Being a contrary fellow, I spent quite a lot of Mothers’ Day thinking about fathers.
So did Pol O Conghaile in the Irish Independent “Weekend” magazine. Beginning with
“Is ours a golden age for fathers, or a grotesquely stressful one?”
I also read the Financial Times “Weekend” article by Amy Raphael which began with the mini headline: “Is a mother’s place with her child or is attachment theory an unfair burden for modern women?”
I cut out several other pieces for future reference.
G0 West Young Man:
Most of my thinking was done in Co Clare. On impulse, we decided on Saturday to get up early on Sunday and drive to Lahinch with a bunch of daffodils for one of the mothers. It was harder to find daffodils in Cork than a fancy bunch of flowers. So I wrapped the daffs in FT paper and spent chunks of the next 40 hours thinking about what I think about modern fathers.
Given that the title of a new book on display in the Douglas Shopping Centre bookshop is “Are men really necessary?“, it makes sense to sort out what I think before it is too late.
So far this I where I’ve got to:
There are more fathers than ever looking after their children. As I walk round Douglas, and Mahon Point, I see men with buggies. I nod to them. I haven’t yet stopped to talk to a man who’s been with child. But I have struck up quite a few conversations with mothers.
We’ve discussed the merits of different types of bottles, disposible and re-usable nappies, tactics for promoting sleep, where you can find a good swimming pool, what it’s like to be a stay-at-home-dad, what solid food is next on the agenda…
I wonder what it would be like to talk to a man about this sort of stuff.
Sometimes I see an older man with a child and I wonder if he’s a grandfather or the father. I imagine many people wonder the same about me. So I try to look as if I’m a full time father by doing some shopping at the same time.
All this has made me think about the last time I had children. J was born in 1982 and B in 1987. I wasn’t the main childcarer then, though I did enjoy going out with the buggie. I remember getting a great kick out of going to a morning gathering of about 7 women with children, and loading mine up for the group photo on the sofa. There weren’t enough of those sort of mornings. In those days my main job was to earn money and to help out as best I could.
Now I’m not a helper. I’m the main man, the one who is responsible for childcare during the day. However, I am a great disappointment to myself because I am not very good at the nights. So long as Grace stays asleep, I am first rate. But if she wakes up, I find it hard to move towards her.
The middle of the night is a confusing time. You don’t know what you think, and you easily forget what you intended. Before nightfall you have a planning session with herself and jointly decide what you’ll do if the child wakes up during the night. Great. Clarity. A plan. Easy peasy…
The burbling starts any time between 2 and 5. It’s nothing at first, but it wakes herself and me too. You lie there not talking to each other, each hoping the noise will go away. It builds. Burbling begets babbling. Babbling begets bloody whining. Whining begets crying and at the time I have been head down into the pillow.
It’s always the mother who starts to get out of the bed to relieve the distressed child. The father in me is slow to action. It’s cross with the child, cross with the situation. It’s tired and pissed off, wishing we had a bigger house with a lovely child’s room at the other end of a long corridor.
Joint decision making in the middle of the night is awful. All previous plans go out the window and the moment is all. The woman has born(e) the baby. The man has looked on. I’ve not only been at the birth (like 9/10 Irish dads, according to Pol O Conghaile) but I’ve been an extra pair of arms and legs, an extra intelligence, an extra memory, an extra resolution and the world’s greatest cheerleader. But that’s not enough to make me equal with the woman. Nothing can ever undo the reality that the baby grew inside her organically and such a bond can never be replicated in male form. I am a different snowflake.
So I am inclined to support the woman’s instincts and intuition rather than challenge. If she insists on going to the child, that’s fine with me, whatever I feel. I might be pissed off that we are cracking too early, that we are changing the plan. But ultimately I know that I will always give way to herself. A god by day, an angel by night…
Warfare and Childcare:
It is such a wonderful battle, the battle for supremacy in childcare. The parents must win at this stage. Whatever we do, it must be right and proper and adequate. We must find a way with which we adults can live, otherwise the child will rule and we will all be ruined. The child is a mass of emotions without a shred of deferred gratification. The adults need to be able to stand back a bit and let the child cry, suffer, experience distress and recover from wanting it all now.
Men and women working together, eh? You don’t know what it’s going to be like until you try it. No amount of intelligent discussion is a substitute for going through it together and discovering your personal and joint level of tolerance and patience. Prepare yourself for a host of surprises: you are tougher, softer, lazier, more desperate, more flexible than you expected. She is not the woman you fancied in the first place. You are working with a different person in the middle of that noisy night. You have a different partner than you ever imagined. Is that a blessing? Of course it is, if you can find the breath to take it all in and process it. Above all, you need time to think reflectively and humbly about what a wonderfully difficult thing it is to parent.
“It’s such a great thing - your first child - that it brightens up your life. I just don’t buy this thing with people going on about the stresses. You do have to make changes. Otherwise you’d go mad.“, says Barry Andrews TD (member of the national parliament) in the Irish Independent feature.
He is right about the madness. You go mad if you don’t deal with the challenge to change and the challenge to accept the change that emerges in your woman. The child is easy, and runs by far simpler rules.
I was very surprised to see a priest quoted as a child psycholigist and co-author of Parenting (1991): “The closer the father is to the child, the more secure the child is, the more intellectualy curious, the more independent, ready to explore and ready to take risks…” (Fr Paul Andrews SJ)
What would he know about it? He might be right but I feel like checking him out. Astonishing to see a priest quoted by Pol as some sort of authority in this area. How can you be an authority unless you have sat there in the middle of the night feeling confused and grumpy about the prediciment?
I’m a long way from where I started. Back in Clare, I intended to pull together all I’d learned about being a father into a few pithy words of my wisdom. Now I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of my experience and haven’t yet reached one word of wisdom.
To be continued…