A New Man for a New Year

When you become a dad, you have this idea that you’re going to get to be a man. I say ‘get to be’ because manliness and masculinity are somewhat vilified these days. We’re meant to be in touch with our feminine side, have opinions about soft furnishings, sculpt our eyebrows, wax our nut-sacks, and take longer than a supermodel to get ready for a night out. It’s rather telling that the male sex symbols of yesteryear had chiselled jaws, gravelly voices and rugged good looks, while those of today are pubescent boys who can sing like girls and are incapable of growing body hair. There’s no way I can compete with that.

So it’s nice to have an excuse to release the savage beast.

I’m not talking about boorish lad culture – booze, boobs, birds and balls. I’m talking about what were considered the traditional manly virtues of strength, courage and inventiveness. After all, men built the wheel, crossed oceans on ships made of iron, and tamed the very landscape with the sweat of their brows. In a family, the man used to be the provider, the protector, the lawgiver and the master of all he surveyed. Who wouldn’t want that?

I pictured myself hunting mammoths, fighting off packs of saber-toothed tigers, and decorating my cave with the skulls of my enemies as I bathed in the tears of their women. I am masculinity incarnate, red in tooth and claw. See my chest hair and hear me roar for I am MAN!

When I’m a dad, I thought, I’m going to be a cross between Alan Quartermain and Rambo.

The reality of being a house-husband to two little girls is somewhat different.

I spent most of Christmas sitting cross-legged on the floor sipping pretend tea from a flowery tin tea set, and saying things like, ‘Mmm, lovely,’ and, ‘Thank you, yes, I will have another pink plastic macaroon.’ That’s when I wasn’t watching child-friendly crap like Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s my Donkey? and Frozen, and resisting my daughter’s entreaties to shave off my beard as it’ll make me look ‘very pretty’. Let it go, honey, let it go.

I cooed over little tinkles in the potty, gave her high-fives for eating her crusts, and hugged her through the night as she woke up with bad dreams. I changed nappies in three separate female toilets because despite it being 2018 already, many eating and drinking establishments haven’t yet realised that a man might be the primary carer. And I started to perfect my hair-plaiting skills, which is pretty far from the strong hunter-gatherer I thought I would be.

And then a couple of days back, I found myself sitting very still while my two-year-old got out her toy makeup kit and pretended to do my makeup – lipstick, eye-shadow, blusher, eye-liner and mascara. She even tried to fix a shiny plastic princess tiara in my hair, but failed as I have no hair.

Eventually she sat back to admire her work, nodded, pleased, and said, ‘Willy bustle.’

‘What?’

‘Willy bustle,’ she repeated.

Now, as somebody obsessed with words and their meanings, I rapidly extrapolated the following:

willy – n., British, inf., the male member; penis; symbol of masculinity.

bustle – n. a wooden frame worn under a skirt to puff it out at the back.

And so:

willy bustle – n. a cage beneath a woman’s skirts where she keeps her man’s masculinity imprisoned.

My God, I suddenly realised. She’s absolutely right. I’ve been completely emasculated. Since becoming a stay-at-home dad, my manhood has slowly and surely been removed until I no longer have anything down there. I am a Ken doll – an empty, de-sexualised piece of plastic that other people dress up and play with for their own amusement. I have no power whatsoever.

I don’t get to decide when I get up in the morning or what time I go to bed. I don’t get to decide when I eat, or whether my food will be warm or left to go cold. I don’t get to decide when I make myself a drink or when I go to the toilet. Oftentimes, I don’t even get to decide what clothes I wear – I throw on yesterday’s as I hurry downstairs so as not to disturb my wife’s beauty sleep. My life is a parade of doing things for other people. As a parent, so far, so normal.

But my powerlessness extends far beyond mere parenting: if an Englishman’s home is his castle, I’m clearly no Englishman. My wife and her father bought a house together, and a few years later, I moved in with her, so despite it being our house, it is still seen as hers. I have no say over what comes into the house or what goes out; who comes and when and for how long; where things go; how it’s decorated; what pets we have. I don’t decide where we go for holidays, what activities we partake in, or what car we drive. As my wife is a spendaholic and hoarder, I don’t decide what toys or clothes my kids get, or which ones are given away, no matter how horribly spoiled they’re becoming. I’m not allowed to say what I really think to her family members when they belittle my parenting abilities in my own home. And since my wife doesn’t want to be ‘controlled by a man’, she makes arrangements and goes out without considering me, leaving me at home alone with the baby.

She keeps my manhood locked up in a cage beneath her skirt.

