There’s an old saying that my Dad likes to trot out on occasion.
“Opinions are like arseholes. Everyone’s got one.”
Never has this more true than when it comes to parenting advice for new parents. It’s everywhere. Advice for mums. Advice for dads. Advice from family. Advice from colleagues. Advice from books and journals. Advice from complete f*cking strangers that don’t even have any children of their own. Some of it is useful. Most of it is not.
Despite the plethora of opinions and advice thrown my way as I eagerly anticipated becoming a dad for the first time, there was some really bloody important shit out there that all of the “experts” completely forgot to mention.
The “Shit I Wish They’d Told Me” trilogy is a three-part series of posts for new dads, filled with real truths that you will struggle to find in any parenting books. Truths that are based on my own experiences as I embarked on my own dadding journey.
Part 1 – The Paternal Bond
People often talk about that overwhelming feeling of love, and the instant bond between father and child as the midwife hands you your brand new baby. Apparently this is a thing, and I’m sure it happens to a lot of new dads in the delivery suite every single day. It just didn’t happen to me.
With the birth of Focker #1 Mrs D-E-D endured a difficult labour for several hours. I was standing by, about as much use as tits on a bull (to borrow another of my dad’s favourite expressions), trying to remember what they had told us at the ante natal class several weeks earlier. For some reason, all I could remember was that they had told us – the dads – to bring some snacks, which I had dutifully prepared. So I stood by, helpless, munching on my snacks and wondering whether I should risk certain death and offer my wife any.
After many hours of labouring and seemingly getting nowhere, we had a visit from the obstetrician. 3 minutes later we were getting prepped for emergency surgery, and 10 minutes after that I was holding my firstborn. My son. Focker #1. Mrs D-E-D, high as Lindsay Lohan on painkillers and whatever natural endorphins occur after birth, couldn’t stop saying how beautiful he was. I kept looking around the room for the beautiful baby, because the only one I could see looked pretty rough. Covered in a cheesy like substance, with a buckled ear and a head that was shaped like a miniature road cone. I could think of many adjectives to describe how this baby looked. Beautiful was definitely not one of them.
I held him, I helped to cut the umbilical cord, I took my shirt off for the skin on skin contact and held him some more. I waited for the feelings of love and paternal protection to wash over me. Nothing. All I could feel was blessed f*cking relief that the worst part of the day was now over, and that wife and child were both ok. Don’t get me wrong, it was intense and emotional. In fact, more than five years later and I’m getting teary just writing this. But as I sat there in my scrubs pants, holding this tiny little cone head awkwardly in my bare arms, there was no love.
Like all new parents the first few weeks after his arrival were a blur of sleepless nights, unhelpful visitors, endless nappy changes, and Google-ing things like correct baby poo colour. Still no love.
At week four we found ourselves at the emergency ward of the children’s hospital with a near-SIDS experience. Fortunately, we were one of the lucky ones and somehow we escaped unscathed. Physically at least. Even through this traumatic experience, my feelings of love for my child remained muted to the point that I wasn’t sure that I felt anything at all.
I wish I could say that there was a lightning bolt moment when the paternal love kicked in. Like when he smiled at me (or at least in my general direction) for the first time. When he first grasped my finger with his tiny little hand, or when he peed in my mouth while I was changing his nappy. But there wasn’t. The fact is, I actively disliked him for at least the first 8 weeks of his life because of the impact he’d had on mine. I was tired, I felt like Mrs D-E-D hated me (and she probably did a lot of the time), and I could no longer do all of the stuff that I loved to do. To make matters worse, I felt like a failure as a father. Like the dad-love receptors in my brain were irreparably damaged – possibly from too many head knocks as a young rugby player. I despaired, and constantly wondered whether I would ever actually love this child in the way that society dictated I should.
In writing this piece, I spoke to a number of dad-mates about these instant feelings of paternal love. Every single one of them said the same thing. It’s bullshit. They now all love their kids as much as any parent loves their children, but at the beginning, they too felt nothing. Nothing except relief, tiredness, resentment, helplessness, and most significantly, despair for not loving their child the way that society expected of them. One mate, whom I won’t name for the sake of his marriage, even confessed in a quiet whisper, that he loved his dog more than his child for the first six months. And here I was thinking I was the only one!
I didn’t realise it at the time, but even though I was struggling and resentful (and incidentally so was the dog), there was a slow burning coal of love for this child. It just quietly smoldered away inside of me while we battled through this period. I don’t remember how old he was before I felt the warmth of this coal, but once I discovered it, it was like that feeling had always been there. And now, like all burning coals, my love for him is red hot, fierce, and completely unquenchable.
I wish someone had taken me aside back then, before Focker #1’s arrival on this earth, and told me that it’s ok if I don’t instantly love my child upon his or her birth. It’s ok if I’m not willing to lay down my life from the very first second he is handed to me. It’s ok to love my dog more than my child. Well, at least for the first few months. This single piece of advice would’ve saved me an enormous amount of worry and despair during a period that’s tough enough without the feelings of emotional inadequacy.
Now there’s some shit I wish they’d told me…..