The reluctant dad

By Alan Perrott

Photo / Sarah Ivey
Photo / Sarah Ivey

I think I shrugged when she went off the pill. There did seem to be valid health concerns, so fair enough. And all was roses until a few months later: "I'm pregnant."

The restraint in her eyes was obvious. So too, I guess, was my internal paralysis. I knew this was a big life moment; bigger than Elvis and more exciting than Christmas. After all, I'd seen these things played out on the telly to surging soundtracks and joyous leaping.

All I could hear was the blood rushing in my ears. My first reaction, usually, when talk of babies comes up, has always been evasion and bullshit. My first thought now: "She's worried about my reaction. Say something, anything, to show I'm not about to make a run for the border." "Oh" was all I could come up with.

Topped with an awkward hug for good measure. Then, with her worries eased, I stopped thinking about it and made dinner. With a bit of luck the subject might never be raised again. Obviously, at some level, I knew this had been likely to happen. I'd even come to the intellectual understanding that with a combined age of 83 we were either going to have to get it over with or live out our days in blissful peace.

Then there were others to consider. I knew the news would make my parents and a fair few mates explode in, well, shock I guess.

My problem was that kids have never been my thing and everyone who knows me knows it. They were what you settled for once you'd run out of ideas on how else to fill your time. But more than that, I've simply never felt wired for them.

The best imitation of affection I could offer any bundle of nappies, arms and legs presented to me was a pat on what I assumed was the head and then quietly exit, stage left. I couldn't understand the attraction or what was expected of me. You can't talk to them, they've got hopeless ball control, and, after a few classes of third form biology, making one seemed less clever than assembling a model Spitfire.

So after pat, pat, pat, I'd run out of ideas and couldn't care less. I had better things to do with my time. Of course my response inevitably copped the patronising "it'll be different when it's yours" treatment. If I had a beer for every time that has been said to me, I'd be a lot happier about it. Because there's no avoiding them. Or that's how it has seemed.

Take work, for example. Every job I've had has featured a woman who'd be absent just long enough to forget about her, then suddenly return brandishing a newborn. Next to fire alarms, this was one of the few events when everyone downed tools for a gasbag. But not me ... unless there was cake involved.

Whatever I was doing at the time had never seemed so interesting. Admittedly, I might crane my neck for form's sake and to confirm my belief that they all looked the same. Not attractive, not interesting, congratulations, whatever. Not that I'd say anything, of course - this is a very sensitive area with new parents, what with all that post-partum bonding and such. Then friends started to have them. And that was fine, good on them even, except for the impact they had on my social life.

Mates no longer went out as often as they used to and when they did the event had to be planned well in advance so sitters could be arranged. Tedious. The effort hardly seemed worth it when I'd turn up and everyone was talking about bloody babies and fretting about having to get up early the next day.

Still, one positive emerged. My childless status made my home the ideal refuge for escaping fathers. No one is more focused on enjoying a good night than an escaping father and I could always be relied upon to never ask questions about their kids. Then my brother started to have them. And kept on having them.

Even from a safe distance it didn't look like much fun, more like a hard, rewardless grind, and the narcissist within was way too happy obsessing over my own life to drop everything for anyone as self-interested as a newborn. However, there was the unintended benefit in that his efforts lifted any pressure from me.

All the baby questions stopped and life looked like being a enjoyable cruise to its inevitable conclusion.

Now don't get me wrong, I've always accepted children became more useful once they get hand-eye co-ordination and some rudimentary English skills kick in.

My dad didn't do another lawn once we showed ourselves capable of cranking up the mower. I even had to use it without the catcher so my brothers got to join in on the fun. But if those childhood summers seemed endless, it was more because I spent them standing on a plank facing a garage or house wall with either sandpaper, a scraper or paintbrush in my hand and listening to endless cricket commentaries on the radio.

For years I assumed kids were what you had when you couldn't afford to get a man in. Maybe my longlasting aversion has been about breaking this cycle of mental abuse. Still, I was surprised to find that my attitude wasn't as common as I had assumed. Oh, there's the odd mate who still looks at children with the blind eye I've favoured, but their numbers are thinning. Me, for starters. I was president of the club and even my eye now seems to have an apple in it.

Talking to a few new dads about their pre-birth thoughts, I wanted to know whether having children was a mutual decision or if they went along for the ride? It turns out I've been surrounded by closeted babymakers and never suspected a thing.

Apparently it's something to do with coming from big families, long-term relationships and ticking man-clocks rather than doing whatever it takes to keep the missus happy. I'd have talked to them more but how many variations on "I always knew I'd have kids" do you need to hear?

Then I found someone like me ... Ah, blessed relief. He'd always assumed he'd have kids until the time finally arrived. He even had his own "oh" moment. "But I tried not to dwell on it," he told me. "Other people always seemed way more interested in what was going on than I was and sometimes that made me feel a bit stink about myself. Like when she'd ask me to touch her stomach because the baby was moving and of course I'd reach out but I'd be thinking 'I'd rather not, it makes me uncomfortable'. I just wasn't that into it.

"From my point of view, the moment she was pregnant my life wasn't about me anymore - first it's about her, then it's all about the baby. But that's fine, I'm into it now, but what other option do you have? It's done.

"Now it's about smiling at the people who say stuff like 'you'll always think this is the happiest time of your lives'. But really ... travelling is amazing, great to look back on. Pregnancy? Not so much."

Now hold off on the calls to CYFS. It doesn't matter what paths we took, we reached the right destination in the end. His nipper is fine and mine is resplendent, if exceedingly advanced for his age. Just don't get me started on the tedium of antenatal classes - "now, imagine you're about to head off to hospital, what do you think you'd put in your bag ... ?" - or the Stasi-like anti-bottle and formula agenda of certain midwives. No, I'll let that stuff lie.

So, what's changed? Socially, it's pretty much game-over for the foreseeable. Woe betide those Friday night drinks - but his arrival does mean I'm included in conversations I still only give a vague monkey's about. All the same, knowledge is power and we're making it up as we go along. Or asking my mum.

Emotionally, I've suddenly got lots of new stuff to fret over. It's not only worrying about how much shaking is too much, trying not to drop him takes all my powers of concentration. No wonder our ancestors gave up on life in the trees.

Financially, well, I did stall my last haircut for about three weeks. Every bit helps in a recession. All in all, life has taken on a delicate new balance which could shatter if I even think about pondering the years ahead. Not that it really matters, he'll eventually think I'm an ass no matter how expertly I teach him about lawnmowing.

Until then, it's about mutual baby steps, not looking up and keeping my private joy private ... I know there are blokes out there with fingers jammed in their ears.

- NZ Herald

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