This piece was published in M Magazine last Sunday, on 26th June 2005, accompanied by a picture I had taken of me and Jacob (linked to this blog).
They may not mean to, but they do.
From ‘This Be the Verse’ by Philip Larkin (1922-1985)
I became a father because of 9/11, and a conviction that a man’s sperm count ebbed after the age of 40. Until 2001, kids never featured on my life agenda. Most of my friends did not have them. Those who did belonged to a club of red eyes who worried about schooling, discipline, child-friendly restaurants – and always left a party early. And I had read the famous Philip Larkin piece early on in life, ending seminally: “… and don’t have kids yourself.” When 9/11 happened, something deep inside my belief system changed. And I kept on thinking…. ‘If something like that happened to me…. Who would I call?’ I could count the number of people on one hand. I was convinced that the world as I knew it was coming to an end. By the end of September 2001, I was in a rush to leave my biological paw print on the planet. I really wanted to have a child. With hindsight, in the general Richter scale of emotions, this was a totally illogical, selfish way of dealing with an existential crisis. But I talked my wife into believing that there was no harm in ‘trying’ as the chances of ‘success’ were remote. We were both middle-aged, stressed out and probably past our sell-by date. In typical fashion, six weeks later, my wife announced she was pregnant and I hit the return key on my keyboard in the middle of a Word document. That moment started the rollercoaster I will ride till I die. The reality of something ‘big’ about to happen clicked with the second scan, when I was pointed to a cursor on the monitor and told ‘That’s the baby’s heart.’ That is how I fell in love with Jacob, as a cursor on a screen. He got his name from Dylan’s son, his fair hair from his mother, and he arrived on 13th August 2002 in the middle of a sultry night. And for the first time in my life, I cried tears of joy and could not stop. Fatherhood is the scariest, funniest, most primitive and perhaps the only meaningful experience of my 43 years of life. Someone once told me that when you become a father, it’s as if someone switches the light on, and you go into another room of your life. I make no claim to being a good father. For the first six months of Jacob’s life, I struggled with the lack of sleep, and sometimes chickened out to crash out in the spare room. It took me ages to find the nerve to give the child a bath on my own. I had never changed a light bulb, let alone a nappy – so, initially, there were mishaps. I could not get the buggy to unfold out of the car boot. I scoured parenting websites and constantly hit low scores for ‘New Dad’ and ‘Emotional Crutch’. The scariest book by far is Gina Ford’s ‘The Contented Little Baby Book’, which drills a merciless regime for both child and parents to follow, 24/7. I tried to adjust to a new vernacular: bottle-sterilising, nappy-changing, teething, burping, colic. Sometimes I found myself peripheral. But I muddled through it. I realised that the little guy was actually sturdier than I thought. And his desire for independence was clear from day one. I wanted to spend more time with him not because of some macho ‘pride in my next of kin’, but because it was a privilege to be close to a beautiful creature that was totally innocent, in a hurry to learn and see the world with totally new eyes. Like millions of men before me, I cheered the first word, step and nursery rhyme, sweated my way through the first bout of ‘flu, drove on two wheels so he could have his first butterfly stitches. Things change I’ve lost my living room floor space to a mountain of train sets, play dough, flash cards and colouring books. You sit on a sofa cushion at your own risk. My CD collection sits nervously, waiting for the next crash. Smudge the cat regularly retreats to the chair in the garden. I cannot remember the last time I overslept. Nothing beats ‘Daddy, are you awake?’ for a thunderbolt 6.30 am wake up call. I worry He shows no interest in AC Milan. His favourite word is ‘Why?’ He has watched Thomas the Tank Engine 127 times. He insists on trying to teach English to Pickles, his teddy bear. He has got as far as ‘P’ is for ‘Pickles’. His love of trucks and diggers is inversely proportional to my dislike for the permanent building site of this island. He makes me laugh Potty training took a different turn the morning he confided in me that ‘Mummy’s willy had fallen off’. My first attempt at sex education, during one of our walks, hit a wall. ‘Jacob, you were once in Mummy’s belly,’ I announced, thinking of Jonah and the whale. ‘How did I come out?’ came the quick-fire question ‘With a big push,’ I replied, latching on to a moment of inspiration. Two days later: ‘Daddy, how did I get into mummy’s belly?’ I thought of telling him ‘with an even bigger push’… but changed the subject. I wonder if I’ve changed I am learning how to share. One iPod headphone for each of us. But I still get to choose the music. His life is more important than mine. He is the only person I love unconditionally. I refuse to judge those who choose not to have children. I was one of them. Parenthood is a personal choice. I am allergic to the starry-eyed, Mother Earth approach to raising a child. This much I know I cannot be his role model. I just hope he will remember me kindly. And before that happens, I would like us both to walk down to Greenwich in Manhattan and hit the 55 Bar at 10pm, just as the jazz kicks in. Because part of him belongs there, with me, in the city that never sleeps, in the metropolis of ash, bone and re-birth. Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams From ‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931)