Why don’t you put your foot down? I hear you ask. Simple. If ever I resist, I’m told that it’s her house and I know where the door is, and if I go, she’ll get custody of the kids because ‘the courts are always on the side of the mother.’ So even though we have established that I no longer have a penis, my sex will still be held against me. And that’s just not right.

As a man, I need my power, my respect and my dignity. As a human being, we all need that, but as a man, I need it especially. It doesn’t matter whether you believe gender difference is a social construct or something innate, or as I do somewhere in-between, it is an important part of a person’s identity, psychology and means of understanding their place in the world. It might be unpopular to say it, but I’m going to:

I am reclaiming my masculinity.

I am sick of being told that masculinity is something bad. I’m sick of how it’s totally okay to judge somebody simply because they’re a man. I’m sick of having to hide or suppress my totally normal masculinity because we are creating a society in which you’re meant to be ashamed of being male.

Things are changing. I felt so utterly powerless last week that I shaved my head in protest. And I am growing my beard long so there’s no mistaking that I am no longer going to be anybody’s bitch.

I’ve spent nine years making sacrifices to keep other people happy. I’ve spent nine years pussy-footing around, compromising on my needs, burying my instincts for fear of coming across as old-fashioned and chauvinistic. And where has it got me? Am I respected for being a martyr? Am I appreciated for going without while those around me take, take, take?

No. I’m a new man for a New Year, and I’m not going to take shit from anybody.

Wow, that got dark pretty quickly. So to lighten the mood, back to my willy bustle.

‘Honey,’ I called to my wife, with my pretend mascara and eye-shadow and blusher. ‘Izzie keeps saying willy bustle.’

‘She’s saying “really special”,’ my wife replied.

My daughter proceeded to add more lipstick to my face.

‘Really special, daddy.’

And that seems just as bad.

‘Daddy’s not special,’ I said. ‘Daddy’s manly and dangerous and he has a beard. And I’m in charge.’

‘Me in charge,’ she replied.

‘No, I’m in charge.’

‘No, me.’

‘It’s my way or the highway, kiddo,’ I said.

‘No,’ she giggled. ‘It’s my way.’

I think the road ahead might be bumpy.

A Christmas Parenting Problem

My daughter is a very boisterous child. She’s happiest when she’s falling off things and engaging in rough and tumble. She climbs up shelving units, jumps off the arms of sofas, spins in circles until she loses balance and crashes into the nest tables, runs until she trips and crashes down on grass, carpet, wood or concrete, and very rarely cries as a result of these semi-deliberate ‘accidents’. I’m sure she’s in training to be a stuntwoman. Her legs are a patchwork quilt of bruises and grazes and cuts, which she pokes and fusses over like they’re curiosities or badges of honour.

She’s a double-hard bastard, is what I’m trying to say. Despite being 17-months-old, her preferred playmates are kids aged 4-7 with whom she can wrestle, dance, and generally get up to mischief. She’s pretty much fearless. I get very concerned when she plays with kids her own age because she’s so excitable, energetic and rough that someone always seem to get hurt – and by ‘someone’, I mean whomever else happens to be playing with her. She’s a happy, confident and very contented child.

Which is why it’s all the more unexpected that she’s terrified of Santa.

She saw him a fortnight ago and screamed herself hoarse. She saw him last week and screamed herself hoarse. She saw a cut out of him on the wall of her soft play and pointed at it, shook her head and said, ‘Bad man’ (or she thinks Batman has really let himself go). She won’t go near the Christmas tree because it’s got a four-inch knitted Santa on it. She saw him on Peppa Pig and backed up ten feet until she was up against the wall, never once taking her eyes from the screen. She even went through a stack of CDs, came upon a picture of an elderly Brahms, and burst into tears. Clearly, overweight men with white beards are some kind of trigger to her – I’d better try not to let myself go (any further than I already have).

All of this would be a minor problem were I not married to a person who thinks that rather than peace, love and goodwill to all men, Christmas is actually all about trees, tinsel, markets, carol concerts, and a rather rotund gentleman with a penchant for dishing out presents from his sack. Indeed, my wife clung to a belief in Santa Claus far longer than would be considered rational, and I often have arguments with her over the existence or otherwise of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic (statements such as, ‘But how do you know they’re not real?’ and ‘What evidence is there that they don’t exist?’ show exactly where she believes the burden of proof should lie!).

Unfortunately we have two upcoming appointments with St Nick – prebooked, prepaid and non-refundable – and my wife’s love of Yuletide being what it is, there is no way in hell I can persuade her to cancel. The first is innocuous enough: a garden centre. We walk down a tunnel filled with twinkly lights, fake snow and geographically mismatched wildlife (I can accept flying reindeer, but polar bears mixing with penguins? Forget about it!), and we meet Santa in a little room at the end. If she screams, vomits or has any kind of adverse reaction, we can simply head for the nearest exit. Simple.

