At 7.33pm on 18 October 2012, my life changed forever. Eight months previously, my partner Laura had invested in not one, but three pregnancy testing kits – I somehow knew, we’d only ever need one.
As a first time dad, a designer, and a member of the Knee High Advisory Board, I thought I’d jot some thoughts down – from the point at which I asked myself “does this pregnancy testing thing go in the bin or the recycling?”, to living day to day with an incredibly tiny, yet very demanding person. I’ll attempt to capture some of my experiences, thoughts and feelings. I hope these humble insights which are poorly written and not vaguely scientific, offer a sneak preview into the rollercoaster of first time fatherhood.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
Here’s a glimpse into what was going through my mind, pre and during my partner’s pregnancy;
Could we afford it? This wasn’t about how much cash we had in the bank, more about my ability to shoulder our long term security – offer a prosperous future to the wee one, regardless of whether we found ourselves on the breadline or not. Soon to be the sole earner, could I support ‘my’ family? I still have nightmares featuring hairy bailiffs lugging our TV and HiFi into a transit van.
Thankfully, I now seem to have come to terms with the fact that if the worse happens, we’ll get by… like it or not, we’ll just have to, in much the same way as our parents before us did. A strong heart will persevere and all that. After all, financial poverty is one thing, spiritual poverty is another.
To cope with the immediate ‘pre baby’ expense, we came across an article in the Guardian in which one proud mother talked about the fact she spent less than £500 in year one – cot, buggy, nappies, clothes, the lot. We agreed we’d play the game, setting a budget of £500. Two months in, we’ve spent £580 but we’ve got most of what we need. But we were lucky, some friends of ours donated hundreds of clothes, a car seat, a basket, toys, blankets and more. We also scoured Freecycle, eBay and Gumtree for secondhand bargains.
Being a good dad
I’m still acutely aware that just because I want to be a good dad, doesn’t mean I actually will be. When my partner fell pregnant, I immediately started to worry about whether I had what it took to be a good father – could I offer this new person all the support I was, and still am, so desperate to give? I started questioning my own intelligence, the quality of my own education and the few holes I could find in my own upbringing. I soon came to the conclusion that whilst I’ll struggle to help with algebra and grammar, I could support and encourage in other areas – creativity and more practical hands on stuff. And beyond that of the classroom stuff, some teachings from the school of hard knocks – life lessons, in picking yourself up and getting by.
What about my aspirations and dreams? Would they be put on hold, chopped in half, or just eradicated without a trace? Was I man enough to take the pressure, in the knowledge that this little person might derail all my future plans and more? I knew that as soon as the baby arrived things would change forever – I was naturally worried. Would the new arrival strike me with depression or inspire me to do great things, enlighten my life like never before or suck every last bit of energy out of me like a giant hoover, destroy my relationship or make it stronger than ever?
These three things and more swam around my head like the evil insects in Pandora’s box, and still do. I don’t honestly believe there’s an answer or solution to any of them – far from it, they all just rely on your ability to cope… I think.
The birth was the most horrific yet most awe inspiring moment of my entire life. My partner screamed, and I reassured for over 42 hours. I’m not going to go into the gory details. The frustration crucified me. I wanted to help, but what could I do – I ended up wishing that I’d studied medicine. Respect just doesn’t cut it – I was humbled by the entire experience, from start to finish.
Luckily for me, I had two weeks paternity leave. Looking back now, it’s all just a blur. Making countless cups of tea for a never ending stream of visitors, worrying, cooing, sleep walking (with the baby in tow), worrying, changing nappies and loading and unloading the washing machine. That pretty much sums these two weeks up.
A friend of mine is adamant that you can prototype anything, which I’d normally agree with, but being a new Dad is probably one of the few exceptions. I thought I was prepared. I thought my open mind and willingness to accept change with open arms would be all I needed. Sadly, I was wrong.
If the birth resembled a scene from the Vietnam film war film Full Metal Jacket, the first month, and in particular week 3 and 4, would be more like Apocalypse Now.
Life may have been exciting, but it was now also daunting, exhausting and in some ways scary and distressing.
Having stumbled through my paternity leave, I now had to return to work – bills and rent to pay. Adrenaline saw me through the first week. But the sleepless nights were taking their toll – the physical fatigue I could deal with, the mental fatigue I could not. As the division between day and night blurred, I struggled to string together the most basic of sentences. Simplistic conversations became difficult and eventually embarrassing – at home and particularly at work.Multitasking – even the smallest of achievement felt good; washing up whilst listening to the radio or folding nappies and talking on the phone.
In the whirlwind, which was the first month, here’s the fuzzy headlines:
Comprehension – firstly that I was now father. Secondly that my life would never be the same. Thirdly, that my brain felt like mashed potato.
Responsibility – I not only had to look after myself, but also my partner (whilst on maternity leave) and also a tiny human, who only seemed interested in crying and pooing. Beyond my bringing in a salary, my partner now relied on me more than ever for emotional support and practical help with the baby – chores and more chores. Domestic chores, whether they be cleaning the flat, food shopping or cooking meals – now felt like a second job. Add in nappies – changing them, washing them, drying them and stowing them and a screaming baby to boot – and it starts to sting. On return from work my partner would hand the baby over in a bid to get some respite herself. Often with him uncontrollably crying, I found myself wandering the streets of North London on late evenings and early mornings in a bid to woo the little one to sleep.
Time – night and day seemed to merge. Crying was the only constant.
Is this normal (is he a good-un or a bad-un) – the crying eventually starts to grate, posing the question of why. Why is he crying? Is he unwell? Is he cold? Is he too hot? Is he hungry (again)? Is he wet (again?) – do we Google, ask our parents or friends, call the midwife or go the GP?
Frustration – why can’t Dads breastfeed? What more can I do than change nappies and load the washer? If it’s all about bonding – how do you do that?
I am doing a good job – how do/will I know? What else can I do? Who to ask?
The family – are we happy? Is my partner happy? What more can I do and what can I do differently?
The bigger picture (our lives vs. his) – where are we heading in the longer term? How can I make sure we’re all happy (without us having to give up on our goals in life) and be secure – not only now, but in the future?
I know it’s not the same experience for all dads but it’s certainly a new experience for me – unless you’re superman, fatherhood impacts on all aspects of your life, no matter how well prepared you are.