If there’s one thing I’ve often been accused of in the blogosphere, it’s being an optimist. In the real world, I think people regard me as being a bit cagey, careful, perhaps slightly too calculating at times. Where it concerns family, I’m always on the lookout for something like a maniac with an axe running amok, and they all know if my back is to the door of a restaurant or bar with them, I simply get too antsy to enjoy the occasion.
They tend to shuffle around to accommodate me. It’s by now a venerable family joke, but they still indulge me.
When it comes to family, there’s just too much sheepdog in me to relax when we’re out and about, and off our own turf. I can’t help myself shaving off any marginal risk to them. Intellectually, I know the odds of anything like an axe-wielding maniac ever appearing are vanishingly small, but I’m a dad and that sort of mild paranoia comes with the territory.
I know exactly when that imperative to always act as the overwatch on them began. On the very day the first one was born.
For nearly every parent, there is a moment when you hold that new-born baby in your hands and a big switch in your back that you never actually realised was there goes clunk across your shoulder blades, and then clunk all the way down to the base of your spine and then the drop-forged handle gets broken off, and can never be reattached. It’s a one way switch, there is no going back.
You knew you wanted the child and were expecting some sort of reaction at their birth, but this is totally unexpected, intense and a real electrified humdinger.
A few million years of parental hominid genes kick in with a vengeance, and you realise just how superficial nurture can be compared to the elemental DNA-level nature you never suspected was within you. That sterile intellectual debate gets kicked into touch once and for all. It’s for BC people (before children) who even if they’re as smart as whippets, simply don’t have the first idea.
You’ve been simplified.
All aerials, fins and sexy go faster stripes have been sheared off your hide. Now there’s only you, the woman you love and a few pounds of defenceless downy-backed baby, with pointy little bones, a panting chest you can see all the ribs outlined with every breath and tiny perfect hands, complete with miniature fingernails. Anything else is peripheral. You place your fingertips on their bare chest and feel that walnut-sized heart hammering away and you pull them off quickly, afeared your pressure might stop it.
One woman, one baby, one man.
You’re gladly at the bottom of the priority pole and if needed, you’d walk into traffic for them. More importantly, you’d not only tear down a world that might harm them, you’re prepared to reshape it, to carve out your niche in it to give them a future.
In that moment, there’s a lot of other ideological and even theological junk that get kicked off the playing field as well.
You look into that red bruised bloody face that you’ve just watched powerfully wiggle out of your woman’s body with such determination to live, and you are in awe of such resolve, their pure instinct, their hard-wired will to survive, and you think how anyone could believe such innocence could come into the world already bearing a burden of original sin or needing saving is sheer imbecility. For me, it was the last severing of any residual belief in organised religion.
There are cultural ideas about gender roles which melt in the face of the immediacy of a baby whose needs are right here and now. We never discussed it, but from then on I knew my job was to get out of the cave each day, brain some quadruped and drag the carcass back to them, secure in the knowledge that anything with sharp teeth that came anywhere near our baby would bump into a lioness at the mouth of our cave and would not survive that encounter. Her big switch had gone clunk clunk as well.
We were fortunate in that we could afford that route. I was always a good earner, she wanted and therefore took the years out to raise our kids and gave them a great start in life, and then resumed her career. I’d get home of an evening and pop upstairs to see the baby in their cot. “Don’t, I’ve spent hours getting him asleep” would be the warning as I went up the stairs to see them. She’d worked out I kinda kicked the cot to wake them up for a dad cuddle.
In the immediate aftermath of the birth experience, I was banished to home from the maternity ward and them. That was very hard and my emotions ran high. Nowadays, dads don’t get the bum’s rush out of maternity wards, and that’s a good thing. Everybody gets to bond in the first few days. I wrote a poem for him. After it had drained some of the emotion in me, I thought about piecing the feelings that raged through me into some context. It was me running for the comfort of some logical cover and in some respect, I found some.
You get all these fumbling definitions of what makes human beings human beings, and I’m constantly stunned at biologists missing the obvious, but perhaps it’s because they don’t want to see it and therefore would have to deal with the really heavy implications of it, as it very definitely is in danger of straying into the area of what’s laughingly called the social sciences.
Our offspring are totally helpless for years after their birth. There is no other lifeform on Earth that is so vulnerable for so long. We are totally and massively unique in that respect. The only thing that will keep that baby alive is the best part of two decades of selfless care and vigilance by two people. The only reason they will invest all that effort for no material gain – and I’ve never bought into all that selfish gene crap – is love.
We are the product of the most sublime and subtle example of Darwinian selection.
We have been selected for our capacity to love.
Evolutionary biologists bend over backwards to explain why someone will risk and sometimes lose their life trying to save another person who is no blood relation of theirs. They call it the altruism problem and of course such common behaviour drives a horse and chariot through the simplistic almost fascist world of the selfish gene. If they could get off their deterministic butt for a moment and actually recognise that people are not robots, the answer is staring them in the face. A person’s capacity for love and care just doesn’t suddenly come to a screeching halt at family boundaries. It’s as simple as that.
Paradoxically, every army that’s ever been, relied on that love. Never mind the country, politics or the banner they fought under, soldiers always fight for their brothers in arms and that’s why a man with a chest full of medals always cringes when someone calls him a hero. It feels like being unfairly singled out from a brotherhood whom he knows would all go to the wire for each other, especially when there were brothers who never made it home. They won the medal not because they hated the enemy, but because on one particular day the enemy was hurting their brothers, and that they simply couldn’t abide.
The changes in becoming a parent ripple on down through the years. In some ways, it makes you softer. Some stuff that never really bothered you, becomes quite distressing, especially anything to do with cruelty to kids.
At the same time, it makes you harder. As they get older and at some point, you have to make that vital decision of either being their best friend or their parent. You’ve seen the bloody awful results of best friend cop out parenting, so you take the older route of being a hard assed dad, even if that means losing that affection you still crave from them. Hopefully, five or so years down the line, they’ll understand and come back to you. It breaks your heart but that’s the duty of care you owe them.
We’re constantly bombarded with terrible stories by a media which seems fixated with “if it bleeds, it leads” negativity. We have supposedly august people who are nothing more than irritating bum pimples on your knicker line, constantly telling us we’re a cursed species bent on destroying the Earth. That’s their grubby and to be frank elitist world – that’s all they see. They exist in some enlightened circle that lives in medialand and has no connection to everyday reality.
The danger is that you could unconsciously accept their nihilistic world view under such an overwhelming propaganda bombardment. Don’t. I come out of my house every day and all I see is common decency, consideration for other people, a few smiles and above all an extended care network.
To adapt a quote from Matt Ridley, it would be irrational not to be an optimist.
That baby in the picture above is my grandson Michael, who’s but minutes old. Look carefully into the faces of his parents and you can see not only the pure joy and pride, but the love. Within 24 hours, he was already running them ragged but in response they call him their little scamp.
That’s us in a nutshell.
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