The ultimate roller-coaster
I hate roller-coasters. Always have, always will. It’s probably something to do with my intense fear of heights and an undeniably wimpy nature – not exactly the best ingredients for enjoying an adrenaline-fuelled ride being flung around by the twists and turns of a metal rail.
Yet a roller-coaster ride is possibly the best analogy for parenting. And it’s a metaphor that I’m fully signed up to.
This is never more apparent than in those intense first few days and weeks as a parent. A combination of starting this blog and a flurry of friends getting pregnant and having babies has caused me to reflect on those uneasy, unsteady first steps into fatherhood.
I remember returning to work after a couple of weeks’ paternity leave. When asked what it had been like, my response was along the lines of ‘it’s like having every extreme emotion crammed into a few days’. Five years later, I still stand by that description.
That emotional roller-coaster ride encompasses all sorts of weird and wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) experiences. Absolute fear (coming round in a daze from an unplanned nap and being convinced I’d fallen asleep on the baby), tears of joy (that first cuddle when the baby stares into your eyes with a look that says a thousand words), complete exhaustion (an ex-forces colleague has compared it to the sleep deprivation used in Army training to test young recruits to their limits), side-splitting laughter (my kids have always made me laugh far more than anybody else I’ve ever met), and that sense of complete desperation because I HAVEN’T GOT A CLUE WHAT I’M DOING!
And then there’s love. Falling in love with somebody changes your life. In becoming a parent, your family welcomes a new person who immediately demands love. But it’s a love that thankfully (most) parents are happy to lavish them with. Yes they need food, drink, sleep, etc – but give them all those basic ingredients and ignore love at your peril. Find me a child who hits the headlines for all the wrong reasons, and it’s a fairly safe bet that they were starved of love by one or both parents.
Yes, love is messy. But anybody who has ever loved anybody else (family, friend, partner, spouse, etc) knows that in those early days your heart is ripped to shreds and re-built in a way that is centred around that new relationship.
However, all too often we can feel that we’re failing to love our children enough. All sorts of hormones and other factors can kick us into touch, so if you struggled with it (or are going through those tricky early stages) please don’t think I’m belittling your experience. Even if you feel like you don’t have anything left to give, remember that whatever love you manage give to your child is enough, as far as they’re concerned. They think you’re the best thing ever, and they love you unconditionally.
So, after two weeks off work when my life had been inexorably re-shaped, I think I was justified in claiming that I’d gone through the emotional wringer and come out the other side just about clinging on to something resembling sanity. (Ok, the last bit of that statement may be stretching the truth a little!)
By the way [tangent alert!] I think the change of policy by the government to alter the way that paternity and maternity leave can be shared between mother and father was inspired. I was a little bit gutted to have missed out, but I think that couples should try to take advantage of that new-found flexibility, and encourage their employers to be more supportive towards the importance of that early family bonding for both parents.
Because in those first few days of new life and new love, time is everything. I have been fortunate to work for generous employers who have acquiesced with many of my requests for flexible working to allow for the priority of family life. And in those first few weeks you can’t do much else apart from spend time with the little, smelly, burpy, wrinkly, wonderful bundles. Neither of my two were much good at intelligent conversation as newborns (disappointing, considering they’d had nine months of solitude to concoct earth-shattering theories about the meaning of life), they didn’t appreciate fine dining, and couldn’t even pass critical comment on the latest Cbeebies show. But it was obvious that they just adored spending time with their mum and dad.
The importance of time never changes, as far as our kids are concerned. As they get older, we may try to compensate with exciting days out, gifts and special treats, but nothing can make up for a lack of time. No child will grow up and look back thinking ‘I wish Mum/Dad had spent less time with me when I was younger’. That’s another post all together (and a personal hobby-horse of mine), so I’ll leave that for another day.
A former colleague once told me rather proudly about returning to work a matter of weeks after giving birth. While I take her point about focusing on the great importance of shared experiences in later years, recalling that conversation still makes me a bit sad.
So, if you’re a new parent / expecting / thinking about having kids – or even just happy reminiscing about your own beginning to parenting – I hope you enjoy roller-coasters. It may not feel like your natural place, but relax, have confidence in yourself as a parent (you are doing an amazing job, even if you try to tell yourself otherwise) and watch your kids flourish. You never know, it might even become quite good fun.
Just don’t try to convince me that all roller-coasters are a good thing.
(PS: My claim to hate roller-coasters is not entirely true. I did, once, quite enjoy a ride on Nemesis at Alton Towers. However, I was clinging on for dear life to the fairground carousel at last winter’s Christmas market in Birmingham. Wimp credentials fully restored.)