‘With every new dad thing I do, I’m finding out more about my late father’

My father isn’t gone for me at all. He’s quite present. A hand unseen, perhaps, but one look in the mirror and he’s there, pleased at how I’m getting on. Now I’m the father. I’m Daddy, the car-driving, sock-fixing horsey

How many dads does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Just one.

There are many tasks dads are expected to do in these modern times to level out the parenting quota, but bulb-fitting seems to be especially reserved for fathers. Sure, men have been replacing burnt-out globes forever, but have you ever noticed how much more often lights go when babies start arriving?

Switches flipped on at all hours for the squawking miniature diner and all those extra gadgets hooked up to the walls? Not to mention when those little hands can finally reach the wondrous buttons of light, and dark, and then light, and then dark again, and then . . . pop!


No, wobbling about on a rickety chair to strain upward and paw an electrical outlet while hoping it’s off is something most mammies will have no problem leaving to most daddies. After all, not even a man’s work is ever done, in the dark. Except for maybe Batman. But I say, bring it on! Yes, sir.

Doing stuff that involves opening serious-looking boxes and tinkering with special tools and doing something that results in new or renewed things is completely mesmerizing for any child, boy or girl. And fathers have the monopoly on that one, so far.

Most men, including myself, will take rather well to being the dad they remember from their childhoods. The dad that fixed whatever was broken and explained how things worked, and why they didn’t if you danced on them, and who towered above us all on a chair shouting “Turn that bloody switch off!”

Maybe it is purely because we happen to have the longest arms in the household, but I will admit to a slight flutter in my chest when my little girl drags her tiny chair across the room to place it next to daddy’s big chair so that she can “help”.

I became a new father, and unwitting bulbist, three and a half years ago. That’s 42 months of utter bliss-faced wonderfulness, to date. A brand new existence stretching out ahead of me to wither and shrivel that other one I had. And about time too, I’d have said.

In this new universe, it isn’t just bulbs that must be changed but baby’s stinky drawers, which are spirited away and hurled into oblivion. It’s carefully choreographed outfits that spontaneously accessorise themselves with entire meals just before a major family photo. It’s the expectation that weekends should be tranquil and soul-nourishing, like they used to be, lounging about and considering the cosmos together. Instead of the ongoing discussion about whether someone has a new tooth coming up or just a really big fart on the way.

Messes aside, the boons abound. How can you complain about being smiled at all day by someone who doesn’t know how to even pretend to like you? Or resent being sent off to sleep by tiny warm feet on your back after being horsey for a day? And imagine being offended when the most helpless person you know offers you food straight out of their own mouth, and then flings it into your face to make it easier for you? And of course, being called “Daddy” for the first time does something to you.

Although, I do have more time to dad than most dads do. While my poor hard- working other half suffers the grind of the nine to five, I’m free to flap about between daddy daycare and various part-time work, meaning there are plenty of opportunities to indulge in my emerging paternal streak and revel in the fatherly role. The least of which is changing a lightbulb, expertly of course. But it does sometimes seem never- ending.

As the years tear past, making bottles becomes making breakfasts. Correctly wrapping nappies turns into efficiently looping laces and properly buttoning impossibly tiny things. Assembling baby changers and cots is now constructing flat-packed beds and chests of drawers. And dealing with baby puke in your lap is now coping with kiddie wee at night, in your bed.

But, hey ho, it is the way of things, isn’t it? And in amongst it all there are the lightbulbs. The bulbs, the bulbs . . . luckily, I know how to bulb.

But where dost thou get this knowledge, sir? Why, from a dad, of course. My own father wasn’t exactly into DIY, but he had four sons who had bikes and made models and asked questions, and who for years weren’t nearly long enough to risk their own lives way up at the ceiling in the battle of the bulbs. So I must have absorbed the art from observations in childhood. He also taught me how to construct a sentence or two.

