In the eighties, children’s books always had a mum, a dad, and a couple of kids.
At the start of primary school, we played with dolls and drew square-bodied, triangular-topped houses with cloud-puffing chimneys, curtains in the window and and flowers either side.
We read books about trips to the zoo, with illustrations of children swinging like monkeys from their parents’ hands. In the patterns that formed, I saw for the first time what a typical family was expected to be and it wasn’t a single parent household like mine.
If the book was any good, alongside the cookie cutter family unit would be a pet cat, dog, elephant or mouse, scurrying under their feet. When I came across it in lessons, I faltered reading aloud the unusual word ‘dad’, and tried to avoid it. I don’t have an earlier recollection of feeling embarrassed of myself than in those classroom moments, with the teacher, who I wanted both to impress and challenge, watching on.
A couple of years later, having been inside the houses of school friends and seeing for myself a spread of family units that varied in composition and, furthermore matter, happiness, I stopped caring. I shrugged it off as a fact of life.
I met my father for the first time when I was 11. I was nervous and I laughed a lot. We met several dozen times in all - more than I saw my violin teacher, fewer times than I have ever seen a GP.
We would go for pizza or bowling, the divorced dad afterschool special, and I would drag my friends along for company. I once played a game to see how few words I could say over the two or three hours.
My personal best was somewhere in the thirties. We never really clicked, and easily drifted apart, out of communication, as soon as I was old enough to pick up the phone myself, and I just didn’t. He receded into a stranger once again, and over the remainder of his life, nothing has inspired reconnection.At different stages of my life, people have asked if I “missed” him. The question is always unexpected. How could I miss what I’d never really had, a figure that didn’t much exist in my life? I attach no nostalgia to the word ‘father,’ but avoid the descriptor ‘dad’, finding the address odd and awkward, a word belonging to the breakfast tables of tv sitcoms.
I do not want children of my own. The urge has never come to claim me, contrary to the assurances of many older women. But I enjoy glimpses of parenthood in friends raising young children now. I like buying small gifts and feeling the warm self-satisfaction of auntly benevolence.
My good friend Henry’s life changed when his children were born, fatherhood all-consuming, organic and inevitable, a vital fact in his life in a way society once expected only of mothers. His face has grown more tired but wiser. For two years he and his partner have been in a waltz of sleeping and feeding schedules. Walks in the park are no longer spontaneous but accompanied by a small, fun person for whom the world is novel. The birth stories of people I care about awe me like Biblical tales.Because of how they spend it, the time of my friends who are parents has never been so high in value. When they choose to spend an hour or two with me I cherish it all the more.