My father wasn’t effusive with his love. At least not in the way my mother is. Or I am. My siblings and I lived with the comforting and affirming knowledge that he loved us – and if there’s one single thing you could ask from your father, apart from a trust fund, it’s this – but, when it came to Dad, cuddles, kisses and other acts of physical intimacy were rarely instigated by him.
He’d always acquiesce when we nuzzled up to his barrel chest, or kissed his bearded cheek, or slipped under his arm as he lay in bed on one of those gloriously indolent Sunday mornings. And some evenings as he watched TV he’d induce us to sit on his shoulders so we could massage his bald patch. “It will stimulate the follicles and the hair will grow back,” he explained, keeping a straight face. We didn’t care that he had a bald patch but the task meant we’d get to watch more TV, so I’d go to bed later than usual with the comforting smell of his scalp on my fingers. Despite all that I often had a sense that Dad remained forever surprised, or at times even embarrassed, by the physical manifestation of our affection for him.
I share Dad’s reserve, and his tendency to introversion – one that meant his emotional universe was one you’d frustratingly only get glimpses of, as if from the pointy end of a telescope. If I’m similar to my father in this regard – though I try not to be – I differ in that, for me, it feels like the most natural thing in the world to tell my children I love them and to further express that love through physical affection. It’s a vital part of the way I’ve bonded with my daughters, aged seven and 10.
There’s a time when this sort of thing comes to its natural end, and I can sense its approach now like the smell of rain in the air, so I’m hungry for what I can get before we enter a new phase of our lives together. One that I assume will involve, on their parts, much more eye-rolling than hand-holding.
So until then we hug, we kiss, we spill over each other on the couch, we wrestle and tickle until they scream for me to stop and when I do, they beg me to start back up again. I chase them down the hallway, roaring, and they flee, screaming, and not entirely for dramatic effect, before jumping on my bed. When I catch them up, I toss them about and I experience an extension of my own sense of proprioception to know where their flipping and turning bodies are in space at any given moment. If I’m not pinning their shoulders to the mattress and dramatically counting out “One! Two! Three!” I’m pretending to suddenly fall asleep mid-wrestle – the kind of deep sleep you’d fall into during your child’s school music concert without your partner’s elbow in your ribs. This leaves them battling and struggling to get out from under my dead weight.
If they ever have to muscle a corpse into the boot of a car, they’ll have some experience to call upon. If I leave them with nothing else, they’ll have that.
My ease with physical intimacy with my daughters is a gift from my tactile mother but it may have happened anyway. With me being a freelance writer, it made sense that when my partner’s two maternity leave stints came to an end she would return to the responsibility and burden of being the main breadwinner and I would take on the larger share of the at-home duties. This meant fitting my writing around the kids, the washing machine, the stove, excursions to the supermarket, the park, and not the other way around.
Ten years on, I know well the toil at-home parenting involves and, at times, the negativity it spawns. Conditioned as a man to believe that the only work of any value is the kind that furthers you intellectually, creatively and, in particular, financially, I regularly endure periods where I devalue myself and entertain the notion that I am wasting time, treading water, not contributing. I’ve felt that many times, usually in the periods between the publication of my articles or books, as if only these paid accomplishments are of value, and not the rearing of, and all the time spent with, happy, contented children who hum as they eat their dinner, who curl into you when you still read to them at night long after they’ve learnt to read themselves.
Hand in hand with that comes the self-doubt that all parents entertain. Am I doing a good job with my children? Am I devoting enough time to them? Am I doing whatever I’m doing for their sake and not mine? Am I taking out my frustrations on them? Am I doing too much dictating and not enough facilitating? Am I screwing them up more than is normal? Amid it all, I watch all the lovely moments, the little things, come and go knowing they’ll soon be forgotten, and I mourn their passing.
