Fab Dad

 

Whoever coined the fantasy school-gate phrase “Yummy Mummy” could only have been there for the afternoon pick-up.

In the cold light of the eight a.m. drop they look just about credible, but far from edible.

R*****[1] grips my hand tightly as we enter the playground.“It’s like the graveyard,” she whispers, eyes wide.

“‘Like a graveyard’” I tell her, unable to resist even the tiniest opportunity to revive a sense of my apparently permanently locked-down ego, even if just disguised as education, “is a simile that means it’s really quiet or empty…”

“No, no, the graveyard, Daddy, in The Dead will Wake.”

Whatever the rights or wrongs of allowing a 9-year-old to watch a Voodoo horror b-movie on DVD just to buy some quality time with the Sundays, I think the price to global warming in having to keep her lights on all night now are easily offset by her enriched understanding of some difficult concepts of mortality.“Easter,” she told her little sister yesterday, “is the time when Jesus died and became a zombie.”

I’m pleased to say that her new, albeit slightly nervous, awareness of “Stranger Danger” issues has also improved her observational skills.At eight in the morning theplayground mothers do indeed resemble that ubiquitous graveyard scene in which, having dug themselves out of their tombstones, the dead lurch en mass empty-eyed with corrugated cardboard complexions, their rear-view mirror make up applied by Jackson Pollock, stumbling forward as the children run away screaming into the safety of their classrooms.

I know that by three-thirty the mums will be svelte long-legged gazelles, in tight jeans and sunglasses prancing gracefully across the playground savannah but, in the morning drop zone of the asphalt jungle, the real competition is all about who is – oh good grief, if I really have to give it a media moniker, American style, rhyming tag -who is the “Fab Dad”.

I spot the Alpha One hopeful, Zoe’s dad, smirking in the hopscotch area.He works in a garage in a blue boilersuit but every day arrives in a Mercedes and strides across the playground in hand-made tweed suit, sober tie, and glorious city-bonus confidence.He’s there early in order to be going the other way when the mums stagger past, grinning, puffing his chest and pulling in the gut tighter than a Stradivarius.Face it, whatever they say, you probably can get fitter than a Kwikfit fitter.

Matilda arrives on a motorbike, her dad gunning the Harley a couple of times before switching off.He is clad in full leathers and his gelled coiffure jumps to attention in one sweep of the hand after the helmet lifts.He actually does work in the city but struts through the zombie mums like the Fonz, flashing his cheeky twenty grand ultra-brite dental array at any takers.

 Maybe it’s our way of dealing with the 7up-itch but, where the morning mums sag as if everything gets dropped with the kids, the “Fab Dads” strut and preen in powerhouse displays of solvency and genial fatherhood.Like the slightly more hard-core Saturdays in the park, the morning drop-off seems to be a convenient window of opportunity for competitive dads to show off their air-parenting skills, parade the trophy kids and demonstrate their devout commitment to family life – for twenty whole minutes.

Fonzi spots me and heads over for the usual derisory gags about our opposing football teams, but suddenly I feel the dead eyes of the reanimated corpses on me and I’m not sure my own, grizzled, sloppy joe, unintentional shabby chic can stand a full comparison to the Gucci god this early in the day. I duck down to try and look like I’m engaged deep in conversation with R.

“What?” she says surprised, then, “Please don’t kiss me.”

Looking up again I see his not quite buried lay-dar has turned on the New Mum, the last survivor in heels, as yet uninitiated into the ranks of the undead and still turning up well turned out.

I give R. a kiss which she promptly wipes off and runs to her class as I make a dash for my car and anonymity.

I’m not sure any of us know why we’re doing it.The Fab Dad contest resembles our pre-family mating displays but holds none of the frisson of further action.These things rarely turn into torrid affairs.Perhaps you can take the boy out of the game but you can’t take the game out of the boy.It may be less about schwing and more about kerching, but each morning, there we are again, gladiators competing to be Pater Maximus.

Sadly, I have to admit to myself that this contest is exclusively for the anti-meridian gang.Any dad turning up at three-thirty pick-up isn’t “fab”, he’s an also-ran Beta-man who hasn’t got a proper job.

