“Remember boys like simple names,” she said. “And girls hate to have the same name as everyone in their class.”
This, you understand, wasn’t the worst piece of advice I got about fatherhood. I even thought it was reasonably sane. But that tip-off came from the same source as the bad advice that followed. She was an older woman at work – I’ll call her Pam.
Now I’d always got along with Pam. She would’ve been in her early 50s – mahogany perma-tan, peroxide white hair and a voice husky from a zillion cigarettes. She was like an older stateswoman of the office whose world-view flickered between irreverence and NSFW depravity. Maybe she was a little batty, but she was smart and funny enough to pull it off.
Plus she was also the most doting mum I’d ever met. Her work cubicle was like a shrine of filial devotion. Every inch of wall space was plastered with a mad collage of photos of her long-haired son.
So when my (now) wife became pregnant, Pam took a real interest. Occasionally, she’d slip me nuggets of insider info from the other side. One afternoon in the kitchen I copped another impromptu pep-talk. “When you become a dad,” she said, “The most important thing is to look after your wife, so she can look after the baby.”
I nodded and stashed the info away for future reference. It sounded like more solid intel.
What Pam was suggesting was to make sure my wife’s every waking need was taken care of. Freeing her from the domestic treadmill made sense, I thought, because naturally she’d have a more intuitive sense of the baby’s needs. Effectively, it was a divide-and-conquer strategy in a newborn nappy-pack.
That piece of advice stayed with me. I was receptive to the message, I think, because your protective instincts blaze more fiercely after you’ve watched your wife endure the grind of pregnancy and the blood-curdling craziness of childbirth. Witnessing that process only deepens your sense of conjugal obligation. Suddenly you’re in total awe of your wife.
The upshot is that, more than ever, you really want to take care of the mother of your child. So you cook batches of food for the freezer, amass a crazy stockpile of nappies and find yet another source of emasculation as you struggle to install the rear-facing baby-seat (I was forced to seek professional help). You’re now the default administrator of back-rubs and maker of endless cups of tea. Your role as father will be to protect and serve.
And that part of Pam’s advice was fine. You absolutely should look after your wife. But that’s the sneaky thing about booby-traps: on the surface they look innocuous so you blunder onwards and then… BOOM! In the hidden-danger stakes those words were the tree branches masking a pit filled with razor-sharp stakes. And I didn’t get away unskewered.
“Look after your wife so that she can look after your baby.” It’s the second bit that’s problematic for a dad and I only realise it now with a couple of kids under my belt. It’s dangerous because it nudges you to withdraw from the engine-room of parenthood, gently ushering you towards a more peripheral role. And you hardly need another push either, because multiple forces are edging you in that direction right from the off.
For starters, you can’t circumnavigate the basic facts of human biology. Nature determines that the primary bond exists between mother and child. As a dad, your role in childbirth is largely confined to that of hand-holder, cheerleader and compiler of really shit “chill-out” play-lists. Whether or not you cut the cord, in the delivery room you’re little more than a pillar of moral support with a frozen grin.
After that, a whirlwind of factors conspire to keep you in that auxiliary role. Emotionally, men can often be slightly distanced from the action. It’s not uncommon for dads to experience a delay in bonding with their babies in the early stages. The paternal connection requires time and prolonged contact to develop.
Then there’s the shit-fight over parental leave. In all but the most enlightened companies, the skimpy entitlements for new dads create another road-block for the aspiring co-parent. After a couple of weeks in a shell-shocked daze, you’re plonked back into the office while your partner is left on the sofa holding the baby.
And so it begins. Your partner’s daily exposure to your child starts to build up her confidence and expertise. She learns how to read the baby’s mood, soothe their frequent outbursts and lull them back to sleep. Before long she’s turned into the household font of childcare know-how. As for you? Now you’re mum’s assistant.
The roles are cast. Unsure what to feed the toddler for breakfast when the Weet-Bix runs out? Ask your wife. Can’t stop the baby from wailing? Hand him over to her. Your wife has already turned into the go-to parent in all matters requiring emotional comfort or domestic nous.
There lies the trap. And it’s so, so easy for things to play out like that. Subscribe to the view that it’s your wife’s responsibility to “look after your baby” and it’s already a done deal. Not a positive one either. What you’re sleepwalking into here is an act of subjugation that relegates you to a lesser parenting role while heaping more pressure onto your frazzled wife (who’s also probably doing most of the night-shift). You have to fight against it, because it doesn’t have to be this way.
Think for a second about what you do at work. Perhaps you’re an entrepreneur or an engineer, a maths teacher or a mechanic. Whatever. Chances are that at some stage of your career trajectory your role necessitated some degree of expertise. You can handle technical complexity and the snakepit of office politics. You can seal a deal, schmooze clients and know just how much to kow-tow to your idiot boss.
The bottom-line: you’ve got the skills to pay the bills. In which case, figuring out how to feed and bathe your children before getting them ready for bed is definitely not beyond your scope of capabilities. You can deal.
And if you don’t feel like you can yet, well, that’s OK, too. But you can train up fast. Like everything in life from crosswords to corporate embezzlement, your dad-game will only get better with practice. Paternal confidence only comes from spending time in the saddle or, more specifically, the soft-play centre. But when you develop it there’s potentially a huge pay-off for you.
Most men are conditioned to define themselves by their jobs. What you do for a living becomes the bedrock of your identity. But that’s a high-risk play in the self-worth stakes. Especially in a work environment yet to get its head around automation, artificial intelligence, plus the usual suspects of takeovers, redundancies and trigger-happy execs. A job for life? No longer exists.
Plus, unless you’re a rock star or Scarlett Johansen’s personal masseur, you have to ask yourself: how much do you really love your job? Was your childhood dream to work in middle-management? Or are you simply doing your best like the rest of us, plugging away in an OK gig that puts food on the table and pays your eye-watering mortgage.
There’s more to life than work. Taking a more active role in your kids’ lives can help you recalibrate, maybe even strike a happier balance. Fatherhood isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Often it’s scary hailstorms or that specific type of non-stop drizzle that gradually wears away your last shreds of optimism. Being a dad can, at times, prove tiresome, frustrating and wretchedly dull. But then you get the moments of payback.
Right now, because fatherhood has taught to multi-task, I’m writing this on my phone. Clad in just a sun-hat and nappy, my 8-month-old son is finally sleeping (thank fuck!) on my chest in a papoose. We’re sitting on a wall in the dappled shade of a plane tree just off Kings Cross. And at this precise moment, feeling his bodyweight slumped against me, everything feels right. Sure, life is a shit-storm right now. I’ve got two kids under two, my to-do list gives me palpitations and I’m moving interstate in two weeks.
Yet sitting here right now, cradling my son’s head in one hand, well, it not only calms me, but it gives me a sense of perspective. Frankly, there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Even if I was Scarlett Johansen’s personal masseur.