My old man was a motorcycle cop but didn’t really conform to the stereotype. When I brought friends home from school they were mortified to see him watching TV in his singlet and uniform trousers while ironing tomorrow’s school tunics and blouses. I think the handcuffs and truncheon hanging off the ironing board were the killer touch.
The best piece of advice he gave me? “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” He was quoting St Paul.
The way that my father lived his life influenced me a lot. There was no machismo, no violence, always respect for women. Dad didn’t need to be the grand patriarch. The kids were his central focus. The family came before the job.
I was five when my father was knocked off his bike and almost killed. All his bones were broken and his chest was crushed. That was deeply traumatic. Seeing your father reduced to a scarecrow – that’s horrifying, and seeing him weep is kind of scary, but once you’ve seen this side of your father you know he’s human, and that’s valuable. You have some chance of intimacy with someone once you’ve seen past their armoured surfaces and this probably applies to blokes more than we realise. After the old man recovered from his massive prang, I think I craved his company, which is another way of saying I didn’t take him for granted. We did a lot of fishing together, and half the time I could take or leave the fishing – I was just happy being with him. And that’s something we’ve continued as we’ve both aged.
When my wife announced she was pregnant, it was me who had the morning sickness. It was completely unexpected and we were dead broke, so I think it was sheer anxiety. I was 23 when our first son was born. It was a tough birth, a breech delivery, and I grew up pretty quickly during those 36 hours. I guess I saw what a woman can do, how brave my wife was, and it grounded me. The rest of my affairs quickly settled into perspective; everything else came second. It was hard schooling, being a father so young, but I learnt more in the first year of being a parent than I did from four years at university. In a way it was the making of me.
Partnering up and having babies so young is generally seen as unwise and I guess the stats bear that out, but I’m glad that’s how it happened for us. My wife was a student nurse. She went back to work and I became the primary care-giver. Which was pretty rare in the early 80s, so I got a few suss
looks at the sandpit at the local playground. I learnt to wear a couple of nappy pins on my bib-and-brace overalls to show I wasn’t some dodgy lurker. The milky puke stains on both shoulders should have been evidence enough! We always used cloth nappies and I found that a certain kind of butter knife made the perfect poo-scraper when it came time to clean them. It’s left me with ambivalent feelings about butter knives.
Everyone else I knew spent their 20s and 30s ‘finding themselves’ and I was responsible for a human life. So I was a grown-up early. That cost me in many ways, but on balance it was worth it. And unlike most young people my age, I had something pressing to write about, something more real than whining about my childhood.
I wrote 10 books in my 20s and I had a pram in the hall every one of those years. Truly, some blokes are just big babies.
All my kids had infant colic. If you’ve ever been up all night for a week with a screaming baby you know how close to the edge a human can get, and you understand how people snap and do things they regret for the rest of their lives. One night I woke up in the hallway on
my knees and saw the baby covered in blood.
I thought I’d finally cracked and killed him
to shut him up. Turns out I’d fallen asleep walking him up and down and ploughed nose-first into the wall.
Little bugger was snoring sweetly between me and the skirting board. After the initial shock I just curled up on the floor beside him.
I was determined to raise my daughter no differently to my sons. Kids need the same privileges and responsibilities. Courage and kindness, aren’t they what you look for in anyone? Boys need to know those values are inseparable.
Kids are a normal part of life. So, take it seriously but don’t turn it into a fetish. A kid is not an accessory. They’re another person in your life, and they’re for keeps. And when they’re little they are your responsibility, not your bestie. Friendship is for equals and that comes later.