Man Ting: Parenting, Paternity Leave and Marriage

The first episode of our new Man Ting podcast.

Times are changing and stereotypes along with them. Dads are clearly present in the lives of their children, but are (still) all too often seen as slackers, bumbling or incompetent when nothing could be further from the truth. They are there for their children because they want to be a part of their children’s lives, but are men truly supported in learning about their roles of becoming a father in the same way that women are taught about becoming mothers? Is the role of active, engaged fathers coveted, and are men are seen as more than financial providers who are also capable of nurturing?

Music: Beatmix by herbalsniff
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Photo by jurien huggins on Unsplash

Man Kills Spider

I came home this evening to the wife and child asleep, so I made my way to the kitchen for a drink of water before preparing for bed.

There I was, casually leaning against the counter and chugging away, when I noticed in the corner of my eye a gigantic furry eight-legged beast! It was apparently resting in my kitchen after the day’s exertions hunting rodents and small birds.

Sensing that my family were in imminent danger, I sprung into action wielding an emptying glass bottle as I charged at it with reckless abandon. Without fear for my own safety, but only concerned with that of my wife and child, I wildly swung at its limbs with the aim of disabling it and preventing any counterattack. With the leviathan now crippled, I stood back and watched for a while to make sure it wasn’t feigning injury for the purpose of drawing me in close to murder me.

Alas, resigned to its fate, the behemoth gracefully bowed it’s head and I proceeded to bash it to death.

My family will never know how close they came to perishing tonight had it not been for my incredible bravery and vigilance. #ItWasAReallyBigSpiderOk

Still on the toilet

There I was, sat on the toilet in the dark this morning at 5:30am as per my usual routine when the wife flings open the bathroom door. I see the silhouette of her exhausted frame standing in the doorway, waning under the weight of laboured breaths.

“Take her!” She snapped, “I can’t do this right now. I need 10 minutes to myself.”

Suddenly a tiny human was foisted in my direction and forcefully deposited on my knee. In a hurried jerky motion, the wife turned abruptly and scampered off into her self-imposed seclusion.

Now there was two of us sat on the toilet, The Halfling staring back at me with only the whites of her eyes visible in the darkness. She leaned in, nuzzled into my chest and promptly fell asleep.

In that moment, the sudden realisation dawned on me that while I’ve been prevented from going to the toilet many times by a sleeping baby, this would be the first time I’d be prevented from LEAVING the toilet.

#ThisParentLife #StillOnTheToilet

Am I enough?

What is it like becoming a dad? A question I used to get asked all the time when the Halfling was born. I didn’t really know how to answer it then, and to some degree even now I still don’t. I think maybe a reason for that is that my role as a father in the short time I have been one, has been constantly evolving alongside the needs of my developing family at any given stage.

While I can’t say with any certainty what it means to be a father, I can tell you what I didn’t expect it would bring – my own daddy issues.

When my daughter was born, feelings about my father which I thought I had long ago resolved and put to rest suddenly and inexplicably resurfaced. There were moments where I felt an intense anger towards him, and other moments where I got angry with myself for being upset in the first place. I spent a large chunk of my childhood without a present and active father in my life. I’m sure there are many reasons for why that was the case. Among them, and not insignificantly, were the thousands of miles which separated us.

Children are emotionally hardwired to seek out and respond to parental approval. “Am I enough?” The three-word question that establishes the basis for all attachment and the framework through which their confidence in the relationships and world around them is explored. It was also a question I wrestled with a lot during my early adolescence and whether fairly or unfairly, through the lens of our estrangement, I sensed I was not.

I cannot speak to his intentions. Maybe circumstances I don’t understand or cannot appreciate were too insurmountable for him to bridge the gap to a 10-year old me. What I can say though is that I didn’t feel like he fought hard enough for me when he should have. Now here I was looking at my own child, I couldn’t understand how any father wouldn’t. He left our home, but it also felt like he left me.

These were thoughts and feelings I hadn’t given much attention to for 15 – 20 years. It was both confusing and saddening. Here I was, a grown man and now a father myself, suddenly consumed by feelings of rejection and insecurities that hadn’t featured in my adult life until now. My mind suddenly went back to that one time I asked a friend to recommend a good driving school and he responded that he didn’t know of any. When I asked how it possible that he learned to drive and got a license without taking lessons, he told me his dad had taught him. It dawned on me that fathers do these kinds of things with their children.

