Man & boy - parenting the second time around
His ‘baby’ son was already grown when he became a father again. Joe McNamee on the complications of playing the generation game.
It's 3am. I have just handed three-month-old Isobel back to Beloved after a night feed. You look so beautiful, I say, how I've missed you; I can't wait to snuggle up to you. Beloved peers at me, bleary eyed, wildly suspicious.
Not you, I say, I was talking to my pillow. Just then, three-year-old Hector begins howling plaintively next door. Ever since the new arrival tore asunder one of the all-time great Oedipal romances, he has begun channelling legendary drama queen Sarah Bernhardt. There are daily matinee performances but the showstopper is invariably scheduled for 3am, my current bedtime.
At 5am, his wretched sobbing finally stilled, I pass into a deep coma for three or four hours. And, Max, now 21, is still not home.
If we take it that direct contact, hands-on raising of children lasts until offspring hit 18, then, by my calculations, I will spend 39 years of my life in that ever-so-slightly frazzled state otherwise known as parenting. And who ever heard of an Irish child leaving home at 18 to make their own way in the world?
In response to the endlessly repeated question, 'How do you find doing it all over again?', I have developed a stock answer: it's like riding a bike -- when you fall off, it still hurts. I'm not sure what it means, exactly, but every parent gets it. And many of them think I might be more than a little tapped.
Max's early rearing was a process of gradual accommodation, most of it on the part of his fresh-faced and blissfully naïve parents who took time to realise that this puppy wasn't just for Christmas and that the endless party that is your 20s, our own liberation from parental shackles a very recent memory, might have to be postponed for a spell. It wasn't easy and the stamina of youth didn't help -- why, of course, I can party harder than Caligula until the wee hours and morph back into doting Dad for the 6.30am reveille.
One of the eternal advantages of having a child in your early years is that grandparents are also so much younger. And with Max the first grandchild on either side, we also had a football team of doting aunts and uncles lining up for a twirl with the little emperor. We were in babysitting clover.
But, slowly, sometimes painfully, we grew up. A few months past his first birthday, he was rushed into hospital on Christmas Day with serious gastroenteritis, tethered to drips and monitors, in an empty children's ward reopened just for him. It was in the days before hospitals recognised the benefits of allowing a parent to remain with a sick child throughout their stay, providing dedicated facilities and beds.
I was allowed to stay but I slept on a grey plastic chair with my legs splayed across the end of his bed. I left twice during the whole time he was a patient, for just a few hours at a time. During one of those absences, I returned to find some genius had fed fried eggs and chips to a toddler with severe gastroenteritis. He had vomited all over the room and blood had sprayed on to the wall when his drip ripped out during his exertions. I never again left his side until he was released on New Year's Day.
That evening, back in the comfort of home, I opened a bottle of beer. It dawned on me I had accomplished the inconceivable, an entirely hedonism-free Christmas. What's more, I didn't care one jot; I was simply delighted to have my little son home and healthy once more. I finished the beer and didn't bother drinking again for another 18 months. I had learned a first lesson: a reasonably clear head makes the business of childrearing a helluva lot easier.
Having a child in my early 20s may not have been part of the grand plan, but it didn't take long for him to become the centre of my universe. Sadly, the same bond didn't exist between his mother and I, and when Max was just three-and-a-half, our relationship ended for good.
On the day I left the house, he clambered over and around my few boxes of belongings as they were loaded into the van. He thought it was all mighty fun and was disappointed not to go along for the spin as well. As we drove away, my brother-in-law ventured a little small talk, but that soon withered in the glum silence that lasted until we got to my new home, a scabby old bedsit.
Regular stilted phone calls to my now-ex followed, almost entirely devoted to Max and how he was coping. Apparently, he hadn't even mentioned it. Then, six weeks later, I was cycling along with him on a little seat on the crossbar. Over his shoulder, he said to me in an impossibly small voice, "Dad, when are you coming back home?" I nearly crashed. To this day, the memory of him asking that question remains one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. Much of my life since has been spent trying to make it up to him.
The period that followed was an especially low time and I missed my little boy so badly that the hurt was physical. But I wasn't the first and I won't be the last, and we muddled along. I gradually inched my way back up the property ladder through a series of dreadful bedsits and cheap flats.
Whenever Max stayed, he wouldn't let me out of his sight for a moment for fear I would vanish, maybe this time for good. But we grew accustomed to the new order and I even managed to dabble romantically, but each new fling was doomed from the off by my insistence on giving Max top billing in my heart.
By the time I hit my 30s, he had grown into a splendid young companion and an independent little soul. I began to experience a new freedom, travelling abroad for the first time in years and picking up the traces of that suddenly aborted party from way back in my 20s. I was relatively young, free and single, and while my peers were now starting families, I relished my liberated status.
And then, of course, I met a girl. New Year's Eve, 1997, we shared a kiss at midnight and then the following day she returned to San Francisco. But I was hooked and the romance continued, first by email and then by telephone. By March, I was flying across the world to stay with her for three weeks.
Returning home, even to Max, was hell. Every holiday she had, she came back here, and the following year I was sure enough of my relationship with Max to go back to San Francisco for several months. A few months later, she quit her job and moved back permanently to Ireland and me.
In 2005 we got married, Max towering over the pair of us in the wedding photos, impeccably cool in a casual sports jacket, People's Republic of Cork T-shirt and untamed near-Afro. Two years later, the sibling he had stopped wishing for out loud by the time he was eight or nine finally arrived in the shape of Hector Sonny James. Last May, Isobel completed the set; Daddy had his little girl.
She is now six months old and the dust is settling a little, but during her early months it finally hit me, a life-long insomniac, I no longer had the ability to survive without sleep. I really couldn't do it again.
Occasionally, I become overwhelmed by a sense of my own mortality, time moving on, faster with each passing year, and here am I, as a part-time daycare dad, immersed in the seemingly endless cycle of little parenting mundanities.
I am conscious that when Isobel is barely out of her teens, I will have hit retirement age. A recent photo scared the hell out of me: I am sitting on the couch beside a perky little Hector, looking more like his granddad than his dad, tired, slumped, overweight... and what are those things under my shirt? My God! Just who exactly is doing the breastfeeding around here? I have upped the exercise and cut back on the nosebag and already find the increase in energy levels invaluable when it comes to doing the Dad.
If my first child had arrived in my 40s, I would probably have become the most neurotic parent since Mrs Bates decided to home-school little Norman.
Back in my 20s, my immortal prime, I was cloaked in blissful ignorance. I once contentedly watched a seven-year-old Max scale a 30-foot rockface with nary a safety device in sight. Now, if one of the younger ones so much as sits crooked on the couch, I'm out with the safety net. I bitterly regret tiling the entire downstairs floor. After one particular fall, when Hector hit his head with a meaty thunk I still hear, I considered making him wear a hurling helmet 24/7.
But then, during one of those rare respites from mewling, shitting, farting, burping, feeding and whatever you're having yourself, I find myself idly musing on the possibility of having another. There is something addictive about the company of these tiny little beings, humankind at its finest before life bestows the inevitable sharp corners and rough edges.
But until Mary Poppins turns up on the doorstep, gagging for a gig, I'll probably just wait for my first grandchild.