I don’t look like a monster…

…but I definitely feel like one. It’s hard not to when you make your closest loved ones cry multiple times every day.

It happens when you have a precocious almost-four-year-old, a wilful one-and-a-half-year-old, and a wife who would rather be a best friend to our daughters than a parent.

I see more tears than smiles. I say no far more often than I say yes. While my wife gives them toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream, I take away toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream. My weapons are the naughty step, the counting to three, the threat (never followed through with) of bed without supper.

I am the one who says, ‘You’ve watched enough TV,’ before switching it off. I am the one who says, ‘No, we can’t afford it,’ while driving past the restaurant on our way to homemade spaghetti bolognaise. Time for bed, time for bath, brush your teeth, put your shoes on, you need a coat, just behave, no, no, no.

And then once they’re in bed, I lay into my wife – stop buying so much, you’re spoiling them, the house is a tip, why did you give them sugar at bedtime? You have to toughen up, they’re walking all over you, I don’t care if they like having a tent in the living room, I’m taking it down. If you want to go on holiday, stop wasting your money on takeout. No, we’re not getting a gosh-darned rabbit, you don’t even look after the pets we’ve got. Another one? You want another baby? The two we’ve got are running me ragged and you want to add to this chaos?

So she goes to bed around half-eight every night, and I sit alone on the sofa and check to see if I’ve sprouted horns from my forehead.

How do my kids see me? When they don’t hate me, they seem to like me, but certainly from the eldest, the hate comes through far more often than the love. I’m definitely the mean one, the one who shouldn’t be crossed, the one who isn’t fun. I’m the one she wants to leave behind on family outings, and who isn’t invited to her birthday. I’m not the one she hugs and kisses and gives affection to, no matter how much I want to be.

And yet, I’m also the one she turns to whenever she’s in need of help. I’m the one who sorts out her ouchies, who wipes her bottom and fixes her toys. I’m the one she shouts for in the night to scare away the monsters. I’m the one that takes her to the doctor, the hospital, who gives her the medicine and puts on the cream. I’m the one she knows will be there for her, looking out for her, whether we’re friends or not.

In life, in relationships, we all have a role to play. Mine is the rock you cling to in stormy waters. I first noticed this at university, when I realised all my friendships were one-to-one, and consisted of meeting people in cafes so they could tell me all their problems and confess their deepest, darkest secrets. I wouldn’t see them for a few months until it was time for another counselling session. They had plenty of other friends to have fun with – I was the friend they needed when things got serious.

And that is the way it is with my kids.

I feel very lucky to be able to fulfil this role.

And awfully lonely because of it.

I guess even monsters have feelings.

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Parents as Partners

Nope, this isn’t a post about Appalachian sexual practices. If that’s what you were looking for, then I’m sorry – for so many reasons.

For everyone else, it’s about attempting to balance the twin roles of parent and partner.

I’ve said before that the person who is everything you want in a partner can simultaneously be frustrating as hell to co-parent a child with. No matter how well you think you know someone, you can’t ever be sure what kind of a parent they’ll make until that kid pops out, and nor do you know how having kids will affect the dynamic between the two of you. You just have to have faith that whatever comes up, you’ll deal with it and get through it together, because that’s the commitment you made.

What I am discovering, as a father of a two-year-old and a seven-week-old, is that the gulf between words and reality is filled with sharp sticks and broken dreams – and a hefty dose of disillusionment.

You see, when you’re a couple, how one of you behaves as a parent inevitably affects how the other behaves. In an ideal world, each individual parent will have a mix of playfulness and responsibility, to differing levels, and you’ll share the load as best you can.

Unfortunately, it is not an ideal world.

In my household, my wife has abrogated all responsibility and so is situated right down the playful, irreverent, impulsive end of the parenting scale, alongside the fun uncle and your friend’s older brother who lets you drink beer. Trouble is, the only way to balance things is for me to go ever further towards the responsible, controlled side – I’m sitting with the school librarian and the ticket collector who won’t let you stand on the seats of the bus.

And I hate that.

