A couple of evenings ago, after months of this overwhelming Covid clusterfuck, we could take our indoors no more.
We drove out to the coast, to sit on a blanket on a beach by the sea for an hour. We watched the tide come in and out, and we listened to its semi-ambient semi-percussive splash on the shore. We drifted peacefully into nature’s rhythm.
We saw a father with his (probably) three-year-old son and their beautiful little dog. It was a French bulldog, I think. It chased a tennis ball around for a bit, and then just sat down looking out to sea. It let out a contented sigh as it did, its tubby little body rising and falling for a moment as eyes squinted to the horizon.
The son threw clumps of sand and stones into the sea, over and over. His effortless achievement of distance was truly incredible. I wish I’d asked the father his name as I feel sure the boy has a future in cricket, and I’d want to get the bets in now.
But it struck me: What if there comes no opportunity? What if he is not encouraged? What if this natural ability is coaxed away from him and into a box which gets stored away somewhere and forgotten and left to die?
And what if he is encouraged? How do you go about doing that well? How do you support and applaud over and over again without creating a monster? How do you manage potential to fruition? Should you even think or speak in terms like ‘management’ during fatherhood?
My God… The fear of taking it too seriously! The fear of not taking it seriously enough! The fear of fucking it all up!
Do we really know how it’s going to go? Can we even guess?
The answer is, I suspect, that we both already know that we don’t know…
We can only do our best.
As we talked, I was able to tell my wife about some observations I’d made of brilliant parenting tactics by my first wife and her previous husband, with their son. He is now a wonderful and very well-adjusted young man in his early twenties. My wife met him a few years ago, and they were lovely with each other.
What exists for me right now, though, is the future. And what I can put into the next are the lessons I learned as (briefly) a stepfather, and little things I’ve gleaned from looking at friends and family members who’ve parented well.
On the shore, we talked over practicalities.
What needs to be done to prepare our physical space. What needs throwing out. What needs adding in. Which rooms need reorganising. Where my office is going to go. How that’s going to be done. Which bits of the home need finishing off – those ‘little jobs’ (and a couple of larger ones). I’ve already begun the steady campaign of upgrading all of our white goods and electricals, payday by payday, so there will be no ‘big expense’ surprises likely to land on us for a while after the birth.
How we’re going to be tired and what we might be able to do to make the early stages at home after the birth that bit easier for all. A dishwasher here, a stock of pre-prepared meals there…
But we looked longer, too.
We talked about ideas we’ve had for situations which almost certainly lay ahead later on when we’re raising our child. The battle at the dinner table over peas, for example. (Well, in my case it was peas – and I still don’t eat them).
We talked of the practical tools we would like to give our child. I am terrible at things like changing plugs, and my wife is a dab hand. But she hates ironing – and I am a natural. Apparently…
We talked of firing an imagination. Of how there will be some, but very little, television. How there will be music. And activities (perhaps some akin to the ones I enjoyed as a child; drawing, writing, baking, a family boardgame before bed; and so on).
We talked about how structuring routines will help create a home to rely on (things at regular times, little duties around the home). A billowing out, if you like, of how things are for us now anyway. Consistency. We talked of how we can build a safe home environment and maintain a stable family atmosphere.
We talked of how we can make sure our parents are in there. And of how we can make sure our parents are not in there.
We talked of our pressing desire to limit the drama in our child’s life.
Not to cocoon them from experience and difficult interaction… But to not inflict on them a starring role in someone else’s bullshit, or a ringside seat for another’s selfish performances, either.
Give them strategies for coping with the toxic as well as the tremendous.
Show them how to maintain their boundaries and honour their principles. How to reason and defend themselves, but also how to turn on heel and walk away. We spoke of trying to raise a child who is not only respectful to others, but always to themselves. A child who knows their own worth.
How might we create those qualities? How do we nurture those values? Can we actually even have that degree of influence? Are we setting the bar too high for ourselves? Are we being too idealistic? Are we just completely naïve?
I asked my friend Danny about these prospective parent worries, doubts and desires. These moments when your thinking just bursts. He’s younger and smarter than me, and he’s a way further along the Dad curve. (He has a 6 year old and a 3 year old).
He told me: “You’ve only got one chance to raise your child, and you’re clearly determined to do it well – so that’s a very good start. Please just give yourselves a pat on the back for that, for now”.
Though my wife and I can ‘get ready’ in many ways (buy this, organise that, decorate the other), there are other ways in which I know we cannot.
I’m sure it will all be infinitely more demanding, rewarding, puzzling, heartbreaking, frustrating, enlightening… everything… than we think it is going to be. The truth of it is unimaginable. And then some.
Coming for us. All of it.
A whole ocean of experience and emotion we can’t really prepare for. One day soon we will leave the shore. And we will have to very quickly learn to swim…