Baby Oscar was utterly adorable. So why did his father find it so hard to love him?
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The truth was that when I looked at him, I had this curious feeling that I’d been replaced by a new, improved hybrid version of myself.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