As far as I can tell, parenthood is around 90% picking stuff up off the floor. No wonder people stoop as they get older. You spend most of your time down there, why bother standing up straight again? In ten seconds time you’re only going to repeat the process.
On the floor: toys, clothes, cutlery, their breakfast, lunch and dinner, your hopes and your dreams.
I never thought it was going to be as hard as this. I knew it would be hard. I didn’t even want to do it in the first place, that’s how hard I thought it was going to be. But not this hard. Not this. This torpedo puncturing holes in every aspect of my life hard.
It never ends, that’s the problem. Never ends and never stops. I’m often reminded of the scene in The Terminator when Kyle Reese is trying to convince Sarah Connor that the guy who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger is in reality a relentless killing machine covered in human tissue. Kyle intones: “It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”
Have you met my kids, Kyle?
They’re only three and one, for God’s sake. You’ll miss these years when they’re gone, our relatives say. Jesus Christ, if I end up missing these years, how much worse is it going to get?
I look at other parents now and I think you’re all heroes, absolute heroes. How did you get through these first few years? How? I’m barely clinging on. I’m seizing up. My shoulders, my back, my hips, my neck. My marriage, my sex life, my social life. My sanity.
I’ve got a dad bod now; I tell dad jokes; I do dad dancing. I now know why these things happen. It’s not because dads are uncool. It’s because they’re tired, so, so tired. I’m too fucking stiff to dance with any goddamn fluency or fluidity. My brain’s not sharp enough to make any decent gags. And I don’t have the time or the energy to work out. This is what happens to you. I feel like a dad first and a human being a distant second. I take our daughter to nursery or to swimming, or even to the shops, and that’s how people refer to me: ‘Your daddy’, or ‘Dad’ if I’m lucky enough to be addressed directly. I don’t have a name any more. I just have a role.
Our kids take all the attention, all the airtime. Maybe I sound needy. Well, I am. I need a life. I want a life. I care about life – mine as well as theirs. There’s loads of stuff I still want to do. The prospect of looking at the world through the prism of parenthood for the rest of my days is a terrifying one.
I tell myself I chose this. I know I did. Even though I said I didn’t want kids in the first place, I came round to the idea. When I first got together with my wife I knew she was keen to start a family. First I said give me five years, then two, then I said, OK fine, just give me to the end of this year and let’s give it a go. (Give it a go! Ha. How quaint.) I was in my late thirties. For over twenty years partying and hedonism had been the focal point of my existence. I felt ready for a change, something deeper and more profound. I also had a really difficult and disappointing relationship with my own dad, and I was acutely aware of what I’d missed. I felt like I had a blueprint for what being a father could and should be, and I was keen to put that into practice.
But nothing, nothing prepared me for the reality. No amount of classes or books, or friends and family who had been through it themselves.
Our son turned one in August, our daughter three in September, and they have been hands down the most exhausting, challenging, mind, body and soul twisting years of my life. I’ve had to dig deeper and deeper and deeper. I keep expecting to reach the bottom, burn out, have some kind of a breakdown, but it hasn’t happened yet. Unfortunately. If it did maybe I’d get some rest.
That being said, I’ve been impressed by my own fortitude. And I suppose there is something satisfying in that, something rewarding, in knowing that when it comes down to it you can always keep … on … going.
And that’s the thing, I suppose – weirdly – despite all this, I wouldn’t change it. If someone could offer me the decision to have kids over again, I wouldn’t say no instead of yes. Of course a big part of that is the kids themselves (who I know have featured very little in this rant), and the thought that they wouldn’t be here otherwise. But another part of it is the experience. It is profound. It is real.
I don’t like the term character building. I think we all have character hardwired into us (you only have to see a baby trying to learn how to crawl or walk to appreciate that). I think instead it’s reconnecting with that essence of character that we all have within. Being a parent has forced me to do that; it’s tested me and stretched me. It’s shaken me to my core. It’s made me be patient and understanding in ways I never thought possible. It’s made me drag myself out of bed when I’ve had the full-on flu. It’s made me get over my squeamishness (I’ve been pissed on, shat on and sicked on, once all within the space of five minutes). It’s made me put everything I have into looking after someone else.
