Our son, Ethan Blue, is two (and a bit) and I’ve been reflecting a bit on parenthood, fatherhood, children, babies, love, death, space and time. I thought I’d share these random thoughts. In case, some of the city references are a bit perplexing, you might need to know that he was born in July 2016 while we were living in Paris and we came back to London a year ago.
New parents are surrounded by advice. Usually well-intentioned, occasionally useful, mostly not, sometimes maliciously judgmental. It comes from everyone: doctors, nurses, neighbours, colleagues, friends, family, and, if you live in Paris, people on the street who seem to think it is okay to tell you when your child is hungry or tired or too hot or too cold. (It is not okay.) Much of this advice will be entirely contradictory: never leave your child crying/always leave your child to cry; set a firm bedtime/let them sleep when they need; never let them breastfeed for more than 15 minutes/let them feed for as long as they need to. Should you let a baby go to sleep sucking a dummy? We had vehement, urgent yeses and strenuous, shocked noes. And on and on. Humans have been having babies for 3 million years, so you’d think we’d have figured out how to do it, but apparently not. And it’s not just contradictions between folk myths and medical wisdom; contradictory advice comes from different doctors; reputable books point you in entirely opposite directions; parents of innumerable babies fail to agree. And it’s some of the basics people diverge on - food, sleep, cuddling. The thing is that the unceasing responsibility for a baby is such a shock, you are vulnerably ready to fall under the sway of other people’s convictions; and then when it works, it’s hard not to generalise from your own experience. We coped by inhabiting the indifferent flow: hearing, filtering, mostly discarding, only doing things that make sense, ignoring the imperious command or the magic solution. I don’t know if that would work for you; I am not in any position to offer advice.
When does a baby stop being a baby? It’s undecidably a matter of biological change in him and mental change in me. There’s no single moment of change; when he started walking upright maybe (about 12 months), when he started stringing more than one word together (about 18 months), when he started counting (18 months) or reciting back to us bits of the books we read him (about 2): these are all milestones in the transition from baby to little boy. There was certainly a point when he was about 20 months when his limbs started to lengthen and he lost his puppy fat and his face started to look more expressive where he looked more like a little adult. But for me there was just a moment where I found I needed to look at him differently. He stopped being a baby when I stopped looking at him as a baby (and I stopped looking at him as a baby when he stopped being a baby).
I was massively unprepared for the arrival of our baby. On reflection, I’m not sure there’s anything I could have done to prepare. And I mean mentally unprepared – we had a cot and a buggy and did some antenatal classes. But I was unprepared for how little a baby does. For almost the first six weeks, our baby did very little; a bit of crying, some drinking of milk, a lot of sleeping, but he didn’t respond much, didn’t smile, didn’t show any clear interest in anything. And because of the little beak-like protruding nipple-sucking lips and big wild unseeing eyes, he seemed more like a bird than a human. And this, apparently, is all normal. And then came the slightly magical moment where I smiled at him and he smiled back. And that’s really the first time we felt like we had care not of a vulnerable new-born baby bird but that we had a child.
Babies and then children seem to have a version of what I think Richard Rorty calls the ever-growing circle of attention. Initially the baby can’t really see anything; the world is William James’s blooming, buzzing confusion. Then the eyes start to focus and I think in the first three months they can properly pay attention to things in their immediate periphery (probably less than a metre around them); then this widens and they get a sense of the room they are in; after six months, Ethan started to understand that there were other rooms in which things were happening even if he wasn’t there. Now, aged two, he seems to have a mental map of the streets around our flat. I guess this continues to grow until, at some point, he has a fully cosmopolitan sense that we are all one humanity, and perhaps even that we are all equal members of an ecosphere. Of course, this latter stage, as we are currently realising, is not a stage that everyone achieves.
This sense of attention spreads through his body too. Those wild unseeing eyes at the beginning begin to look purposeful within a couple of months and then the body, as it becomes more coordinated, directs itself more at the world and itself. Now he occasionally seems haphazard but mostly purposeful, even if we don’t understand the purposes to which he is directing himself.