Up until now, I hadn’t really spent much time dwelling on the father-son experiences I may have missed out on let alone having the opportunity to become embittered by them. But now I looked back and wondered, would he have helped me choose which college to enrol at, or figure out which subjects to study? Would he have taught me how to talk to girls, bought me my first razor, or helped me choose an effective brand of deodorant to use? Would we have developed a shared love for the same sports teams, or had similar hobbies? Would I have had in him an example of fatherhood to emulate rather than the consolation of perceived and conceptual ideals I was left piece together on my own?

My manager at work sometimes talks about his weekends with his sons, scouting for universities or attending regattas together. Another colleague of mine, a regular at our weekly Thursday night football sessions, brings his dad along to play. They happen to be one of two father-son combos there. There’s an entire world of paternal experiences which, prior to the birth of my daughter, were unbeknownst and unfathomable to me. Experiences I am now acutely aware exist as I try to navigate my own path through fatherhood unguided.

Maybe ‘unguided’ isn’t completely accurate. I have friends who are fathers, and friends who, for better or worse, have had present fathers in their own lives. I have received counsel from older men with children who are now grown up themselves, and I am also a part of several amazing dad groups online where dads can seek and offer support to other dads about the challenges of fatherhood. I’m not bereft of inspiration or lacking in resources, but I can’t help but wonder if there is a difference between drawing on second and third-hand sources, or having lived it through my formative years.

I sometimes listen to a podcast by Dope Black Dads, a group of dads who explore the highs and lows of fatherhood and seek to change the narrative of black dads. My experiences are by no means unique, but I am encouraged that there are so many dads out there who recognise the emotional baggage they carry and are committed to breaking the cycle.

Fatherhood is full of mistakes and I’m sure I’ll make plenty of them, I’ll mess up and disappoint the people around me from time to time. Maybe I will never be able to give a complete answer to what it is it like being a dad, but for now however, I think this one comes pretty close: being a dad is my daughter knowing that she is enough, because she is my all.

She’s too young to understand that now but one day she will, and when she does, I’ll never let her forget it.

The Long Night

My wife and I sometimes joke that our baby isn’t actually ours. One of the downsides to having an emergency c-section is that you can end up feeling a little removed from the whole experience. Don’t get me wrong, in an emergency situation the priority is always that mom and baby are safe, and your subsumption into the event secondary. With that said however, the birth itself did feel a little anti-climactic for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the labour was loooooong. We arrived at the hospital early on the Wednesday morning for my wife to be induced. Prior to this point we had spent most of the last few weeks of her pregnancy rapt with alacrity and anticipation, and now that labour had begun, the sense of a crescendo building towards the grand finale was palpable.

We remained in this state of emotional suspended animation throughout that Wednesday, the following Thursday and much of the Friday awaiting the arrival of our baby. In those 2 and half days my wife spent labouring at the hospital I realised that labour wards are designed to do one thing and little else. Their sole purpose is to provide a clinical space for medical professionals to safely extricate a baby from your body. It’s not designed to be comfortable, accommodating or even, ironically, hospitable. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was just indifferent about whatever you may or may not have thought your emotional needs were before you arrived.

I’m a Game of Thrones fan. My wife, trying to eek out some adult time, watches along with me but has no real emotional investment in the show. If you haven’t seen episode 3 of season 8 entitled, “The Long Night”, be warned, spoilers are ahead.

After we had put The Halfling to bed, the wife and I sat down to watch the aforementioned episode last week. The first 10 minutes were an incredible tension-filled wait for the expected wight onslaught to commence. We sat on the edge of our seats, the sense of terror and foreboding hanging heavy in the air. Fast-forward 65 minutes to Theon’s final redemption and a confrontation between the Night King and Bran. All seemed lost before Arya came flying through the Godswood with a swish of death and summarily dispatched the Night King.

As epic and amazing as that moment was, we couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way – that there was a more satisfying conclusion to the Night King’s reign of death somewhere in a scriptwriter’s waste paper basket. Jon Snow didn’t get the showdown his character arc had been foreshadowing since season 5, so many major characters emerging unscathed from the the Battle of Winterfell ultimately cheapened the stakes, and Bran’s 5-season journey to becoming the Three-Eyed Raven amounted to little more than him masquerading as Night King bait.

