The good, the dad and the ugly
I recently spent nine days straight with my son Finn thanks to a holiday from work and two full weekends of little plans. I learnt so much about him (and me) that I thought the best way to attempt to process it is the usual way I do: writing.
Just as I sat down to cram in an hour of frantic typing while Finn had his morning nap, my Google Alerts email came through and included this fateful article: “Fathers trying to be perfect suffer depression”. (Note: I struggle to accept reading The Daily Telegraph 95 per cent of the time but kudos to them for including this instead of the usual daily diatribe.)
I had already pondered whether I was a “good dad” let alone a perfect one and realised perhaps my own insecurities are unfounded, but naturally my mind would not let the question dissolve. There is of course a huge amount of latent history from my own experiences with my father (I will save that for my book).
But the truth is I am terrified daily I am, or will, morph into a “bad dad” – whatever that is. Throw into the mix my pre-existing mental illness (before becoming a dad) and you can perhaps start to understand why I worry.
Superficially I tend to have a habit of being clumsy. In one sense I am obsessively detailed-orientated but depending on my mood I can miss the most obvious things. Have you ever seen the memes on social media, usually titled “Daddy Day Care”, that show dads intentionally or innocently showing their hilarious father skills? Like the one where the dad puts on clothes back to front? Or giving your son a sneaky taste of the top of your bottle of beer. That is me. Some of the time.
In the whirlwind months since Finn arrived into the world, I have been fairly good at being present and “hands-on”. I am lucky, I have a workplace that encourages family-time and balance so get woken by Finn every morning, upon which I get to change his nappy, have a cuddle and play and then pass to Mum to feed him the milk of life.
I get a 3 pm FaceTime call from him every day and have always wondered how the dexterity in his thumbs developed so quickly. Or perhaps this is the highest testament to the ease of use of iPhones.
Around 5 pm I get to hop onto the bus home and walk in the door to my son smiling and distract him from eating his dinner that mum is trying to feed him. An hour of play and he is ready for me to bath him, put his pyjamas on and then hand over to mum before it all starts again around 6 am the next day.
But holidays with pure Finn-time smashed me across the face with perspective. I got to see numerous firsts including teaching him to wave to say hello (working on goodbye) and taking him in the swimming pool. I saw snippets of his personality growing and the constant beaming smile, the sort that makes his eyes light up, that manages to make strangers smile too.
I heard his squawking get louder and louder as he played and swear he said “Dadda” and meant it. He even managed to sit still for ten minutes and for the first time since a newborn, lay on my chest cuddling, as I hummed a nursery rhyme to him.
The day after we returned from a Noosa trip I got to feed him his formula milk for the first time and watch him stare at me, unflinching until he finished, a strangely calming experience.
But as always there is no perfect. I still get defensive and frustrated when my wife says harmless things that the mechanism in my head turns it into a negative or criticism, that I am not performing as a dad. That is something I am working on daily.
Perhaps there is no good or bad. To one person a good dad may be one that buys you a car or house. To others, a good dad is one that puts food on the table or helps them with their homework.
Perhaps there is no set formula. Men are no longer solely seen as the bread-winner and with women chipping in their fair share, conversely, that means dads feel the need to be adept at the skills traditionally attributed or natural to mums.
As much as having a great dad will not make you one, having an absent or poorly functioning dad does not destine you to be one too. You can stop that particular cycle. It may take some serious work and self-care, and you may need to get some professional help along the way but it is attainable.
This is pure speculation, but perhaps being a good dad is just being there for your child. You may not have all the tools and bells and whistles and resources like some families but you do you have your time. And if you choose to spend that time with them and truly focus on them when you do, you may just find, especially as the material world gets more unattainable and increasingly unfulfilling, they will value that more than anything money can buy.
This article was previously published on Terry’s website, Mr Perfect, and has been republished with permission.