I close my car door.Did I do it?Did I get back without any of the mums seeing me or my car?It is, after all, a bloody bright red convertible sports car, how could they miss it?

A Version of this article was published in
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

[1] Name is pixelated and mumbled in accordance with Government guidelines “Every Child Mutters”.

Sins of the fathers (… and the mothers)

The Good Childhood Inquiry claims that almost all of the problems now facing young people stem from the culture of “excessive individualism” that has developed in recent decades.

Daily Telegraph 2nd Feb

I know I’m not unique in having a childhood in which my father was, usually, just a tuft of thinning hair sticking up over the newspaper at breakfast and the footstep that instilled a panic of correction in the evening.

In contrast, a recent BBC news interview with a manager at Asda, charting how the downturn was affecting spending, revealed that steaks were down and mince was up, all luxury items were down but the strongest sales in the shop was still children’s clothes.  “That’s the last thing people want to make cuts on,” said the manager.

Are modern parents really the awful selfish individuals this report makes them out to be?  Or are they working hard in the face of the terrible nagging guilt that this survey torments them with.  Does any parent, however wonderful, ever feel adequate?

By no stretch of the imagination did I have a deprived childhood, but I still grew up wearing hand me downs.  I didn’t play in state of the art safety-conscious colourful playgrounds but in building sites and ad hoc adventure playgrounds.  There were no theme parks or all day children’s TV channels.  I would love to have had playstation, computer games, ipods or at least parents who had been brought up on touchy-feely family shows like Roseanne and even the Simpsons rather than the war time austerity, children-seen-and-not-heard, shell shocked, post Victorian generation who brought me up.

It is hard to believe that parents really are any more selfish today than they were when I was growing up.  I’m not going to try and argue that selfishness is such a common human trait that the sooner children work out how to deal with other people’s selfishness, the more savy and able to survive in the big world they will be.

But I do see and meet parents every day who are prioritising their children and are constantly aware of them.  Practically everything we do is for our children and their wants, even if it means working away long hours to achieve these things.  Today, even the children whose families have left them shamefully uncared for have, at least, a swathe of backups and schemes to try to prevent them falling through the net and, when all else fails, childline.

But, if parents are no more selfish or even less selfish, than they used to be, why are children aparently so unhappy with their lot?  Could it possibly be that they simply have higher expectations then any generation before?

Maybe children are less fulfilled actually because parents have proritised them so much.  Perhaps these selfish venal little beasts have realised that they can be more demanding and are disappointed when parents don’t follow through.

Yes consumerism doesn’t help.  What goes on in a child’s head is pure logic: If there is a disneyland or nintendo, and they look like they’re fun things for children, why don’t I have it?

Perhaps the ideas of unconditional love are difficult for families who have never experienced the fear and poverty of wartime to drive home the primacy of family and love over material accumulation.

But it is simply vicious and unhelpful to criticise parents who, on the whole, do want what’s best for their children in this difficult age of excess.  The downturn has been a blessing for many parents who have struggled to find a reason to deny and curb childhood consumerism.

The report that criticises mothers who go to work rather than live below the breadline but “with love” is just irresponsible and, simply, wrong.  Parental absence is a perrenial factor of childhood, whether it is war or work that takes parents away.  Just witness children’s literature from its beginnings in the Victorian period and note how little parents are involved in the stories of and for children.  The distant Blyton Mother or her deus ex machina Uncle, did Alice even have parents?  Or in fairy stories, the father who goes or the mother who dies and is replaced by a competitive stepmother.

In many ways the absence heart fonder/familiarity breeding contempt cliche spins it right.  Often we value our more absent parents because the limited time with them is precious and our memories are clearer rather than the blur of constant presence.

For anybody who has seen themselves in this report and finds guilt touching their nerves, take heart.  No matter how much you give your children albeit in time or gifts or love or attention, they are always as aware of you as you are of them – it will stay with them for their whole lives.  Remember, as they become adults and want to define their own individualism they will always blame you for their flaws and problems and you will have to bear that.  But that is love, and which ever path you picked, love is why you do what you do.

