You father a child, so you’re a dad, right?
I’ve done it. Twice.
Fulfilled my biological imperative to perpetuate the species.
Like my father before me.
My three brothers are dads too.
The dynasty is safe.
If the Coronavirus doesn’t wipe us all out.
So, yes, I’m a dad.
Now, there’s millions and billions of us, and we all know what a dad is … biologically.
But how do we do it?
I mean the dad job!
Not so simple, eh?
It all seemed so easy once: Caveman Dad, known to one and all as Ugg — well, it’s pretty much all they could say — slopped around the gaff until the family got hungry.
Then, he would hitch up his animal skin onesie, grab his club, roll away the front stone, and off he’d go to hunt down dinner.
Clocked off when the sun began to go down, or when he had clubbed a wooly mammoth to death and dragged it home, maybe with the help of his old mucker Zugg.
Easy for him to say!
Dinner for the week.
‘It will be even tastier when I discover fire,’ he’d reckon.
‘I’d kill for a Mammoth Burger, yum!’
‘What’s tomato ketchup, Dad?” young Nugg had grunted to him just the previous day.
‘No idea, son, but I’m sure it’ll be lovely,’ he grunted back.
What they actually said was ‘nugg, nugg,’ and ‘nugg, nugg, nugg … ’
But there were no sub-titles back then so they all just kind of winged it.
Mum, meanwhile, kept a good cave, minded the kids, stripped the mammoth down, and fed everyone.
‘I’d love a fridge,’ she’d say, ‘whenever they invent one.’
Actually, she just went ‘nagg, nagg, nagg …’
Generally, she did what Ugg told her. The whole family did. They were so happy.
And then came #MeToo, and U2, and life got a whole lot more complicated for Ugg The Mammoth Clubber …
I have been thinking about this dad thing just now after reading a magazine interview with historical novelist Hilary Mantel this morning.
She was talking about how she had never seen her dad after the age of 11, when her mum moved the family away with her new partner.
Mantel talked about the impact of this on her writing, and how she had explored the fatherhood theme in the Tudor times trilogy she began with Wolf Hall, continued with Bring Up The Bodies and now concludes with her new book, The Mirror & The Light.
“I grew up accepting that I didn’t have a father. It was a case of what you never have, you never miss,” she said in the interview.
“It was only later, much later, that it struck me that that lack might have implications and it drew me into thinking about fatherhood,” she said.
So, I’m thinking, 11 years of having a dad, and then he’s just an absence.
I mean did he make no impact at all while he was around?
What sort of an impact have I been making on my now 16-year-old and 14-year-old offspring?
I just know it’s complicated, and my relationships with the two are completely different.
Lots of common ground, of course, but my daughter and I, and my son and I, are such different arenas.
Of course, they are different people.
I mean really different.
Girl and boy, yes, but that’s only the start of it. Disparate personalities, distinct ways of communicating … utterly different takes on people and the world.
And on me, I’d say.
So I often ponder this thing called fatherhood.
Being a dad.
Getting things right. Getting things wrong.
Getting things wrong even when I’m right. And some things right even when I’m wrong.
I hope you know what I mean.
I’ve also been thinking about motherhood, and what that means to me.
My mum died when I was 14, and I was in my 40s when my dad died.
So mom left my world when I was an unresolved teenager.
And I knew my dad all the way through into my adulthood.
So my perspective on my mum kind of froze over from when I was 14, and my take on my dad evolved as I matured.
Thinking of my mom now makes me think of the historical fragments and flashes of dialogue or pictures in her mind which Hilary Mantel described assembling, firstly, and then building into her characters and the story.
Most of Mantel’s characters, including chief protagonist Thomas Cromwell, actually existed, but their whole interior worlds are Mantel’s inventions.
A bit like the historical figure that is my mum to me now.
Memory fragments, flashes of dialogue, and pictures in my mind I have fleshed out into the Story Of Mum And Me.
More than anything, I recall that thing that nobody else can replicate, not a dad, not a favourite aunt, nor a beloved friend … the Essence Of My Mother.
I wouldn’t describe it as a scent, a particular perfume or an aroma, just the unique feminine essence that was my mom.
It’s like my very body knew her.
Long before my mind did.
Call me old-fashioned, or creative, or just wrong, but for me, but there is just something about a mom.
Which shapes a family, and marks a home in ways no dad can comprehend, let alone replicate.
Because somewhere dads are children too.
While girls are apprentice moms as they identify with and clash and disentangle themselves from their maker.
I’m getting onto something here I cannot possibly explain logically, it’s just something I feel.
Something my body knows.
When my daughter was 11 or so, I took redundancy and was a stay-at-home-dad for a few years.
My wife went full-time in her job.
My daughter was embarking on secondary school, puberty and teenage identity formation.
I did my best, but my daughter and I clashed. A lot.
From things said in the heat of battle, and worked out in peace-time, I have fleshed out how my daughter came to view the pre-redundancy period as some kind of idyllic Shangrilla, where she dwelled safe in the Essence Of Her Mother.
Then redundancy came, and Stay At Home Dad took over, a domestic dilettante, who did his best, but really was far better suited to grabbing his club and going out to whack a few wooly mammoths while Mom created Home and Hearth.
A bit simplistic, but not too far from K’s Teenage World as she constructed it.
And what we have been doing, her and I, is carefully taking down this edifice and trying to build a Hearth and Home that Caveman Dad can live in also.
A place where he can lay down his club and his armour, and be a Real Dad.
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