I'm a modern stay-at-home dad, but I couldn't bond with my baby
Armed with parenting guides and the very best of intentions, novelist and father Christoper Wakling had a rude awakening when he was left minding the baby
Published 17/08/2011 | 05:00
I was the first person my son saw after he was born. The doctor (it was a tricky birth) delivered him and held him up to me. He opened his eyes and looked into mine. I looked back at him. I felt a jolt of love so sharp it made me giddy.
I knew him, instantly. He would know me as deeply. There was absolutely no way on earth we wouldn't automatically get along.
I was wrong. He took a huge breath. His face crumpled like a carrier bag tossed on a barbecue. And he screamed and screamed, and this was good because somebody told me so, but it was still unnerving. I grinned reassurances at his tiny, wonderful rage, and he screamed at me some more until the doctor passed him to his mother, in whose arms he eventually calmed down.
I left them asleep together and walked home. I called relatives and friends with the good news, slept for a few hours and awoke with a big grin on my face, eager to fetch my wife and son. I was up for it. Fatherhood was going to be fun.
My wife is a doctor, a paediatrician in fact, and I am a novelist. My first novel came out just before my son was born. I'd swapped the life of a city lawyer for that of a writer a couple of years before, and was relishing the temporal freedom of my new job.
The idea was that when our son arrived we would split the childcare down the middle from day one. My wife wanted to continue in her career. My new writing life was flexible.
By helping to look after our son from the outset, I assumed, I would be well placed, when my wife returned to work after six months, to ... carry on.
The hubris in that assumption! It overlooked a couple of key points, the most glaring being that our son preferred his mum. He liked me, too, but in small doses. My chest was nice to sit on in the bath but his mum's was more sustaining. He attached himself to her. They bonded. I looked on.
Even with his mum he wasn't an easy baby. I know, I know, none of them are, least of all first babies born to parents with a stack of manuals by the bedside. But he really wasn't easy.
Colic, teeth, wind, hunger, boredom, frustration: I've no idea what it was, but it sounded angry and loud and unending.
My wife is beautiful, and tough. She was a junior doctor in the late nineties and was used to 48-hour shifts. Yet a month into motherhood she was a red-eyed, stringy-haired, rudderless mess. I didn't have the wherewithal -- breasts -- to help out effectively, and in case you're wondering why we didn't stick some milk in a bottle so I could use that, we did -- and he wouldn't, full stop.
He sucked the life out of her in the small hours, and the large hours, and the hours in between.
When he wasn't doing that, he shredded the manuals. I read lots: whispering-Gina-this, wise-babytickler-that, and we tried to do as they suggested but our son made nonsense of them all.
One book, I forget which it was now, stipulated a routine in which he was supposed to feed for an hour, play for an hour, then sleep for an hour. I'm laughing as I type this, but I wasn't laughing then.
After one feed my wife collapsed in bed and I took over. We played for an hour, 50 minutes of which involved crying. Then I put him in his cot. He cried for another 15 minutes. I waited out of sight, as the manual said I should. He cried harder for the next 20.
I waited some more. He screamed for the next quarter of an hour, so hard the blood vessels across his forehead burst, and I cried next to the cot with him. The sodding book said he would stop eventually but he didn't. He roared until "sleep time" was up.
I went into the kitchen, found a wooden door and punched one of the panels as hard as I could. I'd forgotten that it was braced from behind. With two broken knuckles I retrieved my son and we went to find his mum. She had been asleep for an hour and 58 minutes.
I got what I deserved: no sympathy.
My wife drove me to the hospital where she worked, and although it was within her power to fast-forward me past the A&E queue and "finesse" the cause of my injury, she made me tell the triage nurse that I'd "thumped house, because of infant". The nurse's stare was harder than the door.
We pressed on, trying everything and anything to stop him crying. As I say, my wife is a paediatrician, a scientist.
Nevertheless, we found ourselves forking out for cranial massage therapy. If it made no difference when I stroked his head, was it a surprise that having a stranger stroke it didn't work either?
I was dreading the six-month deadline. My wife had just about convinced him to take a bottle by then, but when I tried to give it to him he would twist away, bawl, spit and scream. Changing his nappy was no easier.
As soon as he could crawl he thrashed himself free of me and broke for the border, trailing whatever I had yet to clear up.
