Finding quality time in the first year of a child’s life isn’t easy – the trick is in cherishing the routine, not railing against it, says Martyn McLaughlin
It is sometime either side of 4am, when even the clock face on the kitchen wall looks surprised to have company. The cool slivers of first light pry through the blinds, revealing just how much of breakfast ended up on the floor. You beam as podgy hands smear the rest across the tablecloth. This is my favourite time of the day. These are the hours that belong to us.
When the night’s soundtrack has faded and the dawn chorus is yet to strike up, an inexhaustible city yields to a fleeting repose in which we are the only interlopers. All around is still and silent, save for you at its centre, laughing and bobbing and tugging at honey-blonde tufts tangled with clods of cold porridge, a dynamo intent on jolting the world’s machinery back to motion.
These little lulls are the least expected of your abundant gifts. On Friday, we will celebrate your first birthday, a milestone in our fledgling adventure. From the earliest shuffling crawl to the look of euphoric bewilderment which greeted your first taste of food – an apple stewed to within an inch of its life – the others that have come and gone are as vivid as they were first time around.
Cumulatively, these memories plot the course of our journey’s beginning and, by delineating each step taken, guard against the blurring of days into weeks. In years to come, when we are tourists to our misremembered past, the permanence of these signposts will lead the way through uncertain echoes.
But as the latest milestone draws nearer, I have begun to doubt whether this map might prove an unreliable guide, a fragmentary sketch dotted with landmarks, yet injudicious in its detail. Its topography leaves the lulls uncharted, showing a world extraneous to the one we know, where breakfasts, bathtimes and countless other incidental routines are those most cherished.
These lingering transits which usher night into day are moveable feasts, filled heedlessly by whatever fancies comes our way. Yesterday, you left a trail of toast crumbs from the kitchen to the books piled by the coffee table. Buttery fingers plucked a spine from the stack and flipped the cover back and forth, its picture of a cat greeted anew each time by a gentle coo.
The day before, the crumbs reached only as far as the hall, where each of us clutched a plastic maraca and, like sirens luring distant boats to our den, drowned out the warm background burr of the 5:20am shipping forecast with our shrill rattle.
There are mornings where we sit and sing along to Baby TV, a satellite channel comparable to being assaulted by a rainbow if exposed to its looped glut of sound and colour for anything longer than three minutes. Others mornings, mercifully few in number, have been hushed by illness, when those big blue eyes of yours lose a little of their lustre and, hunkered down in my lap, you drift gently back to sleep.
If the past year is a fog of exhaustion and sentiment, these are the hours that provide clarity. They are the punctuation between parenthood’s transformative flashpoints. They are the most precious because they are the easiest forgotten. They have shown me how parenthood confers an improbable esteem on ordinariness.
Perhaps it is not clarity, but anxiety. Of late, the months seem to gallop by without us in the saddle, stealing with them something imperceptible. Time is our most valuable currency and I give as fully of it as I can when I have never been busier, throwing myself headlong into a frenzy of work projects I relish one day and resent the next.
Some evenings, you are on the cusp of sleep when I race manically through the door, my brow glazed after cantering up the close three steps at a time. Inside, your wonderful mother is waiting, your head lolling limply on her shoulder. I come near and press my nose against the towel-dried fuzz of your hair. I count as I breathe in deeply. Time plays its old tricks. An hour or two later, I exhale.
On the evenings I tear home in vain to find you are already down, I retrace your day through photographs, videos and the resonant stories of soft play and music, painting and picnics, rambling walks and restorative naps. I listen on intently and swell with pride and happiness at the magic of the everyday.
Yet there are times when neither emotion is sufficient to suppress an agitated greed just below the surface. It waits in hope for you to roll onto your stomach and awake crying, all so that I might be the silhouette that soothes you in the darkness. If a newfound selflessness is the most edifying bequest of starting a family, the neuroticism that follows not far behind is its most crippling.
When life is at its busiest, this ruinous influence lies dormant. Only at the weekends, when the days are unburdened by obligation and rich with possibility, does it rear its head. Just when we should be unhurried and at our most content, the freedom can feel debilitating. A nagging tension questions whether we are squandering its finite resources. It is a destructive force that cannot be sated. I know that now.
All that really matters in the time we have is that we spend it together. The year has brought good choices as well as bad and I know just as little now as I did at the start. The first flush of parenthood is a storm in which we are asked to flail gracefully, poised on the surface while thrashing against strange currents below. But I am still afloat. The strokes come easier now that I trust their rhythm.
It is sometime either side of 7am now. Outside, the city creaks awkwardly into life as a mellow light dapples the hall floorboards where you sit, toying with a bucket and ball. Behind the bedroom door, I hear your mother rousing. I take you by the hands and lift you onto your tiptoes. One small step at a time, we go to her, a father and daughter stumbling on our journey, a trail of crumbs in our wake.
Good morning, my darling Vaila.