The parental paradox: fatherhood vs freedom

A while back, I wrote an article for Sunday Life in which I admitted to wanting a baby. This, apparently, was quite an unusual confession for a man to make – in which case all I can conclude is that given the birth rate, there are a lot of guys around who are either hopelessly out of touch with their feelings, or pretty darn unhappy with the amount of sleeping they’re getting right about now.

The article got a surprising response. A lot of my friends read it, albeit primarily for mockery purposes, and it enticed quite a few men to write into Sunday Life about their own experiences. Some of the commenters suggested that I was brave, which seemed bizarre – surely if I were brave, I’d have succeeded in communicating the whole baby-having concept to some specific woman, rather than simply gasbagging about it into the ether?

I received a few invitations to come and talk about it on mid-morning radio programmes, quite a few internet comments and some faintly disturbing emails into the bargain. Perhaps the most curious result of all was that the piece was republished on Fairfax’s Executive Style website.

Flash forward to last weekend, as I was driving back from yet another visit to yet another couple who have just produced their second baby (a form of reproductive gloating if ever I saw one – hey, we’re so fertile we even have a spare!) it occurred to me that it must have been about two years since I wrote that article. And in this, at least, my biological clock was spot on – it’s two years this week.

First, to answer the obvious question – I’m still not a father. (As far as you know, people sometimes quip under these circumstances, but given the terrifying expense of inner-city living nowadays, let’s just say that I think the mother would have been in touch.) My progress towards that particular life goal can best be described as minimal.

But although I’ve accumulated a grand total of zero offspring over the past two years, I have spent a great deal of time in the company of babies and their parents. And while the desire for fatherhood is, if anything, stronger than ever, the picture has grown considerable more nuanced. Here, then, are the five things I’ve learned in the past two years.

1) Toddlers are even better than babies

Okay, we might as well start with the sappy bit. If anything, I’m cluckier than I was two years ago because I’ve come to appreciate how great toddlers are. Two years ago, my friends mostly had newborns. They’re delightful in their own way, of course, and the portability factor was certainly a plus – many parents I know simply carted their babies around with them to a succession of great restaurants, and parked them safely under the table.

But as adorable as babies can be, it’s when they graduate to toddler status and gain the ability to converse that they start to become excellent company. I’ve had more engrossing conversations about Toy Story lately than I would ever have imagined, even if my interlocutor seems not to realise that Zurg is meant to be the bad guy.

What’s more, the older a child gets, the less likely they are to randomly spray miscellaneous fluids over you, and that has to count as a plus.

2) It’s a bigger sacrifice than I realised

One hour with a baby is almost always delightful. They can be hilarious, sweet, occasionally a little irritating if in a bad mood, but for the most part, they are splendid in small doses. But after a protracted period of playtime, I sometimes find myself wanting to do other things. As time goes by, I find myself inventing games with the specific objective of tiring the child out. Because until they finally drift off, any other task I may have, no matter how urgent, simply has to be put on hold. I’ve seen friends run out of wedding ceremonies (from the audience!) because their children suddenly decided to race off somewhere, or couldn’t remain silence. This requires a fairly radical adjustment in priorities, to say the least. Because in the rest of my life, the only capricious, unpredictable whims I’m forced to cater to are my own.

What especially freaks me out is the idea of this child-prioritisation engulfing the whole of my non-work life. Of eating out, going to a movies and having a beer with friends becoming an impractical dream, and entering the permafrazzled state of my poor sleep-deprived friends.

It’s at this point in the conversation that my parent friends remind me that they’re just as wistfully envious of my total lack of responsibility for any other living being as I am about the adorable dependency of their offspring. Sometimes a babysitter will allow them to escape for a precious evening evening, most of which they’ll devote to commenting on just how weird it is to have a night out, and how much they miss it. By the end of the night, they’ll often be occasionally hugging and rocking themselves, like shell-shock victims. And since I’m a person who views a Saturday night spent indoors as a personal failing, I wonder how on earth I’ll ever be able to adapt to that.

When my parent friends are waxing lyrical about how lucky I am to have all of this free time, I gently suggest that there are times when it can be a tad lonesome. I mean, there are some weekend days when I realise I’ve forgotten to organise anything, so the entire day looms with absolutely nothing to do. But of course when I mention that, I’m describing their most cherished fantasy.