I think because so many people do it, I’d always assumed that parenthood couldn’t really be all that tough. But no, it is. It requires genuine heroism. I’m not exaggerating. Try standing up cuddling a crying baby at four in the morning, after a day’s work, off the back of a week’s broken sleep, having snot smeared over your face, while your shoulder muscles scream at you.
At times like that I feel like Willem Dafoe in the movie Platoon, being gunned down by the Viet Cong, my legs giving way, my arms raising to the heavens and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings swelling to a crescendo in in the background.
He gave it all, so you might live. What was his name? Do you know?
No. We only knew him as Daddy.
I’ve always had trouble thinking about more than one thing at a time. Hence the fact that it’s been so long since I put up a blog. For longer than I care to admit I’ve been concentrating on trying to write a new novel. Recently I finally finished it and I sent it off to my agent (or at least the agent I had for Turf, who may or may not be my agent again, depending on what they think of the ms!).
The scary thing about finishing a project like that (or should I say scariest - there are plenty of scary things) is I literally have no idea how it’s going to be received. I think it’s good. In fact, I think it’s great. In places and in certain ways I think it’s Goddamn superb. But will anyone else think the same? I’ve shared scenes and chapters with my writing group and I’ve worked with a writing coach to try and keep the project on track, but no one knows for sure. Maybe some writers do. Maybe Daphne Du Maurier handed in the final draft of Rebecca convinced that she’d written a masterpiece. Perhaps Tolstoy finished the last line of Anna Karenina, sat back and said, Yep, nailed it.
I imagine it helps if you’re an established writer of unarguable talent. But the lack of perspective that comes from producing a long piece of fiction must to an extent always be a pitfall. To my mind you have to fall in love with your characters and with their story, otherwise it’s impossible to spend all that time with them. It’s Stockholm Syndrome in reverse. (Lima Syndrome, apparently, named after a terrorist incident at the Japanese embassy in Lima in 1996, during which the hostage-takers developed sympathy for their captives.) And falling in love is dangerous – especially with your own book. You can be blind to its faults, you can overstate its virtues. In short you are not in the best position to judge.
A book’s success is down to other people’s opinions of it. If they like it, they’ll buy it. But opinions are not always reliable, and are sometimes influenced by more than the quality of the book itself. For example, when we were trying to find a publisher for Turf we had very little interest for the first couple of months. Enough time for me to start questioning the whole enterprise. I convinced myself that it was a dud. It was something for me to put down to experience, little more. With this is mind, whenever I looked over it all I saw were its faults. However, eventually one publisher asked for a meeting, and then as if by magic, it was two publishers, then three, and then four. It was as though each publisher had been waiting for another to make the first move, and then once the ball was rolling it really rolled.
Suddenly Turf was a good book after all. Several publishers wanted to buy it. People sung its praises. It came out to great reviews. Yet this was the same book that I’d given up on a little over a year before. The same book that I’d decided wasn’t up to scratch. Nothing (apart from a few minor tweaks in the editing process) had changed.
I went with it, of course. I didn’t tap anyone on the shoulder and ask, Are you sure about this? I was all ready to write something else. I loved that Turf was so well-received, and I became proud of it because of that. But writing a book is a painstaking, forensic process. The fact that it’s subsequent success is so impossible to determine is terrifying. After all that grind it would nice to have a guarantee of some kind.
For now I’ve just got to wait. I feel like I’ve pulled out all the stops with this new book. It’s not perfect, I know that. But I’m hopeful that it’s got enough about it to strike a chord with people and generate some excitement. I’ve certainly tried to make it exciting – and I felt excited reading it back. But then, I wrote the thing. So what do I know?
