Euan McColm: Will they still need me? A father’s fear on special role in kids’ lives
The girl is five, her brother two years younger, and they’re sound asleep on their tummies, either side of me on the king-size in my one-bedroom rented flat.
It’s not long since things changed and I moved out of the family home. I’m struggling to deal with the new routine. Having them with me at weekends is great but the days between are hell. Daily Skype calls are no consolation for missing physical contact. I worry constantly that they might grow distant to me. Will they always be willing to come? I’d read somewhere that the two saddest words in the English language are “dad’s flat” and I think about that all the bloody time.
I stroke their necks and slide my hands down under their pyjama tops, feeling the soft warm skin of their backs. My hands rest there. I feel calmer. They remain oblivious.
They don’t, thank goodness, tire of being with me. I try – and fail – not to become a particular kind of cliché. I know our weekends should be normal – unremarkable – but I can’t help turning them into events. I spoil them, routinely taking them back to their mum queasy from too much chocolate and carrying new Lego sets I can’t really afford.
Over time, I manage to control the instinct to compensate for what I believe to be my inadequacies with money and sweets. I make a real effort to ensure that, regardless of whose roof they’re under, they experience consistency. I don’t want to spoil them or undermine their mother who’s doing a lot more heavy carrying than I am.
I realise now that what I needed more than anything else at that time was some reassurance that, although we no longer spent every night in the same place, they still needed me. I wanted to be a rock in their lives, perhaps as some kind of corrective to my own past.
That dependability is what I most admire in others. I was out for dinner with friends recently, an accomplished couple – she in the arts and he in medicine – and it struck me that, for all their dazzling achievements, a key thing that makes them particularly special to me is their relationship with their three kids. She may have inspired and entertained countless people, he may have saved actual lives – and, you know, these are impressive things – but their most substantial success is that their kids have grown into stable, happy young adults, willing and able to talk to them about anything.
This might not, at first sight, appear such a big deal but I think any of us navigating the choppy straits of parenthood would mark it a substantial victory.
Now, a decade on from the days when my two shared my bed, I’m in a bigger place, close to their school. For the past year, our routine has changed substantially. Where once they’d come through from the west to the capital on weekends and holidays, now I’m back in Glasgow and they turn up whenever they want. They barrel in at lunchtime, demanding they and their pals be fed, they slam doors and disappear into their rooms for hours on end, they complain about but perform chores. The mundane normality of it all is a joy.
But there are new emotional challenges which I think every parent will recognise.
It is, of course, a great pleasure to see them grow and mature but – and I know this is selfish – I struggle with the growing realisation that, with each passing week, they become less dependent on me.
Each moment with them becomes incrementally more precious for, sooner than I would like, they will be off into the world. I’ve heard friends with older kids talk about struggling to come to terms with the empty nest. Already, I’m starting to understand how they feel.
But, for now, they continue to need me.
It’s the first Sunday of this month and the boy’s with me. We declare it a lads' night, buy John Wick 4 and order a curry.
At four am on Monday morning, I’m wakened by a knock on my bedroom door. He’s standing in the hall, pale-faced and rheumy-eyed.
“I tried to make it to the toilet,” he says.
The bathroom floor is covered in a sea of stomach bile and chicken korma. I clean him up in the kitchen and settle him back into bed then set about tackling the mess.
The stench, of course, is quite something – it will linger in my nostrils for hours afterwards – but as I make my way on my hands and knees across the lino, scooping up huge globs of puke with disintegrating paper towels, I’m happy. I’d rather he didn’t have food poisoning, of course – I’m not, I hope, a complete monster – but to be able to reassure him and then tend to the mess feels like a privilege.
The next day, he’s washed out. I follow advice to have him sip water whenever he wakes but most of the time, he’s out for the count.
In the evening, I ask whether he might want to eat something bland? Perhaps a slice of toast or a cracker?
He pauses for a moment. “I think,” he says, “I could maybe manage some walnuts.” I laugh. I’ve never knowingly seen him eat a walnut.
A man on a bike delivers a bag of walnuts and the boy nibbles at a couple before falling asleep, again.
A couple of hours later, I peer into his bedroom. He’s sleeping soundly. I pad into the room and sit on the edge of his bed. I stroke his neck then slide my hand under his pyjama top, letting it rest on the soft warm skin of his back.
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