The death of me, the birth of us; reflections on fatherhood

Close Encounters

Close encounters of the toddler kind; my children have been the catalyst for many changes in my life

I was generally happy after the birth of both my children. But deep underneath, once the initial euphoria, adrenalin and novelty had worn off there was something niggling away deep inside my subconscious.

As a father there are so many contradictory emotions. Part of the daily battle is to get the space to acknowledge those emotions.

For me, euphoria and sadness were emotional bedfellows for a long time after both births, but I am fairly confident that I was not suffering depression. I am fairly sure this was more about a reaction to change

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Whether you are driving a new car, starting a new job, taking an unfamiliar bus route or doing something as simple as cooking a new recipe, change can often feel uncomfortable at first.

The unfamiliar requires us to adapt to a new reality, and adaptation requires a learning phase. And learning often pushes us out of our comfort zone and causes us to feel uncomfortable.

Becoming a father was the ultimate change for me – a head first plunge into the unfamiliar, requiring a massive learning curve and huge adaptation. I was (and arguably still am) way out of my comfort zone.

This process of personal, mental and emotional growth is bound to feel painful because change hurts.

But I wanted to know WHY it was hurting; and more importantly, why these contradictory emotions of euphoria and sadness persisted. The birth of a child is a cause for celebration. Surely it should be all about the euphoria?

I was cycling to work one day. It was one of my rare mornings without children. I was enjoying the cycle ride. I was enjoying the feeling of the wind on my face, the space, the liberty. I was enjoying the exercise.

I was enjoying taking time to look at the blossom, the lush green tide of spring and the milky warmth of the May sun on my face. I was being mindful, connected and centred; for once focussing on myself and MY needs.

Then it hit me. I had a moment of utter clarity so powerful that I actually pulled on my brakes and stopped my bike.

My subconscious had been screaming out, but I had not heard it. It had been jumping up and down, clamouring for attention but I had not heard it over the noise, confusion and chaos of fatherhood. I had not checked in, I had not interrogated my emotions.

Since becoming a father I had not realised something. And there it was.

I had lost myself.

So THIS was why when I became a father and had gained something so valuable, so precious and so priceless, that I STILL had this feeling that I had also lost something.

I had lost myself.

I had lost my old lifestyle.

I had lost the old me.

I began to come to terms with this realisation. I began to come to terms with what was effectively a death; the death of my old lifestyle and the death of the old me.

As a father I was no longer able to act on a whim and moments of spontaneity. I was no longer flexible. I could no longer fulfil many of my responsibilities at work. I was no longer able to get onto a plane at a moment’s notice.

I was no longer a responsive or proactive friend. I was no longer a supportive or present son. I was a useless brother and nephew.

I was no longer playing football. I was not keeping fit. I was no longer part of a thriving social scene. I no longer had the bandwidth to stay abreast of current affairs, music, theatre or cinema……..the list goes on.

I could no longer prioritise any of this. I could no longer pursue all of these elements that had made up my pre-fatherhood life.

I was now utterly defined by the needs of my children.

As with any moment like this, the important thing was the realisation. Because once an issue or emotion is understood, it becomes easier to deal with.

By reflecting on the death of my old self, I could begin a process of mourning.

I still dislike having lost parts of my old self;

The old me who used to stay fit and healthy playing soccer three times a week;

The old me who used to cycle everywhere;

The old me who used to go running;

The old me who always had time for people;

The old me who was in touch with current affairs.

The old me who used to be so spontaneous and carefree;

The old me who used to be an excellent friend, son, husband and brother.

But I was able to mourn the passing of my old self, and eventually set time aside to focus on more positive thoughts; to begin to celebrate everything great about my new role as a father.

In truth it has taken a lot of time for my own expectations, and those of others close to me, to adjust to this new reality – the reality of fatherhood.

I feel much happier now. The niggling sadness is still there but it is no longer such a strong voice inside of me. It has been identified for what it is.

Loss.

And as a result it has become easier to rationalise, to instead look at all that is good about being a father and all the infinite variables of joy that come with the role and to be able to embrace the positive changes;

The wonder that is every new day;

The world that is viewed through the beautifully naïve eyes of a toddler;

The pure comedy that comes with listening to a child grasp a new language;

The change in my mindset to one that is more open, patient, loving and caring.

The growth of the desire to nurture that has risen like a spring sap in my soul.

To look into the beautiful eyes of my children and feel a connection so profound and so strong; to know that they are of me.

And while the old me has gone, I think there is now a new, better me. I can now embrace and positively rejoice in the fact that I AM defined by my children. This is a good place to be.

This is a place where I can both mourn the death of me, whilst celebrating the birth of us.

 

 

 

 

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To the power of two

The transition from a family of three to a family of four can often be extremely difficult. New bonds need to be formed, new patterns established and a new personality accommodated in the already complex dynamics of a thriving household. It is no wonder that two children can seem exponentially more challenging than one. But eventually there comes a moment when all the stress is forgotten.

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Those first few weeks as a family of four were extremely difficult.

