When my son Jack was born, I was filled with an almost cosmic feeling. I took to the keyboard and rattled off an effusive essay that encapsulated my feelings of fatherly pride and love, factoring in a rejection of God and religion along the way. I saw myself in Jack. He was me, I was him. I understood something of the universe, and my place within it. I poured all of my hopes and dreams into the tiny vessel of his wailing, reddened body. He was my world. He was the world. He was everything.
We were a family.
The problem I now find myself facing, following the birth of my second son, Christopher, is how can I write such a thing twice? How can I feel all of that twice? Look at it this way, through the prism of another variety of human love: if you write a book of poetry for your first wife, what the hell do you give your second wife? Two books of poetry? A Ferrari? A dismembered ear? And given how passionately you articulated your undying love the first time around, how can you convince your second wife that your present feelings are to be believed without cheapening the memory of the just-as-genuine feelings you experienced with your first wife?
It goes without saying that I felt a great rush of relief and happiness when Christopher emerged alive and intact from his maternal cocoon; an explosion of love and affection and an urge to safeguard and protect that was only amplified when I held his fluttering, mewling, helpless little body against my skin for the first time. But I also have this guilty, soul-curdling feeling that, this time around, I didn’t feel as much, or as strongly.
Some of it’s the novelty factor (but imagine that I’ve used a word other than ‘novelty’, which usually conjures up images of an electronic singing fish you’re given for Christmas, laugh at once and then throw in the bin). What I mean is, the whole event and its after-shocks the first time around were unmapped, mysterious and terrifying. Now we know what we’re doing, and we know what to expect. For instance, during the first two weeks of Jack’s existence there wasn’t a single moment where both my partner and I were asleep at the same time. We took it in shifts to sit awake with him, all through the day, all through the night, in a bid to ward off surprise attacks from all manner of unwelcome scenarios. A watched kettle never boils, we reasoned: a watched child never dies.
It’s a gruelling time, as all first-time parents know. Each and every sound Jack made acted upon our nervous systems like a fire alarm. Dangers lurked around every corner, and between each of his miniscule breaths. That fear, which can never fully be exorcised, has now been dampened, and with it, I’m sure, some of the spikes of over-powering relief and devotion that follow in fear’s wake. Christopher can now enjoy a set of new, improved and fully desensitised parents. He could scream like a banshee as a giant mutant hawk splintered in through the living room window, and our response would most likely be some species of Parisian shrug.
I guess some of my more subdued feelings can be attributed to my partner’s style of mothering. She breast-feeds and co-sleeps, meaning that my part in proceedings is necessarily limited. Yes, it’s important that I form a bond with Christopher; it’s important that he knows who I am and comes to recognise me as one of the core people sworn to love and protect him, but nothing is more vital – in these early stages at least – than his bond with his mother. If he’s hungry, she feeds him. If he’s frightened, she soothes him. If he soils himself, she… well, okay, I should probably be doing that, too.
My partner and I decided that the best use of my time during my absence from work would be to concentrate my attentions on Jack; help out the team by occupying its most vocal and demanding member. Take him places and busy him to soften the blow of his mother’s attention being refocused on his little brother. There’s an element of strategy at play, but it’s certainly not an imposition. Jack, at his present stage of development, is endlessly fascinating: his capacity for joy, jokes and affection grows visibly each day; likewise his intelligence, vocabulary and curiosity, the outer-limits of which are increasing exponentially, like a universe expanding. I love being around him, seeing what he does, seeing how he thinks, watching him laugh, coo, cry and dash about, all the while helping to give his critical and emotional faculties a leg-up. He’s fully-formed and ready made, and I can see the difference I make to his life in real-time.
Of course we’ve also been careful to ensure that Jack spends as much time as possible with his mother, both within the wider family and one-on-one; to remind him that although his little brother requires the lion’s share of his mother’s time, he’s not any less important, loved or valued. It’s important for my partner, too, who dearly misses the closeness of the bond she once shared with Jack. In some sense, the baton’s been passed to me. I’ve been privileged these past few weeks to share the bulk of my time with him, and for a long time now I’ve been the one who’s there with him at bed-and-bath times; the one he crawls next to in bed when he toddles through from his bedroom in the dead of night, wrapping his arms around my neck, burrowing into my chest as his body resigns peacefully to sleep.
You’re not allowed to prefer one child over the other. But how can you avoid it? At least initially. How can I feel equal affection for a living toddler and a cluster of cells in my partner’s womb? (Should I feel love for my nutsack, being as it is a site of potential future Jamie and Jemima Juniors?) Or even a living toddler and a screaming, half-blind purple baby who does nothing but gurn, yelp and poo? Imagine you had two mates: one you could sit and watch Ghostbusters with, and then take on an imaginary ghost hunt around your house; and one who just sat there saying nothing and shitting himself all day? Be honest with yourself.
