Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Hairy Dad Chronicles #4: One Year Progress Report

So, a year ago today, I completed my final day of work in my customer service contact centre job and joined the long-term self-employed: full-time Daddyhood. I've been meaning to blog again for a while - there seems a lot going on in my little head - and this seems a good occasion/excuse.

After Dadding it up, there was another big change three months later: a move from Manchester (where I'd lived for twelve years) to Leeds (where we knew no-one). This meant the first three months from January until 1 April were a kind of Phoney War, a ghostly sketch of how our life together was going to be. There was no real point joining any playgroups for such a short amount of time, and I would've felt strange signing up to a shiny new social life when I thought I already had one. However, I did discover something of a new daytime city, a city of parents and young children that I'd only glimpsed in the non-shadows. Parks became cultural hotspots; museums morphed into lifelines, places where hanging around felt permitted and where there was even something to ruffle the embers where my imagination once glowed.

Once we had moved to Leeds, the game changed and Jasper and I were faced with an intimidatignly blank social canvas. I actually lost some weight from walking up and down hills all around our corner of North Leeds* - the hills being a considerable change to flat, rambling Mancunia. I "threw" myself (relative to my sedate standards) into SureStart centres, singing groups for toddlers at Opera North, and eventually a local playgroup (run by parents). I decided to put myself forward as an organiser to try and get involved and get to know people. There was still the awkwardness of effectively asking people out, albeit on playdates in the park: I'd never been too hot at making the first move, so a few nerves were wracked. My previous method of striking up friendships had been sitting next to people in the pub and drinking. I was pleased with myself for the efforts I made though, and Jasper and I do have a few budding friendships on the go now.

When we were alone in Leeds, however, things got harder and darker.  The days seemed longer and a sense of desperation often swelled in my belly a couple of seconds after waking up in the morning. It's hard to understand exactly why this was - but my mental health was thrown into sharp focus. When Jasper was a very recent arrival (and with exhaustion ramping up the fears and tensions), there was depression, there were panic attacks and a lot of anxiety and dread jangling our nervous systems and weary minds - but as a routine and a sense of capability slowly formed, the angst eased and a sense of normality pinked up once again.

This was different though: I felt thorough alienation - a natural result of moving to an area without any friends. But on top of that was the dread of being unable to "do it", of not coping - which steepled up into a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Loving Jasper but also despairing at being stranded with him, and feeling terrible guilt about any resentments or panicky anger that would bubble up. My strategy was to try and break through the anger to tears as quickly as possible, to expose the raw nerve underneath my behaviour. Jabber came and cuddled me on several occasions when I was in tears - still does when I get upset now - and while I was partly delighted that he was so caring and would see his father as a human being, I worried that he would inherit some emotional instability from my example. I hate the idea of such a small person having to absorb so many huge emotions.

And the worst thing, the most horrible to try and deal with, was getting angry with the little human that was just trying to work out what life was about. This is what has brought things to a head - my head has brought things to itself. The anger came (comes) most likely from the sense of not being able to cope - depression, anixety and anger swilling around together - hormones narrowing my vision, overriding my furry nurturing mammalian instincts. Mealtimes were a flashpoint - related as much to issues I have about feeding myself as to any worries about Jasper's diet; when Lou came home from work, I felt compelled to report on how the day had been, and if I felt that I hadn't done enough (a very easy feeling to allow to take hold) then that would become another source of tension. Barriers are thrown up exactly where and when togetherness is most sorely needed by both of us.

I'm aware how absent Jasper is from this account. Of course, he can't blog about it; he can't really tell me how he feels about things, probably can't know himself. But I'm barely mentioning the object of all this fathering. This seems to illustrate just how far up my arse my head is - how much things are still about me, and not him. However, the feelings are so powerful that it's hard to break out from them, perspective is dizzyingly out of kilter. One critical voice chimes in with the shouty chorus that has berated me since forever.

And the emotions feel very old. I look back to when I was a kid and trace my sense of inadequacy and frustration to impatience from my Dad and I think the anger too. And I have wondered whether my Dad picked up these same frustrations from his childhood - the way he described his relationship with his Mum - a single parent, a wartime widow with two children to look after, a keenly intelligent woman who may have resented the lack of opportunity to express herself. I never met her, as she died just after my parents married, and my Dad has also been dead since I was 24 - so a lot of this is guesswork. But it feels intuitive. And I want to break this chain: I don't want Jasper to be trying to figure this same stuff out for himself in 40 years' time. I can't be sure that I'll be around to talk through it with him either.

So, I have been using cognitive behavioural therapy to try and re-programme myself, to try and take this anger out of the equation, to turn the depression inside out and focus on the many positive points of light in my everyday life as a Dad. And aside from the techniques to help me focus on the moment and not fret about the past and future, I've been instructed to challenge myself to provide evidence for my fears: focus on how well Jasper is doing, on how well I am doing. Instructed to reject the assumption that I am doing something wrong. Then I can relax and not assume that Jasper is doing something wrong. And the adrenaline will melt away and Jasper will continue to smile and grow into a happy(ish) human being. That's the plan.

I'm determined to make this fatherhood deal work - and if I squint a bit, I feel I am doing a good job, a job that I'm very lucky to be able to do. And I feel very lucky that Jabber is such a lovely lad. I'm still having to count to ten a couple of times a day when he feels less than co-operative, but I've tried to make a bit of a game of it and count with him. If he learns that trick at least, that'll be worthwhile.

This has been written largely in the past tense, which is inaccurate. A lot of these struggles are still very present, very immediate. But I think it helps me not to become overwhelmed if I can draw a line between Coc then and Coc now. And I need a lot of help at times - it's all big stuff.

Another frustratingly inarticulate post. I will have another crack at it, but it's taken so long for me to say this much that I need to get it out.

Yours in paternalia

Coc x

* The walking was less to get to places we needed to be than to fill hours that I needed to fill. Walking often helps to calm me down, although it can develop a bit of a manic aspect at times.

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