Monday, 11 August 2014

How Hard Can It Be?

...A road less travelled to fatherhood

Norman Rockwell - Maternity Waiting Room - 1946

The usual scene is the father to be sitting anxiously in the hospital waiting room. Diligent and tired, he has been waiting until the early hours of the morning. The doctor eventually strolls out into the empty corridor, he too is exhausted and grim. With slow and measured steps eventually he stops before the man and gives him the good news. It is a boy or perhaps a girl or it is just fine. A cigar is slipped into his breast pocket by a best friend. It was the traditional man's man of rites of passage, a defining moment.

Skinning A Cat Differently

Times have changed and now the father is right in there amongst the action, half listening to his wife's earnest and personal recriminations and him muttering positive inanities to his grunting wife, recording it all the while on his iPhone. Quite who will ever have the inclination to watch the birthing video is beyond me and as far witnessing the miracle of life, some things are best seen only by doctors or until edited by the BBC with the soothing tones of Sir David Attenborough. In fact I am sure it puts you off the whole thing all together and the availability of the hand-held camera in recent decades correlates perfectly with the steady decline to less than two children per family in the developed world. Call me old fashioned but I'd rather court lung cancer by cigar a couple times that get stuck that deep in the trenches. Of course neither option had been available to me, so this is all theoretical, but I am quite sure my feelings are bedded correctly in the squeamish ground of ignorance and avoidance. I am also rather keen on the stork alternative, for everyone involved. No mess and a freshly changed baby is dropped down the chimney. But I think The Stork has retired to Florida along with Elvis and Father Christmas.

My date with fatherhood also involved a waiting room, in which I waited and fidgeted nervously. I was called in to see the judge who leafed through my file that had taken over a year to fill. Then I was legally pronounced
a father. I don't think there was the smack of a gavel, but it was just as stern and definitely not a memory to be video recorded. There was no cigar, no sweating and exhausted wife nearby that rued the day she ever met me. Just me. Next I caught a taxi and half an hour later I was at the orphanage. Not the usual scene by a long shot. Of course I am brushing over the long journey of becoming an adoptive parent. The angst, procedure and uncertainties need not be delved into. It was a moment my wife and I had been longing for, for over a year. Except it was nothing like we had envisioned. I had had to come alone and now I held a one-year old that I had met nine months ago and seen grow up through photographs. I was unprepared. How hard could it be? It was all I thought about as the two of us strangers blinked at each other in a the back of a taxi on the way to the hotel.

Too Soon To Panic

To say that I was wholly unprepared for the experience is an understatement. Whatever your views on adoption are, it is a process that is lengthy, intrusive and designed for introspection. I had developed an idea of the values and importance of parenthood over hours of discussion with my wife, social services and other experts, but now, face-to-face with it I realised I had really only dealt with the conceptual side of it. I had received one hasty nappy changing lesson, brought along various rattling toys and could not remember more than a snippet of any nursery rhyme from my childhood. I avoided restaurants that were child friendly and viewed prams with disdain. Even though I work in a school, the reception and nursery areas remain the most unsettling and intimidating to me. A trip to the infant and kiddies store the day before I flew did nothing to reassure me that I had made the transition. Most of the toys in the store looked like they could be used by consenting adults who were used to using safety words. The toys, placed in a different setting, perhaps down a certain side street in Amsterdam would fit right in.

You Sent A Man?

Meanwhile, word had crept through the neighbourhood that we were adopting. In fact we hadn't told anyone, but you can only keep a secret for so long when when elderly Greek ladies are concerned. A crack in a curtain across the road was all it took to see the delivery of the baby's mattress. Of course, the eagle-eyed neighbour, armed with some information had been left no choice but to directly confront my wife the next time she spotted her leaving the house. And so the secret was outed, that we had applied and gone through the adoption process for over a year. When my wife explained that I alone had gone to collect our child - and would be sole carer for two weeks she was truly horrified. "You sent a man?" Incredulous and of course quite convinced that I would not manage to bring the child back alive. You see in Greece, men are not really involved in the rearing of children. After the age of seven, men get more involved, but until then the mother is in full command. Of course they never ever let go entirely.

While the legal formalities were processed, Joe and I spent two weeks in the hotel room getting to know each other. He for the first time came to see that the same person would be there for him when he fell asleep and when he awoke. I was in the deep end, slowly building up his trust and getting better at getting food in his mouth. Initial attempts ended up with more food around his face and or down the back of his shirt than where he wanted. The weeks that passed were the most tiring that I have ever been through. I longed to be home for a short break or even just a change of scenery. But looking back those days are best I have ever spent. Playing Hide 'n Seek with a one-year old is usually a one-side affair but the smile that began to creep over his face has never gone away. The toys I had brought elicited little interest and he seemed happier climbing over me or finding out where all the plug points were. Listening to The Beatles seemed to work better than any nursery rhyme I could try sing. We were bonding in our own little way, perhaps it was a bit Stockholm Syndrome-ish while we waited to come home, but it seems to have worked no matter how unorthodox. Of course we were never quite on our own and thanks to the wonders of Skype and FaceTime my wife was able to be part of the daily routine and even the quiet criticism from my mother-in-law was even able to find its way into our little world. Quite how the baby never caught pneumonia or some other dreaded disease in my care she will never know and, not so secretly thinks it is a small miracle.

The Miracle of Life

Time and dementia go hand-in-hand and it is why grandparents love children all over again. My wife's mother was perpetually fretting that the child was not clothed warmly enough and that any area outside the cot was heaped with germs and so should not come into contact with the baby miracle. In the two weeks I think Joe must have licked everything that was from the floor to mouth height. He seems okay. My mother too on the other hand was full of the miracles of life and bursting with questions about what it was like to be so close, finally, to a small bundle of miraculous goodness. I could never supply a good enough answer containing a satisfactory enough amount of wonderment. I hadn't, even after several days, quite got over the contents of my first nappy change. Even now, I still flinch if I think back to that first morning. At home, the nappy inspection is something my wife is quite fond of and takes an avidly forensic interest in what foods seem to complement and solidify well together. I am still of the opinion that the devil lies in the nappy.

The Road Ahead?

I wrote recently that we teach the way we were taught and that we parent the way we were parented. Change only comes when there is a concerted effort to break with the pattern. My wife and I have our own ideas as all shiny new parents do. Although I am not sure what I need to change just yet. If I follow my mother-in-law's approach, the world is a germ abundant and dangerous place. Meaning Joe will never think of leaving the house until he is past the age of 30. On my side of the family tree, I would like to think my childhood was similarly conscious of danger, but I do know that I spent a good deal of my toddler years buck naked from the waist down and enjoyed playing with wet concrete. I also seem to have spent a lot of it crouching happily in a bucket. At least that is what the family photo albums depict. I guess we'll find a middle way of sorts. I have seen enough bad parenting to see that it is very easy to make life very difficult. Social media too seems to be rife with the look-at-me-good-parent-brag photos. Making 5 hour cakes of some favourite cartoon character or posting links to read "10 Jaw Dropping But Shockingly Good Lessons I Want My Toddler To Read Before He Goes to Nursery School - But Can't" is on my not to do list. Clearly it isn't easy. Marriages fail and children become their own persons - despite your parenting and careful nappy changes. I know that the most difficult part of it all is consistency and has been the glue in the start of our relationship. I will need to be more consistent than I have ever been in any other area of my life. Day after day. His little grin when he sees me every time is what makes it all worthwhile. The rest we can figure out along the way.

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