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

Not quite a daddy’s girl… yet

Her dad is usually the first man a woman ever learns to love. At least that’s the theory anyway. My daughter however, doesn’t give her affections to anyone easily, and 7 months in I’m still working hard for her love. After a marathon 54-hour labour, largely without any pain relief, my wife gave birth to our little girl Afia, via emergency caesarean section. The exhaustion and trauma of the whole thing meant that she was effectively bed-bound for the first few days postpartum, and housebound for the next 5-6 weeks thereafter. I happily assumed ownership of all the less glorious tasks of caring for a newborn (e.g. nappy changes and night feeds) and maintenance of the household so my wife could focus on her recovery and bonding with our new baby. We also restricted the number of visitors in those first few weeks and requested they either brought a meal with them or donned a pair rubber gloves to scrub the bathroom when they did eventually come to visit.
Aunty A cleaning our bathroom
For me, those early days, especially my two weeks of paid paternity combined with a few annual leave days I had saved up from work were beautiful, but it was over far too quickly. Getting to know my daughter, figuring our her different cries and watching her learn about the world around her was an amazing experience. Going back to work obviously meant we had much less bonding time together, and at 6 weeks old when she rejected the bottle completely, any role I could play in supporting her feeds came to an abrupt end. We then effectively only had about 2 hours of awake time together during the week – the period between when I got home from work and when we put her to bed time. I took ownership of the bath and bedtime routine so we could have some exclusive daddy-daughter time together, but at some point, I really did start to feel as though she was rejecting me too as she did with the bottle before. It’s natural for baby to be more attached to their primary caregiver, but I think I just started to become a vaguely familiar figure to her. When I was home on the weekends, Afia would start to warm up to me by the end of the Sunday, but then pretend like she didn’t know me by the Tuesday. Fast forward to the present and I think she has definitely developed more of an attachment to me over the past month or so. I’d like to think that my steadily growing repertoire of stupid faces and dad dancing has in some way contributed to making me somewhat memorable during my day-time absences. I tweeted the other day that for the first time, Afia giggled, almost jumped out of mummy’s arms and practically flung herself at me when I came home from work. Mummy is still her favourite of course, but operation ‘Daddy’s Girl’ is now well under way! I read yesterday that O2 have announced an extension to their paid paternity leave to 14 weeks, and think it’s an amazing and positive step towards encouraging more of a balance for parental leave options. I also wonder how much more of a bond Afia and I might have built if I had the opportunity to stay at home for longer after she was born. Who knows, maybe if we do have another child, extended leave policies for dads will be far more commonplace. In the meantime however, dad dancing will have to do!

Dad lives matter

I’m not an activist, and I don’t have any socio-political agendas here. I’m aware of the connotations a statement like, “dad lives matter” has, so why did I think it an appropriate moniker for my Twitter page (@dadlivesmatter) and the title of this blog post? Let me take a step back and tell you about my own journey into fatherhood because any self-respecting dad blog deserves a decent fatherhood origin story to help kick things off, right?

My wife and I found out we were expecting our first child on Christmas Eve in 2017. It seems so far away now that I write it out loud… The news wasn’t wholly unexpected, but it didn’t quite sink in for me immediately. I remember feeling very hesitant to talk or think about the pregnancy in definitive terms, almost like I was half-expecting someone to say it was just a joke. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted this pregnancy, and I was happy about it. I was just a little afraid to believe it I guess. I’m not sure when it did, but I was fully on the pregnancy train by the time morning sickness was in full swing and my wife was puking multiple times per day.

During my wife’s pregnancy, I began to notice just how few products featured images of only dads with their babies. It also struck me for the first time just how much of the imagery used to market baby products feature families that don’t look like ours – it’s a sobering moment when you realise yours is not the picture of a wholesome family unit.

As with any expectant parent, you start to think about all the hopes and dreams you have for your child. I thought about how my wife and I would work to mould and shape this little human into a resilient, intelligent and ambitious individual – vivacious and full of boundless curiosity. I also thought about what it would mean to be a black father raising a black daughter in a country where we are minorities. How would she feel if someone tried to pet her hair because they wanted to know how her tightly bound and textured coils felt to the touch? Will she have access to the same opportunities open to her otherwise non-black peers? Will she feel a connection to her African and Caribbean heritage, and that of her parents and grandparents? Will she feel empowered and confident enough to express her natural and authentic black self – and if she did, will it be threatening to others?

Marvel’s Black Panther film last year was a cultural phenomenon and a huge hit at the global box office. It was significant for my wife and I however as it was where we publicly announced to our friends that we were having a baby. We took a picture at the cinema to mark the occasion.

Pregnancy Announcement Feb 2018

Whatever you think about the film, it is important for one key reason. Representation matters. It matters that my daughter is surrounded by depictions and imagery she can relate to, and to let her know that she is not an ‘other’. It matters that black dads are seen to be present and positive influences. And it matters that dads in general are considered competent and trusted caregivers. I am in enough dad groups on Facebook to know that dads can often feel underappreciated, disconnected from their partners, and inadequate parents. I also know that some of these dads don’t feel as though they have anyone in their lives to speak to and therefore, I think it’s important to recognise that dads find parenthood difficult too.

I don’t want to for one minute diminish the magnitude of the responsibility mothers have on their shoulders or the challenges they face, but I do want to endorse and recognise that dads matter and I hope you will too.

New dad. New blog.

Thanks for joining me!

The idea for this blog started out as an April Fools’ day joke on Facebook, but what isn’t a joke is just how amazing it is being a dad. My love for sharing my experiences of fatherhood is second only to my joy in living them.

I don’t have some grand vision or plan for what this is supposed to become. I’ll write about my thoughts and experiences of fatherhood, and who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy reading them. If I can in some small way contribute to the number of amazing dad blogs out there, then I’ll have achieved far more than I set out to.

Welcome.

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