Fortunately this fog always lifts, and I see that for all the Groundhog Day inevitability of another dinner to make, another school lunch to pack, another load of washing to hang out, raising kids is not just a necessary job but a noble, rewarding enterprise. It’s humbling, too, especially since your children can’t comprehend it. When my youngest, Ada, returned from school recently to find there was no bread in the house she asked, with some irritation: “What have you been doing all day?”
Not until your children have children of their own will they realise. To be alive for that moment is as good a reason for any parent to live a long life.
Being an at-home parent makes intimacy with your children all but impossible to avoid – even if you’re not of the school of parents who’ll sniff a pair of kids’ underpants they find on the floor to see whether they are clean or dirty; a parent’s version of Russian roulette. In those first 10 or so years of being a parent, especially, one’s previously well-maintained fortifications of personal space and sanctity are torn down and tossed on a bonfire.
I read recently that the stereotype of the strict, aloof Victorian father is not fully deserved. Nevertheless it seems uncontroversial to state that, historically, the vast majority of fathers avoided cleaning up the steady stream of shit, piss, pus, spit, phlegm, blood, vomit and whatnot that goes along with raising a dependent human being. They never dragged nit combs through their child’s hair or lanced their boils or cut their nails or brushed their teeth or patched up their cuts and scrapes or even wiped their tears away with a swipe of the thumb. Instead, it was accepted that as all this was going on in another room, they could sit in their dens with their newspapers and glasses of Scotch and get on with the important business of being a man.
But that was then. Like many other fathers, I know I’m up to my elbows in it. In some ways I’ve revelled in it.
When my daughter, Abbie, was about six months old, I sucked snot from her nose when every other effort to relieve her considerable discomfort failed. Standing in the doorway of her bedroom, where the soft light from the hallway illuminated her distress, I cradled her in my arms, clamped my lips around her tiny snout and sucked as if trying to syphon petrol through a snaking length of hose. Unfortunately – or fortunately – my efforts were more or less unsuccessful. Having steeled myself for a foul onrush, I managed only to extract a viscous dollop of something or other. Abbie’s nose remained blocked, if a little shinier.
When, later, I told people of what I’d done, I was acknowledging, to myself, to others, the element of stunt to the whole affair. Yet at the same time I was sharing a story that I hoped would graphically illustrate the depths of my love and, in lieu of a careening bus in front of which to throw myself, the sacrifices I was willing to make for my children. Remember that, Abbie, when you visit me in the nursing home.
If any man has a yearning to be a father, I wasn’t one of them. As a boy I always figured, I’d have children at some point in my life because – like watching the news, laughing loudly at dinner parties, and getting angry behind the wheel of a car – that’s what adults did. But even as I grew into a man I never longed to have children with the kind of primal, biological ache we attribute to women whether it applies to them or not. Like most other men, then, when it came to the decision about the best time to start a family, I ceded to the imperative of my partner, rather than my own.
The irony, then, is that from the moment Abbie was dragged into the world at the end of a pair of forceps, I was smitten. She was puffy-eyed, bruised and bloody, and her head resembled a missile, but I was happier than I’d ever been in my life and my tears fell on her face as I leaned in to kiss her. “Hello, my darling,” I said to her, and I’ve been saying the same thing to her – and then Ada – every morning, and plenty of afternoons too, for the past 10 years.
Similarly, I’ve spent that time impressing myself upon them, hoping to make a good impression in their lives as my father made in mine, though I go about it in my own way. A hug and kiss here, a fatherly stunt there.
Only last week I placed a ladder on top of Ada’s bed mattress so that I could climb to reach a switch on a ceiling fan. Of course I should have moved the bed out of the way first but it’s heavy and cumbersome and that wouldn’t have been at all entertaining.
So despite my daughters’ protestations – “I’m telling Mum,” Ada warned – they were good enough to hold the ladder for me. And as the mattress moved under the ladder, as I swayed like a sailor in the riggings, I could see them down there on the poop deck, their little faces showing such signs of worry, illicit pleasure, and love as to make the whole exercise a roaring success.