There’s no telling some people how much parenthood will change you. My little boy is four years old now, and in this time with him – we spend most of our time together mind you – I’ve learned all that everyone tried to tell me about being a father was spot on. At the same time, I’ve learned what it means to be a son.
You’re not going to get much sleep. That’s the first thing they told me. “They.” You know, everyone. Like it or not, to become a parent is to become the recipient of one tip after another, and for as much as we swear we’ll never be one of those ourselves, we all are. We all will be, come the next parenthood announcement among our friends and family. Of course, there’s no harm in it. That’s the first thing you’ve got to let go. Telling stories, unsolicited or not, is how we get along.
Well, it’s true that sleep takes a hit, and maybe you were like me. First time I heard the warning I responded with completely misplaced confidence, “I’m not so good a sleeper now,” I said, “and I don’t reckon it’ll be much different.” We all know what happened, and brother you don’t know exhaustion until you’ve lived with an infant. And you won’t know what’s worse until he’s a toddler, and when he starts walking, well good luck to you mate! It don’t get no easier. If it did, I guess it wouldn’t be living.
The other common phrase I’d hear was “it’ll change your life.” My response to this was particularly flippant: “But what if I like my life just fine the way it is, thank you very much.” Well that kind of reactionary slur won’t buy you many friends or much sympathy, which you’ll be needing in quantity soon enough. I’ll advise you to keep a civil tongue. The uncivil tongue thinks it knows better, but you don’t know better. You won’t know better. Nobody ever will. And I reckon that’s the second thing you’ve got to let go.
There’s a sense of vanity that lurks behind all this. You thought this life was yours to live, and you think that’s what changes when you have a kid. But it isn’t. It isn’t that way at all. This life was never all yours, and that’s what you learn. It’s not your life or your world that changes. It’s the misplaced vanity that sticks you you you at the centre of the universe – that’s what you lose. It’s not easy to take, but it’s what being a father is all about.
Here’s the thing. To learn to be a father is to learn to be a son. All the stress, the anxiety, the exhaustion and the sacrifice – you were your father’s as your kid is now. All the laughter, the joys, the milestones and firsts – you were your fathers. You were there at the sweet victory that first night of full sleep, around about eight weeks in. You were the one who slept. You were the vicious defeat at the site of the first scraped knee, in that empty parking lot that Saturday afternoon, your bicycle’s front wheel spinning on its side, your hands outstretched, crying for daddy.
Your father coped the same way you do now. He wondered what the hell he could have done different, or how he managed to get that right. He was no more an expert then than you are now, and your son will live the same cycle, and so will his, and his.
Nowadays when I think back, I realise I’m just another in a long line of men with kids doing the best they can. I realise, for all his faults, which surely mirror mine, my dad had these same moments. And he savoured them as I do now, and he wishes they could last forever. Seems to me the moments persist when you let go, and I suppose it all comes down to this. You’ve just got to recognise in yourself what all fathers are: somebody’s little boy.