How Fatherhood Changes You

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 threw a glass of water over her. Apparently, this wasn’t exactly what she meant. Nor was pinging her bra-strap whenever her back is turned or 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.

A Father’s Role

 

In the olden days – like, the really, really, really olden days – a father’s role was simple: catch food, drive your enemies before you, hear the lamentations of their women. Okay, maybe that’s not exactly simple, especially when all you have is a wooden club, but cavemen knew what it was to be men.

Years later it was decided that, while the father still had to provide for their children, they should also guide them towards successful adulthood by administering discipline, principally using ‘the rod’, ‘the birch’, ‘the staff’, or ‘the belt’, depending on their particular inclination.

Then we had this pesky thing called the sexual revolution, in which women decided they no longer wanted to sit around raising babies, baking cakes and waiting for their husbands to give them their pocket money, and instead go out and earn money for themselves. No bad thing in itself, but it upset thousands of years of a clear gender split in parenting roles.

The father is no longer the provider, because the mother can do that too. He’s also equally expected to help out with the night feeds, change nappies, give baths, nurture, cuddle, sing songs, mollycoddle, encourage and entertain. And discipline is hardly an exclusively masculine preserve. As a result, many men have lost their way, with nothing they can cling onto as an exclusively XY domain, unlike women, who have a sacrosanct arena of XX dominance: no matter how much I might want to, I shall never be able to give birth, breastfeed, or discuss pelvic floor exercises with my girlfriends – at least, not without embarrassment.

The thing is, we men are full of testosterone, ready to contend with nature red in tooth and claw, but there’s little call for that on the way to the chemist to get more baby wipes or when choosing between pink paint or floral wallpaper. So modern man channels all his brutish, preternatural manliness into the one thing we can make our own, and in this find fulfilment and transcendence: personal safety.

You mothers can wander about with the baby, smell the flowers, watch the sunshine; we fathers will protect you. That’s something we can do. That’s something you have to let us do so we feel like men. While you play in the play park, we’ll stand sentry, intercepting any and all potential dangers and inconveniences. We are a cross between Secret Service agents, bodyguards and ninjas. We stand ready to do violence upon those who would harm us and ours. We are men. Hear us roar! Miaow!

Trouble is, since I became a dad, I’ve realised that the world seems to have become an incredibly dangerous place, and I’m not at all sure I’m up to the task. Every hitherto friendly dog I pass in the street is now a potential child-killer, just waiting for me to drop my guard so it can maul my baby to death. I’m not just talking about Alsatians and Rottweilers – the village is full of prissy little Lhasa Apsos, fluffy, self-important, ten inches tall, all of whom will turn into Cujo if I’m not watching them. That’s without mentioning the cats, the size of tigers, that prowl between parked cars, sharpening their claws as they lust after toddler blood. It’s a freaking jungle out there, people.

And people too. The postman has morphed from a friendly chap who delivers the mail into a blood-thirsty psychopath who wants to take my baby away with him in his post bag. Elderly neighbours ask us if we have any plans for the day: why do you want to know that, are you planning on ambushing us and stealing our baby? You would not believe just how many kidnappers lurk around our village, ready to steal my nearest and dearest if I look away for even a second. Man with walking stick = man with offensive weapon, best avoided. Every bush, every tree, could be hiding the human equivalent of Rumpelstiltskin, and it’s my job to keep these bastards at bay.

Then there are the drivers. One mile an hour over the speed limit is one mile an hour too much: ‘Slow down, Lewis Hamilton, you’re not in Monaco now!’ The car park at the supermarket has changed from a place to dump my vehicle in order to purchase goods into a nightmare murderfest organised by the prison guards in Death Race 2000, filled with elderly people who reverse without warning and ignore the one-way traffic-flow system, yes, ignore it! And by the end of each car journey these days my eyes are bloodshot from glaring at every person along the way who has the potential to cause an accident which might harm my daughter – which, to be frank, is all of them.

Nature is just as violent. I see dog poo and wonder what diseases it might be able to pass on; I look at the sky and ponder whether or not little Izzie will make it home alive if the weather changes suddenly; I question if the trees I have walked under a thousand times will choose this day, this moment, to come crashing down upon us. Are those cows going to stampede? Can that bull get out of the field? Is the slurry pit giving out noxious gases? What if? What if? What if?

