The Key to a Happy Life

No expectations. None whatsoever.

Resentment, disappointment, annoyance, frustration, and a sense that everything in the world is unfair and fundamentally wrong, all stem from having expectations that it should be other rather than accepting what it really is. We spend far too much time looking at where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and where we think we should be, and not enough time living in the here and now and grasping what is right in front of us.

Having expectations when you’re a parent is fatal.

Last night, Lizzie went out to see the new James Bond film and have a pizza, leaving me looking after Izzie. ‘Great,’ I thought. ‘She’s been awake all day, she’s behaved like a gem, and I actually got more of her Sweet Potato Bake in her than on her, so she’ll be tired and contented. I’ll have her in bed by seven, cook some dinner, and have some much-needed time to myself. I’ll spend an hour on the Xbox and a couple of hours writing. Awesome. I’m looking forward to my evening.’

Fatal.

The fact it took me three hours to get her to sleep on Saturday and four hours on Sunday should have indicated that you can’t bank on a bedtime, but I somehow forgot this rudimentary aspect of parenting in the expectation of a restful evening. So when it took me from six till ten to get her to bed, trying milk, water, rocking, singing, reading aloud, dummy, teething gel, Calpol, cuddles, TV, hypnotism (which made her laugh), teddy bear, womb sounds, and ultimately she fell asleep from exhaustion, I was pissed. I mean, seriously pissed.

It was no fault of Izzie’s – she’s a baby – it was my fault. I hadn’t managed my expectations to fit reality, and the reality is that my time belongs to the baby, and any extra I get to myself is a bonus, not a given. Expecting you can have an independent existence in the first six months of a baby’s life is just barmy. Get on with what you can when you can, and accept that what you can’t you simply can’t. If I had no expectations of the evening, I wouldn’t have had a problem – I’d probably even have been happy.

I think that’s as good a lesson as any for life in general.

As a kid, I wanted to be a famous author. Everyone told me I would be, because that’s what you tell a four-year-old, and I accepted it because you believe everything an adult tells you. But as I grew older, they kept saying it. When I was ten, my grandfather told me that not only was I going to be an author, I was going to be one of the greatest authors in the world. When I was thirteen, my teacher told my parents I’d be on This Is Your Life one day. When I was seventeen another teacher told me I had a gift and it was my duty to share it with the world. Everyone – family, friends, educators, peers – thought I would go on to be the most successful thing ever to come out of the little town of Frimley, population 5,000.

I therefore lived my life with the unshakable expectation that I’d be a famous author at eighteen. I saw future me as a rich, successful author living in the city, attending movie premieres and society parties, frequenting all the best theatres, museums and art galleries the world had to offer. Essentially, all glitz, glamour and sophistication. Monaco, Cannes and Val D’Isere – that was going to be my life.

Skip eighteen years ahead and you find me a balding, pot-bellied autistic guy on antidepressants who lives in his partner’s house in a village on the edge of nowhere and has spent his life working in shops, office administration, domestic care and call centres. There’d be nothing wrong with it if it it wasn’t so far away from where I expected to be.

In my twenties, I couldn’t stand that my life didn’t match my plan for it. Why the hell wouldn’t anyone publish my novels? How could I possibly live the rest of my life an unknown? I was meant to be special, damn it – everyone said so. So why am I broke and alone? I spent my twenties writing novels and waiting for my life to begin.

It took me until my thirties to realise that my life had begun – and begun many years ago – it simply differed from my expected path. I still write my novels, still try to get them published, and sometimes I do feel as though the parade is passing me by, but I’m less discontented about the whole thing. I hope they get published, but I’m not suffering unduly because they’re not – it’s just the way my life has worked out. And there’s nothing wrong with my life.

The life I’m comparing it to – the successful me with the apartment in New York and the A-list friends – is nothing more than a fantasy. How can I feel bad that I’m not living the life of a person that never even existed anywhere but in my head? It’s like getting upset because the sky isn’t green – it never was nor could be green, so what’s the point of those tears?

