So far, if I’ve learned one thing it’s that being fully present is the key. This requires removing as many barriers as possible that exist between your partner, your baby and yourself. It means developing an awareness of the distractions competing for your attention and trying to find a balance between tasks and family time.
I can understand why some people would throw themselves into their work. The early weeks and months are confusing and the baby is not very aware of your place in his life. He is primarily concerned with his food source and sense of comfort and safety and for this reason you’ll spend a lot of time handing him back to the thing he wants and needs – his mother.
Earning money and taking the lion’s share of the cost of living seems a natural way to express your love and commitment to the family but this has unforeseen consequences too.
It could lead to you missing some of the landmarks of infancy. Like your baby’s first word (tree) or their first Halloween party (dressed as a pumpkin). I often think to myself: “What does it matter if I’m at work, he doesn’t even know I exist yet? If I put in the work now there’s more chance of a better life later.” Basically, entertaining the implausible idea that I can cultivate my relationship with him retroactively. I didn’t realise until I became a dad that the only way you learn how to do it is by being around as much as you can. If you’re present and engaged, then things will happen naturally and begin to feel less mechanical.
That said, it’s not easy for many families to be flexible when it comes to work. But trying to clear space in your diary, every now and then, to be around a little more in the morning to get him dressed, or during the day to have lunch with mummy and reconnect, not only takes the heat off your partner, but increases the chances of forming a deeper connection with baby early on. For it’s in those moments, when he looks you right in your eyes with nothing but pure love, that your confidence as a parent will grow and you will, in turn, desire to be around your child more.
Sleepless in Glasgow
The only thing left is your relationship with your partner. A relationship which, at first, feels fundamentally different. This is especially so if the baby was not planned – as is often the case.
You may find yourselves, over-wrought by a week of sleepless nights, stuck in a traffic jam with a baby screaming in the back seat, looking at one another and wondering if this is as good as it gets. And you’ll feel terrible for even thinking it. But don’t. It’s that conscious contact with the full range of thoughts and emotions, and acceptance of them as natural, that keeps you both grounded in an agreed reality. It’s when you start living parallel lives that the problems emerge. It’s okay to talk about how you don’t like your baby sometimes. It’s okay to be honest about the fact you spent ten minutes at a red light fantasising about driving the car into a wall. It’s okay that you took the long way back to Granny and Grandad’s to collect your little bundle of joy because you wanted an extra half-hour of silence in the car.
It’s okay to miss the days when you could do something spontaneous like leave your house without it becoming a small military operation. But it’s just as important to remember that this nostalgia is based on a falsehood. Those serene moments you recall sitting by the water, some easy Sunday, were, in fact, fraught with self-concern and procrastination. You never cherished a quiet moment in the car because most people aren’t that grateful for those things. You never longed to sit in silence, you spent your life trying to avoid the solitude of your own quiet company: casting out demons to all your devices while nodding off to the comforting hum of electricity.
Now I try to look beyond the mirage my tired mind creates regarding the past and, instead, focus on how best I may remain present in the moment. My son has filled me with gratitude. He is teaching me how to think of others more and for me, this is a new freedom from the mundanity of the self.
In an ideal world, you’d have at least a couple of hours every night to spend time with your partner. But it’s not an ideal world. In fact, you will often feel like the world is conspiring against your sanity – and your sex life. Why does that cable have to get tangled up in that plug when all I need is for objects to cooperate with me? Why does a fleet of fire-engines always roar past the house when we’ve just got the baby to sleep? Why does the postman have to hold the buzzer down for that extra two seconds and why is that bin lorry still crawling past my bedroom window when I’m trying to close my eyes for 20 minutes? Mothers probably have quite specific thoughts such as: why does he never listen to me? Sick of hearing him going on about being tired while the baby is shitting in my cornflakes.
What’s there to eat?
Speaking of food, this is an area I’ve seen little written about in relation to parenting. But, for us, junk food became a big issue early on. Ideally, you’d discuss all this but you’ll often find yourself so mentally drained that you say very little, scrolling the channels, in between mouthfuls of cookie dough as the winter nights draw in.
