I don’t think I’m a Bad Parent. Far from it. A Bad Parent is not what I am. Bad Parents don’t give a shit about their kids. Bad Parents leave their children feeling unloved. Bad Parents hit their children for spurious reasons. Bad Parents insult each other in front of their offspring, then insult the kids with vicious sincerity. And of course, Bad Parents abuse their own children. I’m not that person. Ever.
In fact, without wanting to sound immodest, there are times when my parenting reigns supreme (sometimes it doesn’t, sure, but let’s accentuate the positive here!). Strangely enough, they’re not the times when my daughter gets a glowing school report, or says “I love you, Daddy – you’re the best!” (largely ‘cos I drop hints for her to say that for my own benefit), because such actions are as a result of Good Training. Bad Parents can train their kids, through bullying and threat of violence, to work hard and say appropriate things, and thus get away with the stuff that goes on behind closed doors. If you’re smart, you can hide being a Bad Parent very well.
The bits when I know I’ve done a Good Parenting are more subtle and less overt. They’re the times when my daughter does as she’s told in public (even if she’d rather not), automatically says please and thank you because she herself appreciates being good-mannered, reads because she wants to, asks good and insightful questions, is conversational and confident, is brave and stands up for herself, is not fazed by a large audience, is kind and thoughtful to others, and gets something valuable out of the day.
But let’s face it, that sort of thing only happens a tiny percentage of the time. Most of the time my daughter is a completely free agent, and totally unpredictable. We forget to our detriment that animals – even tame and domesticated ones – occasionally do something we don’t expect. And children are no different. Yes folks, your kids are no better than wild animals.
My daughter occasionally does things that are neither funny nor impressive, sometimes in public, and I feel powerless to stop her. I generally stand there confused as to what to do next, like a worried mudskipper.
If it’s in public, I then have to rustle up at a split-seconds’ notice some sort of punishment that both
a) makes me look like I’m in control and she gets disciplined;
b) doesn’t make me look like an abusive bastard in the eyes of surrounding and highly judgemental parents.
Sometimes I think the whole ‘disciplining-yer-kids-in-public’ thing is more for everyone else’s benefit, than either mine or hers.
So this is me, pretty much the hopeless, hapless Dad. I’m not reluctant – I’m delighted to be a parent – but I’m also a bit lost. I feel this when I see other dads run around a park with three kids hanging on their back and legs, and all of them are laughing. I don’t do that sort of thing at all. For one thing, I have a bad back. For another, I worry that running around a playground chasing small children would result in me being arrested. I sweat far too easily even when there’s no reason to. I’ll sweat at the drop of a hat – in fact, to prove this, I once asked my wife to drop a hat on the floor, and by the time I picked it up, there was a bead of sweat on my face. Lastly, and most depressingly, I have (according to numerous eye-witness accounts throughout my life) a scary, weird, or “bastard” face.
So I soften my face, make myself look friendly and unthreatening to small children, and as they get confident to climb all over me, that’s usually when I get kicked in the balls quite hard. At that point, it’s hard not to have a bastard face.
I’m envious of dads who can get away with being a pirate* or a dinosaur. I do try, but I’m not that great at being either for very long. I am not able to take part in a water pistol fight without horrifying the other parents. Too many Scorsese movies when I was younger means I’m unable to carry a super-soaker without giving my 4-year old opponent a ‘double-tap’ execution. It’s not a good move at a children’s party. And I’ve played far too much Call of Duty, which means I shouldn’t take a SuperSoaker fight seriously, but I do.
So there’s my problem in a nutshell – I’m a creaking, unfit, lazy, unnaturally sweaty, hairy man with a face like thunder. And I’m a bastard when it comes to a water-pistol fight.
Most of all, this Bewildered & Hopeless Dad is not so much incapable, just clueless. I’m awkward around people, let alone around kids. Other parents worry me. I’m hard-wired to be wary of gossiping girls in a playground, and a group of mums at the school run is exactly the same as facing up to gangs of girls when I was 13. And it’s the same tensions: If I approach them, do they look at me like I’m a scraped turd off their kitten heels? Will they laugh at my scraggly beard and rank, glistening, sweaty skin?
