I’d really like to be a great dad. I’d like to be the sort of dad I see on TV—the dad who is carefree, fun and an excellent role model for his impressionable and adorable kids. At the moment, I can’t claim that title. If I’m being honest, and I am, I’m probably a mediocre dad at best—a 5 out of 10. My wife would disagree; she would say I’m an excellent dad and that our daughter is lucky to have me, but she’s a nice person and nice people are prone to lying. My problem is, I don’t really know what I’m doing.
Before I had kids I was happy. That sounds mean, but don’t read it that way. I’m happy now too, mostly. But it’s a different kind of happy. Back in the good old days, unburdened and fancy free, I could do what I wanted. I was excellent at being selfish, and to an extent, I still am. I remember lying in bed, taking my extended sleep time for granted. Life would never change; I would be the master of my own fate forever. Way back when, if somebody were to invite me out, I could go without issue or second thought. I could stay out all night if I wanted. I could drink and be merry. I could run naked through the tall grass. I never did those things at the time, but now I want to more than ever.
I’ve learned that raising a child is a unique experience that can’t be summed up with any real degree of certainty in any parenting book you might buy. I read What To Expect When Your Wife Is Expecting on a work trip to Brisbane. I read it from cover to cover in three days and put it down feeling supremely confident that I was going to ace this fatherhood thing.
It all started to go wrong during labor. My wife was doing her darndest to get the little homewrecker out and the friendly midwife wanted to involve dear old dad in the birth regardless of how I felt about it. Seeing a child being born is a wondrous, miraculous horror show that I wouldn’t ever recommend to anyone. The birth was nothing like what I had read about. Turns out babies actually come out covered in all sorts of gunk (TV grossly misrepresents this) and they don’t even rinse them off before they hand them over to you. It’s barbaric.
After a couple of days in a hospital surrounded by experts, you’re suddenly expected to take this new life home and raise it. My wife became an instant expert. She’s rather infuriating like that. I struggled from the beginning. I, in a bad comedy montage, incorrectly fastened onesies, got pooped on, cried in the bathroom, walked around in a sleep-deprived haze and failed to ever figure out the correct way to swaddle. Remember in Friends when Ross and Rachel’s baby was born and it just fit into their lives perfectly and nobody was ever stressed out and Ross never threatened to murder the child in its sleep? That is the exact opposite of what having a kid is really like.
I celebrated with gusto when our daughter slept through the night for the first time. Nine months of broken, turbulent sleep had started to take its toll when all of a sudden, like an early Christmas present, she slept for a solid eight hours. I didn’t sleep. I lay awake worrying that she had died. I didn’t want to go and check because what happened if she was dead? What would I do? Best just to lie back, worry and not sleep. I had practice not sleeping; I was good at it.
I think it’s more than just the unknown that makes me doubt my parenting skills. I haven’t taken to fatherhood like I hoped I would. I try really hard to do what I think is best for my daughter, but more often than not I end up making the wrong decision and I worry that I’ve screwed up her entire life. But what nobody tells you is it’s really hard to give up parts of your old life, the parts that let you live however you want. And when you have a child, suddenly your life isn’t about you anymore. Your priority becomes somebody else, somebody outside of yourself who is completely dependent on you. To the self-centered person, it’s completely irritating. I know it’s supposed to be fulfilling, and sometimes it is, but a lot of the time you just want to send them back to where they came from and go back to your old life.
I think what makes the whole thing more difficult is the lack of support for dads. I imagine a group of new fathers, walking through the park pushing our strollers and chatting about the trials and tribulations of raising a kid. But those situations are confined to movies. In reality, most of the emphasis on childcare is still with the mother, and even though I like to think we’re a pretty modern couple, we’ve fallen into traditional parenting roles, with my wife spending the most time with our daughter.
I’d love to be able to spend more time with my daughter, but I know I’d also hate it. She worries me. She makes me a nervous wreck. She forces me to be a grown-up and take responsibility for things. But then she does something awesome, like smile at me, or she’ll ask me what’s wrong or if I’m OK, or occasionally, very occasionally, she’ll walk over to me, wrap her little arms around my leg, and tell me she loves me. And that’s it. I melt. I’m defeated. I feel all those things I’m supposed to feel, and I understand why parenting and fatherhood is so wonderful. I suddenly don’t care that I can’t stay in bed until midday, or that most of my paycheck leaves the bank before I have time to acknowledge it. Instead, I’m content to put The Wiggles on and spend the day dancing around like an idiot, knowing that the little grin on her face is all for me.