My daughter, who by now at 21 months had started to mellow, became very volatile again and her sleep was disturbed.

Regardless of the amount of care we put into carefully introducing my daughter to her new brother, jealousy still reared its very ugly head.

And while my son was a very laid back baby, going back to a few hours sleep a night was very difficult for me to do.

And my son’s crying used to wake my daughter.

And she became tired and cranky

And as a result we all became tired and cranky.

It was intense.

Exhausting

Every day was just a relentless process of giving. Giving every last bit of myself to little sponges of seemingly infinite need.

And the nights were worse.

No escape.

No respite. Night after night of bleary eyed wake ups.

A feed would finish and just as quiet returned to the house, and I began to feel the warm embrace of sleep, a whimper would start up and within seconds crescendo, jolting me into reality.

The days and nights merged into one feverish process of giving.

Giving to my children. Giving to my wife. Giving to my job.

And it was the depths of mid-winter. The joys of autumn and Christmas long gone, the promise of Spring not even signalled by a snow-drop.

The days short, dank and cold. The nights long and claustrophobic.

It was a harsh winter.

Barbaric temperatures and rain and snow kept us all indoors and behind bars.

The screaming and crying began to echo off the walls, a stereophonic reminder of the responsibilities of fatherhood.

And then I became sick. It was inevitable.

It was winter. I wasn’t sleeping. I was stressed

It was probably just a normal virus, the kind of winter sickness as a young single man I would have cast off within days.

But in this new state it lingered. For days. For weeks. For months.

I eventually began to shake the virus off and we moved into Spring, my son getting stronger, the night feeds becoming less, my daughter becoming more accepting.

It was still incredibly difficult, harder than I ever thought it was going to be. But there were signs that things were changing.

I once caught the two of them sitting and giggling at each other. It lasted a full four minutes. Four minutes of beautiful, unreserved joy.

I stood and watched and listened, daring not to move, lest the spell be broken, letting the beautiful and heart breaking sound of their euphoria break over me.

And this summer, a brilliantly tempting vision of a potential future has started to shimmer, mirage-like, on the horizon.

With the weather getting better and the back door frequently open they have both started piling outside together; a little crackling ball of fizzing energy, rampaging around the garden, pulling up flowers, eating worms, falling over, getting up, noses in EVERY corner.

No stone unturned.

Six months ago, they were screaming and crying and hanging off my legs and ankles, demanding attention, demanding time, demanding food, demanding love. Now there is occasionally peace.

They will be reading together

They will be in the sand pit together

They will be hunting for slugs together.

My daughter always initiating, my son the little wobbly accomplice.

And just this week an event happened that inspired this whole post. An event that is still as poignant now as it was all those days ago.

I was upstairs in the bathroom, facilitating the bedtime routine. It is easier these days.

But this night the kids disappeared. I heard joyful giggling. I called out to them to come.

Nothing. Just giggling. Lots of giggling.

I called again.

Nothing. More giggling.

I started to get annoyed. That familiar feeling of bedtime routines coming back, the knot of tension building in my chest. I strode into the bedroom ready to admonish.

I stopped in my tracks. I paused. And then I let out a huge belly laugh.

In front of me were my kids. They were both stood there, cheeky grins on face, staring at me, waiting for my reaction.

Because on her head, my daughter had her clean knickers, her pigtails sticking out of the leg holes. And on his head, my son was wearing his trousers, the legs of which were dangling down like giant dog ears.

There was something about this simple moment that levelled everything.

In my laugh, months of stress and tension had been unleashed.

And when my kids saw that I was laughing they both burst into hysterics. My son laughed so hard he fell over, the trousers falling further over his eyes. More laughter.

They had planned this together. They wanted to entertain.

That moment made me realise that the crying and screaming and jealousy and tantrums that used to echo around the hollow chambers of my mind, are gradually being replaced by giggles, laughter and squeals of delight.

I can see them every day, forming bonds, entertaining and looking out for each other. They are little buddies.

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And that is why tonight I am sitting on the decking writing this post.

Both my children are bathed and washed and safely in bed. They sleep through these days.

And I am looking out over my garden. I am remembering the trousers on head incident and I allow myself another chuckle.

It is a warm, comfortable evening. The sun is setting and the smell of summer jasmine and honeysuckle is carried by a gentle breeze. The shrill cry of Swifts echoes overhead. A lawnmower burrs in the distance, providing a gentle backdrop to this perfect scene.

I have a cold beer.

Tonight I am happy.

Tonight I take a drink to the power of two.

This post originally appeared on the Daddy Cool Project website. The Daddy Cool Project (DCP) is a London-based voluntary organisation which aims to help diminish negative stereotype of dads in the UK. It also highlights the importance and positive impact of fathers and male-role models living and working in today’s society. They do some really great work – go check them out at www.daddycoolproject.org.uk and follow on Twitter @daddycooluk

This was my father; he was my hero

It has been four years this month since my father died. This  post is a tribute to him and the legacy and footprint that he left. It is the hardest blog post I have had to write.

