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When you tell people you will become a father, they always say one of two things.
1. ‘You will be a wonderful dad!’ or
2. ‘It will be the best time of your life’.
Now I’m not disputing the second option, but for me, the first always made me feel anxious; surfacing doubts about my abilities to keep small humans alive (the bare minimum), let alone being GOOD at raising them.
Why would someone who barely knows me think I will be a good dad? I’ve known myself for twenty-eight years, and I still don’t know if I’m ready for it.
Everyone I spoke to about my soon-to-arrive baby was overly confident in not only my skills as a father, but also my magical and almost otherworldly ability to immediately thrive as a dad. Was I missing something?
I’m going to interrupt myself here and preface the next part by saying that I love my son with all of my heart, and I wouldn’t change a thing in my life. I’m precisely where I want to be. Don’t read on and freak out and think I’m resentful and bitter about how my life has been interrupted by this small boy. I’m not.
With that out of the way, let’s go back to the beginning…
Our Birth Story
It’s 11pm, Sunday the 22nd of July 2018. I’m sleeping soundly, thinking that it’s just like any other night, when I hear a stirring in the living room. I decide it’s only the cat and go back to sleep. Ten minutes later, I hear another noise. I think it must be the cat again and roll over to pull my wife into me; it’s a cold night after all. But she isn’t there. This is not so strange, considering she’s forty weeks pregnant and has to pee every ten seconds.
I go back to sleep. The next time I wake up, I realise she’s still not there, so I get up and stumble into the living room to ask her to come back to bed. When my eyes finally adjust to the light, I see her lying on the couch watching Netflix.
I do a quick scan of my brain to remember if I had done anything dumb in the last 24 hours. I couldn’t remember any reason she would be pissed off at me.
It’s not an angry couch night thank god.
“What’s going on?” I yawn.
“I think I’m having contractions,” she says casually.
Ok, I’m awake now.
In the early stages of labour, it doesn’t seem like there is much for me to do, my wife says, “Go back to bed, no point both of us being up”.
TWANG! My first hit of fatherly guilt rockets through my body. I reluctantly go back to bed, but it's a few hours of restless sleep. Is there a worse feeling than leaving your partner in pain with only a cat to keep her company? I think not.
Fast-forward a few hours, to around 5am. I am up and comforting my increasingly vocal wife when we decided to fire up the contraction tracking app. Not knowing what I am doing, I put it on the wrong setting, and we are therefore falsely comforted and thinking we have time to spare.
We didn’t… We, in fact, should already be at the hospital by now. See, they were all wrong, I’m already failing as a dad.
It takes a while, but I eventually realised my error and hustle the pair of us out into the minus six degree weather, into the car, and off to the hospital.
Narrowly avoiding a collision with a kangaroo, we make it there in record time. Katie asked me when the midwife will be here and after a quick call, I told her “she will be here in 10 minutes, don’t worry!”
This was obviously a complete lie. Our midwife was at least 45 minutes away at this point, but I didn’t have the heart to tell Katie.
“She wouldn’t have any perception of time anyway”, I justify to myself.
She made it just in time, and out he came.
To cut a short story even shorter, our son Elio was born within one and a half hours of us arriving at the hospital and about half an hour after the midwife arrived.
He was perfect and Katie was incredible.
Three things have stuck with me from that day (Not including Elio).
1. Get your timing right, you idiot.
2. A woman is an unstoppable force of nature.
The unbelievable strength displayed by my wife is the first time I’ve seen the full force of nature manifest itself in a human being. It was magnificent, and all I could do was stand behind her (metaphorically and physically) and get out of her way. The woman I knew was gone and her pure feminine power had taken over. Astounding.
3. You don’t have to get everything right the first time.
We took our little boy home that very same day, and I was terrified. Everyone told me I was going to be a great dad, but I felt useless. In the first few weeks of his life, he didn’t want me or even really need me. I felt rejected, and I didn’t know what I was doing.
Why doesn’t he love me? Do I love him? How am I ever going to look after this little boy? It was hard.
Questions were swirling through my head. I felt broken yet still people were telling me I was going to be a natural. By that stage, it was getting on my nerves. It felt like they knew I was struggling, and they just wanted to rub it in. They, of course, did not, but it’s how it felt.
As the weeks and months went on, I slowly got more confident, and my little boy began enjoying time with me more and more. Thinking back to how I felt after the birth, I feel sick to my stomach. The guilt, the rejection, and the helplessness echo in my mind.
I still cringe when I hear people say “You’re going to be a great dad”, remembering the white-knuckle fear and doubt that it would conjure in me.
But those deep, dark feelings are no longer there.
See, I now know that babies need their mums most in the first few months after being born. I know that it’s ok to be the support while your partner is in pole position.
Being a dad is hard, and it takes real learning, sacrifice and teamwork, but the best things in life really do take work.
Being a ‘good dad’ is something I’m striving towards, but I also know that everything doesn’t have to be perfect. I love my little boy, he loves me, and that’s all that matters. From now on, when I come across a dad-to-be, I say to them, “I’m here if you need me” and “It’s going to be ok”. Because behind all the uncertainty, rejection and self-doubt, that’s all I wanted to hear.
Bring on the next one.
Update - 04/07/2022
I’m now four years into my journey as a father, and we have added one more to our family.
Norah was born on the 14th of May in much the same circumstances as Elio. We ran late to the hospital (not my fault this time) and she made her entrance in the emergency waiting room. I think she was anxious to meet her brother.
This time, I was confident I would not only keep her alive, but be the great dad everyone thought I would be.
It’s funny how things change.