By Jack O’Sullivan, Fathers Direct
I remember the moment that I became aware of the secret world of fatherhood. It was just after my daughter was born. I knew what the popular cartoon image of fatherhood required of me. I was supposed to mop my wife’s brow, cut the umbilical cord and announce at the appropriate moment, Delboy-style, “It’s a baby!” Then I would be deemed to have done my duty and I would be despatched to light a fat cigar, head for the pub and “wet the baby’s head”. Or perhaps the more acceptable version would be that after a gruelling night in the labour ward, I would head home for some well-earned kip, so that I could be on top form next day, with balloons blown and bunting waving, to welcome mother and child back in the family home.
But neither option appealed to me. I wanted to stay. I did not want to conform to this conventional image of fatherhood, as semi-detached, dispensable, the icing on the cake, nice but not essential. And as I came to that conclusion, I thought to myself that probably millions of other men have come to the same the view as me. But because we do not hear their stories often and rarely celebrate what they do with their children, many dads end up thinking they are the only ones, the odd ones out in seeking a deeper kind of fatherhood than some of the conventional images offer. And so there are these millions of members of the secret fathers club, many of whom don’t realise how many fellow members there are.
Anyway, on my first day of membership, I started out the way I meant to go on. It seemed so unfair that I should be sent home just when the fun was starting. After all, I had been present for the conception, supported my wife through morning sickness, shared the ups and down of her pregnancy. We’d gone to ante-natal classes together and I’d accompanied her on various hospital appointments. I’d felt the baby hiccupping inside my wife and collected a fistful of radar-like photographs showing the baby at various stages of foetal development. So, why, I asked myself, should I have to miss the baby’s first night?
I knew why. A maternity ward is, understandably, a female place. The midwives were all women and the patients were unmistakably so, as several walked slowly by, their faces pained, hands gripping the small of their backs. Easier, thought I, to find a bed in a convent than to lay my head down here. But both my wife and I were determined that I should stay. And it did not prove that difficult. Our baby was born around midnight. Her mother was exhausted after a long labour and was in no condition to breastfeed until the following day. No-one pushed me out. A sympathetic midwife let me give our daughter a bottlefeed rather than doing it herself and then showed me how to bathe her and change her nappy. I will always cherish that time, that sense of being with our daughter right from the beginning, when her head was still distended by a difficult delivery, her body still bloody, her hands still cold and rubbery. That experience and my quiet determination to stay mean that I don’t consider myself an appendage to herself and to her mother, a secondary parent, a semi-adequate male. I feel confident and at ease with her – and her brother who was born several years later.
Since then I have found myself fascinated by the secret lives of fathers, these lifelong adventures by men, as glorious and thrilling as trekking to the North Pole or climbing Everest and yet tales that, at least until recently, have gone largely unrecorded.
It is particularly exciting to find historical records. One of my favourites is from William Cobbett, a chronicler of the mid-nineteenth century. In 1830, a time when many of us imagine fathers to have been aloof figures, Cobbett wrote: “Let no man imagine that the world will despise him for helping to take care of his own child… There is nothing more delightful to behold than a young man especially taking part in the work of nursing the children; and how often have I admired this in the labouring men of Hampshire. It is generally the same all over England.” “Wow,” I thought, reading that. “There were members of the secret club around even then.
The sad thing is that some of today’s members feel so isolated in what they are doing. I remember hearing of a father in Wales, who was out of work and looking after his young family while his wife worked at the local supermarket. He loved his children but felt ashamed when he walked through his village in the Welsh valleys pushing a buggy. He said that he felt judged as a failure by others in the village who thought a man should be at work earning money, not looking after toddlers. The only time, he said, that he felt at ease with his role was at night when the couple’s baby woke and he comforted the baby, relaxed in the knowledge that in the darkness no-one was judging.
So why is it so difficult to go public about your fatherhood? Work is a big issue. I must work to support my family and – if I am honest – because so much of my identity remains tied up in work. But so often work slowly kills us off as caring fathers.
