Baby Oscar was ut­terly adorable. So why did his fa­ther find it so hard to love him?

Daily Mail - - san­dra Par­sons - by Philip Robinson

WHEN he was a few months old, ev­ery time I walked into the room my beau­ti­ful baby son would beam at me, a silly tooth­less grin. It was my wife who first no­ticed that I never re­turned the smile. ‘Look!’ she’d plead. ‘He’s smil­ing at you! Why don’t you smile back?’

I hadn’t re­alised. But then I didn’t re­ally feel like his fa­ther. It was six months since the birth, and I had never felt so alone and ter­ri­fied. It hadn’t even oc­curred to me that I should smile at this child. De­spite the fact that I had been at home with him ev­ery day since he was born, I wasn’t con­vinced he even knew or cared who I was.

For the sake of my wife, I started to make the ef­fort to be en­thu­si­as­tic. My smiles weren’t ex­actly gen­uine — more of a gri­mace, in fact.

The truth was that when I looked at him, I had this cu­ri­ous feel­ing that I’d been re­placed by a new, im­proved hy­brid ver­sion of my­self. As my wife and child spent days to­gether, form­ing a pow­er­ful phys­i­cal and emo­tional bond, I be­gan to feel bi­o­log­i­cally re­dun­dant. I be­came con­vinced that a trained chimp could do what I was do­ing — which was ba­si­cally run­ning up and down the stairs car­ry­ing food and drink.

Un­able to come to terms with my role in his life, I felt in­creas­ingly iso­lated — and was over­come by an in­ex­pli­ca­ble sad­ness when­ever I saw him.

Orig­i­nally, I’d hoped that by work­ing at home as a free­lance writer I would be able to be an ac­tive, en­thu­si­as­tic and ever-present fa­ther. In­stead, I’d fallen at the first hur­dle.

After the first year, Os­car no longer of­fered me a silly grin when I en­tered the room; in­stead his face would be blank. The mo­ment he stopped smil­ing at me was the first time I could see the painful ef­fect of my de­tach­ment on this oth­er­wise per­fect hu­man be­ing.

Did I love him? In a pro­tec­tive way, cer­tainly. But not in the sim­ple, un­con­di­tional way that a fa­ther should love his son.

It was the kind of wake-up call that most par­ents learn from and over­come. For some rea­son, I was dif­fer­ent. I re­alised that I had not only be­come de­tached from my son, but from my­self as well.

I didn’t re­alise it then, but the emo­tional malaise I’d found my­self in since my child was born was threat­en­ing to de­stroy my re­la­tion­ship with my son and my wife.

Of course, I should have em­braced Os­car with open arms from the mo­ment he was born. Sure, most peo­ple would say that women are more nat­u­ral par­ents for the ob­vi­ous rea­son that they carry the child. But that’s not to say men should not make good and dot­ing fathers.

So, yes, par­ent­hood should have been easy.

Anna and I met in 1996 and were mar­ried a year later. I was 24 years old, Anna was 28 and we agreed to wait a few years be­fore we started a fam­ily.

Anna was 32 when she be­came preg­nant with Os­car. She was ec­static. We spent a for­tune on be­spoke chang­ing ta­bles and rock­ing chairs and Moses bas­kets. I at­tended an­te­na­tal classes and spent months dec­o­rat­ing the baby’s room, sand­ing and pol­ish­ing the floors to a toy-box fin­ish.

I had baby alarms put in and even fit­ted a night vi­sion CCTV cam­era to the baby’s cot, so we could watch our tot on the liv­ing-room TV.

Mean­while, an un­read stack of baby books built up by my side of the bed. I did ev­ery­thing I could to avoid think­ing se­ri­ously about what it meant to be a fa­ther and un­der­stand the im­pend­ing up­heaval. In­stead, I fo­cused on the here and now, and cooked hearty beef stews to nour­ish my wife and the bump.

Not for one mo­ment did I con­sider the con­se­quences of the lit­tle bean in the scan pho­tos ac­tu­ally com­ing out into the world.

The fear I ex­pe­ri­enced sur­round­ing the birth was in­cred­i­ble. I re­alise now that the old cliché of guys go­ing down the pub dur­ing the birth wasn’t so

After a year, my son no longer gave me a smile

much about machismo as it was about cow­ardice.

