Nine years ago, my son was born and I started what I consider the most important job in the world – being a father. I remember having a conversation with two friends and, the two of us who are fathers, spent about 15 minutes moaning about lack of sleep, the cost of school, how you have little time for yourself, etc. The single, childless guy jumped in to say that he would never have children to which we responded, “How can you not?!!! It is the greatest blessing.” This left him baffled because we had complained so much. Fatherhood.
Being a father is no child’s play and it comes with immense responsibility but it truly is the most amazing experience. I am often asked what my thoughts on the scourge of absentee fathers, particularly in South Africa. It is something I can never answer because I have no context. The truth is, for a large part of my younger years, the idea of having children was more palpable than the idea of getting married. I was brought up by my father and always taught that, as a father, your job is to raise your children.
I came across this clip the other day which has been billed as a “James Earl Jones vs Denzel Washington’ analysis of sorts with both of them having acted in August Wilson’s play Fences. What is more interesting for me is the substance of the dialogue.
Now, I do think you have to like your children. Love them. Be there for them. Allow them the space to discover themselves, explore all that life has to offer, within limits. And, learn from them. Children have this wonderful, frustrating habit of watching what you do more than listening to what you say. For example, telling them they are capable of achieving what they set their minds to while you spend your time on the couch not even trying won’t work. I believe I am a better human being because of my children. I am learning constantly. I don’t always get it right, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am flawed but it is those flaws that help me learn, and teach.
When my son was born, I was doing some freelance writing for True Love magazine and they asked me to write a column about the birth of The Prince. It is interesting, for me, reading those words, nine years later. The beginning of my journey into fatherhood.
Who’s Your Daddy? (TL 2007)
I’ve always wanted to be a father. To be honest, the idea of offspring was always easier to digest than the partner to create that child with. For some reason, I’ve always believed that I will make a decent father, but it has, up till now, been a theoretical exercise in self-evaluation.
I also come from a very family-oriented upbringing in which we were always encouraged to stick together; to view the family as the foundation, the launch pad from which we tackle the world. I figure my father did well enough with us for me to be in a position to transfer that knowledge and wisdom onto my own offspring.
On top of all this, I was always encouraged to be independent and self-sufficient. Understand your capabilities, transform your weaknesses into the positive and work to your strengths. As a result, I have travelled through life with a slightly inflated belief in myself and my capacity. What I am able to do directly impacts on how I eat, how I live.
I view life as a journey through experience. We are born, learn to sit, crawl, walk, run, speak; go to nursery school, primary school, high school, hit puberty, discover the opposite sex, discover our own personalities, decide what we want to do with our lives, go to university, technikon or just start working. Each of these is a milestone, a step along the way that we determine in relation to what we want out of our lives. One of my ‘milestones’ has always been to start a family.
And then it happened.
The missus walked in the door with a pregnancy test. My first reaction was ‘okay, so what does this mean’. All of a sudden I had gone blind and didn’t notice the little image on side that explains what the lines mean. Second reaction: ‘oh cool’.
I read somewhere that, for men, the first child is always the weirdest to deal with. You know there is a baby growing in there. You feel the baby kick and squirm. But your body isn’t changing… you don’t actually feel the dramatic metamorphosis.
You try to plan, you get the advice, read the books, take the antenatal classes, but it isn’t real till you see the child come out. Everything seems unreal and removed.
That state carried through to the actual birth. I think I was in shock. Dazed. I had become comfortable with the monthly visits to the doctor, been involved with the setting up on the nursery, started planning and shopping, but nothing really can prepare you for that moment. There are certain experiences that no-one can really prepare you for, especially marriage and, I have recently discovered, parenthood.
I remember walking from the ward to the nursery, following the nurse to weigh the new head of my household, with this truly dazed look and bumping into another man on his way back with the exact same look. We had to laugh. Childbirth is the one place where I – as an independent, self-sufficient and capable man – felt absolutely useless.
“Daddy, stand here. Sit there. Come with me. Go there. Give him this. Don’t do that.” Other than when I nearly passed out from seeing my wife from the inside out –caesarean -, everyone seemed to treat me like the guy who hangs out with his friend on a date. I felt like an appendix – not really there for anything but with potential to create problems – an unnecessary inconvenience.
One thing I am grateful for is that the nurses do everything to make you feel like you have a function. They give you a chart, instructions on keeping track of feeds, nappy changes, etc, show you how to change a nappy, wash the baby and send you on your merry way. By day three, I felt like a pro. I had been given tasks and I had followed them to a tee.
Then we went home……
Once again, it doesn’t matter what they say to you. The countless pieces of advice you get from friends, family and random strangers. You just go with the flow and hope for the best. My biggest moment so far was at 4am, when my son wouldn’t sleep and I was taking a bit too long, for him, in warming his bottle. I looked at him with absolute frustration and he looked straight back at me …. All I could say was ‘dude, chill’. He is here as a result of my actions. He’s still trying to figure out what’s going on and I cannot fault him for any of it.
I often hear people talking about what kind of career their child will follow. How he or she is going to impact on the world. My only concern is what kind of mind he is going to be and that he engages with respect, integrity and humility. And that I am able to provide him with access to all the tools he needs to live a full life. It is no more about me. The prince has arrived and taken his rightful place. I am but his servant.
I hope that, one day, he will look back on his life, and these words, and recognise that his father did the best that he could. I will probably disappoint him. We will have our disagreements – well, we already do. I will make him angry. I will make him sad. But, I will, hopefully, also make him happy. He will, hopefully, look back with joy, and happiness, and love and recognise that, however flawed his father may be, and however many mistakes his father has made, it was always with his best interests at heart.