Oh Yeah, Didn’t I Mention?
Recently, I launched my new site and, with it, my new Patreon page.
If you clicked the Patreon link (and thank you if you did) you will have seen an adorable picture of my baby boy.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have already seen a picture of the ultrasound scan that we later came to realise was of the same baby boy.
I suppose if you saw both the ultrasound and the Patreon, by now you’ve put two and two together and worked out that at some point between then and now a baby was born. My first child. And I utterly failed to announce it.
It’s not like by not telling you I was deliberately not telling you. I mean, it wasn’t a conscious decision. It wasn’t a secret. I fully intended to announce that my son had been born. I mean, I wouldn’t just tweet an ultrasound and then not announce the subsequent baby — who does that?
I made a blog post about getting married, I blogged about moving house, I even blogged about getting a new job, I was going to blog about the birth. I was.
In good time.
I mean come on, I wasn’t going to live tweet the labour or anything. You’ve got to leave a respectful distance between the events themselves and the mass publicising of said events. I was just waiting for the dust to settle.
If you don’t wait, it seems like you had the baby just so you could blog about it or something.
So, here was my plan: I would wait a bit and then, when the time was ripe, I was going to collect my thoughts and share some wise words with you, things I learnt from becoming a dad.
But then, a day after he was born my son was… well, he wasn’t 100% healthy. Nothing very serious, only life-threatening in the sense that to newborn babies everything is potentially life-threatening. Little guy just needed a little colour in his cheeks. A couple of extra days in the hospital and he was fine. He was fine.
But (and in retrospect it’s funny to me now) in the hospital a kind of certainty elbowed its way into my brain. It was an ancient, primal feeling. It was like two parts parental protective instinct and one part mental-illness-level anxiety. I was possessed by a ghoulish certainty that my son would die. Not even in a dramatic sense, or a dreadful premonition, more like a numb resignment. Almost like my life was a badly-written film and, ten minutes after the opening credits, I could already predict the ending. Yeah, okay, that’s how the story goes, they lose the baby. Real original, guys.
Of course he was fine. We took our healthy baby home and then it was just a question of settling into a routine. Waking up every two hours to manage his various biological processes, trying to fit wriggly little arms through the oversized sleeves of onesies he would grow out of in just a few weeks, typical dad stuff.
I had been waiting for the dust to settle, but it never did settle. My normally predictable life had been upended. I had been changed. My priorities had been dumped out, reshuffled and replaced like unalphebatised books. No, that’s not it.
My brain was rewired. Although that’s not entirely it either. Rewired implies a deliberate process. An escaped chimpanzee had pulled out all the wires and then the zookeeper came and plugged them back in again so as not to get into trouble.
I burst into tears holding a tiny pair of socks. Dear Zoo became the greatest work of literature I had ever read by virtue of the fact that I was reading it to my child, and the monkey in the book looked so much like him. Watching him sleep, I kept feeling this severe ache, like indigestion but deep in my chest. It felt as though looking at my son was literally hurting my heart. I didn’t even want to feel that way, but of course I didn’t want it to stop either.
And that feeling of morbid foreboding, that suspicion that I was about to walk into a room and find him dead?
It never left me.
It’s just become more sophisticated. I no longer think he’s just going to stop working for no reason like a broken toy. Now I’m rationalising it. He’s going to get too hot or too cold. He’s going to suffocate himself on one of his soft toys or on a plastic bag. I’ll go into check on him during a nap and he won’t be moving and I’ll just know it. It’s over, it couldn’t last. How could it last?
Because that’s not how stories work. And my anxiety is, has always been, a storyteller looking for narrative clues.
I am ridiculously, almost comically happy right now. Everything in my life is painted with a veneer of inarguable greatness. So when I reflect on the story of my life, the part with my marriage and my son is the main storyline and everything leading up to that point was the backstory that gets revealed through dialogue and short flashbacks.
So we know, as an audience, what to expect. The happy couple with the cute baby don’t just stay happy. I’ve seen this movie, that baby dies 20 minutes in and it becomes a downbeat drama about coping with tragedy and learning to let go.
