On 31 December 2012 I became a father for the first time. This morning I woke up to a snot-covered one-year-old running in tight concentric circles screaming 'DADA DADA DADA', hitting me over the head with whatever object was within grasping range of his saliva-coated paws. Between those two concrete points, I've learned a few things.
Baby picture from Shutterstock
Before my son was born, the idea that I would become 'enriched' and 'grow' as a human being because my wife squeezed out an eight-pound lump of flesh was close to abhorrent to me. It was the insistence on this idea. The manner in which absolutely every single person I encountered was so keen to inform me of this fact — that's what got me. The end result of being brutally assaulted with clichés to the point where all words of preparation ceased to carry any meaning whatsoever.
"Oh, your life will never be the same."
"Get your sleep in now, you're gonna need it!"
"Nothing prepares you for being a daddy!"
The idea that my life would 'change'. Sure, I got that. Of course it would change.
The idea that I would change. That I would become a different person. That was the part I objected to. I was 31 when my son was born — all the human being I was going to be. My silly little identity was etched in stone. The idea that I would magically transform like an evolved Pokemon seemed otherworldly; silly and quaint — an idea that belonged to bad television and infomercials.
I was, of course utterly wrong. Clichés are often clichés for a reason. Fatherhood changed me. Dramatically. And there is no going back.
But what did I learn? So often new parents throw that word out there — change — without giving any thought to what that means specifically. This is what I want to achieve with this article: to explain very specifically the things I have learned in my first year of being a parent.
One of the most difficult things I've had to deal with in my life is a sense of perspective. The idea that, in the grand scheme, certain things matter way, way less than you think they do. I wouldn't say I suffer from any sort of clinical anxiety, but I certainly have felt anxious about certain things: about relationships, about money, about work. I think these are very normal, common feelings we've all experienced at one point or another.
As a parent those feelings of anxiety don't change. They simply evolve and, to a certain extent, become a little more healthy and directed. Fatherhood puts your problems into a sharp focus: here are the problems that don't matter, and here are the problems that absolutely do matter, right this second.
Your child has a fever. That matters. Person X didn't respond to your text message, what about your wittle feewings? Nah, not really.
You need to leave work on time to read your son a story before his bedtime. That matters. Oh no — impression management in the office! What if my boss sees that I'm the first person to leave the office at the end of the day? Yeah, you have bigger fish to fry.
Fatherhood, in that sense, can be very freeing. You have this defenceless, completely dependent being you are now responsible for. Other things still matter, but you now have the luxury of having an all-consuming main priority. A role that is important above all others in your life. Some people may feel this is a burden. In my experience this is not the case — it's actually extremely liberating.
Another word for this would be 'commitment'. Fatherhood, to me, is a commitment from which I can never waver.
I am responsible for this thing I brought into this world. There is no compromise. There is no bunking off work early. You can't pull a sickie from Fatherhood. Sure there is family, there are people who can help but ultimately the buck stops directly with you. If something goes wrong you must be there to fix it, and not when it is convenient for you, you must be there right at that second, until that problem is fixed. If the house you live in crumbles around you, you have to be there to shield your child from the debris. And you will do so, without question.
It's not an act of heroism. It's genetic. You almost have no choice in the matter — it's that kind of responsibility. A beautiful form of genuine responsibility that comes with zero feelings of resentment.
It's the kind of responsibility and commitment that you can't help but apply to other areas of your life. It makes you a better person. It makes you tacitly aware of what you are capable of — what you can do for other people in your life.
This is very similar to the idea of 'responsibility' or 'commitment' but has more far-reaching consequences for all other aspects of your life.
One of my hobbies is climbing. Scrambling up indoor climbing walls, going outdoors and getting on real rock. When I first found out I was going to be a Father I was elated but, in the weeks that followed, I asked myself some serious questions about how this turn of events would impact the lifestyle I had created for myself.
I trained and climbed roughly three/four times a week, usually for over two hours each time. I'm also employed full time in a fairly demanding job which requires I work over and above regular office hours. How could I maintain all of this?
Eventually I surmised that climbing/training would have to take the hit.
So in the following nine months I climbed and trained hard. I figured if I was going to have to go out, I'd go out in a complete blaze of glory. I'd become the strongest climber I could be and just slowly deteriorate once my child was born.
