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#1 Letter to my Son

Dear Son,

When I was small my parents seemed like a different species to me. They were a Mum and a Dad. They knew how to do everything that Mums and Dads know how to do. They knew what to do when I was hungry or scared. They knew what to do when I got stung by stinging nettles and what to do when I dropped my ice cream. They had probably been born like that, just knowing what to do. They hadn’t had their own lives before I was born. They had just been waiting. Probably just sitting somewhere. Waiting until I came along so their lives could begin. And after that they just existed to look after me, to stop me getting too hurt and to tell me when I was being naughty.

It wasn’t until the moment that you were born that I realised that my parents were actually just the same as me. They were fools.

I felt like a know-nothing fool when they plonked you in my arms at the Hospital. It wasn’t a “You’re a Dad, you’ll know what to do” sort of a plonk. It was a “This thing’s yours, start learning what to do with it” sort of a plonk. I looked into your unsteady eyes in your wrinkled face. You looked back at me. Well, more sort of through me. And you began to cry, and I had no idea what to do.

After a couple of days you made your mother cry too. Then she cried again a couple of days later. Then again the next day. Then pretty much every day after that. You shouted at her for not feeding you, then shouted at her for trying to feed you, then shouted at me for trying to feed you with a tiny cup, then threw up into the cup, and shouted at me again. You did a lot of shouting. I’m not sure how much shouting, the first few weeks of your life were like one long dream about someone shouting at you. Sometimes it was daytime. Sometimes it was night-time. Sometimes people came and visited us in our strange dream of nappies and shouting. Time passed, probably. Then we began to fall into a rhythm that had nothing to do with day and night.

I remember a few times in my youth when I stayed up all night, sitting on a pebbly beach and watching the sun rise, ridiculously loud music still throbbing in my ears. After you arrived, being still awake at sun rise had a very different frisson. The memory of loud music ringing in my ears wasn’t music, and it wasn’t a memory. It was you, shouting at us. You wanted something, but you couldn’t tell us what it was. All you were prepared to say was that it wasn’t any of the things we had tried so far, nor was it likely to be any of the things we were thinking of trying. Further more, you seemed to be saying, you’re both idiots.

I reassured your mother that you didn’t mean anything by it. You weren’t trying to drive us mad or kill us. You were just letting us know that you needed something. You didn’t know what, it was our job to try and work that out.

It was a couple of weeks after that that I realised that what you were actually trying to do was drive us mad and kill us. First you would drive us mad with sleep deprivation, then, in a stupor, we would drive off the road on the way to the 24 hour chemist.

In those first weeks I spent a lot of time at night in the 24 hour chemist. Shuffling up and down the isles with my shirt wrongly buttoned and stuffed into my underpants, a corner of it jutting out of my zip like a pig’s ear, looking for some sort of magical item that might somehow let us sleep. And money was no object. If they had asked me to dance a jig at the checkout or let them drain off a couple of litres of blood I would have gladly agreed.

You immediately spat out and never touched again the breast-feeding-friendly dummy. The nostril un-clogger clogged. The essential oil sleep-well thingamabob made our eyes sting as we lay awake. Nothing I bought made any difference. You refused to breastfeed, or sleep, no matter how much we begged and pleaded and wept. But I kept going back to the 24 hour chemist. I suspect the item I was most hoping to find in the next aisle, and the only item likely to do me any good, was a bed. Unfortunately it was never there. And was never going to be there. I asked.

Sometimes, in those hazy days and nights, your mother and I remembered that each other existed long enough to snap at each other. Sometimes I would ask her if she was all right. She would rarely reply verbally. Instead the look she gave me was clear enough. It said “If it wasn’t for you, I’d be fine. If I had the energy, I’d punch you in the face. If I had the time, I’d divorce you. In the mean time, just make me a cup of tea.”

I made a lot of cups of tea.

I suppose the turning point came when we finally accepted and properly internalised the reality that whatever we did, where ever we went, who ever we bribed, there was just no way that we could give you back. We made you. You were ours. And, it had to be admitted, you were beautiful.