I think this more than anything prevented me from making a blog post in those first couple of months. Because you don’t want to publish happy news like that and then have to publish a retraction. Oops, sorry guys. Never mind. He died.
That’s going to look bad in the news section of your light-hearted humour comic.
I told myself just needed to wait until I felt normal. I can’t write unless I feel normal. But the fear still gripped me, so I didn’t write, I kept waiting instead.
Then, while I was waiting, I stopped being able to sleep like a normal person on account of having to rouse myself every two hours to pick up a tiny creature that was either hungry, had just pooped, or both. Or neither of those things but he wouldn’t stop crying anyway.
By the time I was able to work on creative comic website things, other stuff had to take a priority. Working ahead of the update schedule, getting the new site up, writing my speech for my brother’s wedding. A baby announcement was the last thing on my mind. Then, when I did think of it the thought was always wrapped in a blanket of guilt over having left the announcement so long.
Then there’s the other side of it. What do you even say?
For starters, the bar has already been set ridiculously high by Jerry Holkins’s post announcing the birth of his first son.
If you’ve never read it for yourself, you owe it to yourself to click that little link up there and take it in.
You certainly don’t deserve to have the experienced spoiled for you by me discussing it, so maybe step away, read that, return. We’ll pick up where we left off.
Good, you’re back.
It’s lovely, isn’t it?
It’s just a moment of surprising tenderness that still gets me. It gets me long after the surprise should have worn off. Reading it, just now, for the purposes of writing about it, I’m not embarrassed to say that I welled up. I cry a little bit every time I read it.
That’s the truth. It’s this part, right at the end:
“I very nearly buckled. Not struck dumb, but struck, as a string might be struck, into sound:
It’s me, I said. I’m the one who sang to you.”
Just reading that part by itself doesn’t do it, but if I read the whole thing down to that part makes me cry. It’s like a magic spell, it’s like that one note that makes people soil themselves. I know it’s coming, but I still…
When I read that for the first time ten years ago, I realised I wanted to be a father. I’m not saying it’s the reason I became a father. I’m not saying finding a cartoonist’s blog post touching qualifies you for the job. And a lot of other things before that point and after it contributed to the decision.
But that moment was one moment in a chain of dominos that fell, tipped over a row of books, cute the rope, sent up the balloon which tugged against the switch operating the fan, and so forth. Then at the end of that process was my baby son.
I even showed it to my wife, when she was still just my girlfriend. She said it was good.
“Good?” I spluttered. “It’s beautiful. I cry every time I read it.”
So I start thinking about what I might say when I hold my son for the first time, that I will later write down in this very blog post.
Needless to say, I’m not a good enough writer to craft anything as powerful as “I’m the one who sang to you,” even if I had ten years to write it. Well, I did have ten years. I had 28 years and change. But I didn’t want to think it up in advance. I was just going to wait until I held him and see what happened.
But in the meantime, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of words they would be. Stern acknowledgement? A grunt of approval? A silly joke? Something profound? Advice? Words of welcome?
What would my first words to my son say about me as a father? What kind of character would I be in the story of his life? The faithful friend? The wise mentor? The relationship character he reconciles with at the end? You hope you won’t be the antagonist, but you never know. Because my anxiety is a storyteller.
I’m not going to be the character who voices his worries. I don’t want to be C-3P0 telling Han Solo the odds of survival. I’m not worried about how much I worry. The persistent pangs of fear, the groundless suspicion that he’s about to die? I’ve asked other parents. Every parent I’ve asked has reported the same feelings.
I asked my father when it stops. “It never stops,” he told me.
It turns out the mysterious mental illness I seem to have contracted is called parenthood.
So I’m holding him for the first time. I wait for lightning to strike.
I grope for something to say. Anything.
“Hi,” I say. It comes out as a croak. “Hi Ted.” Then, feeling like more is needed, “It’s me, daddy.”
“He’s the one who sang to you,” my wife says.
God damn it, Katie. “Yes,” I grudgingly admit, “I’m the one who sang to you.”
I know what kind of character I am now. I’m the comic relief.