Coulda Woulda Shoulda

My phone starts vibrating in the middle of breakfast and manages to shimmy straight in to the butter dish before I can reach it.Wiping the screen I can just make out a smeared text message.

“Jst ws thnkng of U hope yr well! Missng U.”

My wife looks over and I know my ears are reddening under the scrutiny.The thoughtful, if vowel-lite, text message is from T. an old, once significant, girlfriend.We had lived on a boat together in the mad old days and when I sailed off into the uncharted waters of parenthood, with someone apparently more sorted.It was she who stood on the waterfront of my child-free life, shouting, “I coulda been a contender.” But if something coulda, you’ll always ask yourself whether it woulda.

I look at the text as casually as possible, as if it was just one of my twenty-a-day spam messages offering to upgrade my phone, but for a second, I feel the vigilantly repressed young buck inside me rearing triumphant.I pretend to delete the message whilst, at the same time, remind G. to eat with his mouth closed and I slip the phone, a little too easily, in to my jacket.

Of course, I know I should have just deleted it immediately but a voice from a rose-tinted past is a sirensong and the older I get, the significance of what an alternative life might have been, becomes ever more poignant.

“The past is a foreign country…,” said the writer L.P.Hartley, but it isn’t, or there’d be a budget airline offering 9p tickets there.“…they do things differently there.”Wrong again.In fact the whole problem with the past is it is so terribly unchangeable, however you look at it, whatever was done, it’s always exactly the same.I think if you’re going to be remembered in the Oxford Book of Quotations for just one line, you rather owe it to yourself to get it right.

Of course if the past was another country and you could get there on EasyTimemachine® then of course you’d do things differently.Wouldn’t you?

Later, in the loo, I examine the buttery grease stain in my jacket lining and toy with the idea of replying.Using the now well established excuse argument, the Clinton Literality Defence, I convince myself that texting, technically, is not like I’m making an actual call.But of course in some ways, like fellatio, it is much more intimate.And if I did, what would I say?

“Hey lng tm no hear, I’m good, U?” or

“Miss U 2. Stay hppy” or

“O Gd wht hve I dne, it shd hv bn U. Pls frgve me.I Lv U, cm bck nd tk me awy frm all ths.”?

Or, of course, I could just take the patently sensible option and delete it.

My thumb hovers over the delete option and I realise that that the one thing that defines this mid-life that I’ve blindly stumbled into is that the world is no longer just about possible futures and directions, most of my alternatives are just what coulda been.“What if,” has become, “if only”.That, and the fact that nowadays my back goes out more often than I do.

Sitting looking at the message I feel I am constantly frozen between the two diverging headlights of reigniting feelings that may damage my often troubled but known-quantity status quo, and the infinite delights of a fictional alternative life.

And, like so many resultant rabbit pies.I do nothing.The phone’s backlight turns off and I put it away again.

Of course it’s only a few days before the wheels of the reality lorry pound me into the road.

It’s after dinner, story time.I’m upstairs trying to make Count Olaf sound like Vincent Price.My phone, back on the kitchen table, starts vibrating.Before it can sidle into the unidentifiable gunge that eternally surrounds our youngest’s uncleared plate, my wife helpfully picks it up and reads the text.

“Upgrade your phone now and receive…”

She deletes it from the inbox and, without really thinking, glances at the screen.She says nothing until later.The kids are in bed, their lights are out and they are quivering beneath their duvets desperately trying to think of some ray of hope in a world darkened by the evil Count Olaf.We’re both reading at the table and without even looking up she says, “Do you ever hear from T.?”My stomach crashes and I know I’ve been rumbled.

“Yes,” I say, trying to breathe evenly and think of icebergs and penguins and cool, cool, desperate not to blush, “she sent me a text just the other day, out of the blue.”

“Oh, really?You didn’t mention it.”

“No.Well.Thought it best to ignore it.”I hold back from attempting anything that might appear affectionate, a dead giveaway that I might have something to compensate for.

“Do you ever think about her?” she says, “The past? You know, what might have happened if we hadn’t got together?”

“The past?” I laugh thinly, “oh no, you know me.Seize the day, stay focussed, look to the future, live in the now…”

“Yes,” she nods with her arch smile, “I do know you.”