My father, Hugh, was a journalist and editor with the Irish Press Newspapers for most of his career until the paper sank. He then worked for various short-lived publications before finally moving on to The Irish Times. In 2005 he died after a short illness, and our family changed forever.

I remember thinking that my future parenting would be bereft of Dad’s input. And when the time came, sadly, it was. He was a lovable, quietly intelligent man with a wonderfully discreet sense of humour who had all the time in the world for his family and who would’ve looked forward to doting on and playing with his grandchildren.

However, mammies like mine aren’t easy to come by, so I’ve had more than enough imparted love and wisdom and consistent help from Nana at the homestead. But being so far the only one of those four boys to become a father, it sometimes feels cruelly ironic that my own dad is not here. How mean of fate. How poisonous of her. Who wrote that into the script? But this is all starting to sound a bit miserable, isn’t it?

Not to worry. The truth of the matter is that my father is very much present for me with all of this new parenting. And I think, however peculiar it may sound, that it’s precisely his apparent absence that has made me feel his presence so keenly.

As I daddle about with the little lady, I’m transported back in time and my role is reversed as I say things like “So what did you do in school today?” or “Look, quick, an aeroplane!” or even just “Really? Wow, brilliant” to anything. A blood-curdling shriek from another room sends me thundering in, only to hear “Daddy! I can’t get my socks on properly!”

Mmmm, I remember that. Then I’m driving her home and decide suddenly to turn up into the mountains and bring her on a forest adventure, and I’ve a good idea who put that thought into my head too.

Groucho Marx once looked askance when his son asked “Anything further, father?” It was a line Dad found incredibly funny, and I can say it now and I know he’ll grin his mischievous grin about it.

I'm always being reminded of my father; this is the thing. Gently prodded along as I evolve in the role myself. A hand unseen, perhaps, but one look in the mirror and he's there, pleased at how I'm getting on. Now I'm the father. I'm Daddy, the car-driving, sock-fixing horsey and top bulber.

What better way of learning more about someone and bringing them closer to you than by stepping into their shoes? When she says “Where’s Mammy?” and I say “Gone up to the moon for a rest”, she smiles and I smile and suddenly my Dad is there with us.

To mark my father's 10th anniversary, myself and my brothers Alan, John and Sam helped Angela, our mother, to self- publish a collection of his articles in a book called Discover Dublin. Hugh loved history and in 1996 he wrote a series of articles for The Leader highlighting some of Dublin's obscure past and quirky characters.

And thanks to my grandmother Queenie, who cut the essays out and kept them, we were able to set to work and realise this very personal project. I thought how curious that, a decade on, someone comes striding back into your life to give a long-awaited hello and how’ve you been?

We each proofread the book, reading 22 articles Dad had written on his favourite subject. So he just strolled off the pages and stood before us, smiling in his own inimitable way, jingling his pockets.

Remembering someone is one thing. But when they seem to have such an active role in your life, it’s difficult to view them as a memory, as gone, in the past. My father isn’t gone for me at all. He’s quite present, as you can see. With every new dad thing I get to do, I’m finding out more about him as life goes on. Which means I still have a dad to draw on while learning this funny trade. How can someone be gone when he won’t stop popping up and involving himself in your daily life? What would Dad have done here? Yep, that’s it. And it works.

Every day I do things my Dad did, and yet he still emerges through me when I least expect it. I now hum when my little girl comes into the room and potters about. Dad did this my whole life and I never knew why. It’s only now that I know why: he was just pleased that you were near. I get it now.

Last week I found myself on my hands and knees, weeding the patio with a kitchen knife in the hot sun and with a 3½-year old standing on my back, and I thought: “This is just what dads do, isn’t it?” And I heard “Yep” and I saw that familiar smile.

“Right,” I said out loud, “anything further, father?”

There’s the grin again. Discover Dublin by Hugh Lambert (€15) is available from Magie Publications, magpiepublications.net