I remember one episode that demonstrated to me the difficulties. Soon after our daughter was born, my wife said that she and the baby would come into the office canteen for lunch. It seemed a great idea. Why not do it every week? Why, I wondered, did my colleagues not do so given they too had young families. However, putting down the phone I suddenly had second thoughts.
Would I feel comfortable entertaining our child in the office canteen? I would be bumping into bosses and colleagues while pushing a pram in my suit and tie. Who would I be pretending to be – father or employee? What if our child roared and needed her nappy changed? I pictured heads turned in judgement and disdain at New Man gone mad. I realised that I was scared of revealing my domesticity, a separate side of myself, to the unsympathetic gaze of work colleagues. All that softness and babyness would have left me vulnerable and uncontrolled. At work you are meant to be professional and unflappable, cool and unemotional. As it happened, my wife rang back and said she could not come. I think I might have bottled out anyway. Instead I ate quickly and returned to my desk. If I cut down on lunch time, I thought, I would get home for bath time.
Latterly, having switched jobs into more family-friendly work, I have become less worried about what people think of me. A couple of weeks ago, my wife’s mother was seriously ill, so I was looking after our 14-month old baby on my own for a few days. I had a couple of important conferences to go to. What would I do? Call in sick? Leave the baby all day with a stranger? I got radical and we became commuters together. The train was hilarious. It was full of grey-suited, grim-faced men with laptops and as we walked down the aisle, I said to one jokingly: “If you’re not careful, we might sit next to you.” I feared a chilling reception when we sat down. Yet soon the grim facades lightened up. “Don’t worry,” said one man “I’ve got a couple at home myself” and began playing “Peepo” with little Freddie. Another smiled, “No problem, my daughter has already vomited on me today.”
These are hints of the secret fatherhood fraternity, but generally it is so hard for us to get together for a chat. I can count on one hand, for example, the occasions when the fathers from my ante-natal class got together for a dads’ night out in the first couple of years. Some of our partners, particularly those not back at work, met weekly, chatting in front rooms, trying to stop the children sticking their fingers into electric sockets. But there wasn’t much chance, apart from first birthday parties for the men to get to know one another personally. When we were at home, at night or at weekend, the nuclear family tended to close in on itself. On the rare occasions we met it always seemed sad we could not praise each other’s kids in the way the mothers did. We didn’t know the children well enough.
So if men don’t get together and celebrate good and committed fatherhood, who will? The celebrities, I suppose. Men like David Beckham and other high profile dads are bringing fatherhood out of the closet. In their highly public lives, the celebration of what they do as dads gives credibility to our own aspirations. But a new voice of celebration – perhaps more reliable – is emerging. The voice of children, Last Fathers Day, hundreds of them sent messages to their dads via our website – www.fathersdirect.com “Dear daddy,” wrote Codie. “Thanks for always being there. I can’t tell you how much I love you, but trust me, I do.” Jessica told her dad, “I love you so much, even though you embarrass me in front of all of my friends.” From dozens of such messages, you realise what an important part in children’s lives their fathers play today.
But perhaps most movingly, we heard the voices of children whose fathers were not there, but who, even in their absence, had a huge presences in those children’s lives. Bella wrote: “I wait and wait. I don’t get a Christmas present or a birthday present. But I know he loves me in his own special way and I think that is what’s special about my dad is that does love me in his own way.” And Daniel wrote: “Dear Father, I don’t say ‘dear dad’, because you have not been a dad to me, have you? I haven’t introduced myself yet. My name is Daniel…You might not remember my mother, but I think about you all the time.”
When I hear voices like these, I realise that it is important for us men to stand up and tell each other that fathering is as important to us as it is to our children. Unless we make the personal political we will never really start to chip away at the obstacles – work being the main one – that prevent us from being the fathers we mean to be. Personally I felt I had to celebrate being a dad right from the beginning. Because you don’t get many chances – and they don’t last that long. It is a truth of which I was reminded recently by a poem in which Adrian Mitchell describes the joy of leading his three-year-old daughter down the stairs. “How her fist fits my palm /A bunch of consolation,” he declares. “We take our time/ Down the steep carpetway. As I wish silently/ That the stairs were endless.”