One huge difference between London and Paris is that in London I now expect every public building (galleries, museums, theatres, etc.) not just to be accessible to children but specifically to have thought about the experience of their spaces for children. In Paris, I am amazed when I find a building that isn’t actively hostile to children (but see Paris). Having Ethan has renewed my relationship to London. I’ve been to the Science Museum more often in the last six months than I have in the previous 40 years. Following Ethan through it I discovered it has Stephenson’s Rocket: here, in my own city! We discover the glorious central courtyard of the V&A with its shallow pool, water fountains and Great Exhibition tile work. We suddenly see all the green spaces and public parks and playgrounds (seven in easy walking distance). We peek into restaurants and if we see a couple of highchairs stacked obediently in a corner, we know it’s safe to go in. (If they have a lot of highchairs, though, we generally find them as unbearable as if we had no child of our own. There is, in the cosmic system of child-friendly restaurants a goldilocks zone of restaurants that are not child-unfriendly and not too child-friendly, but just child-friendly enough.)
The exception to this is Italian restaurants which are typically not just child-friendly; it’s like they are child restaurants that also welcome adults. A good Italian restaurant is the perfect place to take your child.
I’ve always disliked – and still dislike – the idea that having children is the meaning of life (the idea just kicks the existential can down the road). In fact for me having a child has just sharpened the ambiguity of mortality. Within a month of EB being born two thoughts came to my mind with enormous force and clarity. The first was: ‘you can die now’. And then, almost immediately afterwards, ‘you absolutely cannot die now’.
I find myself thinking about my death all the time with a mixture of calm and horror. At one point I found myself reflecting that ‘all being well, he’ll be at my funeral’. (‘All being well’?)
Having a baby is an oddly non-binary experience. Looking after a six-month-old baby is simultaneously completely fascinating and extremely boring. Changing a nappy is adorable and disgusting at exactly the same time. The first year crawled by at terrific speed. Perhaps because everything is loved without end: the boredom, the nappy, the hours.
He goes through phases, sometimes eating anything, something seeming affronted at the very idea of meals. Quite often he expresses deep suspicion of anything that isn’t beige carbohydrate. Our complacent mantra is ‘he won’t let himself starve’.
We didn’t know the sex of our baby (see Ultrasound) and one of the benefits of that is that you don’t pre-gender the child before it appears. We bought gender-neutral clothes and toys. We found a brilliant department store that does a great range of gender-neutral clothing that just looks great.
But enforced gendering is hard to avoid. I tell my son he is clever and brilliant and (sometimes) that he is brave and strong. I tell him these things all the time. I hope I would say exactly the same things if I had a girl but I don’t know myself enough.
And then there are some strange circular arguments. We noted that even though he has a range of different toys, he very quickly became obsessed with cars. Some people we know described this as the triumph of nature against nurture, his natural boyfulness leading him to cars. But there’s literally nothing male about cars and, even if there were, cars have existed for little over 120 years; that’s not enough time for evolution to have imprinted the car into masculine DNA. The truth surely is that, because he is a boy, they have gendered the cars.
Fortunately, Ethan has had no very serious need for hospitals. He had some wheeziness which meant a few A&E visits, in part because our local GP system seems to have broken down. And then not long before his second birthday, he tripped over holding a toy with a sharp edge which cut his lower lip on the outside, while the impact meant that his teeth macheted into his lower lip from the inside. We took him to hospital, pretty much expecting them to give him a plaster and say go home. Instead they booked him, with our permission, to have stitches under general anaesthetic.
Lilla being at work, I have to handle the day with him. Even though I know the operation is entirely routine, I don’t sleep well the night before. In the morning, I take him to one of his favourite places, the London Transport Museum (seriously, go, it’s so much better than it sounds) and then we wander over Waterloo Bridge, along the South Bank and head to Evelina Children’s Hospital. I feel inexplicably guilty all morning, as if I’m tricking him into hospital. It reminds me of the day I proposed to Lilla in Venice; as the evening approached, when I’d planned to give her the ring, I felt bad that I knew what was going to happen and she didn’t.
In the hospital, the nurses and the doctors are completely brilliant. I confess my fears to the young anaesthetist and she says brightly that when she’s on the other end of these things she worries too and needs the anaesthetist side of her brain to remind the mother side that the procedure is completely safe.
When he goes up for the operation, I go with him into the operating theatre. He is going to get the general anaesthetic through gas and the way that works is he sits on my lap and I cuddle him as they apply the mask. Of course, Ethan struggles and gets upset and I cuddle him even tighter and it takes everything I have not to burst into tears right there because I’m turning cuddling my child into a form of restraint, holding him against his will, turning affection into torture. I didn’t burst into tears, because I knew it would upset and probably frighten him and it would embarrass the nurses, and of course me.