And then you did something utterly miraculous. Just when we had resigned ourselves to a life of unremitting toil and misery, you smiled at us. When we saw it we both made an identical sound. It was like the sound you make when you find a twenty pound note in an old pair of trousers, except much longer, several octaves higher, and mixed with tears of joy.

And then something even more miraculous happened. You began breast feeding. Your Mother’s astounding stubbornness paid off. Quite suddenly, and for no apparent reason, you just decided to stop torturing us and start breast feeding happily and normally as if you had always been doing it. You started putting on lots of weight and your arms and legs turned into big squashy sausages. And you began giggling and blowing raspberries and making us laugh until we cried, instead of just making us cry.

You didn’t manage to kill us, or even break up our marriage. God you tried. There is certainly a streak of determination in you. But you failed. Your Mother and I feel like plane crash survivors. And not just any plane crash. The kind where you get stranded somewhere terrible for months and people end up eating each other. But we made it out. And truth be told we feel pretty good about it. We feel as though we’ve been metalled. Coated in steel. And we love each other again. Even more in fact.

And you, you little… so and so. My God you’re beautiful. How did that happen? Your mother and I look like wilderness plane crash survivors and you look like you’ve just plopped down from heaven. And your smiles are astonishing. And your giggles. And the way you do, well, everything you do, is just… wonderful.

Your mother and I have realised now, especially talking to other parents, that everything we’ve been through is basically just normal. Yes, it seemed at times you were trying to break our minds, and you sort of succeeded. We now call each other Mummy and Daddy. Yes, it seemed at times as if parenting was going to be like being an inmate at Guantanamo Bay, with a tiny, psychotic prison guard shouting at us constantly. But we survived. And we’re very happy. You’ve shown us that we’re capable of quite a lot, far more than I think we realised.

So don’t feel bad about us, my wonderful son. Not that you were planning to. We’re fine. Tired, but fine. And through the haze of tiredness, somehow, amazingly, I’m starting to feel like that different species, a Dad. I don’t really know what I’m doing yet, and I don’t think I’ll ever entirely get the hang of it. But, I really am a Dad. Your Dad. Yes I had a life before. I think. Maybe. It’s hazy. But whatever it was it’s ended now. I think in a way I really had just been waiting for you to come along. Mostly just sitting, waiting.

And you came along. And now… life has begun.

Love, Dad.

#2 Super Curry and 7 Pineapples

If you’re in the lovely, exciting last few weeks before your child emerges into the world, I have a tip for you.

Beware of helpful advice.

When our due date came I could hardly breathe. I jumped at every noise. I asked my wife if she was all right so many times she threatened to punch me in the face. The next morning our child was, unquestionably, still on the inside of my wife.

A week passed. We risked becoming ‘high risk’. We could lose our place at the calming, candle scented paradise of the birthing centre and end up in the delivery suite, a place full of screams and blood and machines that go ping. It cannot be overstated how determined my wife was that that would not happen.

“Go and have a romantic meal.” Our Midwife suggested. “What about a curry?”

A curry, apparently, irritated your insides and got things moving. We went out for our romantic meal. We sat in romantic silence as tears of pain ran down my wife’s face. Inevitably, being who she is, she ordered the hottest possible curry and ate the whole thing. I tried some. My tongue exploded.

It had no effect on Oscar whatsoever.

“There is one other thing you could try.” Our Midwife told us, then lowered her voice conspiratorially. “The seven pineapples.”

My anxiety was peaking. I was ready to try anything. Luckily pineapples were two for one, so I bought eight.

Like a hero my wife sat munching them. After an hour or so her tongue started bleeding. She ploughed on, mumbling around a swollen tongue, tears rolling down her face. My heart swelled. Less determination had been required to reach the moon.

Oscar came out five days later and fifteen days overdue, surrounded by machines that go ping. My wife was heroic throughout labour, particularly as she had barely recovered from the efforts of passing several kilos of pineapple.

If this story helps other expectant couples avoid the agony of super-curry and seven pineapples, then perhaps her efforts were not entirely in vain.

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