Old-school blokes camp out in the boozer hid­ing be­hind a screen of ca­ma­raderie and al­co­hol, while mod­ern men go to the hos­pi­tal with video cam­eras and shake like a leaf while we hold our part­ner’s hands.

When Anna went into labour, I took her to St Mary’s Hos­pi­tal in West Lon­don. Al­most im­me­di­ately we had a prob­lem: the cord was wrapped around Os­car’s neck and his heart­beat rapidly slowed on the mon­i­tor. I stood there numb and pow­er­less as the medics rushed Anna into emer­gency surgery.

As the ob­ste­tri­cian per­formed a Cae­sarean sec­tion, I man­aged to ap­pear up­beat and con­fi­dent.

In­side, I felt as if the worst would hap­pen and I would lose them both. I re­mem­ber the ter­ror — and then the re­lief of hold­ing Os­car in the op­er­at­ing room, and feel­ing a con­nec­tion as our eyes locked. I counted his fin­gers and toes and gazed at his per­fect face and re­mem­ber think­ing: so this is what my son looks like.

After surgery, I es­corted Os­car up­stairs to the ward and sat alone with him in a room for the first time. Were it not for adren­a­line, I might have passed out with fright. The ini­tial shock and ela­tion of the birth leads into a busy dis­tracted pe­riod of texts and emails as you run back­wards and for­wards to the hos­pi­tal and make sure the house is ready for mother and baby. Some­thing big had hap­pened, but I hadn’t yet had time to process it.

When Anna and Os­car came home, I was told by friends and fam­ily that this was prob­a­bly the loveli­est time of all as the fam­ily bond for the first time.

In our house it didn’t re­ally work like this. At all.

Anna’s milk didn’t ma­te­ri­alise as it was sup­posed to, and a kind of siege men­tal­ity set in. Os­car lost weight and Anna, racked with guilt and frus­tra­tion, suc­cumbed to bouts of se­vere anx­i­ety as her mood rose and fell with the body­weight of the child, which was not in­creas­ing as it should have.

You can­not lead a more an­i­mal, peas­ant ex­is­tence than pin­ning your hap­pi­ness to the weight of a new­born child. It is the an­tithe­sis of t he Zen-like calm t hat good par­ent­ing re­quires.

As Anna and Os­car re­mained locked to­gether in their own down­ward spi­ral, I’m sorry to say that I came to view Os­car as more of a com­pli­ca­tion than a new hu­man be­ing.

The great­est harm done to our state of mind over these first few months re­sulted from sleep de­pri­va­tion. By month four, your en­ergy and pa­tience are ut­terly de­pleted. If the baby isn’t

The fear I had about the birth was in­cred­i­ble

eat­ing well or sleep­ing through the night, then life be­comes a gritty minute-to-minute sur­vival that over­comes best in­ten­tions of cosy walks and vis­its with rel­a­tives.

The Con­tented Baby Book — a Bi­ble of good par­ent­ing — hung over us like a black cloud of our own fail­ure. Like all first-time par­ents, we’d blown child-rear­ing out of pro­por­tion. We were fix­ated on the pos­si­bil­ity that we were in­ca­pable of en­sur­ing our baby’s sur­vival.

I be­came more in­tro­spec­tive and re­sent­ful, griev­ing for my old ‘easy’ life, and I won­dered how this greasy-haired pale-faced pair who bitched and sniped and made each an­other mis­er­able had dis­posed of the at­trac­tive young cou­ple who once used to live in our house.

I would work on my lap­top in the sit­ting room, and a newly mo­bile Os­car would crawl in and sit right be­side me try­ing — and of­ten fail­ing — to get my at­ten­tion.

Anna and I would ar­gue: she was frus­trated that I couldn’t con­nect with Os­car, while I would ex­plain that I was try­ing to con­cen­trate. The truth was that half the time, for what­ever rea­son, I didn’t even see him.

In­side I was tear­ing my­self up. Did I re­ally love this woman enough to go through this? What kind of life were we go­ing to have? What had we done?

I had no an­swers for the thou­sands of painful ques­tions my mind threw up ev­ery day.

In hind­sight, I re­alise that even though I was 29 when I be­came a fa­ther, like many men in the same sit­u­a­tion I was still fun­da­men­tally like a child. When you get mar­ried, you have the il­lu­sion of be­ing an adult, but this change is mostly per­cep­tual.