Yes, Arya’s stuck ’em with the pointy end moment was epic, but it left us feeling just a little bit unsatisfied by how the supernatural existential threat posed by the undead and which had loomed over the show since the very first episode was concluded.

This leads me to my second point…

Despite all the joys of birth regardless of the method, a cesarean is, for all intents and purposes, major abdominal surgery. There are upwards of 10 medical professionals in the operating theatre with you – there’s no intimacy about it. In our case, there was a partition erected at my wife’s mid-chest section which meant we were effectively ‘cut-off’ from all the action. My whole view of the birth of my daughter was that of my wife’s disembodied head and upper torso. That was probably for the best to be honest given the fact I almost collapsed a couple of hours previous at the sight of the anaesthetists prepping her for an epidural.

I realise I’m not exactly painting the birth story of my daughter in a magical light here. We were ecstatic, of course. The sound of her first cry, my first glimpse of her over the partition, the moment I got to hold her. These were incredibly emotional moments I will never forget, but to a certain extent, we felt a bit like spectators without a view during the birth; passengers in our own vehicle. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I’d liken it having the chance to witness a total solar eclipse. You stand there watching the slowly waning solar crescent and just before the big moment, a cloud momentarily passes by and obscures your view. You know it happened, you saw the beginning and the end. You were there, but at the same time, not quite.

I guess in some ways, Arya’s big moment in the Battle of Winterfell echos our own. This crazy amazing thing happens, but deep down somewhere you’re left with an infinitesimal sense of disenchantment about the climax itself. At around 17:40 one balmy Friday afternoon in September last year, someone handed us a baby and told us she was ours. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t what I had imagined it would be like. That in itself is by no means a bad thing, it was just different – unexpected, perhaps.

Mom and baby, just an hour old

Our kid does not look like either of us to any great degree, her complexion and features bear little striking resemblance to our own. We joke from time to time that maybe we left the hospital with the wrong baby, especially as we didn’t actually see her being born. But every now and then she flashes us a look that has her mom’s personality stamped all over it and leaves us in no doubt about exactly who’s womb she spent 9 months in.

Enhanced interrogation techniques

We’ve been battling inconsistent sleep patterns with The Halfling for about 4 months now. Every now and then she has a brilliant night and you think to yourself, “maybe she’s finally turning a corner and her sleep is getting better.” Most nights she sleeps solidly for the first 3 and a half hours and then becomes increasingly restless until dawn. But every once in a while, she has a night where you feel like it would be preferable to stowaway on a SpaceX rocket and seek refugee status on Mars.

I know that’s probably how my wife felt in the early hours of this morning when I, hitherto asleep in the main bedroom, awoke at 1 am to The Halfling midway through her rendition of the Anvil Chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera, Il trovatore. It always amazes me just how much noise such a tiny person can produce (from both ends, mind you). I am a solid sleeper. I could sleep through a nuclear holocaust, but apparently my daughter’s lungs contain more earth-shattering power than Tsar Bomba because she took me out of REM from a whole other part of our home. My wife who was in the nursery with her must have been at her wits end, and if our neighbours didn’t hate us before, I’m sure they do now.

I got up several times and stood outside the nursery door, contemplating whether or not I should go in to settle her. I hesitated because I think running to pick her up every time she cries during the night only serves to reinforce her dependency on physical contact to fall asleep. On the other hand, she is more than capable of belting out the song of her people for 4 solid hours, losing her voice in the process, then continuing to warble away for another 4 hours in rasping, dissonant chords.

According to Wikipedia, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ is a euphemism for the U.S. government’s program of the systematic torture of detainees by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with sleep deprivation included as one of the methods used. In other words, the CIA simulates parenthood in order to torture and forcibly extract information from terrorists!

I remember driving to work on my first day after returning from paternity leave and almost taking out an entire section of the Buckinghamshire stretch of the M40 Mortorway during my commute. As challenging as I have found it operating on far less sleep than ideal, I know my wife has it harder. I can’t imagine that at any point today while my wife has been at home, that she’s had a chance to recoup any of the sleep she missed out on last night, but will have to face doing it all over again tonight.