Considering everything you’ve given up to become parents you will often feel a sense of entitlement to other things that were once forbidden. It can be easy to embrace the twilight-zone lifestyle and give up all attempts to establish and sustain a healthy routine. Chocolate is never far and the more you indulge the more you crave. It’s hard not to gain weight during this time and that’s exactly what I did. There came a point where I was going to the shop for chewy sweets first thing in the morning and experiencing the inevitable sugar-crash within 30 minutes. Perversely, I felt like I was getting away with it because my partner had also developed a sweet-tooth in the first few months of Danny’s life. You can look at it two ways. You’re so in love and comfortable with each other that you can pig-out every night and not give it a second thought. Or that you’re both very tired and are allowing yourselves to develop unhealthy lifestyle habits that will not only undermine your own health, but also the example you set to your child as he grows up. The junk-food cycle usually begins with a strong sense of the former, followed by the latter once you begin noticing that clothes no longer fit.
Eating well has become an imperative for stable mood and energy levels and I’ve learned through trial and error about what works and what doesn’t work. The tricky part is staying the course when you are tired and stressed.
Sex and fatherhood
Finally, there’s the dimension of your relationship that got you into this pickle in the first place. Namely, sex. Suffice to say every couple deals with it (or doesn’t deal with it) differently. It’s about getting the balance right between being clear about your needs and being able to accept that on most occasions these must be put to one side – basically the same as before except sex is much further down the list.
Babies have a great sense of comedy timing and ours conspires against all attempts at intimacy. I’m sure there’s some clever Darwinian explanation for why your child can sense an impending orgasm from the next room. Suffice to say if you want to re-establish a connection that goes deeper than your love of microwaved curry then you’ll need to make ample time for it. This means you will have to counter-intuitively plan moments of spontaneous passion – or, go without.
Hot baths, massage oils and an hour of peace and quiet can go a long way but with a baby around it’s hard to relax – even by candle-light. He occupies the entire periphery of my thought regardless of whether he is asleep or not. And let’s be honest, urine-stained clothes, breast-feeding and dirty nappies aren’t exactly aphrodisiacs – at least, not for me.
Truthfully, this is an area I have always struggled with. I crave intimacy but am also alarmed by it. The simple act of looking into my partner’s eyes for more than a few seconds is extremely difficult due to how vulnerable it makes me feel. Add that to the many years of hardcore pornography, which has not only created unrealistic expectations of my partner – and myself – but has also rewired my brain to only respond to certain kinds of stimulus. With so many reasons to avoid sex, whether it be long days working and longer nights with the baby, and so many alternatives at my finger-tips, it can be tempting to neglect this area of life under false pretences and disappear down a digital rabbit-hole.
For us the key is communication. There isn’t much that can’t be resolved by simply discussing it in an honest way and sex is no different. It’s easier to isolate sometimes and act like this area of the relationship will take care of itself, but like the baby, it needs to be acknowledged and nurtured – especially if siblings are on the cards.
I’ll be honest. I still have no idea what I’m doing. But I’m getting more comfortable with that. Maybe this isn’t about me feeling capable or confident but more about me just being there anyway even though it’s difficult sometimes. Something I try to bear in mind is that many of the things I spent time worrying about in the past never came to pass. Even those anxieties that did manifest themselves were nowhere near as bad as I had imagined. What this tells me is that I should take much of my own thinking with a grain of salt and resist the urge to get caught up in over-analysing every piece of nonsense that enters my head. For many years I made the assumption that my brain was a pool of profundity and that every idea emerging from it must be significant in some way. In truth, it’s just a thinking machine that reacts to stimulus and the vast majority of things that pass through my head should be allowed to do so without being interrogated. This includes thoughts about the baby, most of which are a product of ignorance, naivety and paranoia. But this way of being does not come naturally. It’s easier to fret and become bogged down by anxiety. It’s easier to develop a low opinion of your abilities and start comparing yourself to other people. And it’s easier to isolate and become distant from your partner; assuming they will either judge or resent you for expressing how you feel. But it’s also easier to keep eating junk food, to keep scrolling through the news feed or to immerse yourself in TV shows. At some point, I must decide what kind of example I’m setting to my son by taking the easy option too often. Our relationship is happening right now – not later.
The key, at this point, is to recognise when I am slipping into habits that undermine my desire to be a committed, loving and supportive father and aspire to return to the place of peace, perspective and gratitude that makes this possible. Thankfully, I am learning that this self-correcting behaviour becomes intuitive and less mechanical the more I do it, just like parenting. But like being a father, I also have to accept this upward learning curve is life-long and that should it ever plateau, becoming easy or boring, then it’ll likely be because I’m doing it wrong.