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.

The Pain, the Pain!

When you’re a father, pain becomes a fairly common part of your life. Receiving pain is a given – Izzie stabbed me in the eye with a plastic knife yesterday, and has taken to ramming the corners of her hardback books into my throat, temples and ears. She also bites down on my fingers whenever I try to get something out of her mouth that shouldn’t be there, pulls my beard, grabs my bottom lip and twists it, jams her fingers up my nostrils, headbutts my nose, kicks me in the nuts (repeatedly), yanks on my ears, and occasionally jumps up and down on my stomach. Thank God I don’t have hair. This is before we mention the aches and strains of picking her up, carrying her, leaning down to hold her hand while we walk, and the million-and-one other repetitive actions of parenting.

But as I said, that’s a given – I’m a dad. Until she learns self-control, cause and effect, and appropriate social behaviour, these things are going to happen.

What I wasn’t quite so prepared for was the necessity to inflict pain upon my daughter – for her own good, of course. Not for discipline, I must point out, but for healthcare/first aid reasons. Unfortunately, when it comes to doing something like that, the job falls to me, and that’s something I baulk at.

Many years ago I started training as a nurse. I didn’t last very long because I just couldn’t get comfortable inflicting pain on others, even if it was to help them. ‘Cruel to be kind’ is a difficult concept in reality when the cruelty is self-evident while the kindness is measured at some indeterminate point in the future – giving injections might eventually make someone feel better somewhere down the line, but when you’re giving them, all you see is the grimace, the wince, the tears, or the blood. And ditto with inserting nasogastric tubes, performing enemas (although the benefits of this intervention were far quicker in coming, if I’m frank), or cleaning infected wounds.

The day I quit nursing was the day I was looking after an old chap with terminal cancer. He was in such pain that he couldn’t even have a bedsheet over him as the pressure on his skin was agonising. When he pooped himself – thick, sticky poop all over his bits – I was tasked with cleaning him up.

Imagine you’re a student nurse trying to wipe tar off the private parts of somebody who is screaming in pain. Imagine trying to do it delicately, knowing you are inflicting horrendous pain, and all the while your mentor is standing over your shoulder telling you to push harder, you need to press harder (and thus inflict more pain) to get him clean. And then she takes over and does it herself, matter-of-factly, calmly, quickly. Cruel to be kind.

He died later that day, and I left, because if my dithering and squeamishness prolongs someone’s pain then I’m in the wrong job. I understand the benefits of ‘cruel to be kind’, that we have to do it or he’ll get sore or infected and suffer even worse, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier for me to inflict pain upon others. If I’d stayed I’d probably have become hardened to it, or else had a breakdown, but it wasn’t to be; and I have never had to inflict pain ever since.

So you can imagine my horror when I was putting my daughter to bed last night and noticed she had a splinter deep under her thumbprint, and another on the side of her palm. Neither of them protruding. Neither accessible with tweezers. And both of them my responsibility to remove.

When I was a child and my dad had to extract a splinter, he would grab a trusty needle, heat it over a flame to sterilise it, and then dig out the splinter with speed and precision. To the crescendo of my screams. Indeed, before he even got near me I’d be screaming – I’m surprised the neighbours never called the police. Given the fact my dad’s a very practical, down-to-earth, matter-of-fact kind of guy, I doubt he ever had any qualms or concerns about it. It needed doing so he did it. That’s what it is to be a guy.

But I am not my dad.

My chest tight, I prepared the needle over the hob and took it up to her room. The little one knew exactly what I was up to. She wouldn’t even let me look at her thumb, let alone hold it or touch it. At least when I was a kid, I sat still, kept my arm still, and screamed. No such luck with Izzie. It’s phenomenal just how much a toddler can squirm, and how strong they can be when they want, particularly when their cold-hearted father is burying the point of a needle in the soft, delicate, tender skin of their fingertip.

For anyone looking for advice, the technique is fairly simple: you scratch the skin along the line of the splinter to open it up, gently insert the point to carefully lift one side of the splinter up out of the wound, and then grab the end with tweezers and pull it out. Much easier if the victim, er, patient is held still and secure. Be prepared for screaming, tears, a red face, eyes that ask you ‘why, dad, why, I’m your daughter, why don’t you love me’, and the feeling that you’re the devil.

On the plus side, she got over it far more quickly than I did.

Post-extraction I searched the internet for easier methods and discovered that most said to soak the affected area for thirty minutes to soften the skin – but not with a wood splinter as that causes it to swell. Given that 99% of the splinters I’ve had in my life have been wood, and I don’t tend to let my daughter near jagged metal, it’s not exactly the most useful advice I’ve come across. Apparently applying magnesium sulphate will eventually draw the splinter to the surface, but when it’s bedtime and she’s already cranky and the splinters are hurting her, again it’s not the most helpful of techniques. Needle it is, then.

So let this be a lesson to all doting dads. I thought I could get away with being a caring, gentle, nurturing father, catering for my daughter’s emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs, but that’s not enough. There are times when you have to be practical, pragmatic and hard-hearted, and do what needs to be done in spite of the tears, the screams, and your own tender sensibilities. But that’s what being a parent is about sometimes, and if you can bring yourself to do it, you’ll be a better parent and be justly proud that you achieved something you never thought you’d be able to.