And that’s just outside the house. Inside, I’m increasingly suspicious that the TV might mean my daughter harm, or the dishwasher, or the tumble-dryer. Radiators are steam-filled pipe bombs, the boiler wants to kill her with carbon monoxide, the toilet is full of water to drown her in, the bedding can suffocate her, the plug sockets might arc electricity across the room, the carpet might cause burns, the food might poison her, the picture frame might brain her as she walks past and there’s the ever-present threat of the sofa swallowing her whole. I lie awake at night wondering if I’m doing enough to keep meteors from crashing through the roof or foxes from scaling the walls and sneaking inside through the air vents.

My parents asked me what I want for my birthday.

‘A fire extinguisher,’ I said.

All in all, I’m coping really well with my paranoia. But this, you see, is a modern father’s principal role: keeping our children safe. It’s what makes us men. It’s all we’ve got. Don’t take it away from us. Because you’ll need us when the zombies come.

Provided we haven’t worried ourselves to death first!

Medical Paranoia

I sometimes wonder how people survived in the past without the modern medical industry and its intrusion into every stage of life. How did they manage without someone measuring weight, length, head circumference, and comparing it to a chart to make sure their babies were developing properly (50th, 75th and 75th percentiles respectively, in case you were wondering – tall, thin and big-brained, just like all the best supermodels)?

And developmental stages: at the eight week check (well, nine, because our appointments were late coming through) the doctor told us Izzie should be smiling, cooing and following things with her eyes by now, as well as beginning to support her head, albeit unsteadily, and drawing up her knees and splaying her feet when placed on her tummy in preparation for crawling. Luckily she can do all those things, but what if she couldn’t? Would we worry about her health, or would we simply wait until she did them naturally at her own pace in her own time? I think we all know the answer to that.

In the past, they simply got on with things, and I don’t think it was necessarily a bad way to do it. Do we really need all of this data when humans have been raising children for hundreds of thousands of years? It’s like when grandparents visit and make little pointers on how to do things. I was feeding Izzie the other day when my mother said, ‘Make sure her nose is clear so she can breathe.’ Gee, thanks mum. I’ve only been doing this at least six times a day for nine weeks: how did I ever cope without you here?

Of course, modern medicine is great when things do go wrong, but given that we, as new parents, know so much, and so little, about the health of infants, we err on the side of caution and rush our kids to the doctor when a wait-and-see approach might have been more reasonable. So in the past week, Izzie has been prodded and poked, measured, evaluated, stuck with needles, dazzled, pulled and manipulated during two trips to the hospital, an examination from the Health Visitor, and an outing to the doctor’s.

Nine o’clock on Friday evening I discovered a watery lump on the back of Izzie’s scalp and was worried her squishy head had returned. Wait till Monday and see if it resolves in the meantime? Not a chance. What if it’s an infection? What if it’s a fractured skull? What if she’s going to die?

The doctor felt it, looked at me and said, ‘That’s her skin.’

‘But, like, when she was born she had this swollen squishy head thing, and it felt just like that.’

‘Uh-huh,’ he said, nodding. ‘It’s still just skin.’

Ouch.

Of some consolation was the fact that the waiting room for the out-of-hours GP at the hospital was packed with worried parents clutching babies and toddlers. The old maxim that you wrap your first child in cotton wool while you let the second juggle knives seems to be true: they were all only children (only childs?). A bump on the head, a sniffle, a funny-sounding cough – how did they used to manage without emergency rooms?

We have an ultrasound for Izzie today. Lizzie had hip dysplasia as a child, otherwise known as clicky hip, and so they wanted to screen Izzie against it. She had no problems when examined in NICU, no problems when examined at her eight week check, but to be on the safe side we need to look at the insides of her joints. Pain free but awkward.

When she grows up, Izzie will be amazed to discover that not only have we seen every square inch of her outsides, we’ve seen her hip joints, the four chambers of her heart, her brain and nasal cavity, stomach, kidneys, lungs, liver, bowels and bladder too. Nothing is private anymore.

I guess that’s the price we pay for modern medicine.