He goes limp in my arms, which upsets me further, and then they say I have to leave but I can give him a kiss and I do so saying I love you in a whisper because I don’t trust my voice to say it out loud. Outside I cry in a corner until I realise a porter is trying to change the bin I’m sobbing against.
When he comes round, he’s fine, a little disorientated but, after eating nothing all day, he wolfs down a cheese sandwich and watches In the Night Garden on his bed, taking everything, as ever, in his stride and better than his parents.
Hospitals are places simultaneously of terror and comfort. There’s a strange plasma smell in the corridors and this reminds me that blood, too, is a sign of life and death. His brief hospital stay was in the week of the NHS’s 70th birthday so that’s two extraordinary things we have created there.
It interests me that two things happen at the same time: developing a sense of self and learning to play-act. Purely from observing, in an amateurish way, one child, it seems that the moment they understand that they are a distinct self, separate from the world (Lacan’s Mirror Phase, psychoanalysis fans), is also the moment where they can imagine alternative versions of themselves. The sense of self is detected in his insistence on wanting to do things other than what we want him to do. The play-acting is detected in his ability to imagine and perform doing other things than he is actually doing. Certainly our boy started doing these things within days of each other.
For Lacan, the Mirror Phase - the moment where the child (mis)recognises itself in the mirror as a distinct and whole person - is both a moment of completion and loss, where we achieve a sense of selfhood through the profound loss of our intimate prelinguistic sensual oneness with the world. But is it possible also that the imagination continues to keep that bridge open and even pushes beyond just this world into possible and impossible worlds?
A common worry among men, I gather, is that the child will steal their partner’s affections. (Interesting that women, apparently, don’t much worry about this.) I don’t know that I worried about this to a point of seriously thinking it could be true but I did wonder what it would feel like to share my wife’s love.
It’s ridiculous of course. The love is different and new and anyway love isn’t like that. It’s not like sharing a bag of crisps. Love is the magic money tree, only better.
I expected – because this is what I was told – that I would instantly feel a flood of paternal feeling when he was born. I’ll be honest; I didn’t feel anything like that. There’s an overwhelming sense of responsibility and amazement and incredulity and quite a bit of fear. When he started smiling back (see Baby), that’s the point I started to feel more defined feelings of love. And of course now I sometimes just look at him and think my heart will burst out of my chest (see Love). When did I start feeling like a father, though? To be honest, I’m not sure I do – or rather, maybe I have been expecting a feeling that doesn’t happen. If I’m honest, particularly in public, I sometimes feel a bit like I’m pretending to be a father; when I’m out pushing him in the buggy, it occasionally feels like I’m pretending to push a buggy. Sometimes when I’m talking to him in public, I feel like I’m acting the role of a father and acting it quite badly. In the park once I hear myself saying ‘come on then, kiddo’ and blush at my clichéd performance.
Love evolves as our baby grows. When he was first born, there’s a sort of love I have but I think it’s mostly made up of concern (for his safety), anxiety (that we’re not doing it right), and amazement (that he’s there at all). They are all, in various ways, heightened, sometimes rapturous states and can resemble, or may even be, love. But this changes to something more recognisable when he starts to reciprocate. As we begin to feel we are communicating with him and he is communicating with us, love changes entirely. As he develops physically, his personality shaping his face, his body becoming more agile and adept, we start to love the whole person (see Baby). When he walks and then when he starts to talk, sometimes I am choked up just looking at him. When he obediently says ‘I love you Daddy’, even though I know it’s mostly just repetition, it floors me. And when he eventually put him down to sleep at the end of the day, we find ourselves sitting on the sofa looking at pictures of him on our phones, and every day has the intensity of a new relationship because he changes all the time and with it he changes how we love him.