It took me the best part of a year to be able to have conversations with the biggest group of mums; a friendly, chattering bunch, who knew each other from various post-natal groups, baby play sessions and nursery schools, and they seemed to know what was going on all the time. They knew the school diary, when the INSET days were, what homework needed to be handed in, and they were always kind enough to tell me when I mumbled a vague enquiry. Obviously, on the rare occasions Sarah did the school run, she was greeted by the group; but then, she’s a kindred spirit, one of them, a fellow mum, part of the sisterhood. When my wife shows up at school, my kid gets invited on playdates. My wife did the school run less than 20 times in the first two years of primary school, but she seemed to attract contact details of other mums on the phone. Up until recently, I didn’t have any. This is because Sarah has a lovely, open, smiley, friendly face, and doesn’t have my permanent scowl, my beard, dark eyebrows, and misanthropic vibe. She’s also chatty, gregarious, and capable of making friends everywhere.
In the last year this has changed. For various reasons, I decided lurking at the fringes like a wrong ‘un was getting me nowhere, and it would be politic to form alliances. Plus all of them seemed nice and I was feeling a bit too awkward and lonely at the drop-off, so I timidly started joining in the conversations. If nothing else, it made any out-of-school activities (particularly birthday parties) much more enjoyable.
Nowadays, I like the Mum Gang on the school run. They’re fun. They invite me out for nights out at the pub, where they get tipsy and they try to get me to explain what bukkake is.
More to the point, I now understand that parents have a need to bond. It’s a support network if nothing else. Being part of the network means that some emergencies are solved within minutes, problems are shared, and shoulders are there to lean on. I get it now.
The men (of which there are a few) at drop-off and pick-up are a different bunch. Shy, shuffling, awkward, loathe to make small talk at first. The men don’t do gossip and easy laughter at first. We interact on a very comfortably male basis. A jerky upwards-nod of recognition and a gruff “all right?” is the best we could manage. A few years in and we’re a bit less guarded, and we’re a bit more interested in each others’ lives. We talk about our jobs. More often than not, we discuss the new Star Wars film. At least I don’t have to explain bukkake to any of them.
The Hapless, Hopeless Dad is a lonely beast. No Hapless Dad goes to another dad and asks for help or advice. Gruff story-sharing and scar-comparison at a communal barbecue is the norm. Any conversation with any other Mum has to be carefully screened in case you say something that causes them to stop and stare at you in horror, e.g.:
You let your child eat Nestle products?? You discipline your child by locking them in a cupboard, and having a screaming noise as a loop on a CD as soundtrack?? You watch WHAT with them??
And so, fear keeps the Hapless Dad in line. Fear of being discovered. I’m reliably told that being a Mum is actually very similar in that respect.
So clearly, this is the human condition. Most of us are like this. I’m sure there are some dads who aren’t hapless, but have got it all figured out. I’ve seen fathers who make it all look easy.
They can do the whole charging-round-the-playground-going-RAAAAAH-whilst-their-children-and-their-children’s-friends-shriek-in-delight, and do discipline in a fair and untraumatic fashion…
They never shout…
They communicate well with teachers, other mums, other dads, and every child, on fair and equal terms…
They can fix leaks, broken toys, collapsed shelves, garden fences and walls…
They get their kids to read, and do homework, and not watch too much telly…
They don’t wrap their kids in a paranoid bubble about traffic, older children, dogs, men with long coats and greasy hair, etc…
They are fit and handsome, and can still do stuff without backs and knees giving out…
They are all of this. And I bet they are sensitive to their wives’ needs, they are supportive and kind, they help around the house, do equal shares of laundry, tidying, and shopping, they communicate well, and are understanding and empathic, and they’re still top-notch sexy studlingtons. They moisturise. They’re ambitious in the workplace. They earn good money. They have time for their family.
I’m sure those men exist. I’m sure I’ve seen them somewhere (probably in an advert). In the meantime, I’ll make do with being The Hapless Dad, the world’s shittest superhero. I’m so crap, I haven’t even got a costume. And if I do have one, it’s because my wife made it for me. She’s good at costumes
(*Despite not being very good at being a pirate, I do totally rock the pirate look, and before Alice’s birthday party a few years ago, I marched into Currys/PC World to make an enquiry about a new television in full pirate regalia, including eye patch and hoop-earring. The salesman did not bat an eyelid, which I thought was very professional of him).