What are you doing for Father's Day?
Ooh, déjà vu! Is it really a whole year since I last asked you that question? I suppose it must be (unless the people who make novelty cuff-links, amusing bottle openers and amiably insulting greeting cards have taken over the world and made the event quarterly in order to flog more tack).
Once again, I'm not sure what I want. Computer games or DVDs would seem like the obvious answer but I still have more stuff to entertain me than I have time to fill with entertainment. This year, I'm not even getting left in peace because two of the children have clashing social engagements in different parts of town. Sarah and I will both need to be on escort duty. I'm going to spend the afternoon with a dozen five-year-olds, six trampolines and a bouncy castle. What could possibly go wrong?
Since this Father's Day won't be a chance to relax, maybe it should be a time to reflect on fatherhood. I've been a dad for eight years now. It wouldn't hurt to think about how it's been and what I've learnt.
If nothing more, it would be nice to have some words of wisdom to pass on to any prospective fathers I meet. After all, no one else is much good at preparing them for what to expect. It's a common refrain among parents of young children that nobody warned them about X, where X can be one of any number of things from a list which includes: the broken sleep, the hard work, the endless snot, the constant crying, the tedium, the isolation, the vomit, the penury, the lack of free time, the risk of personal injury, the arguing, the projectile poo, the teletubbies, the reduced opportunity for sex, the loss of sanity, the laundry and the effort involved in putting suncream on a wriggling (and increasingly slippery) toddler.
The newbies have a point. These topics tend to come up at playgroup where everyone has children already but they're much less likely to be mentioned in any detail in other situations. When we announced that Sarah was expecting Fraser, the most people with kids would say was, 'It will change your life.' We should maybe have taken a hint from their nervous laughter and the manic gleam in their eyes but then what did we know? If they had told us the whole truth, I'm not sure what we'd have done differently anyway. We might just have been a little more prepared.
I can't blame them, though. Now I have older children myself, I know that failure to talk about the less pleasant side of parenting isn't dishonesty.
There's an element of self-preservation for a start. Parents don't want their problems thrown back at them and they quickly learn that those without offspring are seldom awfully sympathetic to their woes - having kids is seen as a lifestyle choice these days. 'Well, you were the ones who wanted to have children...'
There's also a certain amount of accentuating the positive - the smiles, the hugs, the love and the laughter. Lots of parents have made the choice and are thus predisposed to be pleased with the result. Even in those cases where an accident has happened, parenthood is a long-term prospect, so for sanity's sake, it pays to look on the bright side.
That said, the biggest factor in all of this is memory. It's very easy to lose track of how demanding babies can be. Life moves on rapidly with small children around. They get bigger, learn to talk, go to school; the nappies and tantrums and sleep deprivation fade away...
These issues combined make it hard to know what to say to new fathers but here are my thoughts:
Being a dad isn't difficult but it can be very hard. There are whole years that I don't clearly remember and others that I'd rather forget. Then again, I'm thankful I haven't missed out on the experience of being a parent. It's changed my outlook, attitude and priorities. I wouldn't give up my children for the world and I'd protect them with my life. They are part of me. I love them very dearly...
...even if they're totally ungrateful and treat me like a slave.
The tension between the rewards and trials of parenthood is best exemplified by our decision to have Marie. Sarah wasn't entirely well, we had our hands full with two boys under four, I still had depression and we were broke. It wasn't a good time. Nonetheless, our family felt a child short and it was important to us that they were all close together in age. We went ahead but when we revealed she was on the way, people reacted differently than with Fraser and Lewis. They weren't sure whether they were supposed to celebrate with us or commiserate. Almost everyone asked if she was planned.
It was a crazy decision but it was the right thing to do. We're so very glad we have her. She's sweet and funny, awkward and stubborn, and a hundred other things. And she's ours.
I'm looking forward to helping her and the boys grow up. I'm also looking forward to helping them move out. I don't know whether to go play football with them in a minute or go and lie down. I want to pass away surrounded by a horde of grandkids but I'd happily pass up on babysitting them all when they're small. There are days when I wonder what I'm doing; there's never a minute when I can imagine doing anything else. I'm content but just a little bit tired...
It can feel wrong admitting to these conflicting emotions but they're only natural. For all that being a dad is great, it also takes dedication. Perhaps the best advice I can give is that fatherhood can be confusing sometimes... and that's OK.
Hope you get a chance to doze off in front of the telly on Sunday afternoon but whatever you're doing, have a great Father's Day.
Yours in a woman's world,
PS Of course, along with this reassurance, I should probably point out that being a dad is fun too. I've learnt all sorts of skills. I can listen to three conversations at once. I can get by on six hours of sleep a night on a regular basis. I can explain almost anything in a way a three-year-old can understand. I can Riverdance along the street, identify cuddly toys in the dark and play Snakes and Ladders without dice. In short, I'm prepared for anything...
Well, mostly anything:
We had to enlist the aid of a new babysitter the other night and Marie kicked up a huge fuss at the thought of someone she didn't know looking after her. Then Tina arrived and Marie was suddenly delighted at the prospect of a fresh victim to show all her possessions and tell all her secrets. She grabbed Tina by the hand and whisked her off for a tour of the house complete with extensive commentary. When I went to check up on them a few minutes later, they were both sitting on Marie's bedroom floor. As I entered the room, Marie was very earnestly informing Tina that, "Some adults don't wear underpants. They have to wash their trousers more often."
There is no advice that can prepare a dad for moments like these.