Young single dads' parenting skills aren't limited to playing hide & seek
Having been a parent since right after his 20th birthday, Yolisa Mkele has some insight into the joys and trickier business of young fatherhood
The initial idea here was to pen a beautiful piece about young fatherhood. Something touching, that set embers beneath cockles and evoked a cacophony of ahhs about the peaks and valleys of having been a dad since a month after my 20th birthday.
But best-laid plans often go awry and that mountain has proved insurmountable. The difficulty perhaps lies in the fact that I haven't known any other life. It's sanctimonious to talk about having the energy to chase my child around the garden for hours on end because of an abundance of youthful stamina, and how that's better than not having the inclination to run after your kids but, instead, having the means to send them to a snotty school.
To be honest, making judgments about the pros and cons of parenting styles and which age is best to do what is boring. What's entertained me over the duration of my decade-long dad journey has been the reactions. Watching the ways people react to my dadhood has tickled mine and my daughter's genetically similar funny bones for her entire life.
For context's sake, here's a bit of background. By October this year my offspring and I will have been together for 11 delightful years. At the time of her birth her mother and I were together, but by the time our daughter was one, the idea of us being an item made no sense to either of us and time was called on the relationship. Therein lies the first nugget to be amusingly confused about.
There's a perception that parents-cum-ex-lovers are destined to be mortal enemies
For reasons that more experienced people than I would be happy to harp on about, there's a perception that parents-cum-ex-lovers are destined to be mortal enemies. At the very least, progenitors seem to be expected to be involved in a Cold War, trading barbs in a bid to be the favourite parent. That memo seems to have been received by everyone except us.
"How is your relationship with her mother?" is a common question, asked with a look of pained concern. My nonchalantly delivered answer of "fine" elicits suspicion rather than calm. That suspicion only deepens when they learn that her mother is happily married to a lovely man who my daughter refers to cheerily as her "other dad".
Misplaced pity is fun to watch. There seems to be an in-built expectation that once parents split, everything becomes a race to see which parent can have the most picturesque life and spoil their half of the genetic mix the most. Perhaps that works for some, but I'm happy to sit out that race. I couldn't ask for a better mother to raise my child and that's enough for me.
As a man, raising a daughter can be a tricky business for all the obvious reasons, but also because you're always aware of optics and how they cut both ways. A much-talked-about example is dads performing basic functions. For example, real and cinematic life has shown us that parenting in public is a great way for single men to pick up women. A nappy change here, some deft use of a bottle there and an occasional held hand gets everyone gushing.
As they get older, you even rope your child into this playful subterfuge as a co-conspirator and before you know it you're a DILF (think the opposite of MILF). Obviously we have patriarchy to thank for this and to be honest, it's ridiculous that people think you're a miracle just because you're not freaked out by a nappy full of half your DNA. But as the old saying goes, "don't hate the player, hate the game" - and the flipside of this patriarchal game is the constant shadow of perceived incompetence.
People tend to think that a young dad is incapable of any parenting skill that doesn't involve hide and seek
Whether it's family, friends or some random stranger in the street, people tend to think that a young dad is incapable of any parenting skill that doesn't involve hide and seek. It's nigh impossible to make a school lunch while your mother is around, or deal with teething or even locate roving items of clothing without a bunch of people trying to be backseat drivers. Everything must be done with a skilful flourish and an overcompensating air of confidence to keep the busybodies at bay.
The final part of the triple-sided optics coin is understandable but no less annoying. As men we have spent generations cultivating a particularly grim track record of abuse. As a result, there are certain things that, no matter how innocent, look bad and should be avoided. Certain situations are guaranteed to get you iffy looks. For example, telling people you bath your female child or that she sometimes shares a bed with you is a recipe for awkwardness.
Perhaps the best part about being a young father and the reactions it results in come from kids. As soon as they've recovered from being surprised that you're not their little friend's elder brother, you get to relive your childhood by chasing them all over the park, playing the role of Gruffalo or dipping into your imagination to become the wizened shopkeeper who sells imaginary octopuses for them to cook for dinner.
In essence, they temporarily stop viewing you as a stuffy parent with ridiculous ideas about bed time and let you into their inner circle. And that, mes amis, is how you discover which one of the little blighters your child should stay away from. Kids have underdeveloped filters and will let many things slip. If you want to be in on the parental gossip, go play with kids. It's both fun and educational.
If you want to be in on the parental gossip, go play with kids. It's both fun and educational
No matter what your age or means, being a dad is intensely fulfilling but infinitely worrisome work. The same goes for moms - but you guys have your own day to chat about that.
The point is that there's only one person whose reactions should mean anything to you and that's your child. Perceptions are like cars - new models are perpetually being released and if you spend too much time fussing over them you'll wake up at 57 realising you were a wanker.
What I've learnt in my 10 years of being a young dad is to enjoy my child. Sure, you've got to take care of them and be responsible blah, blah, blah, but that comes naturally. What comes less naturally is enjoying them, and they notice when you don't.
When Will Smith said "Parents just don't understand", he wasn't necessarily speaking about being unloved. He was speaking about a style of parenting that gave 100% of the value to discipline and subsistence and none of it to trying to empathise with your child.
Parents in the 1990s would reap this dodgy harvest when angst and disobedience became the cool thing. Then again, what do I know, as long as my baby is healthy and happy, I can rack up 99 problems without my kid being one.