notes from the front line
Tony Elliott, a new dad, wrote to us and asked if we would mind a regular update on his venture into 'Stayathomedaddom', here's the first installment
Bend your ear to me for a while and as I prattle on maybe the male aim to put the world to rights over a pint of good ale will manifest. “Dadzclub” have bravely offered me this slot because of what lays ahead of me and with it my aim is not to counsel fathers, or fathers to be, into greatness; that would require someone far more experienced than me. Instead, I offer the wisdom as I gain it, through experience. This is not so much about what to expect, but more in the realm of what I wasn’t expecting. As I lick the wounds of fatherhood I intend to raise a glass to the wonder of it all and to share my notes from the front line.
So who am I that you should listen? Honestly, my parenting credentials are thin on the ground with only six months under my belt, but the plotted learning curve is like a black run in visual terms, but also in the bumps and bruises one is awarded when attempting such a thing with no experience. I came to this with only a self-conceived notion of what it would be like and buckets of enthusiasm.
But who has experience? I am from a brood of five, but seeing my younger siblings transform from boring bundles of tears and tantrum into more interesting bundles of much the same didn’t prepare me for fatherhood. The plethora of nieces and nephews are a likewise story. We see these children ruled by a hand other than our own and I know now that it is through the wielding that the true skill is honed.
Already my self-conceived notion of fatherhood has been challenged to breaking point, but the collapse began even before H was born. When that sophisticated pee-stick revealed our predicament, the world shifted. Plans to emigrate to Australia, a process that was well under way, fell to the wayside. Instead of forging a new life in sweltering climes a fire was ignited beneath our feet. It seemed everything had to change and the time in which we had for such transition was capped, with no chance of extension. For me these obstacles included passing a driving test, quitting smoking and attempting to pass the final four papers of my accountancy accreditation. These sat in line with redecorating, building a nursery and landscaping the garden... it goes on. Those seven months were to be a rough ride for me and I wasn’t the one that was pregnant.
It is an important distinction, the fact that we men are not carrying the child. At least I found it to be once knee-deep in a female world. My own mum, female friends and even the midwives failed to consider me, the husband, when preparing the mother for the birth. As for those midwife sessions, I am not shy, so aired my questions as they arose. I could tell the midwives were unaccustomed to it by the format of the response, nearly always swinging the answer into a reassurance to my wife against my concern.
That sounds negative and I offer no apology. Actually I am often accused of overt optimism. I entered a contest to win a campervan and phoned the supplier to ask what modification I could have when I won, before the draw had taken place. As for pregnancy, my preconception had been of a “beautiful journey”. I had expected my wife, Anna, to go through the physical change. I prepared to endure her moods from the gradually increasing discomfort of carrying a growing baby. I geared up to offer reassurance around such subjects as body image. The last wasn’t hard because the bump was delicious and even now I sometimes miss it. I also determined to be there for any scan, health check or antenatal class. I predicted Anna blossoming like my very own earth-goddess and I would become her rock to lean on.
But often men also try to be their own rock too. We are not without challenges, concerns, worries or questions. The difference is we often fail to share them. Mothers are bombarded with information, thrust down their throats from day one. Some of it is practical and some horrific. From the sideline I found many contradictions in there too. As for what worried me, there was very little to refer to and my own mentality does not help. I came to it in the same way I approach flat-packed furniture, seeking out the build instructions only when utterly perplexed, or resorting to preoccupation via tangential burdens as a means of distraction from building anything at all. I came across a handful of books aimed at men, but these encouraged me to consider what kind of superhero I wanted to be for my child, or contained quizzes about how helpful I would be to mum. One even spent two chapters stressing the need to understand my relationship with my father as a route to understanding my relationship with my own child.
This wasn’t helpful. First fail, Wolverine wasn’t even an option. Second fail, our relationship with our wife is not a symptom of a calculation based on how many times we answered A, B or C. I have found marriage to be a sequence of dance steps. Sometimes I commit them perfectly and sometimes, just sometimes, get it all oh so very wrong. As for my father; he is a shadow of a memory so how that helps beyond teaching me to hang around is beyond me.
So what was I looking for? The questions I had were practical and I wanted practical, direct answers. Also, despite being an avid reader and author, I didn’t want to read a book. I wanted someone to listen to my concerns and speak to me from the same side of the bar. I wanted a forum where I could post questions and get varied answers. I wanted a “Dadzclub”.