One beautiful spring day in the park, to free up enough hands for the job, I resorted to pinning him down with my knee. He was shrieking. Sweat pricked my brow and rolled down my back.
A group of mums pushing giant prams hesitated as they passed me, and one came over to tell me I was "doing it wrong".
This wasn't the first time that a concerned mother had intervened. I turned to thank this one for her help -- and off he went, trailing crap, wipes and undone nappy in his wake.
Dad's groups: ha! I know they provide camaraderie for some, but for me they were undiluted hell. A frazzled hour of trying to avoid eye contact while failing hard and in public, my son tearing into everything and everyone around him, including me. What was he trying to do? I knew before he learnt to speak, but he told me as soon as he could anyway. "Want Mummy," he said, and he meant it: he was looking for her.
Don't get me wrong. Throughout this period I remained unswervingly in love with him. It was just a curiously bifurcated love, magnified tenfold when he was asleep, which wasn't often enough.
I was the one who needed the naps. I bought a Baby Einstein DVD (I know, I know), put it on and sympathised when he paid the twiddly-tuney nonsense no attention. A week later I was putting the damn thing on, and appreciating its genius, for myself.
I had imagined that I could write when he napped, and during the evenings, and I know there are writers who have managed to do that, but there were no consistent naps and I was shredded by the time merciful evening, and Mum, arrived. It was as much as I could do to crack open a beer.
So, reluctantly, I suggested that we should "get some help", by which I meant paying someone else to put in the hard yards. Just for a day a week. Perhaps a day and a half. This would allow me to write again, which was necessary, wasn't it? Not just for me, but for the world.
The trouble was, our toddler son wanted none of it.
Again, it seems obvious in retrospect, but given his propensity to spend the whole day (in the kitchen, at the shops, at the city farm, the baby gymnastics club and the zoo, and back to the kitchen again) repeating the phrase "when Mummy coming back?", why would he be any happier with strangers? We did it anyway. We signed him up for a nursery.
The women there were lovely, and they had their own mantra. Parents dropped bawling infants into available laps and beat a retreat because "staying just made it worse", and if we didn't go we couldn't return later to be told "he cheered up as soon as you left".
That may have been true for most, but it didn't seem true for my son. I waited outside. I heard him cry, and cry, and cry, and I left anyway, hating myself for it. I cycled to the British Library, sat in the blissful silence, and tried not to dwell too long on what he must be feeling.
Jesus, what was I thinking? I'm not sure. I just know that thinking about it now is rekindling the familiar taste it, smell it, feel it guilt of those days.
He did get easier. Gradually, very gradually, he broadened his affection base until it encompassed me. I always knew it would: he's persistent, but so am I.
Perhaps it was that as he became more articulate I was better able to empathise with him, as well as understand him. He remained feisty and obstinate, but he also became ravenously interested.
I focused, really focused hard, on seeing the world as he -- and later his sister -- saw it. And I made notes. Not for a novel (where was the story?) but because it helped to make sense of him to write things down.
Then, one day, the notes suddenly amounted to a different starting point.
We were queueing to see the robot T. rex at the Natural History Museum. My son was two-and-a-half -- very two-and-a-half. The queue was static. It irritated me but dismayed him. He threw an incandescent tantrum.
I tried to placate him as the queue resolutely failed to inch forward. The tantrum reached a clawing, gouging, centre-of-the-sun intensity. My wife -- seven months pregnant -- tried to intervene. She put her arms around our son and he kicked her hard in the stomach.
We had determined never to use smacking as a punishment, but the determination evaporated then. I took him to the men's toilets and into the only empty cubicle, pulled his pants down and ... it echoed like a gunshot.
He took a deep, uncomprehending breath. The door swung open, revealing a line of men peeing one way and looking another, at me.
My son's face did the melting carrier bag thing. He let loose a mighty howl.
Nobody said anything. If they had, what would I have done? Punched another door, possibly. But they didn't, and I didn't, and we made it through the afternoon in one piece.
Afterwards, though, full of regret for what I'd done, I started thinking of the potential consequences.
Five years, many notes and a great deal of childcare later sees the publication of What I Did.
What I Did is out now, published by John Murray, £12.99 christopherwakling.com