Maybe it was because we knew we couldn’t do it alone. That we needed each other’s support to survive and eventually thrive. Or that we wanted our children to grow up together and replicate the close bond we ourselves share. Whatever the reason, my closest male friends and I made a silent pact: that we’d all have our first kids at the same time. As you do in your mid 30s, having pissed much of the last decade up the wall. It was also tacitly understood that we would all have daughters. Needless to say the gods (or rather our other halves) delivered and no fewer than five girls, including a pair of twins on Father’s Day, arrived within weeks of each other last summer.
My own daughter, E, was born on a Saturday night in July. As we approach our first Father’s Day proper, my initial instinct is to leave it unmarked. It seems a bit excessive to be made a fuss over for raising the child I am half-responsible for bringing into the world in the first place. Though E was unplanned, she wasn’t completely accidental. No child is. I’ve just been doing what I’m supposed to do. And though I like to think that I do more by making my daughter’s days and nights as safe, stimulating and beautiful as can be, that’s just parental instinct isn’t it?
When coronavirus hit, keeping my daughter safe took on a new, scary meaning. No parent missed the profound irony of an inept PM, already fucking up the country’s response to the virus – and a man unwilling even to say how many children he has himself – choosing to give lessons on what constitutes fatherly duty. It got me thinking (or rather it confirmed what I already instinctively knew) that if the idiots making the rules couldn’t follow their own ineffectual guidelines, I’d have to take matters into my own hands.
To that end, my wife and I have been relatively strict in our interpretation of lockdown, only leaving the house over the last few months to briefly walk E on the deserted residential streets where we live. We haven’t been to a shop and we haven’t seen friends or family at all. We would have loved to visit E’s grandparents but British common sense prevailed and we decided not to be dickheads and stayed at home instead.
Not that we’re martyrs or anything. The truth is, life hasn’t changed that much in quarantine. Having a baby is basically like lockdown but without the boxsets. You don’t really see your friends, go to dinner, the cinema or pub. And binge-watching Netflix is out of the question as your every waking and non-waking moment is taken up with the business of keeping the whole feed-play-sleep show going. So despite the initial stress as we rushed to buy E enough food to get through the apocalypse, we transitioned into it in a pretty natural, relatively painless way. Both parents trying to juggle WFH and taking care of a child has been intense and we’ve certainly had our ups and downs but I’m so grateful to have been there for many early milestones: E's first tooth showing through one morning, seeing her crawl and then stand for the first time. I would have almost certainly missed some of these had I been going to and from the office five days a week. I wouldn’t have had the hours I've invested in teaching her how to give her dad a kiss (we stan Harper and David Beckham).
In many ways my daughter has kept me safe, not to mention sane. As the global pandemic hit, the way in which we experience the world changed. Lockdown distorted our perception. Nothing is real; it's just a matrix of competing narratives amplified by the foghorn of social media. As I shrank away from this world and starved myself of friends and family, my detachment from reality could have become entrenched. But in being a father to E, being ever-present in her life, I have something real which I experience every day. Focusing on her has shielded me from much of the stress of the world right now.
When this is all over, as it will be one day, what kind of world will we return to? What kind of a society do I see her growing up in? The virus has laid bare the inequality in the world, and it was thrown into even sharper focus after the murder of George Floyd. We all hope that recent and ongoing protests mark a sea-change moment, and that we may be finally ready to listen to marginalised voices and to rid society of oppression in all its forms. But the world moves slowly, even slower if you’re brown. Which category will E fall into? We shall see. A lot may hinge on what my Filipino-Bengali-Russian-Irish child ends up looking like. Will she be reduced to a bit-part role, fetishised as the racially ambiguous hot mess in some campaign? Or will she float seamlessly through life, her complexion pale enough to avoid the at best slightly awkward, at worst straight-up racist "Where are you from…no, where are you really from?" questioning from strangers that has plagued her old man his whole life. A bit of both I imagine. I am sure she will have many advantages growing up – will passing as white be one of them?
There are other hurdles, too, of course. Will her gender identity, sexuality, class or even size mean she faces discrimination? A big part of raising E will be to educate her about these inevitable obstacles so she has the tools to go out there and conquer. But most of my experience of being a father so far has been about the here and now. The bigger picture falls away as you focus on the day-to-day travails of raising a child. I’ve never had the chance to consider the enormity of the task or whether I’m actually doing a good job as a father. I can’t worry about what school she’ll go to or the first time she’ll have her heart broken, let alone discrimination and the gender wage gap, when I’m just trying to get through to the end of the day.
There is a sense of guilt at inhabiting the parental bubble. There is a knowledge, too, that we will have to leave its safe haven one day and rejoin society. It is our responsibility to help turn the wheels of change. For now, a siege mentality can be helpful as we have no idea how long this state of limbo will last. The pandemic has warped the very fabric of time, as each day slowly rolls into the next, then quickening before you notice months have passed. Therein lies another similarity to the joyous hard labour of parenting: "the days are long but the years are short," as the saying goes. The long, sleep-deprived nights seemed to last forever but in the blink of an eye my daughter is nearly a year old. Blink again and when I open my eyes she could be a parent herself. Having E in my life has made me reassess my own perception of the past and future by forcing me to live in the present. As somebody who would regret the passing of time and loss of my own youth, I no longer look back with rose-tinted glasses or drown myself in nostalgia. My life now stretches out in front of me as I anticipate growing ancient and watching proudly as E takes on the world.
I have been surrounded by strong, inspiring women my whole life, both personally and professionally. My daughter will be too, I hope, though she will have to look no further than her mother for inspiration. While everyone’s experience of parenthood is different, a quick poll of my dads’ WhatsApp group ‘Top Of The Pops’ revealed some common themes, and a general consensus: that whatever we have gone through as new fathers, it pales in comparison to what our baby mamas have already gone through. A mother has had the length of the pregnancy to endure the physical hardship of growing this alien inside them. Not to mention delivering the thing. And then the physical and mental recovery. Then breastfeeding (as E was until recently). That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The level of sacrifice is on a completely different plane.
There is very much a sense that Father's Day is not a given: it needs to be earned. So let me take a rain check this year – a promise of time spent with my daughter in the future. A visit. A drink in the pub. A phone call if she’s living abroad. It will serve as a reminder to ask myself if I’ve earned the right to be called a father over the previous 12 months, and as a time to reflect on the years we’ve spent together and years we have to come. And hopefully how far the world has come, too.