I’ve written a fair bit about eating and drinking so far on the blog, and I thought it was time to check in on the dadding. I’d love to hear your own experiences in the comments!
I recently read an interesting NYT article – flagged by Joy the Baker in her Sunday round up – which argued that the route to a happily married life is to act single. Now, let’s just caveat that, by stating some obvious parameters. This isn’t about taking your wedding ring off for a night out, and inviting advances. Nor is it about ignoring the needs of your partner. What the article advocates is maintaining the friendship networks of a single person – since this social self-sufficiency is fundamental to good mental health, and, consequently, to the health of your relationship. I don’t disagree with this, but the article set me off on a recurring mental journey which leaves from ‘how can I be a better dad, husband, and friend, look after my own physical and mental health, and work a full time job,’ and terminates at ‘ngnnnngngggnngng!’
Before The Boy came along, I was told that the best way to be good parents was to love each other first, and The Boy (or Gary, as he was affectionately known in bump form) a very close second. That way, the theory goes, there would always be a solid foundation from which to dote on the imminent wee one. I think we have been pretty good at that, though it’s difficult not to be completely consumed by infatuation with your first child. It’s not just the divided love, though, the pressure to be ‘good parents’, the enduro-challenge of it all, and the abject exhaustion seem to inevitably lead one or both of you to total emotional burnout on a rolling basis. ‘All the more reason to make time for yourself,’ I hear you say – and you’d be right – but it’s a challenging balancing act!
So far, the ‘doing his own thing’ section of my report card reads: ‘must try harder.’ Cat’s probably says something along the lines of: ‘shows potential’ (she was always better at school – though that’s not hard, I was a wee shite). The Boy is almost 11 months old now. That seems incredible to me, but there you have it. I started a new job about a month after he was born, and finding my feet in a very different working environment, whilst everything was upside down at home, was tough. It was even harder for Cat – navigating the 80 daily nappies whilst I was out, and deciphering the cryptic needs of another, much tinier, human being all day is a challenge enough, but then being responsible for keeping him fed through the night (he never took a bottle – we tried!), was like serving some sort of penance.
At the same time, the support networks which exist for new parents, are, in reality, mostly for new mums. Cat spent time with the other mums we met at our antenatal class, with friends of ours who had recently had kids, and with family. All of the advice was framed for mums and babies. All of the classes were scheduled midweek – with the exception of a handful, including one dad and baby yoga class I attended, where the objective of the morning seemed to be to walk a little bit like a gorilla, and not talk to anyone else. I felt very peripheral and lost for a lot of The Boy’s early months – whilst Cat and he seemed to exist in a bubble independent of me (they didn’t of course – that’s just how I perceived it). I felt closer to Cat than ever before, and somehow also further away. Going to work each day was painful – and the stream of photos of The Boy’s endless firsts only made it tougher.
Where Cat understandably needed a break from the perpetual chore of early parenthood – returning to a regular programme of running training – I was pulled in two opposing directions. I knew that I needed to meet my own needs, but for me, solo activities were not a break – they were a source of guilt and dissatisfaction. I stopped playing sports, I haven’t played pool since The Boy was born (something I used to do 3-4 days a week on my way home from work), and I have neglected my friendships.
Now that The Boy is getting older, and I am getting better at being a dad, I am trying to get back to some of the activities that kept me fit and happy. I played football last week for the first time in 11 months (I’m still feeling it), and I am keen to expand my social circle again. Something which has helped me to put things into perspective (apart from writing about it), is to think differently about time. Babies change so fast, that it is easy to feel that every second, or minute, is special and important – and it is, of course. However, there is something liberating about thinking about time with your child in terms of weeks or months, rather than days. If I spend an evening away from The Boy to get a sweat on, or to have a beer with a friend (as long as Cat is afforded the same privileges), it won’t damage him, or our relationship. I’ve still spent most of the week or the month with him, and that expanded sense of the time that is important has made the hours and minutes we do spend together all the better.
How have you negotiated this balancing act, as father, mother, or child? It would be great to hear any tips.