Judgment days: Sins of the father

New dad Greg Bruce reports from the frontline.
New dad reports from the parenting frontline.

My wife worked yesterday, so I took care of our 13-month-old daughter. I do this sometimes, but not as often as we agreed I would, and I feel bad about that.

We went to the playground and had a great time. I was really proud of myself for being such a good daddy. I let her roam around, staying close enough to prevent disaster but not so close as to prevent her learning for herself and developing the sort of independence I’m still struggling to develop in myself.

I talked to her about the wide variety of bird life in the park. There was one bird I didn’t know, a sort of enormous grey seagull. I told her it was a cormorant, without any knowledge at all of what a cormorant actually is. I felt ashamed, so I told her I actually wasn’t sure about that, and although I felt proud of my honesty, I didn’t tell her I wasn’t sure whether the pukeko were actually kokako.

We spent an hour or so on the playground, then played with a ball on the grass and then, on my wife’s advice, I gave her a Cruskit as a snack. As I wheeled her back to the car in her pushchair, I summarised for her everything we had done and seen that morning, what we had learned. I had been a good daddy and I was happy.

But life’s not all parks and bird life. It’s one thing to be a playground daddy with all the excitement and glamour that entails; it’s another to put in the hard work at home, out of the public eye, where it’s just you, your baby, horrific smells and boredom.

“Before she was born, I was reasonably certain there would never be a better daddy than me, but after that day, I knew I was an irredeemable failure.”

I put her in her highchair and wondered about what to give her for lunch. I have a few basic culinary skills but a total lack of confidence and creativity in the kitchen that manifests as hopelessness, despair and ultimately paralysis.

Because I feel I’m doing everything wrong, wherever possible I opt out entirely.

Once, before we were married or had our daughter, my wife came home from work to find me lying prone on the floor in the lounge, debilitated by my inability to figure out what to cook for dinner. I have since learned that mental health professionals call this “black and white thinking”.

When I’m only looking after myself, this is no big deal, but when others are at stake, particularly babies, it becomes a much bigger issue.

As she sat in the high chair, I handed my daughter a partially eaten, saliva-ridden, leftover Marmite Cruskit from our park visit, and when that was gone, I added some leftover Marmite on toast from her breakfast, cold and soft. She ate it slowly but gamely, knowing, I think, that it was the best she was going to get.

Relieved at having some time to myself while she chewed over my incompetence, I sat down on a chair in front of her, pulled my phone out of my pocket and held it behind her head so she wouldn’t see what I was doing, and began checking my email and Twitter.

That’s bad, isn’t it? I know it’s bad; I don’t need to be told. I know I should be present with my daughter in these precious moments that are gone all too soon, but I also want to know what’s happening in the world: my fractured attention.

I won’t soon forget the shock I felt the first time I spent a whole day looking after my daughter by myself, a few months ago: the sheer energy it took, the fact it wasn’t just a string of happy moments that melted my heart. Before she was born, I was reasonably certain there would never be a better daddy than me, but after that day, I knew I was an irredeemable failure.

My wife and I have agreed now I will look after our daughter one day a week, and I feel pretty bad about the fact I feel like that’s about all I can manage.

When my wife was pregnant, I interviewed a guy who had spent two or three years as a stay-at-home dad, and he told me it was the greatest experience of his life. At the time, I knew he spoke the truth. But it is also true that, by the time I interviewed him, that guy had gone back to work.

Words by: Greg Bruce

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