I’ve been putting off writing this post, for reasons that will become clear later. For now, suffice to say, my head has not been in the right place.
They say that parenting changes you, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. I always figured it simply brought to the fore those qualities you already had lying dormant within you – self-sacrifice, responsibility, generosity, and what have you. Being a dad hasn’t made me who I am – it has simply shone a light on some of those hitherto undernourished and unappreciated aspects of my character and allowed them to flourish. For better and for worse.
I’ve mentioned many times before how parenting has brought out my paranoia, so much so, in fact, that it’s not worth repeating it here. I’ve also discussed how fatherhood has turned me into a crap dancer with a penchant for atrocious puns, but I’m pretty sure these things are normal.
Slightly more tragic was my wife’s revelation, a couple of weeks ago, that I have become rather boring.
Boring!? Surely not. I’m still young. I’m still energetic. I’m still…actually, she has a point. I have become a little old of late.
See, when you spend the better part of your day looking after a toddler, especially when you define your role as keeping her safe, you tend to become a little over-serious in your outlook. Couple that with being knackered all the time, and I invariably greet my wife’s ‘let’s go to the pub, let’s go to the park, let’s go to the shops, let’s go to the zoo, let’s go to Spain’ with ‘can we not and just say we did?’ Which, admittedly, isn’t the behaviour of the young, vibrant dad I set out to be.
So I have tried to soften a little. My wife Lizzie said she wanted me to be more juvenile, more playful, more fun – so I pinged her bra strap. Apparently, this wasn’t exactly what she meant. Nor was hiding her breakfast/drink/phone every time she glances away. And shooting her in the back of the head with a Nerf gun was very much a bad idea.
But things seem to be a little better. There are more pillow fights and visits to soft play, less arguing about risk assessments and budgeting. That’s one of the compromises you have to make as a parent.
The other MASSIVE change I have noticed in myself as a result of fatherhood, and something that is affecting my life, is my level of sensitivity towards anything that connects parenting, children and pregnancy with suffering, pain, disappointment and death.
Perhaps because of my autism, I’ve always been more sensitive towards the suffering of animals than people. In fact, I used to get myself so upset over nature shows that I couldn’t watch them as a child and I avoid them as an adult, whereas I loved true crime – it didn’t matter how nasty or gruesome it was, it didn’t really affect me. I’ve read all about James Bulger, JonBenet Ramsay and the Lindbergh Baby. I even did my Masters dissertation on infanticide, researching over four-hundred newborn child murders in Victorian Hampshire without batting an eyelid.
But fatherhood does something to your sensitivities. I first noticed it when my wife was expecting. I decided to reread Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, which I did for A-Level, and despite knowing for twenty years that there’s a miscarriage scene, despite never having been bothered by the miscarriage scene, I read the miscarriage scene and started to cry. Weird, I thought – it’s the woman who’s meant to get hormonal.
When my Izzie was born and placed in an incubator, and my wife Lizzie was haemorrhaging and having transfusions, I sought out the hospital’s chapel for some rest and reflection, despite not being at all religious. Inside they had a prayer tree, with prayers written on paper leaves and pinned to the branches. One simply had a name, a date two days previously, and two devastating, soul-destroying words: ‘born sleeping’. Let me tell you, it killed me.
Since then, every time I hear about a miscarriage or a still birth, I well up. But it has become worse as time’s gone on. The more I’ve grown into my role as father, the more afraid I’ve become at the prospect of losing my daughter, whether through illness or accident, the more sensitive I’ve become to the suffering of all children. And I don’t know if sad stories about children are in the ascendancy at the moment or if I just never noticed them before, but they seem to be everywhere.
I cried over Ben Needham. I cried over the little boy killed by a dog a few weeks ago. Standing behind the counter of the children’s hospice shop I work in, I cried at the pictures of children with tubes in their noses, despite having seen them hundreds of times before. I cried at photos of children bloodied and shell-shocked in Syria. I’ve cried, and I’ve cried, and I’ve cried.
And then two weeks ago I saw this picture, and all the other tears I’ve cried seemed as nothing [WARNING: DO NOT CLICK LINK IF SENSITIVE]. It is a photo of a little girl called Jessica Whelan who is dying of neuroblastoma, and instead of the usual pictures of cancer kids – visiting Disneyland, playing games, smiling and ‘being brave’ – it captures the reality of a terminally ill child. The pain, the sorrow, the indignity, the goddamned unfairness of it all. And since then, my emotions have been all over the place.
People say, ‘I can’t imagine what that must feel like for the parents,’ but the trouble is, as a father I can imagine it, and just imagining it is more pain than I can bear. But I can’t escape it because it’s in my head now. I lie awake in bed at night, wondering about the letters I’d write to my daughter if I was diagnosed with terminal cancer; I wonder how she’d cope if I wasn’t here; but more, I wonder how I’ll cope if she’s the one with the cancer, and how I’ll explain it to her, and how the world can be so fucking cruel.
The truth is, what we as parents, and what I as a father, have to learn, is that our children do not belong to us – they belong to the Universe. We are only borrowing them for a time. So we have to make the most of every day, build happy memories for however long we are gifted with the opportunity to do so, because it could all come crashing down in a heartbeat.
And in the meantime, I need to learn to stop holding on so tight, find a way to stop crying all the time, and work out how to grow a thicker skin, or else I’ll be an emotional wreck before the year is out.