankful. 

The hardest parts of being a father: Emotionally, the difficult bit is the passing of time – them growing up so fast, and you ageing and starting to acknowledge that at some point you won’t be there anymore. I felt it most acutely when he got to about 11 and his friends started to become more important, and I started to feel like he needed me less. He’ll always need me, I know, but it felt like a painful shift, and took some getting used to. But then what happens is that your relationship with them changes and grows in a different direction. The love’s still there and you find new ways of relating, of enjoying each other’s company and of learning from each other.

We’ve been very lucky with Albert – he’s always been healthy, touch wood. When I hear about families where the children get ill or die, I can’t bear to think how awful that must be. There are so many mums and dads out there dealing with terrible situations. I think it’s important to remember that, and keep our own little stresses in perspective.

On a practical level, the things we struggle with most are probably pretty typical: managing his screen-time; getting him to accept that there is, in fact, a world beyond the X-box; and persuading him to do his bit around the house. I’d hate him to end up one of those useless men who can only talk about football and can’t look after himself properly. He’ll get there in the end, I’m sure, but I can be too soft with him sometimes and need to keep reminding myself that these years are our last chance to drum some domestic skills into him. 

The best parts of being a father: There are so many. Having him in the house – he’s with us less than half the time so when he is, it’s special. Cuddles. Laughing and taking the piss. Watching him learn and grow. Seeing little glimpses of how he might be as an adult. Bearing witness to his fantastic relationship with Paolo, my partner. Watching him sleep. Just being together, shooting the breeze.

Has becoming a father changed you: It’s given me a purpose in life. I could have found another one, I’m sure – I don’t go for this ‘cult of parenthood’ thing, where the only reason we’re on this Earth is to reproduce. But having done it, I think you’d have to be a pretty selfish, shallow person if you didn’t put parenthood at the centre of your life’s work.

I think it’s helped me access my emotions, and made me more empathic. I can’t watch anything that involves children dying now. I’m also much less judgemental than I used to be.

It’s changed the slant of my career; in the early years of becoming a father I did a PhD about it, and I now have a job promoting involved fatherhood and lobbying for a more father-inclusive Britain.

Hopes for your family: Dead simple – I want him to be happy and healthy. He’s awesome and I’d like for us to be around long enough to see him all grown up and making his way in the world. What more could a father ask for, really?

What advice would you offer to new and expectant fathers: 
Don’t let work get in the way of the important stuff. I’m lucky enough to have the kind of job you can do from home, and I know everyone can’t do that – but too many of us get stuck on a treadmill of wanting big houses, nice cars, fancy clothes etc, and lose out on the precious years as a result. Lower your aspirations – life’s not about stuff. 

Those early years really do fly by. Remember to relax and enjoy them. It’s easy when you first become a parent to get obsessed by doing it ‘right’, and to beat yourself up if your family life isn’t ‘perfect’. Don’t become so ‘good’ a parent that in fact you’re just being efficient at controlling their behaviour.

Take pictures, make films, record their voices, write stuff down. There’s so much you’ll forget.

We all want our kids to have a nice life and be successful, but it’s easy to take that too far. Don’t push your own insecurities onto them.

If you end up not living with your children full time, have high expectations for your involvement and do your best to spend as much time as possible with them. If for whatever reason you can’t achieve a 50/50 split, try not to get bitter, but find ways to be present in their lives, and remember that you’re a father for a long time, so sometimes you need to learn to play the long game.

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