3) There’s no middle ground

Or at least it’s difficult to achieve without a phalanx of grandparents and/or professional carers – I gather that Hollywood celebrities manage it. What we all want, I suspect, is the joy of parenting maybe 70-80% of the time, but the ability to ditch the sprogs now and then to enjoy what remains of our youths. To be fair, this is something that most parents manage to achieve by the time their kids hit primary school and are able to be left with babysitters or, better yet, to fend for themselves.

But with young children, the compromise position simply doesn’t exist, at least without shared custody arrangements, and of course that results from a whole pile of other difficulties. And this realisation has made me realise that I’d better enjoy my freedom while it lasts, however long that may be, because as soon as I’m a dad, it’ll be more or less over forever.

That said, some dads I know have managed to negotiate the odd week away with their mates. All I can say is that I hope I’m allowed to do that someday, and that the women who have agreed to this are both saints and deserving of their own childless weeks as payback, just as soon as their kids are old enough.

4) The fear sets in

I’m lucky to be male, and not just because for us, childbirth is a process that gets outsourced to somebody else. I’m lucky because the fertility clock simply doesn’t affect me the same way. I’m now 35, the age at which pregnant women are routinely offered amniocentesis and other tests (although this is the subject of debate, like absolutely every other medical aspect of childrearing). I’m sure it’s a great deal more stressful being 35 and wondering whether your capacity to conceive children might decline before you can do so.

But it’s still stressful wondering if it will ever happen for you, and if it does, whether you’ll be too old to be able to enjoy it, or even participate fully. I still find myself doing the maths that says – well, if I have a child when I’m 40, then I’ll be 61 at its 21st. If I have a child at 50, there’s a higher chance that I won’t be able to be a grandparent myself. And the longer I leave it, the less capacity there is for grandparents to help out, which I’ve come to appreciate is a vital factor.

The fear is still mild, and only really bites when I’m actually hanging out with young families. But with every passing year, I can tell that it will grow.

5) It’s just too darn hard to do with the wrong person

Here’s the kicker. There are people in committed relationships who want to have children but can’t, and that’s a different kind of unfortunate situation, of course. But most of the reluctantly childless people I know haven’t found the right relationship. I reckon they’re wise to wait nevertheless.

Sure, there are times when I start to appreciate the point of arranged marriages. But then I reflect on just how much of a jolt parenthood is, and just how much strain sleep-deprivation and the radical contraction of their freedom has placed on my friends’ relationships. And that reminds me that it’s worth waiting for a person with whom the process can be as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.

Above all, it requires you to trust and respect your partner more than anything else in your relationship. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are an apt illustration of why parents should share their fundamental values, and this applies to questions like the choice of school and where to live as well as to questions like the plausibility of Scientology. Even such minutiae as how much television kids should watch can spark intense arguments.

I simply can’t imagine how awful it must be to doubt your partner’s wisdom, or to send the child off in a car with their parent, worrying about whether they can drive safely. I hope I never have to find out.

What I’ve come to appreciate in the past two years is not only how great parenthood is, but how hard it is. It’s made me appreciate what my parents did for me, and what my friends do for their children. And it’s made me realise that even though my script for my life had me being a parent by 35, and I still regret that it hasn’t happened, there are people who have it considerably worse than me as well as better. I’m lucky ahead of me, I still have the chance to get it right.

What’s more, I’ve come to appreciate from my trapped parent-friends, who can think of nothing more pleasant than spending a day in my irresponsible shoes, that the grass is always greener, whether there’s a tricycle on yours or not.

One Response to The parental paradox: fatherhood vs freedom

  1. simon 5 August 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    Hi Dom,

    A very interesting article.

    I am in a similar position to yourself in that “the plan” hasn’t quite turned out as planned! Having just come from an afternoon with friends who were showing off their first born, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say it’s important to get the right relationship before jumping into parenthood. Until recently (having seen a few close friends adjusting to parenthood) I have never quite appreciated how much strain t would put on a relationship. f you have parent thrust upon yourself when the relationship isn’t quite right, I reckon it would be an absolute nightmare. Or perhaps I am just trying to justify my own single & childless status. Either way, a very good read Dom.

    Cheers,
    S.

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