It was on the first day of an honest attempt to stop smoking that I received news I would become a father in the Spring of 2016. Any smoker will confirm that emotions are very intense during a nicotine craving. So, it’s hard to say just how badly I took the revelation.
If I recall correctly, my mind, faced with this unfathomable new variable, adopted a state of stubborn disbelief in response to this life-defining information. Given my partner and I had broken up only days before then my first question was very simple: Why now?
It must be a trick. A ploy. She must be trying to mess with my head. You know, all that nonsense? Basically, any temporary thought I could entertain that would postpone my having to grapple with this new, all encompassing, reality.
The news was particularly frightening, not least because I had spent my twenties privately pondering just how bad a father I would be should a child have the misfortune of finding itself under my wing. For years, I had been engaging in a very negative internal dialogue in which the only thing up for debate was the scale of my unfitness to be a parent.
In fact, I internalised the rather grandiose notion that my great gift to the world would not be an invention, a miracle cure or a great book, but rather, I would leave humanity in a better place by refusing to reproduce my own DNA – which I had long considered defective.
I grew up in an environment where parental figures were under a lot of pressure and stress. In fact, many difficulties of childhood came as a direct result of our collective inability to express and manage emotions. Not long after one parent walked out I started getting the strong sense that the other one wouldn’t mind if I quickly followed her out the door. I’m sure many parents feel this way about their wayward teens at points – if they are honest.
Of course, I know in my heart that none of this was a reflection on the love my parents had for us. But life back then was very challenging for everyone: we didn’t have a lot of money and lived in a precarious and violent community. My parents were only kids themselves when I was born and, like so many people from working class areas, it was a struggle just putting food on the table and keeping the burglars and drug-dealers at bay. In homes like this it’s often the case that simple things like affirmation, affection and patience become luxuries.
The idea that I could emotionally connect with a child and see it as anything more than a burden or a chore or an obstacle to surmount just seemed far-fetched. If that seems cold-hearted or self-centred it’s because it is.
Having grown up feeling that people would be happier if I wasn’t around as much then I had a very narrow frame-of-reference in terms of how families and parenting should work.
I spent a great deal of my time as a kid thinking about how to stay out of my parents’ way; analysing the tone of their voices and facial expressions to ascertain their mood and adjusting myself accordingly. Nobody knew how to communicate affection with any reliability despite everybody craving it in droves which meant, even on our best days, we lived out of sync with one another.
Lord knows how those other families managed with all their kids. Stranger still, how they seemed to take pleasure in one another’s company. Was it all an act? From which pool of resources did they draw this incredible stamina to be consistently interested in and concerned with one another’s welfare?
What was this strange force that bound them together?
That all changed many years later when my niece was born. And the first time I saw her, as her tiny head tilted back in her mother’s arms, her blue eyes jolting some dormant part of me back to life, it suddenly hit me. All at once I knew exactly what compelled people to keep going in spite of everything life seems to throw at you when you’re raising a family.
It’s simply love.
Somewhere along the way I must have missed that memo but once it dawned on me then it all seemed so straightforward. I now understood, viscerally, the mechanics of how this family stuff worked. It’s love that propels us forward and love that glues us together. Bizarre that I was 30 years into my life before learning this profound but simple lesson. Stranger yet that it was a baby, only months old, who had to educate me on the matter.
So, after the initial 30 minutes of pure panic and melodrama, I realised that becoming a father wasn’t something that I had to be afraid of. Free from that immediate anxiety I could discern what my first responsible act as a would-be-parent should now be. And of course, it was to lend as much support as possible to the mother of our child – who was absolutely terrified.
We agreed that in principle we should keep the baby unless advised otherwise by a doctor. We also agreed that raising a child would be more practical if we were in a relationship. As we walked around in a haze of unreality, we decided to take full advantage of the fact both of our jaws were still on the floor, by shovelling as much food and coffee into our mouths as possible; idealistically ruminating on a range of issues we would soon learn we knew absolutely nothing about.
It wasn’t long before we were arranging to move into a new flat together so we would be closer to her family. For me, her family was a key factor in my decision to proceed on the journey towards parenthood a little more confident that we would manage. In fact, their generosity, selflessness and enthusiasm is often lost on someone as potentially introvert and sceptical as me. As a family unit, are in daily contact and arrive at one another’s doors at a moment’s notice if even the slightest issue arises. They possess both the emotional – and material – resources to absorb almost any adversity and for this reason, and countless others, there is always an air of warmth and calm which emanates from their welcoming home.
In my heart, I knew that no matter what happened to me, my child would be surrounded by dependable, loving and affectionate people and that this would give him or her the best possible chance of escaping the gravity of my genetics should I develop some sort of psychological fault along the way.
When daydreaming about the prospect of becoming a father my mind would often turn to the low opinion I often have of myself and the fear I wouldn’t always be able to conceal this from my child. It’s not nice when you see yourself as defective. But that’s the story I’ve been telling myself since I was very young. It’s almost irrelevant where this thought originated. If such a thought occurred to me now I would discard it. But sadly, this thought buried itself deep in my core-beliefs long before I had any sense of self-awareness and became part of who I was.
Part of who I am.
In truth, I live my life in-spite of the nonsense my head is always telling me. I’ve learned to co-exist with a mind full of negative chat and punishing self-talk. Deep down my biggest fear about becoming a dad was that I might pass these futile thinking habits down to my child.