No one can tell you how to be a parent.
Before you become a father my boy you will hear those words over and over again from an endless stream of well-meaning, clueless sources. I was also told that there are no rulebooks or step by step guides and that parenting is all about doing it your way. Not that it stopped anyone from following up this sage advice with some pearl of never-to-be-repeated, won’t-find-this-in-the-rulebook wisdom on exactly how to be a parent.
A quick lesson for you – this is a load of rubbish.
Take yourself off to any bookshop or library and you will find entire sections of shelving groaning under the collective wisdom of people who cannot tell you how to be a parent.
What to expect when you’re expecting!
The miracle of birth through a series of highly detailed and slightly off-putting pictures!
You will find guides for every week, day and hour of pregnancy. You will find roadmaps for the first two years of a child’s life broken in to handy thirty second chunks. Every lump, bump, fluid, rash, secretion, sound and thought is documented, filed, purchased. And fear not! If you decide to go crazy and have more than one child the pop up guides to “What’s growing in mummy’s tummy?” and “How to get along with getting along!” are right at hand.
Once you’ve exhausted yourself at the mall – because let’s face it you’re not going to exhaust the supply of wisdom – Dr Google is available twenty four seven and then things become really confusing. Stick to books and the written word my boy. At least in the pages of a book most experts restrict themselves to one point of view and a general theme.
Pick a subject (any subject!) and the internet will provide you with more wisdom than you can shake a saliva covered dummy at as you take it to the sink to rinse the dog hair off…no, wait, you take it to the fridge and pour mineral water (still not sparkling) over it…on third thoughts you’ll be better off microwaving it…but then you’ll destroy the ozone layer not to mention that the white blood cells of anyone comes in to contact with your newly nuclear dummy. Don’t bury it either as it now has a half-life of three epochs.
Another quick lesson for you – a simple couple of red bumps combined with a search engine will without a shadow of a doubt be proven to be heat rash, meningitis, a spider bite and the plague.
No one can tell you how to be a parent? Please. Everyone can tell you how to be a parent.
Your mum and I (not me and mum – grammar is important) sat through ante-natal classes where we learned how to bathe a real life piece of plastic with a painted face (once we had mastered the art of holding said piece of plastic you understand. I have no clear and obvious way of producing milk but I could breastfeed with the best of them by week six and my virtual nappy changing was exemplary).
When the day arrived that you were finally born I knew how to time contractions, I knew that walking around would help pass the time during a long labour and would help along and I knew that giving birth would have to be easier than going through the pain and trauma of a miscarriage. I was safe and warm in my little cocoon of knowledge on a subject no one can apparently explain.
Here’s my first pearl of never-to-be-repeated wisdom; a certain amount of gloss is applied within the available literature. The brutal reality of words like ventouse and episiotomy spring to mind. It’s all very well to know that babies don’t always make a sound or indeed appear to be alive in the first few seconds after birth but experiencing that tiny, infinite wait for a yelp? Feeling the warmth and energy of that helpless little body against your bare skin cannot easily be explained, but the sections on post birth gunk and goo will prepare you for some of the more base elements.
As the weeks and months pass YouTube videos will cover everything from the chemical analysis of meconium through to how to change a nappy at three a.m. in the dark after you’ve foolishly enjoyed a bottle of wine. When you got hit with jaundice I split my time between watching your small, skinny body sleeping on a light machine and episode one of “Billy Rubin and his band of yellow helpers!”
I knew when you should roll over, sit, crawl and walk. When you spoke I knew what you’d say first (I was wrong, you said dada). I knew how many teeth you’d get and when we could expect them. Your mum and I (grammar again my boy) armed ourselves with all the necessary knowledge to tell every well-meaning, clueless do-gooder who told us to do it our way just why their associated piece of advice just wasn’t going to work for us.
No one can tell you how to be a parent. Really?