I am overwhelmed with admiration for people who make music for kids. John Lithgow made a glorious album of children’s songs, Singin’ in the Bathtub. We discovered the fantastic songs of Tee & Moe. Sam West put us on to Radio Doudou, a French online radio station that pumps out non-stop radio for babies. Best of all, on Twitter Mark Hunter (@Hark_Munter) recommended Caspar Babypants; he’s the former lead singer of the Presidents of the United States who now just makes albums for kids. And what albums. The songs are power-pop, country-tinged, Beatlesy bursts of sunshine. He’s got about ten albums of the stuff. The songs are funny, charming, full of melody and wit. The chorus of ‘Bad Blue Jay’ is something that Teenage Fanclub would be proud of. ‘Baby of Mine’ made me cry. ‘Baby and the Animals’ is joyful. He’s got two albums of Beatles covers and the ‘Hey Jude’ is one of the best Beatles covers I’ve heard. There are very few winks at the parent audience but ‘Too Dirty to Love (Muddy Baby)’ pulls the trick off perfectly. There’s a whole channel of songs for kids on YouTube (KidsTV123), most of which I find unbearable (and the Solar System song is one of the most chillingly lonely-sounding songs ever), but I have to hand it to A. J. Jenkins who signs his work; for the first year EB is transfixed.
He’s two and I read something that says none of us can remember anything before we’re about three and those memories that we do seem to have are imagined or implanted by other people’s vivid descriptions. I sort of knew this already but it disappoints me to think that none of the experiences we have given Ethan in his first two years will stay with him, until I reflect that they are embedded in who he is, his boldness, his familiarity, his boredom, his joy, his endless laughter.
Other people’s babies
I used to be very bored by other people’s babies. Now I love them. I like holding babies. I like their smell. I find their antics amusing, even when they are screaming their heads off. This is not that anything has been unlocked for me; it’s just empathy for the parents and gaining experience of why babies are interesting.
By having a baby in Paris, I learned a great deal about the distinctive nature of French public space that in turn illuminated much of its political history. One is that public space is truly public and open, a place of debate and contestation. You see this in the graffiti, most of it political, or the French appetite for political posters (incredible). But you also see it in the way that strangers will come up and tell you your child is too cold or needs food. If someone said that to me in London, I would assume they were dangerously insane; but that’s because in London the public space is not really public at all; we carry with us a portable sphere of private space that should not be invaded. In Paris, if you’re on the street, you’re in the debate. This explains (or is explained by) 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1968. And Paris public space is extremely non-hierarchical. That public debate is fundamentally democratic. Although French society is in many ways very deferential and hierarchical, this is not true on the streets. Anyone can speak to anyone. In practical terms, when you are walking down a pavement with a buggy, Parisian people don’t assume they should get out of your way. In London, generally, people step aside to let a buggy go through. In Italy, people seeing a buggy coming twenty metres away would step off the pavement in readiness. In Paris, every encounter is a debate.
Sometimes, when he’s awake, I long for a bit of peace. When he’s asleep, we find ourselves going in to look at him to check he’s alright. When he’s noisy, we want quiet; when he’s quiet, we want noise.
We read to him a lot. In fact, in a burst of excitement before he was born, I ordered all of the Mr Men books and read them to him one by one over the first couple of months (boy, do those get weird); even though he understood nothing of what I was saying, the bold colours and schematic images seemed to attract his attention. Now we read him a couple of books a night and he can finish our sentences if we stop. One thing we realised very quickly is that children’s books are probably the most popular form of serious visual art; some of the books are jaw-droppingly beautiful, clever and often emotionally shattering. Sure, some books are dreadful, so when he selects, for example, The Little Train That Could, my heart sinks. But when he reaches out for Oliver Jeffers’s Lost and Found, or Marion Deuchars’s Bob’s Blue Period, or Once Upon a Time by Raul Guridi you know you and he are about to have genuinely enriching visual and emotional and narrative experience with your child. And then there are some classics – from Winnie the Pooh to Paddington, from The Paper Bag Princess to The Gruffalo – that are so full of joy that it makes the adult novel seems desiccated and mean-spirited by comparison.
We tried to impose as little on the baby before it was born as possible. This is why we didn’t want to know the sex of the baby, so the clothes we bought were gender-neutral. But it was hard not to think ‘I hope they’ll be clever’, ‘I hope they’ll be passionate about something’, ‘I hope they’ll be nice looking’. But when the baby was born that melted away. Now we just want him to be happy, that’s all.
We don’t generally let him watch TV until 5pm. A friend gave him a Woody doll (from Toy Story) which freaked him out for a few months until he embraced it again and played with it so much we thought we’d try him on the movies. And now he requests them, which is no hardship, the three Toy Story films being about as perfect a trilogy as can be imagined.
His mental development can be detected in the way he assigns some words to things and some to classes of things. So ‘Woody Time’ is ‘all television watching’ (replacing ‘Hey Duggee’ which was ‘all television programmes’), just as he seems currently to use ‘two’ to mean ‘all numbers above one’, and - briefly and a little hurtfully - ‘mummy’ seemed to stand in for ‘all parents’.