The other encounter I’m less optimistic about: it’s on a train.

The thought of sitting next to a screaming toddler while Santa enters the front of the carriage and slowly makes his way from the front to the back, stopping to greet and cuddle and provide gifts to every child along the way, fills me with dread. Not to mention the fact that I really don’t take any pleasure from exposing the little one to a situation that upsets, terrifies and traumatises her.

So, the past two weeks I’ve been trying everything I can to convince her that Santa is actually a very affable, non-threatening, child-friendly individual – albeit one who sneaks into your room at night while you’re asleep, hoping you won’t wake up, so he can steal your milk and cookies. Alas, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Still, it could be worse, I suppose. If she develops a phobia of thirty-something men with neatly-trimmed ginger beards tinged with an increasing amount of grey – well, then we’d really have problems!

Partnership vs. Parenting

It has struck me of late how the requirements of being a partner and those of being a parent are often diametrically opposed.

It’s the quintessential conflict at the heart of Jane Austen – do we pick a partner based on practical considerations, like Charlotte Lucas in Pride & Prejudice, or do we marry for love, like Elizabeth Bennet? Actually, since Elizabeth Bennet only really warms up to Mr Darcy after she sees the size of his package (i.e. Pemberley), perhaps Marianne Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility is a better example. Except she decides not to marry the man she loves because she concludes he wouldn’t make her happy, so marries a rich guy old enough to be her father and learns to love him. And while Fanny Price marries for love in Mansfield Park, Edmund is her first cousin. In fact, the only character in Austen free to marry for love is the titular Emma – she’s the only one with an independent fortune who doesn’t need supporting by a man.

But whatever the case, that this is such a preoccupation in Austen’s novels shows that in Georgian times, it was a very real conflict. And so it still is in some areas of the modern world – the upper crust, for example, who seem to marry the person who fits the job description of ‘wife and mother’ while refusing to give up the mistresses they really love (no names mentioned). But for the most part, these days we in the Western world marry for love.

As partners, me and Lizzie are great for each other. While I’m a sensible, reclusive stick-in-the-mud, Lizzie is a childlike, emotionally-liberated basket case. While I fret about rules, money, going out, she ignores all propriety, splashes out on frivolities, and is so restless it’s nigh impossible to pin her down. Throughout our relationship, therefore, she’s encouraged me to let my hair down while I’ve helped her face up to her responsibilities – at least in part. She reminds me that the world is a magical place where fun should be had – I remind her that there are boundaries and we need to stay safe. That’s why we love each other.

Trouble is, the very things that you love in a partner are not necessarily very attractive in the parent of your child. In fact, they’re often the opposite.

Before Izzie was born, we pulled each other towards the middle, but since the birth we seem to have returned to our outer limits – I am the responsible worrier again, Lizzie the frivolous spendthrift.

Unfortunately, these two mutually exclusive positions have been playing havoc in our household of late. The most commonly used phrase in the past six months, since I became primary carer extraordinaire and Lizzie has struggled with her role as mother, has been, ‘Look, you don’t need to make things easier for me, just don’t make them any harder than they already are.’

I hate being the responsible one, the one who has to rein the other in, the one who has to say no more often than he can say yes. But it is the role I’ve had to take. And being a parent spills over into being a partner: those very things I love about Lizzie – her clumsiness, her messiness, her devil-may-care attitude – have lately been driving me insane.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the festive season. Christmas is different as a parent – at least it was for me. Normally I look forward to it, get excited, wake with boundless joy Christmas morn, suffer agonising anti-climax once the presents are opened, recover enough by lunchtime to be contented, and wobble in a confused daze until New Year where I’m filled with hope over the coming months and regret over where I’d considered I’d be by this stage of my life. And Lizzie, well, she lived through every one of those experiences and emotions, and then some.

I didn’t. I lived from day to day, hour to hour. Bottles, milk, solids, steriliser, muslins, bibs, toys, car seat. Have we got enough nappies? The baby wipes? Where’s her extra vest in case she soils this one? Teething gel? Spare dummy? While Lizzie dressed the baby in Christmas jumpers and Santa hats and woke her up to sing Auld Lang Syne, I fed her and changed her and rocked her back to sleep. While Lizzie drank champagne and ripped open presents, I listened to the baby monitor and kept the noise down. I didn’t mind it – Izzie was my stable anchor in the chaos of the silly season – but it hammered home how different we are, as parents, as partners, and as people.

