herald

Sunday 17 December 2017

How to become a dad in one day

It felt good being in a room full of men for a change, discussing the trials and tribulations of being a father; or, in this case, how to be a better one. Until I attended counsellor and family therapist Owen Connolly's 'On the shoulders of giants' one-day father's course (I have a wee certificate to say I did, which will go up on the fridge so my wife will remember) I was of the belief that the skills needed to be a father are within all of us and they just sort of rise to the top when the time comes.

They do in one sense. But there is a coda. The full title of the course is, 'From father to dad', which implies it's easy to be a father but harder to be a dad. Why then, is a baby's first word "dad"? Is that some sort of cosmic joke? You get off on the right foot but move quickly downhill, unless, unless . . . well, unless what?

The old cliche is kids don't come with an instruction manual. But I remember my second night with my twin babies (the first night has been repressed and it can stay there), sitting up with a bottle of wine at 1am reading A Contented House With Twins by Alice Beer -- like the name -- and Gina Ford, which outlined some fairly rigorous routines for twin babies.

But it was the closest thing to a manual I had and it listed tasks for every hour of the day and pictures of sleeping babies, so it was good enough for me. Of course, that was all wrong. And it was wrong because my attitude was all wrong. And the first thing this course does is forces you to position yourself in the right place, which means... and God I hate all this stuff... looking at yourself first.

But let's be honest, having kids was never part of my picture, it isn't for most men. I was at the centre of that picture and wasn't ready to share the space until I was 'happy' with my own lot.

impulse

That egocentric take -- not that I was selfish, and there is a difference -- came through fear, which, I discovered, is a natural impulse for anyone contemplating becoming a father: fear of being unable to provide properly for a family; fear your son discovers you're crap at football and everyone else's dad is great; fear of your daughter going to that unnameable teen club in Dublin; fear of having to give up all the things you enjoy doing; fear you will never see your friends, films or foreign soil again until you're in your fifties; and fear, most of all, that your kids, as Mr Connolly so succinctly puts it, "will see further than you into the future".

That last one caused a nervous catching in the throat when I heard it. We're not conditioned to acknowledge a finite future, but there you are.

My twin horrors are now almost two years old and I was still, deep down, denying the fact that I was a 'father'. But I now realise that my future is somewhat shorter compared with theirs and have learnt that there is a job to do, which is to raise them lovingly, then let them go. And that means to stop looking at fatherhood as a job.

We were coping well enough at home, but with the help of Ms Beer and Ms Forde, I was dealing with each stage of the twins' development the way you would deal with problems relating to any kind of mechanical thing -- issues arose that just needed to be tackled rather than them being part of a whole process that I needed to be actively involved in.

My emphasis was on the clockwork routine and if for some reason that routine was broken my first reaction was panic and 'Now what do I do?' I'd be on the phone to my sisters who are way ahead of me with their kids. "Your man's after waking up at 6am. What am I supposed to do? It's still bloody dark?"

Of course, babies aren't mechanical and their emotional development does not fit in to a rigid routine based around stages of physical development. What I had forgotten was their needs as needs, rather than their needs as inconveniences to my ordered day. Babies don't rationalise, they only respond emotionally and 'live what they learn' from you.

But, as Mr Connolly says, your children will be demanding their needs at every stage and you ignore them at your peril; each need unmet will result in a negative later on.

Aside from dealing with two demanding babies, there were the endless physical tasks that had to be done on top of all the things I wanted do get done for myself. A mental list would present itself every morning at 7am. And as time went on, I realised the scales were being tipped in their favour, with each sacrifice breeding resentment.

"Life has become sh*t and hard," I remember saying one day to my mum. "Does it get any easier?" I asked someone else. "And when it does, will I have much time left at all?"

The solution is, that instead of feeling that what has to be done is a burden, you should consider it a choice. That there is the need to separate yourself from the doing of tasks, to look at them as choices and your mind will put up less resistance.

And if there was just one word to take from this course, 'choice', seems to be it. You don't deny a baby or a child, you give them a choice. You don't give them total freedom, you give them choices. It works both ways. And does it work? It does when you apply it yourself first -- yes, it's back to that.

Look at addictions, we all have them. Red wine at night, Solpadeine in the morning had been my poison; wind-down and wind-up.

"Is there a cure for addictions?" I asked without specifics.

"You can't give up an addiction," Mr Connolly says. "You can just give yourself a choice not to do it."

healthier

It sounded like psycho-babble until I applied it and managed to... well, choose to forego the lesser of the two evils -- won't say which. It's a mindset.

I didn't become Super Dad in six hours on a Saturday morning and there's a long way to go. But I have a far healthier outlook and feel just that bit more confident. All that knowledge though has to be employed. And there were some things that I was not entirely convinced about.

If your daughter wants to go to that unnameable Dublin club at 13, let her go. "You'll surprise her," said Mr Connolly. You raised her in your world and should have enough confidence in her and in yourself. Unfortunately I don't have enough confidence in the world in general, which is another fear that will materialise a little further down the road. In the meantime, one step at a time. Well, two. They are twins.

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