What I’ve learned in my first year as a father
Learning to parent is like an immersive plunge into into rapidly adaptive combat
Séamas O’Reilly with his son Ruadh
My son was born last summer, so this Father’s Day will be my first in the top job. I’m looking forward to it, not least because I like cards, and by my calculations he owes me one for keeping him alive this long.
In truth, ever since he emerged, black-eyed and blinking, his tiny little hand gripping my finger like a lemur grabbing a breadstick from Bosco during one of the 8,000 broadcasts Bosco made from Dublin Zoo, I have been learning every single day.
I’ve only been a father for just under a year and, with a shamelessness that shocks even myself, have written about it for a few months longer than that. I reckon this makes me one of the most overqualified experts on parenting in this or any other land, so in the spirit of Father’s Day, I’ve tabulated the most essential bits of information that I’ve gleaned from my first year on the job, so that all that effort may not have been in vain.
I suppose the best place to start when talking about all the things that surprised or shocked me about parenting, is to address all the time I wasted being scared about completely irrelevant things beforehand. I have 10 siblings and 14 nieces and nephews, so I’m very familiar with small children – their cries, their odours, their constant, vampiric thirst to find out what games you have on your phone - but I still harboured many odd notions about their rearing; notions that took just moments of parenting to dispel.
A life of watching films and TV, for example, had me imagining that the more, shall we say, janitorial demands of parenting would be an endless cycle of pain and misery. In fact, changing nappies and cleaning up sick is a breeze. It takes about 90 seconds, and for the most part you’re so genuinely, ecstatically exhilarated that your little excrement machine is alive that you don’t mind the smell.
In fact, one of the weirdest things about becoming a father is rewatching any of the many, many, movies in which hapless dads stumble their way through very basic parenting tasks and realising that they must have been written by Hollywood writers so rich and cosseted that they’ve never had to do any actual parenting.
But don’t worry, the things about which you actually need worry will be along soon enough, once these shallow, unfounded fears are replaced by other, more reasoned terrors. Yes, the world is brighter for having your little bundle of joy within it, but so too is it darker, as it grows to resemble an endless, infant-obliterating assault course of death traps and pratfalls. Your brain’s instinctive protective response starts freestyling every conceivable accident that could befall your child, every stamping of their limbs and crushing of their digits.
Is it likely, let’s be honest, that cat burglars will ascend your second floor window via trampoline and steal your child? Not even remotely, but should you just once imagine it happening, you will be compelled to get the locks reinforced. You may no longer be a rational person, but you will be possessed of a Bear Grylls-like ability to see the deadly uses of even the most innocent objects, as you assess every single way in which they could stab, slice, puncture or wound your new family member, and thus remove them from your home.
Returning to time-honoured tropes of parental horror, let me fully admit that lack of sleep is a real issue, but to some extent – and as unlikely as this would ever have seemed to me ahead of time – your body does adapt, albeit with a reluctance that means, as things calm down a little later on, you will never regret any opportunity for whichever meagre lie-ins come your way.
Possibly less expected is the ever-changing nature of the rituals through which you will be asked to meet your child’s needs. As soon as you’ve gotten used to one mode of sleeping, eating or motion, like iPhone chargers or the cast of each year’s Love Island, everything changes and you are a novice once more, rendered so incapable of predicting their sleep routines, or desire to feed, that it’s as if your mewling little Rubik’s Cube had been dropped on your doorstep that morning.
The process of learning to parent is like an immersive plunge into rapidly adaptive combat. Which is to say, if fatherhood were an 80s action movie, it’s not the type in which you defeat your adversary by learning your skills in the stately, serene patience of an ancient monastery, honing each beautifully montaged move as pages drift from the calendar and a wise old sensei smiles at your progress from a nearby hillside. No, it’s one where the undead are closing in and a guy in a studded leather jacket teaches you how to kill a zombie using a biro and a pool cue. It’s exciting, and rewarding, but get ready to learn skills you might only need for a few weeks and never use again, before an entirely new adversary raises its head a few scenes later and you have nothing to hand but a mop and stapler.
Amidst all this happiness, fear and excitement, your emotions are likely to undergo other changes. At least mine certainly did. Although I’d never previously been what might be termed a hard man type, neither was I really one for crying. Now, things have changed beyond all recognition. I’m liable to well up during a particularly stirring phone ad, and even the briskest recollection of an episode of Undercover Boss is apt to reduce me to a thin smear of bubbling, jibbering paste.
None of these triggers, you understand, need have anything whatsoever to do with children or babies, it’s just that some stopper upon my wells of emotion came unstuck in that delivery room, and now I find myself blubbing, quite contentedly, on Wikipedia pages for sad poems, or Twitter videos of deaf people hearing for the first time. This catharsis has proved an unexpected treat, adding an extra layer of melodramatic delight to films and books - or ads in which children are nice to their parents - that had hitherto escaped me. Aside from anything else, rewatching My Girl or Beaches with some tissues on stand-by constitutes an economical night in.
For all the jokes and the terror and the very responsible apprehension any expectant dad may, well, expect, the fact is you’ll learn quicker than you think, and the things that seem impossible to you now will be second nature before you know it. And then you’ll have to unlearn those and learn some more things, but look, you have it in you.
Take it from me, someone who has no right to be giving you any of this advice, but is being paid to do so anyway. The world is trembling with fresh pain and new horrors, but for the most part, fatherhood need not be one of them. Being a dad is better than everyone says and, besides, if you wait long enough they start buying you cards and ties, so it all evens up in the end.
All summer, The Irish Times will offer tips, advice and information for parents on how to help their children thrive during the holiday months. See irishtimes.com/summeroffamily