The experience of fatherhood has been great for GARY STEEL. Well, apart from the parts that leave him feeling hollow. And stuck. And in… a very dark place.
“You’re really not supposed to admit to that,” said my old friend, who quickly moved the conversation onto a less personal topic.
I’d been telling him about the difficult times I’d been experiencing as an older parent with young children. How my 4-year-old often drove me to a deep rage, which then turned in on itself, occasionally prompting dark thoughts.
About how the lack of sleep and the constant demands and the loss of nearly all valuable regenerating “me” time often left me feeling hollow and stuck. And about how the sense of parental failure often permeates through me. To such an extent that it results in deep-seated feelings of guilt.
“About how the lack of sleep and the constant demands and the loss of regenerating “me” time often left me feeling hollow and stuck”
I felt churlish for mentioning it against the catastrophic breakdown of my friend’s marriage and the consequences thereof.
I love my wife and two kids more than life itself. And I love life a lot. I’d also been lucky to have been able to experience life as a young man without the burden of marriage and kids.
But there it is, in black and white: the burden of marriage and children. It’s baked into our language. This thought that being tied down to marriage, and subsequently raising children, is a real downer.
I never had that attitude. Instead, I was philosophically opposed to marriage and children. For the boring reason that true love shouldn’t need a certificate. And, well, there’s a population explosion already without me adding to it.
It’s true that my life would have been shaped very differently had I been saddled (there it is again, the vernacular) with children at a young age. I would have had to get a “real” job. Rather than live the partially itinerant, financially risky existence I ended up experiencing as I started (and ultimately, failed at) various business ventures along the way.
As a music writer, I would have lost a lot of my listening and writing time. And would have struggled to make it out to the thousands of concerts I’ve attended over my “career” in journalism.
“It’s true that my life would have been shaped very differently had I been saddled with children at a young age”
Not having children was just freakish good luck, though. It could have happened at any time. And I never did give any credence to the idea that a child was a “burden”. Until I had them, that is. And realised what an incredibly tough job it is.
My blueprint for children, and the way I always envisaged it being, was through watching Italian movies. You know, those semi-rural films where an extended family is sitting outdoors on a huge table. And the parents are eating and drinking red wine; the kids doing their thing and having their own dramas. But somehow, it’s all just part of the milieu.
This was my dream of family life, I guess. Where having children is more or less like growing pot plants: give ‘em a bit of water and a bit of soil conditioning … and they’ll take care of themselves.
It’s not like that.
It can feel like a living hell, being accountable 24/7 to a tiny “need machine.”
But don’t misinterpret me. It can also be the best thing in the world. That’s just one of the reasons I find this parenthood thing hard to process. The love I feel for both my children is so strong that it hurts.
And it’s a type of love I’ve never experienced before. It’s not that yearning, tomcat yowling love you feel when you fall for a woman. And it’s not the complicated love you feel for your parents. It’s child-specific. It’s a primal love. One all parents have, unless they’re hardwired wrong: a love that makes sure you know that it’s your prime directive to PROTECT and NURTURE these little urchins.
“It can feel like a living hell, being accountable 24/7 to a tiny “need machine”
There’s also the bliss you sometimes feel – the sheer joy – of spending quality time with your children. Or even just sharing a smile and feeling the sense of wonder of it all.
But it’s a bipolar experience: unparalleled. “Everything is right with the world” joy one minute, countered with deep rage the next. A cauldron of emotions brought on by the sheer emotional madness of little people.
If I hadn’t experienced parenthood myself, I wouldn’t have believed the emotional troughs and highs it would put me through. And my inability to control the situation. That’s a big part of the issue.
“But it’s a bipolar experience unparalleled, a cauldron of emotions brought on by the sheer emotional madness of little people”
I’m a natural problem-solver. And for every problem life brings up, I’m analytical and active in solving them. Except the issues that parenthood raises are beyond problem solving. And they involve coming to terms with the fact that you simply have to accept a range of compromises in your life. And that those compromises will continue apace, for a very long time.
And then there’s the matter of age. I now wish that I’d had children about 20 years earlier than I did. Because I’ve got less energy. And I’m crankier and frankly, I’m not sure I’ve got it in me to work for the rest of my life, to put my children through school.
And then there are scenes that feel like they come straight out of Eraserhead. Where the baby is crying incessantly with that indescribably nerve-jangling tone. One that only babies have. And the 4-year-old is niggling incessantly. And you’re stuck at the dinner table, unable to manage a single sentence of a conversation with the wife. Because of all the noise and commotion.
But even as I write, I can visualise the slaughter that awaits me on social media, for daring to air my personal difficulties with late-in-life fatherhood. So don’t get me wrong, please.
“And you’re stuck at the dinner table, unable to manage a single sentence of a conversation with the wife because of all the noise and commotion”
I’m not complaining, I’m explaining. Which brings me back to my friend. And the opinion that it’s somehow wrong to give any oxygen to this subject. Perhaps it’s because fathers feel like they’ve failed. But they also feel that it’s wrong to talk about the difficulties; that everything sometimes just falls apart. Spectacularly.
In truth, I count my blessings several times every day. Because I know that I’m luckier than many. But ignoring the issues that present themselves – or worse still, pretending they don’t exist because we’re not supposed to expose weakness – can’t be a good thing.