But here's the strange thing: now that my child is here, now that I've been a parent for over 12 months, I can honestly say that I've been climbing better than ever. I actually climb more. I train harder.
How the hell is this possible?
Most of it comes down to discipline and time management. When you are a parent you have to find ways to continue doing the things you love. This means cutting out the crap. I don't watch TV, hardly at all, and when I do I watch specific shows and I'm very picky. I spend way, way less time on social media. Even video games — I still play a lot of video games as part of my job, but I tend to commit to games I know I'll love. I have way less tolerance for mediocrity when it comes to the time I do have.
The point is this: as a parent you find ways to continue doing the things you love. I think, for the sake of your sanity, you have to. It may be that I'm lucky — I have a brilliant, accommodating wife, I have a climbing gym just up the road — but I've found that, with discipline and decent time management, your life needn't end with the addition of children.
One episode of the BBC's Planet Earth documentary follows the journey of a baby elephant. At one point there is a brutal dust storm and amidst the chaos the elephant is separated from its mother. A beat. Two trails in the storm. One leads the baby elephant back to its mother and infinite maternal love, the other leads to the wilderness and certain death.
Tragically the baby elephant wanders off in the wrong direction, towards starvation and a motherless death.
When I first watched this scene as a care-free newly-wed with my wife, this scene affected me, I can't pretend it didn't — it's an unrelenting, utterly brutal moment of television — but back then I was able to parse it as part of the 'circle of life' or some bullshit. This was nature at work: harsh, unforgiving. In other words, no big deal. I slept soundly that night.
The second time I watched it I was a Father. And it completely broke me. I am haunted to this day.
Actually, now everything breaks me. Movies about families. News stories. TV commercials. I made a slideshow for my son's first birthday and I just sat there sobbing the whole time.
I'm not saying that men and women without children aren't capable of empathy, simply that my own ability to understand and relate to other people and their circumstances has sharpened dramatically since the birth of my son. Stories that I could relate on a very specific frequency now resonate heavily — too heavily — right down to my bones.
Being a Father for the first time is really nothing more than a new life experience, but it's a pivotal one. It forces you to think beyond your own needs and dedicate yourself wholly to the preservation of another human being. Call me crazy, but that sort of thing tends to tinker with your emotional state now and then. In a good way.
I'm a little wary of using the word sacrifice.
My wife gave up a lot to give birth to our little boy. Time away from her career, time away from friends. Her body transformed, literally. She went through an enormous amount of hardship to carry our child for nine months and, then, three days of physical pain to bring him into the world.
That's real sacrifice. Me? I get a few less hours sleep a night. I don't get to go to the cinema all that often. Whoop-di-doo!
But it speaks to the prodigious difficulties women undergo that my own sacrifices, despite being miniscule compared to my wife's, still feel sizeable. As a Father your life changes and you must adapt.
I mentioned above that I've been able to maintain many of my hobbies as a dad, and that's all well and good, but there are so many things you cannot do as a father, or things that just become way, way more difficult.
Money, for most of us, is a major one. My wife and I went from two full time salaries to just one. That's an adjustment. That's a big deal. Sacrifice, in this case, simply means cutting back on some of the luxuries you take for granted. I don't eat out as much, I waste less money, I buy less things.
Going out at night, with friends can be very difficult, not impossible, just exponentially more difficult. You can't go anywhere without a plan.
But mainly what you sacrifice, as a parent, is your right to act spontaneously. To wake up in the morning and say, 'wow, what a glorious day, let's go to the beach'. Or, 'urgh, it's raining, let's go to the cinema'. As a parent of a young child everything requires planning. Everything requires time and preparation.
So you must sacrifice these things. But what's incredible about this act of sacrifice is how easily you give up those luxuries. You don't even whimper. Not often!
Because the sacrifices never feel less than worth it. That's the cliché and that's the fact. That blubbering, vomit covered pile of skin and bones in the corner is your precious little babby munchkin wunchkin, and you will bore your childless friends to absolute tears rabbiting on about him or her until the proverbial cows come home. It is the thing that will become the centre of your shit-covered universe and the minor sacrifices you make fade into the outer edges of your tunnel vision.
I really wanted to see Gravity at the cinema but, fuck it. It's not the end of the world. I could do with a good night's sleep but I shall soldier on. I have a little baby boy now and that is literally all that matters to me.