“Ahead of my first child’s birth, I lived in a state of blind terror because I simply did not know what to do.”
It took me a long time to decide I was ready to become a dad.
In fact, I never really did decide I was ready to become a dad. Oh, I decided to become one: I just never actually achieved a state of readiness.
Many years later, I still don’t think I’m ready. I don’t think I’m a terrible father, mind you: I just still feel like I’m making it up as I go along.
I don’t know whether all parents feel the same way, but I suspect that my experience is not a unique one.
It comes down to one crucial question: how does one be a father?
And the unfortunate fact is that, if there is an answer, it’s a complicated and confusing one and doesn’t reveal itself easily.
A state of blind terror
Ahead of my first child’s birth, I lived in a state of blind terror because I simply did not know what to do.
This ignorance was all-enveloping, and included everyday worries like how to change a nappy or give a feed, as well as bigger and more abstract issues like how to boost a child’s self-esteem or be a proper role model.
I learned how to change a nappy, but the terror never quite went away.
It flared up very badly indeed in the lead-up to my twin daughters’ births – if I was clueless about how to be a dad to one child, how would I handle two?
Also, why do all the other dads have it sorted?
Now, angst over impending fatherhood might be bearable – if it weren’t for the fact that all around you are signs that you should be doing much better.
Other dads, for a start.
Common sense might tell you that there must be other men who suffer self-doubt; who haven’t a clue how to handle their new role.
But when you’re in the lead-up to fatherhood, all you ever seem to see around you are strong, decisive, capable fathers.
Maybe they’re going home every night to cry themselves to sleep, but when you run across them they’re relaxed and in control and taking to fatherhood like ducks to water.
They don’t just know how to change nappies, they know how to discipline a child, when to be hard and when to be soft, how to talk to a little kid without embarrassment, and how to push a pram with one child clinging on to their hand and another skipping ahead and almost running into traffic.
These dads, they are DADS, and seeing them just reminds you of how much of a dad you aren’t.
And don’t even get me started on the mums
But the other dads were nothing compared to my wife.
While I fretted that I would never be ready for parenthood, it seemed like she’d been ready for it since birth.
I couldn’t figure out how she knew so much about child-rearing without having done some kind of course, but nothing fazed her, no detail seemed to surprise her, she made plans for the coming baby with the cool, calm certainty of General Patton, though with less swearing (the birth itself was a different story).
The magic dad gene
All this stuff makes you wonder if you’re missing something.
Call it the “dad gene”. Something inherent in a man that makes him a confident, capable father.
Why did I not possess this mystical quality?
Why is it that, in a world full of men who were not only certain they were ready for fatherhood, but had a handle on every aspect of it once it arrived, I had been born lacking this most crucial of attributes?
It was like a kind of paternal anaemia: the dad cells were in desperately short supply.
Maybe I needed a transfusion.
Fatherhood is learned (and earned)
It was all terribly harrowing. But there’s a happy fact about fatherhood: a man learns.
He learns to do the boring practical stuff, and if he never becomes an expert on exactly how to be a role model, he gets a little better every day.
He learns a lot about himself, as well – but most of all he learns about other parents. And what he learns is this: nobody knows anything.
Sure, some dads – and mums – are better prepared than others for the arrival of a child. Some have read all the books and all the articles and come to it armed to the teeth with knowledge.
Others have been learning about child-rearing since they were kids, helping raise their siblings.
And others are like muggins here, having no experience, no clue, and no confidence in themselves.
But none of them know what it’s going to be like. And once it happens, none of them embark on the journey with a hundred per cent certainty that every move they make will be the right one.
Oh thank God, nobody knows anything
That’s the most profound, and most comforting fact about fatherhood I ever stumbled onto: the fact that I’m one of a vast population of dads, all going into it in that state of blind terror, all fumbling around in the dark, all making it up as we go along.
And as your life as a dad proceeds, and your kids grow and change and you get more used to it, you realise that being a dad never was about certainty or control or a special gene that grants you supernatural fathering powers.
Being a dad is about working hard, refusing to give up, and every time you make a decision, triple-checking yourself to make sure that it’s being made out of your own irresistible drive to be the best dad you can be.
It’s also, of course, about faking it, just a little bit, so that when another dad passes by, they see a cool, calm, collected master of his domain.
Because we dads are like that – we don’t like to showcase the fact we’re clueless.
But trust me, we all are. And being clueless never stopped anyone from being a great dad.
The terror might never go away, dads, but it just might be easier to handle if you know you’re not alone.