It’s different for dads. The following and my manifesto is based on my experience, as a dad. Although this stuff happened to me, in a sense, because I am a dad, I’m not at all suggesting that this is how it should be. Other families will have different roles for dads, and that’s totally fine.
My wife and I fell into AP, really, because of how challenging our first one was. We didn’t really have time to read or think much before our first child arrived (slightly early, on my wife’s last day of work) but I think we both thought we would be doing cots, separate rooms, naughty steps, all that stuff.
But no plan, as many famous generals have noted, survives contact with the enemy, and so it proved, because, whatever we had in mind for him (initially, a moses basket) our first didn’t sleep on his own. He just didn’t. We put him in the moses basket, he screamed, we picked him up, and then he slept.
For two weeks, we slept in shifts and he slept in our arms. At first we would sit or walk holding him, because we were scared to cosleep (because of all the rubbish you read about it) but in the end we were cosleeping. Even at this point, he was waking very frequently, perhaps hourly, and at times was very difficult to settle.
And then, just like that, I was back at work. What had seemed impossible with two adults was now being done with just one.
My wife was breastfeeding, despite the appalling “support” we received from the NHS (*that* is another blog post), and he was either feeding or sleeping on top of her, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You could tell he was highly strung, bless him, still is, at five years, and he needed this constant contact. So mothering was basically a 24 hour job. Mum was so sleep deprived she was functionally insane. So I did everything else. Breakfast, lunch (if I was working at home, which I did, mostly), tea, dinner, washing up, whatever else came up.
His first three months hit us like a train. I was ready for it to be hard, but it felt impossible, for weeks. Then, over time, we got the hang of it. Entering the terrible twos, also hit us – like a tsunami.
He would request something, or notice something, and my blood would freeze, because I knew I had perhaps 2, 3 seconds to respond before the tantrum started. And once started, it could last for 10, 30, 60, even 100 minutes. It was inconvenient and annoying, of course, but also distressing, because we could tell he was suffering.
As he cried and hollered, my heart went out to him, feeling his pain and confusion. So this brought more gentleness, getting down to his level, metaphorically and literally, feeling his pain but helping him to cope with it and guiding him out again.
And this pattern, once established, pretty much continues to this day. He poses us a new challenge, tantrums, violence, whatever it is, and in response, we make our parenting gentler, more empathetic, and better. My wife does the heavy lifting. She does this both intellectually (processing the material, e.g. from a book) as well as emotionally (actually being there, hugging him as he works through his emotions, literally turning the other cheek when he hits her). And I’m there, in the background, making the dinner, reading to the youngest, getting a bag ready for tomorrow, doing whatever is left over.
They both challenge me, in their own way, mother and son. My son challenges me to respond to anger and violence with love. And my wife shows me that it’s possible to do so. I shall always be in awe of the dedication and love she has shown to both of our children, and I’m happy to admit that I’ll never be a tenth of the parent that she is. I’m really just glad to be on the team.
And that’s my journey. I went into parenting wanting to control, and cajole, and put him in a cot, and tell him he was naughty, and isolate and ignore violent behaviour. But he has challenged me to see beneath the behaviour to the pain underneath, and my wife has inspired me and helped me believe it to be possible.
I see and hear a lot of dads saying things like “I’m worried I haven’t bonded with my baby yet, at three months” and “I want to bottle feed my baby, because I want special time with her”. As I said at the beginning, other families are different but in my family that isn’t what being a dad means. I don’t think I properly bonded with my eldest until he was three *years*. And I certainly didn’t mess up his feeding, or his bathtime, or anything else, because of the special time that *I* wanted. I worked, tirelessly and ceaselessly, in the background, to make sure he had the mum he so badly needed. I kept her fed, and watered, and match fit, and she responded beautifully, giving him love and empathy in circumstances in which I never could. Some of the time, there was room for his dad in his emotional world, and some of the time there wasn’t. And that’s okay. If he didn’t speak to me for 18 years I’d just be glad to have been there, ready and waiting for him to want or need his old dad.
So here’s my manifesto
Some of it is for dads. Some of it is for mums and dads. Some of it is so basic it’s for the whole human race, whether they are parenting, or doing trade negotiations, or anything else.
1. You made it, you bought it. Your child’s problems are yours, not your child’s, in the early years, at least
2. Always be the bigger person. Your wife is tired. Your child is a child. You compromise
3. Your child is not a toy, they’re not your friend, they’re not a decoration, they’re not an accessory
4. You are their parent. Not their friend, or their owner. The decisions you make will echo through their lives and the lives of their children. Do better. Every day, do better
5. If you’re shouting, you’re in the wrong. Stop. Breathe. Now talk
6. You’d die for your children, of course you would. We all would. So show them. Show them how important they are to you. Everybody wants to save the world, but nobody wants to help mom with the dishes (P. J. O’Rourke)
7. When they’re at their most angry, their most aggressive, when they’re most distant from you, that’s when they need you most. Turn the other cheek. Be the bigger person. Be better (rules 2 and 4)
Have fun! You must enjoy them, they’re basically just small cute versions of you. And what could be more fun than that?
Written by Chris Beeley
Chris is a 38 year old computer programmer, working in the NHS, and father to two amazing boys. He has just recovered from a serious illness and is now getting back to his twin loves of running and martial arts.