While my wife dodges the surf with my toddler on a cold October day, I fret about the fact that they’re both now soaked up to the knees, the shoes will have to go in the washing machine to clean away the salt, and they’re going to freeze on the way home – not to mention we’re going to get sand in the car. While they carve their Halloween pumpkins, I hover around them on knife patrol, groaning as every drop of pumpkin juice splashes down onto the carpet, and trying to catch the seeds before the dog eats them. And while my wife is happy to say yes to just about anything, I’m the one who has to say no, and then deal with the nuclear fallout.

The trouble is, not only do your differing parental styles annoy the crap out of each other, they change how you see one another as partners as well. I’ve started seeing my wife as irresponsible instead of playful, argumentative instead of passionate, stubborn instead of determined and inconsiderate instead of simply absent-minded. For her part, she now sees me as boring, controlling, uptight and dogmatic instead of reliable, sensible, safety-conscious, and by-the-book. It’s all in how you define it.

Of course, matters aren’t helped by lack of sleep (mine), the spectre of postnatal depression (hers) and physical exhaustion (both of us). And to be fair, she has gone a long way down Nuts Street lately, with her moods up and down like a yo-yo, her OCD out of control, and the language she uses enough to make a sailor blush. So she blames her unreasonableness on hormones, I blame my irritability on tiredness, and neither of us really gets to be accountable for our behaviour, even though we’re driving one another up the walls and out the door quicker than a gas leak. I don’t remember the last time our wires were so completely crossed.

Actually, I do. It was a month or so after our first baby. Hmm, I’m spotting a pattern here.

On that occasion, things got better after I asked myself what it was I was doing that was unhelpful to the situation, and it turned out that I was being controlling and dogmatic, though for the right reasons – I was trying to help.

In similar fashion, I think I have located the root of our problems here, but they’ll be far more difficult to solve – it’s not what I am doing, but what I am not doing.

It was a throwaway comment in an argument that contained a thousand other throwaway comments, most of them spurious, many of them said simply to hurt me. It was that I’ve replaced her with the children, and on reflection, it’s a charge that I cannot deny. I have, over the past seven weeks, largely forgotten about my wife.

Well, that’s not true. As an autist – or maybe simply as a male – I thought that the fact I do all the nights and let her sleep, make most of the meals, sort out the dog, cat, chickens and fish, take the toddler to nursery and swimming and ballet, and do the lion’s share of the baby care so my wife doesn’t have to, showed the level of my respect and my regard for her. But it doesn’t.

I’ve been doing my damnedest since the baby arrived to make sure my toddler doesn’t feel left out, so what my wife sees is a man hugging his kids, telling them stories, making sure they’re okay, and then falling exhausted into bed – basically, giving them all the affection and attention he used to give her. And she feels left out, and resentful, and self-pitying. So she snaps at me, which makes me cross as I think, ‘Why isn’t she appreciating me?’ And then we argue, and the cycle repeats.

The solution? I have to show affection to my wife. I have to make time to give her hugs and cuddles, and tell her she’s special, and make sure she’s okay. Basically, I have to make her feel special.

Which is tough when I’m so busy and tired, and is tougher still when she says such awful things to me that I’d rather clip her round the ear than whisper sweet nothings into it. It’s like cuddling a rabid pitbull that hates you.

But it’s something I’m going to have to do. These are the sacrifices you have to make when you’re a parent as well as a partner.

Just let my little girl dance

It started off innoculously enough – I was in a session with a support worker, I had some music on the TV, and the little one was dancing around the room, giggling, smiling and waving her arms like a happy little lunatic. ‘You’re going to be a dancer when you grow up, aren’t you?’ I said.

‘Wow,’ said my support worker. ‘What gender stereotyping! Why can’t we teach little girls to be doctors or mechanics?’

Considering my daughter is mostly pre-verbal, it might be a little early to start her on the finer points of anatomy and physiology, but since I was only half-serious, instead of leading with this self-evident statement, I said, ‘Because she likes dancing.’

‘Of course she likes dancing, you take her to ballet classes!’ the lady replied, as though I was somehow brainwashing my daughter into enjoying a stereotypically feminine pastime.

