With Simon Cowell becoming a father recently, and Prince William’s first foray abroad with baby George, the media has been frothing at the idea of famous men coping with nappies and sleepless nights. This happens every time a celebrity becomes a Dad. The implication is that, for all their other achievements (being the future King, humiliating deluded wannabes on national television), nothing compares to the challenge of changing a shitty nappy in the small hours. For all our terror of infant excrement, we seem obsessed with it. Search the web for “articles on fatherhood” and the top result is an AA Gill piece, which refers to being “knee-deep in shit.” The theory must be that if you can change a nappy, you are A Good Dad.
This is lazy, simplistic bollocks. I've got news for you, Simon: wait until they start school. Then things get really complicated.
As doting Dad to two boys, aged six and three, life has become demanding. After spending the early years basking in self-satisfaction, simply because I could handle a soiled nappy, I’m confronted by an elder child who actually thinks. Suddenly, I’m expected to answer fundamental questions about life and the universe. Why do people die? How do babies get out of Mummy’s tummy? And then there’s the really tough ones, like why doesn't Spider-Man ever fight The Joker?
How do you explain, to a six-year-old, that the two characters are trademarked properties of different corporations, and therefore cannot meet for legal reasons? In the end I just settled for “because The Joker lives in Gotham City and Spider-Man is in New York,” which even to me felt pretty lame.
The Grim Reaper stalks the outer limits of my eldest’s consciousness, occasionally indulging in a spot of scythe rattling to remind him of death’s inevitability - so far, taxes don’t seem to bother him, which is just as well. The other night I was called upstairs by my frightened six-year-old, an hour after tucking them in, who told me that he didn’t want to die. Not only was I wrestling with an issue that has preoccupied religious and secular philosophy since time immemorial; he was supposed to be asleep! All the books tell you to avoid getting drawn into conversation after bedtime. See what I mean about complicated?
There was a big thing in marketing circles last year, about challenging the stereotypical image of Dad as hapless buffoon, to give him back some self-respect (and, let’s be honest, get him to buy more stuff). The thing is, faced with this torrent of questions, and the need to reassure my son of his place in the universe, I am starting to feel pretty inept. It doesn’t help that his mother seems to be so assured and comfortable with all this, admonishing me (unfairly) for sugaring the pill. You have to be honest with him about dying, she said. Possibly not in the middle of the night, though. The kid’s scared of the dark as it is.
My youngest son also comes with his own challenges, more than his brother did at the same age. Three year-olds are great fun: there probably isn’t another age that combines playfulness, affection, cuteness, and vulnerability to the same degree. A three-year-old with an elder brother, though, is a child with a mission – to be just like his sibling. My youngest has an unshakeable conviction that he can do everything his big brother can. If nothing else, this makes it clear why some toy and games are five-plus. Operation is a particular favourite, although such is my youngest’s technique with the scalpel, which calls to mind the most notorious excesses of Victorian surgery, that it could more accurately be called Butchery.
Peacekeeping is another role that fathering siblings foists upon the unsuspecting Dad. Adjudicating a brotherly dispute requires the wisdom of Solomon, and the patience of a saint. Right and wrong become blurred in such disagreements, as each retaliatory strike raises the stakes. The all-important question, “Who started it?” becomes as murky as the causes of the First World War; not so much a single event as a series of related incidents, for which blame must be apportioned on all sides. A jury of twelve would struggle to reach a fair verdict – what chance does a solitary judge have?
The biggest, scariest challenge is that I now really need to grow up myself. I read that you grow up when you become a father, but to my mind that’s not true. The early years are an excuse to be young again, to act silly, sing songs and make up stories. True, there are responsibilities, but these are fairly black-and-white: fatherhood as sport, with clearly defined rules, and points awarded for set achievements (number of nappies changed, kids in bed on time, not letting them drown in the swimming pool). Suddenly, it’s no longer a game, but a serious business, and failure is too frightening to contemplate.
Here’s some advice, Simon Cowell. Enjoy the poo while it lasts, in the knowledge that you’ve got a few years before things truly get messy.