We had most of our ultrasounds in Paris where having a baby is very medicalised. An upshot of this is that they appear baffled when we say that we don’t want to know the sex of our baby. The French attitude seems to be that human knowledge has progressed to the point where we can know this, so why would you deliberately wreathe yourself into the shadows of ignorance? You might as well refuse anaesthetic for having a tooth removed. And indeed most doctors found the idea of a natural birth comically absurd. When we went for an utrasound, we would have to tell them quickly about our wilful desire for unknowing before they announced it. French being a gendered language, this seemed to be quite difficult to do and we came away from one appointment debating whether she meant ‘il est bon’ in a gendered or neutral way. One doctor was very good about this and would caution us to look away from the screen when the ultrasound was about to reveal something. I couldn’t help but sneak a look and frankly could see nothing in the mock turtle soup on the screen. Another doctor asked ‘do you want to know the sex of your baby?’. No thank you, we replied. She pursed her lips a little and returned to her task, murmuring with undisguised triumph, ‘But I know’.
I always thought I’d try to speak ‘normally’ to our boy rather than that up-and-down sing-song voice that parents use. That was stupid of me, because children like the up-and-down, sing-song style just in the same way that they like big bold colours and strong shapes.
When reading to Ethan, I sometimes put on different accents for the different characters. You will be interested to know that the Gruffalo speaks in a Glasgow accent; the Highway Rat speaks like Phil Daniels; Madam Dragon is from Morningside; the bear who wants his hat back talks like Bernard Bresslaw; the Fox who searches for the Golden Wonderflower appears to be from Swansea. Sometimes, when I’m doing a new accent, Ethan stares at my mouth in wonderment as if I’ve stopped speaking and started doing something entirely different.
I’ve always had a slightly chaotic work process, often working through the night on writing projects, focusing intensely on a research project for months at a time. These things are no longer possible and it’s taking a while to understand how to rebuild my work process to accommodate having a child. I find – sometimes – that I can be very focused; when he goes down for a nap, I have already been planning the work task I am going to do and I get to it immediately. I haven’t quite experienced the ruinous impact of the pram in the hall. I find that Ethan and work ground each other.
I find it very hard not to kiss him all the time. On the top of his head on his beautiful cheeks. I finally understand what my own parents are like. Lilla and I have agreed that, even though he’s two, we respect his personal space and when he pulls away from a kiss (or says ‘no’ when I’m tickling him) we stop. He has also started to offer hugs and kisses to us, which completely floors me.
After EB was born, it didn’t sink in that I have a baby, that I’m a father. And you know what? Two years on and it still hasn’t. Perhaps it won’t and maybe you just get on with it anyway. It’s like how you cope with work; most people I know feel on some level like they’re a bit of a charlatan whose inadequacies and incompetence will one day be exposed to the world. But then it doesn’t and you carry on anyway, realising that perhaps this is what being up to the job feels like. The most I feel like a father is when I pick him up from nursery and he sees me and runs gleefully towards me shouting ‘Daddy’ (which is my favourite moment of the whole week, no question). But at that moment I feel like ‘his Dad’ more than he feels like ‘my son’. But also it reminds me of the oddity of the possessive pronoun. He’s not ‘my’ boy in the way that that is ‘my’ book or ‘my’ dinner. I’m just looking after him for the world and for him.
Before I had a baby, my standard question to new parents was ‘are you getting much sleep’? I now discover that this is everyone’s standard question. We have been lucky. Ethan sleeps well and also we were not working 9-5 hours for the first year so we didn’t feel the horror of sleepless nights so much (we could always make it up in the day). Also, we devised a pretty clever plan where I would handle any wake-ups between 10pm and 3am; Lils handled 3am to 8am. That way, each of us was guaranteed at least five hours. (Sometimes, I will admit, I would hear him stir at 2.57am and would have my fingers crossed that he wouldn’t cry out until 3am). He had a reversion at 3 months, where he started waking up in the night, and we figured that out, through a mixture of Ferberizing and then anti-Ferberizing and then some Heath Robinson version of our own invention. And since he was six months old, he’s basically slept for 12 hours a night.
So if I do have advice for you it’s this: live in Paris; have a summer baby; be on sabbatical; be lucky.