bookmark_borderThe Disappearing Dad

And here we are, half past three in the morning.

I’m the only one awake, in my lap my son is gently snoring, my wife is asleep in our bed, the dogs are asleep on the sofa downstairs. The dark is punctured by a night light, the stillness outside broken occasionally by a car, it feels like the world has retreated, stepped away from this place where I sit alone.

There is nothing wrong with being alone, or feeling alone. In fact I quite like time to myself alone and always have. My sister was born about 7 and half years after me so until she showed up I was an only child, content with my solitude. Then everything changed. Babies have a habit of doing that.

When my niece Lucy was born she was, to me, an amazing tiny bundle of wonder. The first few times I held her I remember instantly feeling very protective towards her, she seemed so small and vulnerable in my big arms. It was the same when her sister Daisy was born; holding these tiny little people made me realise the responsibility of being an adult in their world.

Of course they weren’t my kids so whilst I love them and dote on them when I can, I was always aware that the responsibility I felt towards them was relatively small. While they will always be important to me, their arrival didn’t impact my busy life; with so many places to visit, bands to watch, new foods to try, friends to catch up with, cycling routes to plan, and events to attend that visiting my nieces just slotted into my schedule as and when it could.

I’ve always been a planner, always had a schedule of sorts in my head (or in my calendar because my memory is shockingly bad). It’s safe to say I’m the type of person who likes to be busy, scratch that, I like to be focussed. That can be on any manner of things, a new hobby, watching a movie, or reading a book, but I’m not one to sit too long whiling away the hours doing nothing much so my free time was usually planned out to some extent, even if I did have to include planning days ‘off’ to make sure I found the time to do nothing (harder than it sounds!). The joys of perfectionism and all that.

Then I met Becca and my busy life was suddenly even richer; long wanders together, hills to climb, my love for the great outdoors was fed like never before and as we spent more and more time together my heart grew and grew. We talked often about our hopes and dreams for the future, honestly and openly, including having kids together. Life was good and with our future together agreed, we both knew it was soon going to get even better.

And so it did when along came our beautiful boy, our son Jack.

Having a child is, rightly, life changing. It’s the single biggest commitment I’ve ever had and I can still remember the whirlwind of thoughts and worries that raced through my brain in the weeks leading up to his birth. We’d (skim) read some of the books, taken both an ante-natal class and a hypno-birthing one, so the birth itself was pretty well covered and we had a fair idea of what to expect in the first few weeks once we brought him home but, after that, it all started to be a little vague.

The sense of responsibility for a newborn feels huge, almost overwhelming. How do you figure out if the baby is hungry, or tired, or sore, or… or… or…. the old joke of there being no manual for having a kid holds true and the fact that so much of parenthood turns out to be guess work is, frankly, a little scary. We were lucky that Jack took to breastfeeding straight away, and adjusted our home routines to make sure Mum was always available for a very hungry boy, and (touch wood) he’s been a very calm and settled boy from the off.

Of course there were challenges to get through but it was all manageable, even with the stresses and worries that came along for the ride. Most of these we half-expected from chatting to the various parents we knew – I cannot emphasis the benefits we got from the NCT Ante-natal classes, not just what we learned but having a group of new parents to lean on was a huge bonus – however if you fall into the ‘over protective’ category of parenting, which I do, you may be more prone to worrying about things that might happen and spend a little too much energy trying to plan against those things and, well, let’s just say that I found the first few months of being a parent a little stressful. It feels like I spent most of that time veering between utter joy and delight, and something akin to crippling fear and despair.

With those thoughts in mind, as I recently finished reading The World According to Garp, I found a lot of the thoughts and worries played out in the novel seemed to reflect my own. The outlandish freak accidents that COULD befall my son might as well have had me chasing down speeding cars in our neighbourhood a la Garp. For those who haven’t read the book it is partly “about a man who is so fearful of bad things happening to his loved ones that he creates an atmosphere of such tension that bad things are almost certain to occur.”.

I don’t think I’m that tense nor as overbearingly protective, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there is always that low level fear in my mind. I joke about wrapping Jack up in cotton wool to make sure he comes to no harm but the truth is if there was some way to guarantee he’d never get hurt I’d take it in a heartbeat., Oh yes, it’s quite a transition from spending your every day not thinking about things that could hurt or maim a child, to spending every second with your son as he charges around the living room keeping half an eye on the corner of the coffee table, or the hard edge of the marble hearth that looks ripe to inflict damage on my precious boy as he stumbles face first on to it.

The nurse handed Jack to me the minute he was born, all wrapped up in a towel that he was already chomping on and I immediately, if slowly, started to dissolve. Looking down at my son, I was at once deliriously happy that he and Becca were safe, full of wonder that he was in my arms, and terrified that I wouldn’t be a good Dad, or be able to protect him from EVERYTHING BAD THING IN THE WORLD EVER. A perfectly rational response, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Of course there is more to looking after a child, and we very quickly realised that finding a routine is everything. My usually week day goes something like this: Wake up, get Jack out of bed, have breakfast, take some time to sit and play before I have to go to work (upstairs). Depending on my day I might have an hour or so free time in the afternoon but mostly I won’t see him until I finish working, then it’s play, dinner, play, bath time, and in bed by 7:30pm. I’ve been the one putting him to bed each night and I cherish that time, sitting quietly with my boy in my arms as he drifts off to sleep.

