All parenting is a social experiment
Today is Father’s Day in the UK, but I always find it — like Mother’s Day — a bit confusing.
Do we really need a day for this? What is it meant to symbolise? Why do all the posts on Mother’s Day seem to be paeans to endless sacrifice, dedication and love, and all the Father’s Day ones refer only to dad’s favourite lager, dodgy dress-sense and questionable dancing?
What, exactly, does it even mean to be a father in 2021?
Perhaps this is just in retaliation for the future Father’s Day when my daughter posts embarrassing photos of me on a social media platform I don’t even use, but I can at least say what being a father means to me.
It means looking at some miniature human which accident or design has placed in your care, and realising with a clarity that makes your chest ache exactly how deficient you are, how grave and glaring your flaws are, and how much better you’re going to have to become for them to not turn out you with the worst bits amplified.
It means learning in disbelief that whilst many women have to undergo a gruelling biological obstacle course to become mothers, fatherhood is often a job that many men apply for with a few drops of sperm and zero formal permit or certification of basic competence.
It means recalling your own parents being able to explain aeronautical flight, internal combustion engines, and French conjugations to you — and waiting for your own child to start asking questions about The Internet, gender, pandemics, rocket trajectory and colonialism, and wondering how long you have before you lose any authority on such matters for good.
It also means discovering on a daily basis that every time you think you’re getting the hang of things, your child has transformed into some new creature and you must learn the ropes all over again.
All parenting is a social experiment, and being a father means figuring it out as you go along.
The child grows, and you chase after them: you watch them take their first steps and know that they have begun the long and inevitable process of walking away from you for ever, hoping somehow both that they will go as far as possible, and also some day come back to you.
Once you understand what being a father really means, you accept that it’s something you earn, not a biological category — and so it’s also a role that many other men may, over the course of a life, perform in better and more life-changing ways for your child than you can.
If all this sounds rather hard, fatherhood also means being taught by an infant about the infinite expanse of your own once-stunted emotions: the joy and happiness and guilt that you are capable of feeling when they are amplified through a human you love more than almost anything else.
All men who are fathers know most of this: few say it, and even fewer of them say it if they’re British men.
So all that remains to be said: to my own father, thank you, and I’m sorry that I had to become one to appreciate just what it all means.
To my daughter, if and when you ever read this: I hope that it wasn’t too obvious I was figuring it out as I went.
And to all those men out there waking up painfully hungover to care for a child who doesn’t care how much you drank last night, attempting to explain jet propulsion to a toddler who sees you as the fount of all knowledge, or just showing up to do the job of caring for a child as well or a little better than the men who raised them: Happy Father’s Day.
Today, like every day, is one where we’re all just figuring it out - but maybe that’s all that being a father has ever meant in the first place.