In my last blog I talked about the need to make compromises when you’re buying a place to live. Even though the housing market has slowed recently, unless you really are rolling in it, making compromises is going to be a given.
So what compromises are you willing to make? Only a couple of years ago I swore I’d never move out of London. I grew up in Hackney, east London, and ended up spending most of my adult life living there or within easy walking distance. The part of Hackney I grew up in was so multicultural it felt like it had an identity all of its own. It gave me a sense that I had the whole world on my doorstep and I loved that.
In a way I’d always felt more Londoner than British. It was a part of me, my identity, my worldview. I was so London-centric in my thinking I found it hard to believe that people didn’t live in the city. I thought the population of the country was made up of people who lived in London and people who wanted to but for some unfortunate reason were not able to do so. This wasn’t rational. I have friends and relatives who live perfectly full, rich and happy lives in other parts of the country and have no desire to live in London; people who baulk at the idea of the crowds and the pollution and the crime. I could appreciate that - even if I found it difficult to fully get my head around. For me, city life always meant real life.
That all started to change when we began looking to buy a family home. The options in London were limited. A good-sized terraced house where we were living in Balham (yes, I’d moved south of the river - a huge deal at the time!) was easily over a million pounds. Around my old manor in Hackney, prices were closer to two million and often over. There are still parts of London which haven’t been so influenced by gentrification and where prices are more affordable, but as places to bring up kids most of these didn’t appeal.
So we began to look further and further afield, until we ended up in Hertfordshire - the town of Ware to be exact (pop. 20,000 approx).
When it came down to it, it was all about quality of life - and what that means changes as your life changes. In my twenties I could live anywhere - big, dirty, noisy house shares weren’t a problem and were often a lot of fun. In my thirties I lived by myself for the first time and swore I’d never go back. Now in my forties, married and with a family, I wanted a good-sized house and garden, peace, quiet and green spaces.
If we could have afforded all that in London we would have stayed, but in order to tick those boxes we needed to look beyond the city. A scary prospect! I’d honestly felt a kind of umbilical attachment to London, like I was a part of it and it was a part of me. I remember once going on holiday to the Cotswolds - I swear the moment I got off the train my nose started to bleed. I took that as a sign - I needed the city air. I needed the carbon monoxide; I needed the speed and the stress. Without it I began to malfunction.
But we took the plunge. Was it the right thing to do? Yes, certainly. As an example, we’ve just had a glorious Easter weekend. We spent most of it enjoying the garden - having picnics and barbecues, our daughter splashing around in the paddling pool. In our last place, with only a narrow strip of concrete out the back, that wasn’t something we could do. In our Balham flat we had neighbours upstairs and on either side, and there were flats upstairs from them. We had issues with all five of them at one time or another, be it over noise, mess or building work. Where we are now, all the neighbours we’ve met have been extremely friendly and welcoming, but even if they weren’t, we’ve got the space for it not to be an issue.
It might sound like a cliché but people genuinely are friendlier out here. They take the time to smile and make conversation. I’ve been surprised by how good the restaurants are and there are a bunch of good pubs. Yes, there isn’t the same kind of culture, the same diversity, but it’s not like that’s impossible to find if you want it. You just have to look a bit harder and travel a bit further.
As big a compromise as the move felt at the time, it’s actually broadened my horizons and given me a richer experience of life. It’s so easy to be insular when you live in the city and to think that this is where it’s at, that this is all that matters. But there’s so much more out there to explore.
If you are being priced out of the city, my advice would be: don’t feel like you’ve got to stay at all costs. Take the plunge and move out. These days with so much work done remotely you might not need to be in the office all week. Do you need to be within easy commuting distance? Like I did, you might feel like your identity is wrapped up in urban life, but I honestly think that’s unlikely to be true. The person you are and the things that are important to you go deeper than that. They aren’t going to change just because you no longer live on the Tube network or beyond Zone 6.