I concede there were a few chinks in the armour despite the best efforts of books, people and the world-wide-web. Some of your friends’ parents no doubt curled up in to the foetal position in terror on the subject of first aid but not me and your mum (ok, ok enough grammar) not a bit of it. We enrolled on a course and after a single evening we could resuscitate a real life piece of plastic with a painted face (but not before we had mastered the arts of bandaging, splinting and applying burn-shield you understand).
What lesson are we up to now…let me see…ah yes, lesson four I believe. The people who cannot tell you how to be a parent, particularly those with older or grown up children will take morbid comfort in regaling you with the old adage small child small problem, bigger child bigger problem. Let me save you some time by replacing it with the truth of the matter.
Small child small problem, bigger child bigger(betterfastermore) books.
As a toddler you made absolutely no sense yet there are endless weighty tomes devoted to the true meaning of your glorious gurgling gibberish. Entire rainforests (you’ll learn about those at school probably in a history lesson) have been obliterated in the quest to document the teething process. Petabytes of storage have been given over to speech, mobility, education and discipline. Twenty minutes on the net and I was able to understand exactly what a child of two years, four months and seventeen days dreamed about, what every broken phrase he uttered actually meant and what his view of the world was.
That said there are still a few things that books don’t accurately convey, like the first “mummy” and first “daddy”. The first unprompted hug and kiss and the announcement that you “love daddy VERY much” was a tad understated in the literature if I’m completely honest.
No book will be able to explain the way it feels when you stand with the love of your life, your hands intertwined, staring down at the love of your lives tiny and safe and warm and asleep.
First step…first tooth…first shout…first tantrum…
The way his hand feels in your hand. The way his hair gets in his eyes because only granny is allowed to cut it and granny lives eight hundred miles away. The way his belly laugh lights up a room when he gives himself over to laughter which is often and unfettered. The way he likes to dance in front of the TV, shy and timid when he realises you are watching and then with a beaming smile and more confidence when he sees you smiling back. The way he looks so tiny when he is sick and so big when he should still be so small. The way he can be two and twenty two and every year in between all at the same time. The way he wants to help with whatever you are doing whether it helps you or not. The way he digs in the flowers and waters the weeds. The way he stops in the middle of doing something naughty so that he can make absolutely sure you are watching, knowing that chase, catch and tickle will ensue until he screams “STOP!” closely followed by “MORE!”. The way he swings his plastic golf club left handed because he stood opposite you and learned like a mirror. The way he follows you around endlessly wanting to do everything you are doing, wanting to be just like daddy. The way he climbs all the way to the top of the ladder and calls to you and waves with a huge proud grin. The way he looks so tiny and far away from the roof on the other side of that pointless, shitty little courtyard that only serves to house a washing line and grey slabs of concrete. His sad, startled expression as you yell at him to stay where he is and he thinks he has somehow disappointed you.
The way it feels every time you try to reach him.
The way you looked as you fell.
I try not to think about it as much these days. Maybe writing it all down will help. Who knows, maybe it will bring your mum back if she can see that the diluted, numb version of her husband is not all that different from the man she married. She never blamed me. She just can’t look at me without seeing you.
I go to the library now and then and to the odd bookshop when it’s quiet. I’ve become quite the expert on how to recover from drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and sex but there are no parallels that I’m able to draw. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to mention sex. We didn’t get as far as having that chat. I think we were supposed to talk about it from around the time you reached five so you’re almost there. Amazing what you can learn via Google.
Anyone and everyone can tell you how to be a parent my boy.
No one can tell me how to stop.
Life Lesson was my second proper short story (Quiz Night was the first). I wrote it in June 2013 and submitted it to Shortbread Stories. It’s based on a combination of my experiences learning to be a dad and on an event that nearly happened.
The climbing of the ladder was real. The falling off, thankfully, was not.
For a long time I couldn’t get the image and the what-ifs out of my head. Channeling it into a story was my first experience of the cathartic nature of writing.
The story is far from perfect. It’s imbalanced and it probably should be two stories…
…but it is from the heart and I’d love to know what you think about it.