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RIP July 2009Just seven days before my father died from cancer he had completed a 7km walk, had devoured a fish and chip lunch and sunk two pints of real ale.

He was by all accounts, despite being in remission from chemotherapy, in fine fettle.

In fact I cannot remember a time in my life when my father had been anything other than in fine fettle.

He was part of the original “keep calm and carry on” generation, a generation devoid of the insidious poison of celebrity and entitlement culture.

This was a generation that had lived through the trauma of evacuation, the horror of war and hardships of national service.

This was the generation that had peered into mankind’s stifling, toxic heart of darkness and had survived. A generation for whom work was not an option, but a source of pride and identity.

His resilience came from these formative experiences and was aided by the fact that he possessed a natural physical prowess, a genetic gift passed through the generations. He was quick and athletic, but strong too. He had an engine that would seemingly never give up.

Indeed there were days when I thought he was hewn from the mountains themselves, a man of granite, surely immortal. He viewed broken bones as “a bit of a nuisance”, glandular fever as “a bit like a heavy cold” and even his terminal cancer diagnosis as “a bit of a disappointment”.

Even in his retirement my father was incredibly busy, seemingly moving up a gear with every year he lived on the planet.

He was a keen gardener and continued to play tennis, squash and badminton to a decent standard.

He continued to march tirelessly up and down mountains leaving his wife and considerably younger sons trailing and grumbling in his gigantic wake.

He continued to plan and execute exotic holidays, marching his way through Amazonian river basin jungles, tracking big game on the savannahs of the Masai Mara and going off road on the vast sand dunes of the West Australian desert, trusty map constantly in hand.

And he watched me go off to work in numerous war and disaster zones. He presided over the marriages of both of his sons. He became a grand-father. He survived prostate cancer. And all the time he laughed and maintained his sense of humour.

Much of my memories of my dad are of a man with incredible energy.

A man with ridiculous robustness;

A man with a resilience and pragmatism that can only come from living through a world war;

A man with a quick and cultured wit.

A man with passion for sports of all shapes and forms;

And a man with a penchant for discussing anything and everything with sound opinion, knowledge and humour;

Many of my memories are of him up a mountain; tough, gnarly hands clutching a battered old map, eyes squinted, staring off into the distance, the quickest route to a cold pint flickering across his mind.

On his deathbed, my dad told my brother and I that he was proud of us.

The truth is that we are proud of him, and lucky to have had him as a father.

I love sometimes catching his traits living on in me.

For example I have recently taken quiet satisfaction in seeing my broad beans grow.

I have enjoyed tackling mountains and peaks for no other reason than that they were just there.

I chuckle to myself when I have found myself denouncing modern sat nav and GPS technology in favour of crinkly old OS maps.

To my father I am thankful for giving me his pragmatism, his natural curiosity, his desire to experience life in its fullest – ‘I would rather wear out, than fade out’ he once told me.

I am thankful to him for giving me his desire to travel and understand different ways of seeing the world; I am thankful to him for sharing his need to get up amongst the mountains and look down from his lofty perch, in order to get perspective on the world and the human condition.

I am thankful that he taught me to appreciate geography; society, nature and place. And of course maps.

I am thankful for him spending hours in the garden helping me to perfect a good forward defensive stroke, and a consistent line and length that has since sent numerous batsmen skulking back towards the pavilion. And I thank him for my ability to be able to throw a cricket ball into the middle of next week.

I thank him for teaching me how to bend a football round a wall and for teaching me the principles and importance of playing for ‘the team’.

I thank him for my right foot. I blame him for my lack of a left.

And even though it has been four years now I still miss him terribly. I miss talking to him about anything and everything. I miss his presence. His gentle nature. His sound advice. His desire to see me constantly improve myself. His poring over a bridleway or footpath on his battered old maps.

I miss talking aimless nonsense with him over a few pints and Match of the Day.

Such is my sense of loss that I miss him for the life events that haven’t happened yet, and for things that may never happen.

But my memories of him are rich and full and perfect, and I have no regrets.  The footprint he left behind is long and deep.

Given how terribly quickly his condition deteriorated, I was fortunate to be next to him when he passed away.

And strange that it may sound, we had some beautiful moments in those final days before he died.

Moments when the love in the room was electric, crackling and surging through us all, revealing itself as a primal and infinitely powerful force as old and as mysterious as the universe, lighting up the murk and temporarily dispersing the shadows of death itself with its brilliance.

I am thankful for those moments and for all those moments in my life.

My father died much in the same way that he lived his life – with grace, dignity and youthful humour.

This was my father. He was my role model. My gentle giant. My stability. My anchor.

This was my father.

He was my hero.

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This post originally appeared on the Daddy Cool Project website. The Daddy Cool Project (DCP) is a London-based voluntary organisation which aims to help diminish negative stereotype of dads in the UK. It also highlights the importance and positive impact of fathers and male-role models living and working in today’s society. They do some really great work – go check them out at www.daddycoolproject.org.uk and follow on Twitter @daddycooluk