herald

Monday 23 October 2017

Why having a baby daughter changed my life

I once watched a good mate of mine score a hat-trick against England in intervarsity international football.

He was good enough to turn pro, although he didn't. He did, however, have four daughters -- and nary a boy to pass his genes on to. Even now, over a few pints and in his absence, his mates still shake their heads wistfully and say: "What a waste."

I used to be one of those wistful head-shakers. Then my wife had a baby girl, and life became an entirely different ball game.

It's fair to say that I was never any woman's idea of a feminist. Growing up, I was the dictionary definition of that old gag about the Irish homosexual, who just about prefers women to pints. I played soccer, hurling and Gaelic football, never once ironed so much as a T-shirt, and chased women around town on three different continents. And my standard response whenever a woman (mother, sisters, current-but-not-for-much-longer girlfriend) brought up the subject of babies was, "Any moron can have a kid, and most of them do".

I even wrote a novel once, in which the hero's girlfriend tells him she's pregnant. The guy freaks out, naturally, although once things calm down a bit, he fantasises about "playing Mozart to her belly, how I'd be able to teach him Pele's body-swerve".

Teach him Pele's body-swerve.

It never occurred to me, even in the realms of fiction, to imagine that any child of mine might not be a boy.

When my lovely Mrs Wife became pregnant, we quickly decided that we didn't want to know if the baby was a boy or a girl. I can't remember now what our reasons were, but I'm pretty sure that it was something to do with the fact that we still live in a patriarchal society, and that baby girls, even if it's not politically correct to say it aloud, are still valued as less worthy than baby boys, especially when it comes to the first child.

Whatever the reasons, the single most beautiful baby girl ever born arrived in late March, 2008, and in the space of about three seconds flat reduced her once manly father to a quivering heap of infinitely grateful hormones that she had been born just so. It being Easter, we called her Lily.

They say that boys wreck your house and girls wreck your head. What they don't tell a man is what a baby girl can do to his heart. How it softens and sweetens, how it swells with pride and in a bid to contain what feels like an immeasurable, unprecedented and terrifying capacity to love.

Terrifying because there's nothing like having a baby girl under your roof to make you feel utterly, nakedly vulnerable; terrifying because you know, being a bloke, you will never be tender and gentle enough to appreciate the nuances of this most delicate bundle; terrifying because, being a bloke, you know exactly what blokes are capable of thinking and doing.

Maybe it would have been exactly the same if Lily had been a boy, but somehow I doubt it. I would have tried to turn a boy into a Mini-Me.

I would have expected him to be rough and tough, to fend for himself as soon as he could walk. As he grew up, I would have expected him to play football and never cry and do and be all the things that society expects our boys to be and do.

With Lily, it's all new and free of expectations and pressure -- it's just me and her and whatever we become.

She can do rough-and-tumble, and if she decides that she wants to follow in Katie Taylor's footsteps and become pound-for-pound the best sportsperson that this country has ever produced, then good for her. If -- as seems to be more likely, even at this early stage -- she'd rather follow in Angelina Ballerina's plies and pirouettes, then that's great too.

I'm biased, of course, and everyone knows that young girls mature quicker than young boys, especially when it comes to speech and emotional intelligence.

But when I lie down beside her bed at night to tell her a story, and she waits until it's finished before saying, "My turn", and then proceeds to rattle off her own garbled version of a fairytale starring the "bootibul fairy brincess Lilia", my heart swells fit to burst and it's very difficult, unfair as it may be, to see boys of her age as being anything but doltish, crude and boring by comparison.

Because, cliche or not, it's true what they say: you learn as much from your children as you teach them. And Lily, being a baby girl, has taught me emotional intelligence -- or has taught me, at the very least, how little emotional intelligence I possess, and how much I want to learn.

And if another baby was to come along? A boy would make for a matching pair, it's true, and I wouldn't be even slightly disappointed, especially as Lily is already campaigning for a "baby brudder".

But another baby girl? Well, let's just say that it'd be a crying shame if my new-found talent for plies, pirouettes and pas de deux were to go to waste now ...

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