Sons bring you gifts from the heart. Drooping dandelions. Half-eaten bags of potato chips. Saveloys. Plastic daffodils. Pop- eyed plaster pug dogs. Cans of lager. Strange scent. Second-hand books – tatty or antique. Hugs.
Pam Brown, b. 1928.
Sometime in 1977, in the full flush of testosterone rebellion, I shared my theory of parental responsibility with my late mother. ‘I don’t owe you guys anything,” I chortled, from my perch on the battered kitchen cupboard. “I never asked to be brought to this planet. If I ever decide to make a child, the same rule will apply to me. I won’t expect anything in return from my child. In fact, I’ll owe my child everything. That’s how the world goes.’ And my mother’s eyes watered and she bit her lip: ‘You’ll only understand something about your life if you find someone unfortunate enough to give you a child.’
Men will eternally fret about this parenthood business. Two weeks ago in Rome, I was collected by a short taxi driver called Fabrizio who blurted out that he had just found his girlfriend was pregnant. I spontaneously launched into a checklist of scans, communications strategy (don’t tell anyone, till 3 months have gone), pre-natal holidays and the real costs of baby gear (say yes to hand-me downs). I exited the cab leaving the guy looking more bewildered than grateful.
My son Jacob is nearly six. I’m past the terror stage with parenthood. My life has morphed seamlessly from three year-old tantrums to a maze of cartoons, puppets, teachers, egos, giggles, homework, parties, wizards, waiting, rushing, mid-air hugs, a story every night at bed time.
I’m like millions of other men: running to keep up with the constant change. Most times, I’m just left playing catch up. I have no idea how he worked out how to use a mouse, let alone a Playstation console. In one week, he went from staccato reading to something close to writing his own poetry. At this age, a child’s brain is a sponge while your middle-aged version stutters and loses hundreds of neurons a day.
Sons bring exclamation marks into your life. They hang out of the back window of your car, repeat your expletives in front of strangers, see things you have forgotten to notice. Don’t you still wish you could still feel the wind on your face, making soup of your hair, caressing you like you didn’t have a care in the world?
Nobody can touch my Saturday mornings. Rain or shine, most times we’re walking from Manoel Island to Sliema for our breakfast and cornettos. The timeshare touts and the harbour cruise guys look at his hair and try and sell us stuff on the way. Jacob has taken to saying ‘Jiena patrijott Malti’ to facilitate our passage. It doesn’t help that he likes collecting brochures for his scrapbook
Kids this age want to belong. So you struggle with haircuts, clothing, anything that they think differentiates them from the world they roam in. You still get tears. Pickles the bear gets spun in the washing machine when nobody is looking.
Young kids don’t lie. Well, not much. “How come you have such a big, fat belly?” screamed Amber, at a portly executive Dad at a kids’ party. “How come you’ve lost your pants?” retorted her cousin at the edge of the pool. Truth is brutal and harmless, slices through the crap we concoct as adults to keep things under wraps, get on with people and survive the day to day.
Some things are being figured out. “Is it possible for grown ups not to work in an office and do work they like? I’d rather paint pictures and have people pay me for that!” There is a growing sense of what is right and wrong. The worst thing you can do, to a child, is accuse him of a misdemeanour he has not done.
Sex kicks in early. They are suddenly aware of their bodies and private parts. Changing on the beach is becoming a bit of a shenanigans. The girls on the playground already have older boyfriends. The boys slam into each other, play Power Rangers. Jacob watches his cousin Scarlett doing her ballerina pirouettes with a mix of affection and bewilderment.
Imagination runs riot. I need to write down his tales of Oink the Pig, the Bully Beef Butcher out to get Oink’s bacon and Dr Snitch the wily rat trying to make sure he doesn’t. I keep the first poem he wrote in my laptop case.
I still can’t do discipline. Where do you draw the line when a child turns up his nose at tomatoes with a summer looming of only tomatoes to buy and eat? I watch his fork hovering over his plate and remember my terror of anything remotely green or orange. Though his phobia is red.
Kids magnify your own inadequacies. I was never good at making kites. I don’t understand the big deal about knights and sieges, or goldfish who speak to him at night. I worry about him spending too much time with adults, and whether an only child invariably grows earnest and distant and bookish. Then I watch him in a scrum with some school friends and I heave a sigh of relief.
The older he gets, the more questions I have. What’s the difference between assertiveness and arrogance? Standing on his own feet and not standing on someone else’s toes? How can I help him grow the thick skin I’ve never had? At what time do children realise that you are not ‘Mr know it all’; that you are vulnerable, like they are; that on a bad day, because of the life baggage we have, we can be far from role models and be total scum bags? How can we just not give them baggage, period?
He now understands that death is the end of life. Ants die, cats die, people in his book on famous people die. I take him through some scanned pictures of my mother. He wants to know why hospitals could not save her.
Sometimes I blink, and see networks of my family tree over his shoulder. I look at his flat feet and despair at the genetic legacy I have bequeathed him. There are nights when my fear of loss are the trigger for nightmares that every parent experiences; sometimes I close my eyes and think of his goofy face to keep out the dark stuff.
I know the connected, virtual, online world he is inhabiting is far removed from my safe, island childhood. And that’s OK. Because we are finally raising citizens of the world, not little islanders.
Everybody wants something for their child. I want to give mine a trampoline for his life and his dreams. I want to find time and space for him – away from the baying attention of phones, computers, the need to make a living. Hopefully, I will remember something about my own growing up pains and not pass them on to him. When the time comes, I hope I will not make a total ass of myself. And just let go.
All I want is for my child to know that I continue to muddle in this parenthood business in good faith. And that every time I think of him, wherever I am, or see his face on my mobile, I smile and know that at least I got one thing right in my life.
I do owe my child. Everything.