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.