Your youth doesn’t truly hit an ice­berg un­til you be­come a par­ent. This re­spon­si­bil­ity has a price, a sac­ri­fice.

As one child comes into the world, an­other has to take a bow and leave the stage. As a par­ent, there is lit­tle space left for the child in us: the pre­cious part of us that needs look­ing after; that still wants our mum; that needs a cud­dle and re­ally doesn’t want to be in charge.

This child is stomped flat by the new re­al­ity of se­ri­ous re­spon­si­bil­ity and life-and-death de­ci­sions. Frankly, I found par­ent­hood fig­u­ra­tively — and lit­er­ally — de­press­ing.

As Anna bravely per­sisted with breast­feed­ing, I felt that I had lit­tle ac­cess to Os­car and that he re­mained my wife’s son: her baby. If he smiled at me when I walked into a room, I would look at him, puz­zled, and won­der what he had to smile about. I felt com­pletely dis­con­nected from him and had trou­ble even keep­ing him in mind some of the time.

Once, after a 5am feed, I took him from his mother and placed him in a mo­torised swing while I drank a cup of tea. The lul­la­bies sent me to sleep. Two hours later, my wife came down­stairs to find me co­matose and Os­car smil­ing away, gamely into his 120th minute of Yan­kee Doo­dle Dandy.

I threw out the swing chair, but I knew things were get­ting worse. I be­came frus­trated at the way the baby was in­trud­ing on my work, so we hired a part-time nanny and I started to work nights. I would get out of bed at 4pm, cook din­ner for ev­ery­one and make my ex­cuses: to write, play video games or head out for a game of cards.

Anna was too busy nur­tur­ing Os­car and her own writ­ing ca­reer to worry about me. Some­times I’d re­turn from meet­ing friends, at mid­night and start work — writ­ing through the night un­til five in the morn­ing. It was in­sane — I was clearly try­ing to cut my own fam­ily out of my life.

Mean­while, Anna was caught too deeply in the fog of new moth­er­hood to re­alise how ter­ri­ble I was feel­ing. Low and ex­hausted, she felt frus­trated that I wasn’t pro­vid­ing the sup­port she needed.

While I was plainly ex­empt from the joys of new father­hood, she was too scared to ac­knowl­edge that I was clearly de­pressed about father­hood. Not be­cause she didn’t care, but

I didn’t have to be per­fect. I just had to be there

be­cause she wasn’t in a po­si­tion to do a sin­gle thing about it.

I promised I would try to work reg­u­lar hours, and found my­self in the doc­tor’s surgery ac­cept­ing a pre­scrip­tion for su­per-pow­ered anti-de­pres­sants.

I didn’t ex­pect to ex­pe­ri­ence the same in­tense joy at child rear­ing that my wife felt — I just wanted to feel some­thing ex­cept ter­ror. The re­al­ity for me was that the rapid jump into par­ent­hood was an emo­tional car crash from which it took me a long time to re­cover.

Fit­tingly, it was Os­car who saved me. I had hit rock bot­tom after a long win­ter spent liv­ing in self­im­posed noc­tur­nal ex­ile. He woke early on one of the first bright spring morn­ings of the year and I packed him into his pram hop­ing to give Anna a lie-in.

We me­an­dered into High­gate Wood and found our way to a sun-dap­pled bench. I turned his pram round so we could look at the light fil­ter­ing through the trees to­gether.

He looked up in won­der. As use­less as I had been, Os­car was still there, smil­ing, re­silient, hope­ful. I felt hum­bled. I re­alised that he didn’t need me to be per­fect, he just needed me to be here.

Shortly after that, I found my­self smil­ing too: I had fi­nally bro­ken through the wall and no longer saw Os­car as a com­pli­ca­tion but as a hu­man be­ing.

Anna and I hap­pily went on to have two more boys, Con­rad (now five) and Casper (now three). When Con­rad came along, I felt calmer and more ac­cept­ing. By the time our third boy, Casper, ar­rived two years later, I was able to feel gen­uine hap­pi­ness not just for him, but when I was with all or any of my boys.

Now, I ap­pre­ci­ate ev­ery sec­ond of their child­hoods and have be­come com­fort­able in my role at the head of this bois­ter­ous and joy­ful lit­tle gang. My fam­ily are my com­pan­ions and my friends — and I hope that they’ve made me a bet­ter man.

False start: Philip Robin­son with Os­car and, above, with wife Anna

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