Of course I had the predictable concerns about my wife and the developing baby, but there was a box in the back of my mind rattling with misshaped pieces that would not fit into the puzzle. For example, my wife and I had been together for eleven years and our shared interests revolved around drinking, smoking, dancing, travelling and those activities that led to our impending arrival. I was suddenly being told that those shared interests had to stop, with the exception of one and despite there being a book available based on how to do this, neither of us felt a burning desire to read it. I was seriously concerned, fretting about where we would actually be as a couple in seven months time when nearly everything we shared previously was to be taken off the table.
As we progressed through the pregnancy the new shared-interest became more and more pronounced beneath my wife’s shirt. We also used commonsense and trusted moderation when it came to topics such as alcohol. The constantly conflicting advice led to this, including a midwife condoning the use of Paracetamol “because it was processed through the liver before reaching the blood”, but declaring a glass of wine as nothing short of baby napalm.
I recall heartbreaking moments throughout the process too. We endured scares at two of our scans when the measurements taken proved at odds with statistics. We had the carried terror of what our lifestyle had done to the baby before we realised it was even growing inside. The lengths taken to prevent pregnancy had proved as unsinkable as the Titanic. Akin to those passengers, our beautiful surprise journey quickly became fraught with concern. Then the birth experience proved anything but “the most wonderful moment in our lives.” There is no explaining how a man feels when watching his beloved go through such a thing, partly because no two birth experiences are the same and secondly because we approach it in a dizzy daze.
Despite all of this, H was born perfect, albeit tongue tied and male, when I had geared up for a daughter. He has added a layer to our lives that could not be manufactured and bottled. He created a new centre to the universe and even through the utter exhaustion of six months sleep-deprivation, I can feel the beauty of his existence.
You may now be wondering when I might get to the most astute and insightful advice. Unfortunately I do not give advice. I can only speak from my heart about the things I have experienced. I hope that my words sing true with the reader and the recognition, knowing we are not alone in our befuddlement on this road, will hopefully offer a warmer light than the reflection of the bedside lamp off the paragraphs written by psychologist, doctor or nurse. All I needed was a pat on the back and to hear the utterance of “I know mate, I’ve been there.”
Pregnancy, which seems a millennium ago now, has taught me some valid lessons. The first of these was to not change who I was, but to simply do more of what I do well and attempt to do less of what infuriated my better-half. Secondly, I learned to listen to advice and rather than fret when met with contradiction, take the path of commonsense. Thirdly is to get involved and be creative. I managed to manufacture a weekly pub night for the couples of our NCT group and those nights have developed a wonderfully connected group of friends. The final lesson was to expect surprises. For instance, I was not expecting a night with a breastfeeding counsellor to be nothing less than utterly informative stand-up comedy. At her second session she evicted us men to the pub, saying in her German accent, “you will benefit more from forging friendships wiz each other in zer pub, zan you vill hearing about chapped nipples.”
I have intended this article to be more an introduction than fully informative, but now we are acquainted I invite you to follow closely. Little H has claimed me and as this year draws to a close I prepare to embark on an adventure that I have, much like with fatherhood, no more than a self-conceived notion of what it would be like and buckets of enthusiasm. This voyage takes me into three solid months of replacing my wife as the stay at home parent. When the dates are fully calculated I must give eight weeks notice to my boss, along with a declaration from my wife confirming her date of return. Then I am out there, on the front line, ready to report to all men that wonder what it might be like to brave the same expedition.
How that pans out is a mystery to me, but the experience will be revealed in this column. I work for a FTSE 250 engineering company as the divisional management accountant, so that letter I need to deliver informs them a key part of their structure will be missing when budgeting and covering the financial year end.
I am excited and relish the idea of experiencing uninterrupted time with my son, keeping him happy and entertained, taking him to swimming lessons and keeping those other activities my wife currently attends, such as “Play and Rhyme”. On the other hand, I wonder what this experience will cost me. There will certainly be a financial impact on our lives, but what personal cost will I pay? A missing bonus or pay increase? Overlooked at promotion time? Or will my firm prove to be as new-age and accommodating as the government expects them to be?
Aside from giving you updates on how my career will weather the storm, I’ll also be in a position to give you a true insight into life at home with the baby. I’m going to hit this slope with my usual, slightly insane enthusiasm, expecting success and invites to the coffee mornings with the other mums. That ever optimistic part of me believes that the reward will far outweigh even the worse scenario I can imagine with regards to career and money, but the proof is in the pudding. I’ll let you know how it tastes.