My advice to anyone feeling they’ve not lived up to their potential is: don’t look at where you think you ought to be, look at where you are, because if it’s anything like my life, it’s not bad at all, just different. Disappointment comes from looking at the future and remembering the past, comparing your situation with what it was and how you think it should be. When I was eighteen, the thought of living in a little village, unknown, with a baby, and London a hundred miles away, was intolerable; at thirty-six, it’s pretty darn great. Live in the moment, appreciate the present for what it is – your life – and remember that those other lives you’re comparing yours to aren’t real.

So long as there’s air in our lungs, blood in our veins, and the sun is still up there somewhere, even if it’s hidden in cloud, we’re doing okay.

That’s the key to parenting, and to life itself: no expectations. Life and babies refuse to conform to preconceived notions. The sooner you can make peace with that, the happier you’ll be.

And if you're still not happy, here's Izzie asleep in a giraffe onesie to cheer you up!
And if you’re still not happy, here’s Izzie asleep in a giraffe onesie to cheer you up!

In Praise of Mothers, Part 2

In terms of parenting, the biggest difference between the sexes is not in our abilities but in the expectations put upon us. And these expectations are the reason mothers have it harder than fathers – because there are no expectations put on us at all.

To illustrate the point, a story little. When we had a meal out on our recent holiday on the Isle of Wight, I sat on the bench seat while Lizzie had the chair. I therefore put Izzie, in her car seat, on the bench seat beside me and spent the next two hours soothing her, playing with her, heating her bottle in a jug of water, feeding her, changing her, and generally eating with one hand. We were with friends, the conversation flowed, and the two hours passed in amiable, unthinking companionship.

While we were finishing our drinks, the table next to us got up to leave. It comprised three elderly couples. Before they left, they came up to our table and said they’d been watching me the whole meal, and remarking on what a good dad I was, and how impressed they were with me, and as I recall, the word ‘amazing’ was used. One woman even turned to the two girls at my table and said, ‘Whoever is the mother of this little girl is a very lucky lady to have such a man.’

Now, it’s very gratifying to have strangers (six, no less) commend your parenting abilities, and gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. However, this was at the time that Lizzie’s confidence in her mothering ability was at an all time low, and even as they said it, I looked at her, her face expressionless, and thought, ‘Ouch, that’s a kick in the teeth for her.’ The whole situation wasn’t very helpful and led to resentment and upset. They might have meant well, but it had the opposite effect.

And it only happened because I’m a man.

If I was female, the old people would have walked on by. Nobody goes up to a woman with a baby in a restaurant and tells her what a great mother she is and how lucky the father of her baby is for having her. Because it’s expected of a woman to look after her baby and do it well. It isn’t expected of us men.

Everywhere I go with the baby, people (mainly of the older generations, to be fair) tell me I’m a great father, congratulate me on giving mum ‘time off’, and praise me for being a ‘hands-on dad’. By these comments, and others about it being a breath of fresh air, they must have great experience of hands-off dads. But just who are these dads who don’t change nappies, help feed the baby or carry her about in public? They surely can’t be as rare as the comments would have us believe.

Regardless, the expectations placed on men are remarkably low. We’re expected to be rubbish at pretty much every hands-on baby caring task, with the possible exceptions of bathing and playtime. And then, when the hard stuff starts, you hand her back to mum.

And therein lies the problem for women. They’re expected to be perfect mothers right from the get-go, as if it’s natural and automatic, programmed into their DNA. They’re expected to do nappy changes, night feeds and look after the baby in public, and to do this without complaint and without mistake or they’re somehow defective as women. They’re expected to be horrendously tired all the time, yet selfless, knackered but energetic, caring and patient, self-sacrificing – essentially Twenty-First Century martyrs.

And they get zero thanks or appreciation for it because it’s what they’re ‘meant’ to do, whereas if I walk down the street with my daughter, I get to bask in the adoration of strangers. And that’s what makes being a mum so much harder than being a dad.

So if you’re a dad, be sure to give your lady thanks for all the crap she does. And next time you see a woman pushing a baby in a pram with a toddler in tow, remember there’s nothing ‘natural’ about it, and it’s a lot if jolly hard work!