If we were living in Georgian times, choosing our partners based on practical considerations, then, hand on heart, I doubt that many of us would have chosen the people we’re with now. We’d have chosen people who were different, better, smarter, funnier, kinder. I can’t imagine I’m the only person with a young child who’s looked around at other people and thought – if only I’d picked them, how much easier would my life be now?

But such thoughts are nothing more than fantasies. It’s so easy when you’re stressed, tired, overwhelmed, overfed, and surrounded by twinkling lights, to forget the important truth: we’re not living in Georgian times, and we didn’t choose our partners, at least not consciously – our hearts did. Not based on their parenting abilities, but because we loved them and love them still. Because they appealed to some intangible need or desire deep down within ourselves that only they could fulfil.

Lizzie might annoy the hell out of me as the mother of my child, but there’s nobody else I’d rather share my life with. It’s separating out these two conflicting realities that’s the hard part.

Christmas Shenanigans

Christmas in a photo - the world as a blur!
Christmas in a photo – the world as a blur!

What has Izzie learned to do over the Christmas period? A whole heap, it seems.

Raspberries. She was pretty good before, but she’s perfected it now – perhaps because the funniest thing in the world is when daddy blows them on her belly and on her neck.

But I have created a monster.

It’s okay when she’s chomping on a wooden spoon – she blows on the bowl and uses her fingers along the handle like she’s playing a clarinet. And it’s tolerable when she has the dummy in her mouth – it just sounds like a lot of farts. But when she does it with food in her mouth – porridge, mushed-up carrots, rusks – it’s not pretty at all. Especially as I tend to be sitting right in front of her trying to feed her at the time. And she finds that pretty funny too.

She’s also making weird faces recently, like she’s trying to learn how all the muscles work. Mostly, she does duck impressions, sucking in her bottom lip, sticking out her top lip, and burbling. I guess it’s part of the process of learning to speak – after all the vowel sounds, double-ues and gees, she’s starting to make bee noises and something approximating an em, and the other day she randomly blurted out, ‘Hey you!’ which terrified the heck out of me.

Noise is something she’s fallen in love with over Christmas. The aforementioned wooden spoon that used to keep her quiet is now a drumstick for cracking out a rhythm on the tray of her high chair (always with her left hand). And the dummy is no longer a tool to help her sleep – it’s a passive-aggressive torture device she rattles back and forth along the slats of her cot like a prisoner with a mug along the bars of his cage. When she’s not laughing, that is, because bedtime is now an opportunity to chat to her teddy bears, kick the wooden headboard repeatedly, and generally have an amazing time.

Though she really ought to be tired, considering she barely sleeps at all during the day. She gets tired but she fights it, gets stroppy but resists any attempt to quieten her down, spits out her dummy, rubs her eyes, and cries. In fact, the sound she makes reminds me of that scene in Jaws where Quint is being eaten by the shark. She doesn’t want to miss anything, you see, though what she’s afraid of missing, I have no idea. The opportunity to be a nuisance, perhaps.

Because she’s loving being a nuisance too. She throws the dummy down the back of the cot so I have to pull the drawers out and crawl underneath to retrieve it (never fun at three in the morning). When she’s on her play mat she kicks the uprights over so it rolls up and buries her.

Help!
Help!

She constantly tries to turn the spoon round and jam the handle down her throat, and keep your face away from her if you value your ears – her current speciality is scrunching them up in her hands and digging in her fingernails, which is excruciatingly painful. And if she gets your phone, somewhere between chewing on the corner and drooling into the earphone socket, she sets the alarm for four in the morning.

But woe betide if you try to take it off her, because she knows what she wants.

If you think you're taking my spoon, you've got another think coming, mister!
If you think you’re taking my spoon, you’ve got another think coming, mister!

She’s become fixated with the TV controller and screams if you prise her robot-strong fingers off it. She wants to stand up all the time, not sit, not crawl – stand. So this morning when we put her in her chair for breakfast she slammed her little fists into the arms and stamped her feet  like an eight-year-old throwing a tantrum – she’s six months, for crying out loud. And the ball pit we bought her for Christmas isn’t going to get much use because all she does is press her face to the little holes in the side and strain to get out.

Get me the hell out of here!
Get me the hell out of here!

Which goes to show that the old adage is true: kids would rather play with the box than the toy within it. She got approximately a million toys for Christmas, and her favourite toy from the whole period? The bag container from inside the nappy bin. Typical!

Thanks, dad! It's just what I always wanted!
Thanks, dad! It’s just what I always wanted!

But at least she’s not the dog, who followed the gingerbread house with a bag of popping candy chocolate orange segments…