And, I suppose, the contents of my outbox.

diary1

The Daddy as Baddie

“I’m going to count to five and if you haven’t said sorry by then you’re going straight to your room.”

I stand pointing upstairs looking as furious as possible as I try to remember where I’ve heard the phrase I’ve just used before. Oh yes. It was my father.

“One”

With the possible exception of being behind the wheel of a very large truck, you don’t want to turn in to your parents. However, the chances of avoiding it, when they’re the only consistent guide to parenting you’ve had, are slim.

For me this isn’t helped when each morning I look in the mirror and all I can see is my father staring back. Not only that, he hasn’t even bothered to shave. When my wife wakes up she doesn’t just look like her mother, she proceeds to tell me how she was always too good for me, I should get a proper job and that there were a lot less darkies around during the blitz.

“Two”

My only consolation in my patermorphis is that I’m not turning into someone else’s father because, flawed as my one was, this week has proven there are far worse out there.

Take poor Ray Bond who failed to pick up the clues when he allowed Hannah, his 13 year old “emo” fixated, goth, daughter with a history of self harm, unmonitored internet access. Hannah “was always very protective of the screen whenever I came in to the room,” he told a Coroner after finding her lifeless body hanging from her bunk bed.

Of course he didn’t choke his daughter to death by stamping on her throat in an honour killing as Abdel-Quader Ali did after seeing her talking to a British soldier. “Death was the least she deserved,” he pronounced.

But even that pales when the kindly old father figure from Amstetten said, “It was a beautiful idea for me, to have a proper family also down in the cellar.”

“Three”

Suddenly I’m wondering if I’m not being a little too authoritarian. I mean dads have hardly had a good press this week. It’s like someone’s been running a campaign for Fathers For Injustice. And here I am looking stern and maybe it’s scarier then I think.

I do realise that, like nipples and Calpol, terror has a key role in the psyche of the young, it trains caution before they’re old enough to understand danger. An ugly witch in a fairy tale used to do the job but since Shrek came along they’re all cute and rehabilitated; ogres no longer seem to eat children.

When R’s school project on Zeus revealed that his father ate most of his siblings as babies and Zeus ate his first wife with his unborn child inside her it was greeted with the same indifference as if that was just another option on a Happy Meal.

So now we have the news to broadcast our ogres and the terror is distributed indiscriminate of age. Madeline McCann is a cautionary tale, but mostly for grown ups, and where story monsters were always marked by their differences, now what makes them scarier is that they’re just like us.

“I wanted to have many children. Not children that would have to grow up alone… but children that would always have someone to play with.” It’s a simple caring notion, what parent hasn’t let it idle through their brain at some point? But, oh my god, I’ve just shared a thought with the mind of Joseph Fritzl – and here I am about to imprison a defenceless child in her room. What kind of father am I?

“Four”

As I stand there praying I won’t have to mete out punishment, it dawns on me that I’m no longer one of the kids, I‘m not one of us, I’m one of them. I’m the brick wall my children will try to tear down. I’m the cause to be rebelled against. My love might be unconditional but any chance of friendship is overloaded with conditions. I’ll be your friend if you obey my rules: sit up, don’t slouch, speak up, get your feet off the chair, lean over your plate when you put food in your mouth, say sorry like you mean it…

“Four and a half”

She still hasn’t apologised. I look into J’s determined eyes, hero of her own adventure, facing down the punishment monster. I try to keep my angry dad face and not let on how much I admire her bravery. She’s only three and I know I’ve got to teach her how to respect people because it will keep her safe when she’s out in the big world. But I hate knowing that I’m reinforcing our differences and the memory of moments like this will eventually drive her away to the happier company of her un-judgemental, non-conditional, peers.

“Fi-i-i-i,” I say, menacingly, my arms reaching towards her, ready to snatch and whisk her screaming to her room.

“Sorry” she quickly whispers grabbing my hand and burying her face in my arms.

I kiss her tiny hot head, “No, I’m sorry,” I whisper back.

Got the MABS

I used to think that until I settled down and had a family I’d be incomplete. Of course as soon as I did, I realised I wasn’t complete, I was finished.