Who you gonna call?
It’s a taboo thought. You’re not supposed to express a preference for one child over the other, under any circumstances. Before I was a parent, I’d hear people talk about sibling rivalries and jealousies, and the parental imbalances that fuelled them, and I’d say, ‘That’s horrendous. A parent should love their kids equally, no matter how many they have, or how different they are. I think it goes without saying.’ And now, as I get older, and especially since becoming a parent, I’ve found myself thinking… hmmmmmm. I’m looking at other people’s families, at their brothers and sisters, and aunties and uncles, and mums and dads, and I’m thinking, ‘Actually, I can see why they might prefer the other one…’
What worries me most is what will happen in a year or two when Jack is much more self-reliant, and his little brother is hitting the same bench-marks that he’s hitting now; when Jack begins his long, slow journey to becoming a responsible and free-thinking boy, shedding his adorableness along the way as the air rings out with a chorus of ‘nos’, ‘whys’ and ‘why nots’, all accompanied by the percussive beat of stamping, tantrum-tapping feet? Will I find myself secretly, perhaps even subconsciously, preferring Christopher? How do I stop myself from feeling this stuff, and if I can’t stop myself from feeling it, then how do I counter the effects of these feelings – how they manifest in my behaviour – to ensure that I screw my kids up as little as humanly possible? Because some element of screwing them up is inevitable. Over to Philip Larkin, who can offer us some concise, brutal and eloquent words on the subject:
This Be The Verse
By Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
All of this has got me to thinking about my grandparents, who came from broods ten and twelve strong. If we accept the proposition that the continuation of our genes is the only real point of existence – biologically-speaking of course – then it figures that the bigger the family, the more perfect the expression of this point. But how are we to square this in-built desire to sire with our modern Western notion of parenthood? A notion that holds at its core the idea that we should be able and willing to devote not just time but ‘quality time’ to our children; to be able to guide them and closely oversee their development as loved and loving, free-thinking individuals? After all, smaller class sizes are better, right? Or, in the context of the family unit, will having multiple siblings actually help promote intelligence and language skills? Anyway, never mind the question ‘How can you love twelve children equally?’: how can you even remember their bloody names?
I genuinely believe that much of Osama bin Laden’s thirst for chaos, death and domination was a direct result of having to share his parents’ presence and affections with literally scores of siblings. Forget ‘middle-child syndrome’. What the hell would you have to do to get noticed in that family? I wonder if young Osama began his mission for attention in the traditional manner, perhaps by riding his bike up the street shouting, ‘Look, papa, look at me, no hands!’ (Although that’s probably a phrase you’d be more likely to hear from a Saudi kid after they’ve stolen a bike) Look, Papa, look, I’ve got an ear-ring! I’ve got a tattoo! I’m living in a cave, a real-ass cave, Dad, look, look at me, look at my beard, it’s so long, and my minions, I’ve got minions, Dad, thousands of minions!!! Do any of my other brothers have minions, hmmmm? Hmmmm? I’m even on TV. Dad!! Dad!!!?? Dad!!!!!? Won’t you look at me? Can’t you see what… Oh, fuck it. [launches terrorist attack on the US mainland]. NOW YOU’LL NOTICE ME, DAD!
Osama’s Dad: [sighs] Why couldn’t you have just been a painter and decorator like your brother, Barry bin Laden?
It seems that I’m so loathe to engage with my feelings on this subject that I’ve taken us down a highway of distraction to 9/11 itself. Sorry about that. Here’s both an update and a coda, though. While I’ve been writing this article, Christopher has been changing and growing. Yes, he still lists his favourite hobbies as pooing and drinking milk, but the more he’s in my life, and the more times I hold him in my arms and see my reflection in the milky black of his tiny feral eyes, the greater the power he exerts over my heart. I was cradling him in my arms a few days ago, and caught sight of us both in the mirror. I know he’s tiny, and helplessly delicate, but something about that moment, about seeing it and feeling it, caused a sharp surge, like a shock of electricity, to zap down my spine. My little boy.
Yesterday, as I lay Christopher down to change his nappy, he looked up at me, little limbs flailing like a penguin who’s really bad at dancing, and his face contorted into a smile. I know he’s too young for real smiles, and this was just a wind-sponsored facsimile. Try telling that to my heart. He made a wee cooing noise too. We’re a bit far from ‘Daddy’ at this stage of his linguistic development, but never-the-less: I heard Daddy anyway.
I think we’re going to be okay.
[But, just to be clear, Jack’s still in the lead so far!]
[PS: Hi, Christopher-of-the-future. Thanks for reading this. This is the reason you’re a heroin addict today. Love you!]
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Being at the birth
Happy Father’s Day… to me?
On the horror of taking your child to hospital
A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding
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Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs
The (not-so) hidden horror of your children’s fairy tales
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