John Birmingham: What being a dad means to me

Birmo's felafel days might be behind him, but he’s fine with that – he’s somewhere new.

John Birmingham Author Dad

I once witnessed a grown man throw a spectacular hissy fit because he hadn’t been able to surf – “Not once!” – on a family holiday to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

It would be great for this story if that grown man turned out to be me, and this was a story of me realising I was being a dick. But no, it was just some long-boarding douchebro who’d finally had enough of the ‘commando phase’ of early parenthood (special transport, special equipment, detailed planning) and decided to explode in the car park at a McDonald’s.

He hadn’t realised that there’s no such thing as a ‘family holiday’. There is only ‘travel with children’, which has precisely nothing to do with winding down and relaxing.

I get it though.

Before we landed on Planet Parenthood, we lived at Bondi, about a minute and a half’s walk from the beach. It was a pretty sweet set up for a childless couple.

Lotsa bars and places to eat out. The surf nice and close for burning off those empty calories. Close to the city for work, but removed from it so completely that we could actually turn off when we clocked off.

We had great neighbours too, one of whom I still think about years later. He was an American guy, a fashion photographer, who travelled all over the world with his job and his impossibly glamorous girlfriend, a make-up maven, herself of paralysing beauty.

It was a small block, only four apartments, but everyone respected each other’s space and we got on well because of that. It was strange then to find myself in a long conversation with American Joe a few weeks before our daughter was born.

The topic of the day? Fatherhood.

It’s kind of a big deal-breaker

Joe was feeling a lot of pressure from his girlfriend to ‘commit’ – not just to her but to having kids. He didn’t want to. He was honest about it. He had a great job and a great life, and he knew that children would be the end of it.

Jetting all over the world shooting covers for fashion mags isn’t compatible with nappies, teething, sleeplessness, chaos and madness. People pretend nothing will change, he said, but they’re wrong. They don’t understand what’s involved.

Joe and his girl? They broke up over it. Gotta say I felt a little guilty about that. Still do. But I guess it was always coming. She wanted kids and he didn’t. His reasons were entirely selfish, but he knew himself well enough to understand what having children would mean and how ill-equipped he was for the sacrifice.

And that, I admired. That was some world-class self awareness right there.

Most of us don’t have that. Sunshine Coast Douchebro didn’t have that. We pretend. We posture. We lie to ourselves. But American Joe was right. A newborn will land on your chill zone like a ten kiloton nuke launched from high orbit.

Know this going in, accept it, understand it, and you’re halfway to avoiding the stress and even the shock that can derail a relationship in the months after the two original members have to make room for a third.

“It’s gonna be hard on you, getting your head out of your arse, where I can assure you it’s been planted for most of your life.”

So here’s my first pro tip to you. If you get a chance, any chance no matter how small, to take a bit of time for yourself and your partner in those early, insane months, grab it.

But don’t imagine for a second it’s going to be anything like taking back some of your old life. It’s not. It’ll be more like Sunshine Coast Douchebro coming up for a desperate gulp of air when he’s caught inside by a five-wave set.

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Maybe you’ll get a fifteen minute nap on the floor of the living room, your head resting on a plush toy that smells vaguely of milk vomit. Enjoy! It could be years before you experience such luxury again.

And if you have a choice between you getting that nap and mum closing her eyes for ten minutes? Man up and give her the break. She needs it more than you do. She’ll need it more than you for the next eighteen years.

It’s gonna be hard on you, getting your head out of your arse, where I can assure you it’s been planted for most of your life. But take some comfort from knowing it’s going to be even harder for your friends.

Those friends will regard your newborn like a new car that should be polished up and taken out for a spin at the first opportunity. I recall friends of ours insisting we all go to lunch so they could meet our daughter, a few weeks after she arrived.

I guess they imagined passing her around like an entree plate. I told them, no, Anna would be staying at home and sleeping, which she liked to do for about twenty hours a day at that point.

But if they wanted the authentic experience of a newborn at lunch, I’d record a screaming child and let them listen to it through a really excellent pair of headphones. One rule: they couldn’t take off the cans or turn down the volume. They could only turn it up.

Our luncheon invites tapered off dramatically after that.

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Fatherhood is an adventure. Embrace it.

I’m not trying to freak you out or put you off. You’ve decided to walk this path now. You’re on it. Walk it to the end.

But do it like a man. Or an explorer, if that helps.

Accept the challenges, the hardships, the lack of naps and civilised lunches. You’ll get somewhere good in the end.

But this place you’re going? It’s not like where you’ve been.

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