‘Well, actually we took her to ballet because we noticed she enjoyed dancing, not the other way around. And since she loves being the centre of attention, posing for pictures and watching herself on videos, she might prefer to be a model or an actress.’

‘Actress,’ the lady spat, ignoring everything but the final word. ‘Why can’t she be an actor?’

Notwithstanding the fact that the Oscars would take issue with this (gotta aim high, yo), I realised then that I had unwittingly wandered into a minefield of semantics, gender politics and societal expectation with someone who saw me as a gender-Nazi. Which is odd, because I’ve always considered my views on sex and gender to be rather liberal and enlightened.

I mean, I’ve always believed men and women can do pretty much any job equally well, regardless of what’s between their legs – with the possible exception of the adult entertainment industry. Whether it’s doctors, dentists, pilots, bus drivers, lecturers, tattooists, waiters or the police, the only real requirement is that a person can do the job and do it well. The greatest action movie ever made (Point Break, as if you didn’t know!) was directed by a woman. The best nurse I ever met was a man. Their sex didn’t make any difference at all – they were just damn good at doing their chosen professions.

Likewise, I’ve never considered there to be male and female jobs around the home. Most of my parents’ generation still believes that the man puts up shelves, disciplines the kids, carves the turkey and fixes the car while the woman does the washing, cleaning, cooking and ironing. That’s not how it happens in my household. We pitch in equally. Equally badly, as it turns out, but equally nonetheless.

And nor do traditional gender divisions restrict my interests and behaviours. As a kid, I read Nancy Drew books in spite of the teasing I got (even though they had the same authors as the Hardy Boys, since Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon never actually existed). My favourite movie is The Jane Austen Book Club, the DVD of which is bright pink and very much sits in the ‘chick flick’ section of the supermarket. For my parents’ silver wedding anniversary I did them a cross-stitch, and my favourite exhibit at the New Forest Show each year is the flower-arranging tent. I’m hardly an advocate of men behaving like men and women remembering their place.

So how the hell could she think I was an advocate for traditional gender roles, or that I want to restrict my daughter to a submissive position in society? And what’s so bad about being a dancer anyway?

More to the point, how could she twist something so innocent and beautiful as an infant enjoying the simple pleasure of dancing into some judgment of my supposedly totalitarian parenting techniques?

Apparently, it is because our daughter wears dresses, and has a toy kitchen, and plays with dolls. Good gosh, I am an awful father. Clearly, instead of obediently reinforcing the patriarchy, I should make her play with engines and models of the human skeleton until she damn well likes it!

In all seriousness, I see the role of father as a cross between teacher and facilitator. It is my job to teach my daughter about the world, and it is my job to encourage her natural interests and abilities and guide her into being a healthy, happy adult. And you know what? At play group, she liked playing with the kitchen, so we got her a kitchen. And at her friend’s house, she really enjoyed playing with a doll, so we got her a doll. And every morning when we open the wardrobe, she picks out her own outfit. We’re not forcing her to play with dolls or kitchens – she also has jigsaw puzzles, teddy bears, toy cars, a box of musical instruments – she chooses to play with them. And that is the crux of the issue.

There are extremists on both sides of this debate. Those who try to force their daughters to conform to the traditional female tropes of motherhood, housework and dancing  are clearly in the wrong; but so too are those who think we should force our daughters to be doctors or mechanics simply to fulfil an agenda. My daughter is an intelligent, strong-willed, independent young lady, and she will be whatever she wants to be. If, when she grows up, she does in fact wish to be a doctor, then I will support her and nobody has the right to tell her she should be a dancer instead; but equally, if she wants to be a dancer, then I’ll support her in that too, and woe betide anybody who says she ought to be a doctor.

True equality between the sexes is about freedom – the freedom for little girls and boys to choose what they enjoy doing, and what they’d like to do when they’re older, without it being dictated to them by traditionalists on the one hand and progressives on the other. In short, when I’m encouraging my daughter to dance, keep your big mouth shut.

 

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!

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!