It seems like a long time ago that going to bed around 11pm was the norm, most nights I’m lucky to make it to 10pm, but I love every minute, but between making sure the routine is kept as well as we can, and making sure Jack is clean, and fed, and stimulated, and safe, it very quickly (and rightly) becomes an all consuming job.

And so, without even realising, life as you used to know it has receded. Your world has shrunk.

You’ve started to disappear.

Disappearing isn’t something you do with a mighty gesture, as tempting as that might be sometimes. Instead it seems to be a slow process with little changes here and there, decisions made with a different mindset than you’ve had in the past, and all with an eye through this new view you have of the world. At some point, months later, you look around and realise you are somewhere entirely new, and you are not the same person you once were.

And it’s wonderful, simply because you have a tiny bundle of smiles and energy that lights up your heart each and every single day (even when he’s having a meltdown because you won’t let him eat his own shoe).

It’s not always easy though and perhaps it’s through the hardest times, the darkest hours of the night, that the disappearing takes it’s true form. It’s just you and your poorly child who wants nothing more than to be in your arms all night, and so you settle in to the chair holding his tiny squirming body and hope that you manage to at least nap. Or the nights when he just won’t sleep and both parents are frazzled and nothing seems to help.

Those times make disappearing from your life to solely focus on the thing that needs you the most the easiest and most obvious decision in the world. It’s what you should do, it’s what is needed, it’s what is right. The rest of the world, the rest of your life can wait a while.

But it does mean that, at times, I’ve caught myself feeling irritated that things aren’t as easy as they used to be and, for someone who can be grumpy at best when he’s sleep deprived, I’ll admit there were times I questioned a lot of things. Being the only person lying awake in the dark, unable to sleep, is an oddly lonely feeling and makes you realise just how far you have retreated from your life, how transparent you have become in your disappearance.

I do wonder how much my feelings of isolation were impacted by the fact I work from home these days, my interactions with others limited to a few moments before and after meetings, and there are some days I don’t even make it outside. Add that to the gigs missed, catchups postponed, my bicycle gathering dust in the shed… it’s no wonder there have been some dark days.

Ohh but you can’t say any of this, no no, you are a new parent and everything must be ‘wonderful’ with this beautiful ‘gift’ you have been given! You can’t talk about it being hard, or depressing, especially as you are just the Dad, it’s Mum who’s done all the hard work!!

And with those thoughts permeating social media, and society at large, it feels harder still to put a voice to the many worries there are to contend with, each day bringing something new to consider to make sure we are doing the very best we can for our son, and I admit I struggled in the early days whenever something didn’t go right, or I made a mistake, the magnifying glass of parenthood meaning I regularly had thoughts of failing our son, failing at fatherhood.

Some days were a struggle, but I am proud that I always showed up and did my best and I know, deep down, that I’m a good Dad and, no matter what, I will be there for Jack and Becca whenever and however they need me. They are my focus, they come first. I’m lucky that throughout all of this I’ve had such a strong, supportive partner, who had helped guide me when I faltered, and is relentless in her desire to make all our lives better and happier. Seriously, the woman is a powerhouse of amazing positivity who has been such a rock for our little family, and I have no doubt Jack is the bright eyed, curious, vibrant and cheeky little boy because of her efforts to nourish his body, heart, brain and soul.

In the darker moments I used to catch myself looking at my life through the lens of the past and wonder when I’ll get back to that busy, easy life I enjoyed. Yet more and more I’ve come to look at the slow dissolution of what I value spending my time doing with a gentle smile. As the changes to my life made themselves apparent I realised that I didn’t miss the things I used to do, at least not as much as I thought I would. Instead they’ve been replaced with new sources of joy, getting a kiss from my son, the way he laughs when I say ‘silly Dad’ and most recently when he points at me and says ‘Dada’.

In an instant my heart is full of joy and whilst I’m not really sure what the rest of the world is up to, I’m confident it is still out there waiting for me, as and when I decide to return to it.

I still can’t really figure out if it was me who disappeared or if the rest of the world that quietly retreated; either way it feels like it was a necessity, a way of creating space to figure out how to live as a father, to reevaluate how to best care for my wife and son. It’s taken almost 18 months but I think we are in a good place, Jack is flourishing, growing, learning, and I feel happy that I am doing the best I can for him.

I am content. I am a good Dad.

And with that I am starting to lift my head and look around again, trying to figure out how to reappear into life. I know it won’t be the same life I had, how could it, but it I know however it turns out I’ll have new perspectives and a different focus. Yes, I think it’s time to look forward, time to add myself to the list of people I care about, and figure out what my new life could look like, as a father, as a husband, a new(ish) me.

I can’t wait.

And yes, I’ve touched on some of this already…