There are people who will say, “sleep when your baby sleeps”, but they obviously have never had kids of their own. And if they do have kids, then it was clearly such a traumatic experience that their brain blocked out the memories of what it was actually like in that first year, otherwise they would know such statements are about as useful as vegan cheese on a pepperoni pizza.

Me. Sleeping while my baby sleeps…

I realised I have, in this one blog post alone, used extra-planetary decampment, forced rendition of terror suspects, state-sanctioned torture and the most powerful explosive device ever detonated to describe night-time at our house. It’s really not that bad, I promise. But sometimes in the moment, when you start to lose perspective, it can seem as though it is.

It’s that time of night again and my wife has retreated to the main bedroom to try and secure a couple hours of uninterrupted sleep while I hold down the fort. The Halfling finished her bedtime protest a few moments ago… No, wait, I jinxed it. She’s wailing like a banshee again so I guess I’ll go in a few minutes to reassure her that we didn’t actually follow through on the earlier threat to abscond to Mars. I have no idea what tonight will be like, but fingers crossed we can all get a little more sleep than the night previous.

Outsourced parenting

I like my job and I enjoy working at the company I do, but I love being a parent. It’s not even close. If it was financially viable, I’d trade in my career in a heartbeat to be a stay-at-home dad. I would probably have to do battle against my wife, Gladiator style, with the spoils right to becomes the stay-at-home parent going to the victor.

My wife and I recently secured a nursery place for Afia. We’ve been dithering on a decision for a little while, mainly because we both travel long distances to work and hadn’t yet come to a conclusion on whether to select a nursery closer to my office or closer to my hers. As luck would have it, she recently secured a conditional offer for a new job much closer to home and has an interview lined up for another – both only a 12-minute journey door to door. This meant we were able to select a nursery close to where we live.

Most parenting articles about milestones focus on baby’s first ‘this’, or baby’s first ‘that’, but I’ve begun to realise over the last 7 months that parents have to navigate milestones of their own too and this one, sending my baby off to nursery, just got very real for me very suddenly. Afia has never been anywhere with anyone without either my wife or I or both of us being present. Will she be okay without us? How am I supposed to just ship my child off into the care of strangers from 8am to 5pm, three days per week and not feel anxious about it?

I never thought I’d be that parent. You know, the one who lingers at the classroom door afraid to leave after having already dropped their child off on the first day of school or nursery, but now I think I might be. It seems like such a big step for her so soon, and I don’t know how she’ll cope with the separation. My wife thinks I’m being the baby and that Afia will be fine – she’s probably right.

I guess what I am really afraid of isn’t whether Afia will cope with being at nursery, but that when my wife finishes her maternity leave and goes back to work, how precious little time we’ll have with our child. The relationships she forms with the adults responsible for her care will influence and shape her developing mind and sense of the world around her. I call it outsourced parenting, though it feels more like parenthood supplanted. I know there is no danger of her becoming confused about who her parents are, but I do find the paradox of childcare disconcerting. The need for us to both work full-time jobs because raising a family on a single wage is unsustainable, but ending up financially less able anyway because the nursery fees will likely exceed our monthly mortgage repayments by more than 30%.

One of my earliest memories as a 4-year-old, is of the sense that my parents had been absent for what felt like weeks. I remember the jubilation I felt at their arrival home from work one day, and immediately telling them about how the babysitter had spilled some talcum powder on the floor, carefully selecting the phrase, “throw away” to describe what was clearly an accident. I won’t try to psychoanalyse whether my four-year-old self was subconsciously communicating feelings of abandonment in the words I used that day, because I only remember how much I missed them. The reality is that my parents had only left for work earlier that same day, but our morning and evening interactions were so fleeting they faded into obscurity. Or, at least, they felt so far away in the mind of young child.

We still have at least a couple months yet before Afia is scheduled to start nursery, and we’ll spend that time introducing the concept of separation to her infant mind by letting her stay with Nana for an hour or two every now and then. I’m sure she’ll be fine when she does eventually go to nursery, but I can’t promise my teary face won’t be pressed close against the crack of the door for a last glimpse after dropping her off on that first day.

Mummy and The Halfling – Precious Moments