It’s something I’d rather forget, but every other week, another “life’s crap for the middle aged family man” ‘finding’ seems to come out forcing me, once again, to stare into the abyss.

Which is, partly, why I find myself sharing a table in a busy pub at lunchtime. The sun is hot and bright, making the darkness inside all the more black. A viscous smattering of partially dehydrated beer glistens on the table.

“You going to get that down you?” says the bloke next to me, nodding at the glass I’ve been staring at for the last half hour. It’s the very question I’ve been asking myself as I grip, the tiny pill in my hand: my first anti-depressant.

It’s Superman in reverse; there you are faster than a locomotive, more powerful than a tall building and so unfamiliar with your own underpants you’re not sure which way to put them on, then you pop into the phone booth of life to give someone a ring and when you come out you’re bespectacled, bumbling, mild mannered, Clark Kent, whose closest encounter with a speeding bullet is being stuck in traffic.

You spend the rest of your life looking for the damn phone booth, or somewhere to just change again, but it’s gone.

I look at the little pill with the big promise and try to remind myself that the disappointment of lost youth is so old as to be a cliché, prosaic rather than cause for Prozac, a trite of passage. But then why is everyone trying to remind me how miserable I’m supposed to be?

Hoards of academics, probably suffering from the Mabs (Middle Aged Bleakness Syndrome) themselves, seem determined to justify their misery.

Why am I not surprised that Professor Oswald, stuck in a midlands university with acres of research, describes life as a U-bend, “bottoming out in middle age”? What middle aged man doesn’t know he’s stuck between the first flush of youth and the blocked waste pipes of old age?

Last week, Relate counsellors revealed the shocking truth that middle aged men lose their libidos – as if the Bonapartes hadn’t already stuck that psychological post-it note on the pages of history – and if cancelling your bedroom activity wasn’t enough, Professor King of the Royal Free was quick to remind us “Men are most likely to suffer depression between the ages of 30 and 50”.

And now, when it’s far too late to do anything about my family, (short of the Austrian fine wine solution of laying them in the cellar for 24 years), Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert declared the happiest people were those married but without children.

But what do you know? All these weighty academics, leaders in their fields, top of their game; if they’re not between 30 and 50 then stick my hat in the oven and season to taste.

Perhaps then, it’s not that middle aged man’s melancholy is any more prevalent, but that he’s more likely to indulge this navel gazing with the time, resources, position and self absorption to explore it.

I just pity the poor research assistants and want to take them by the hand: yes middle aged men, just when then they should be feeling top of the pile, often feel shitty for a number of rather worn reasons. There, now they can use the time I saved them to get back to their all-lego re-make of Star Wars for YouTube.

Maybe depressed men seem more of a story because, unlike women, they’re less likely to admit it or go to a doctor for anti-depressants. The mid-life bloke stumbles through not daring, or conveniently forgetting, to tell his doctor or anybody else, that he no longer feels master of the universe.

I pick up my drink, “There we go”, I think, “bucked the trend and, like Moses, got my answer in a tablet.” I place the pill on my tongue, and lift my head, but looking up I get distracted.

She catches my eye for a hundredth of a second, a fraction of a girl, half my age, and an eighth my BMI. She sweeps past in a skirt which, from table height, appears to have risen above the bottom of a pair of piston driven impossibly firm, tanned, buttocks. I sit there staring and realise I have forgotten why I had put my head up in the first place.

So pity not the sad middle aged man, don’t tell him he’s repressing something, don’t advise him to “let the feelings out”. We come equipped with our very own inbuilt survival mechanism, a natural bad news cut out; the one that allows bills to lie unopened for a week, as if they had never arrived. Death, tax demands and an excess of nasal hair: all inevitable and all totally ignorable. We like to call it things like, “focus” but our one-track, multitasking-resistant, minds are also hard at work defending us from the credit crunch, the spreading gut and the interminable research: our all-natural anti-depressant.

Clutching my glass, I stare at the receding figure and realise I’m as happily capable of forgetting I’m never going back to Krypton as I am anniversaries, the names of in-law and children on buses.

I let out a low whistle and something I’d forgotten plops into my glass.