His second challenge came within a week of the first and hit me even harder. It felt almost vindictive, such was the chilling effect it had on me. I sat rooted to the spot, knowing that the next few minutes would be particularly confronting. There was a graveness to his challenge, and as he talked at length about what it meant for both me and my son, I felt as though I had been found out. Finally, after leaving so many clues and even saying outright how difficult I find parenting, I was being told in the most serious terms what I already knew.
As I listened to Karaj’s words, noticing the nauseating feeling they created in me, I used the time to become more and more quiet in myself and surrender as completely as possible to what he was saying, knowing from experience – as well as from the nature of the challenge – that any resistance was futile.
He was crystal clear about it: The very fact that I am a parent is messing up my son’s life.
I had spent almost 30 years insisting that I did not want any children, and yet here I was, 3½ years into fatherhood – the living contradiction of my beliefs. He spoke as if what he was saying was new to me, but it wasn’t. I knew the implication of every word because I have had the same thoughts innumerable times since my son was born.
Life Has Other Plans
Changing my mind about such a fundamental aspect of existence was, as we shall see, both very difficult and very easy. There were other paradoxes, too, because whilst I considered that my character would lend itself quite well to parenthood, I was deeply concerned that I would struggle with something I had so vehemently rejected for so long.
To explain what was, in fact, much more of a change of heart than a change of mind, here is the Epilogue from my book. These four paragraphs, written in 2015, mark the shift from my belief about how my life should be, towards life’s belief about how I should be:
Seven years ago, my life changed for the better. Immeasurably. When she smiled at me across the departure lounge, all I saw was beauty and love. In our opening exchange I stumbled incapably over my words, beginning three sentences and finishing none. I took her boss’s seat on the plane and we shared secrets, cheeky asides, and the occasional, slight touch of an arm. In the baggage hall, where our brief and uplifting journey came to its natural end, we were both taken by surprise as the gentlest of goodbyes collapsed into a tender, unexpected kiss. There was that beauty again. I walked away intoxicated; taken aback by the intensity of such a slender, momentary caress.
We fell in love and continued to fall. We inspired each other and fell further each time. It took the breath from our bodies, replacing it with a serenity that showed in the smiles on our faces. Others noticed it too, which meant that when we broke up, they could make no sense of our decision. Unfortunately, we could. We differed too much on the one element of any relationship for which there is no compromise.
Reluctantly, and with a weary recognition, we pulled ourselves apart and went our separate ways. Given that I have sufficient experience to be able to process the situation better than at any time in my life, it was the saddest I have ever been. We made continued and repeated efforts to stay away from each other, and conducted countless conversations, held separately, with those closest to us.
Two years went by. The regret, which had been building quietly in the background, began to make itself more noticeable. I felt the certainty of its gathering momentum, understood that it would never let up, and found myself faced with a straightforward choice: feelings or intellect. Love or logic. Do I want to be the person who reasons, rationalises, and questions life for the rest of my days, or do I want to immerse myself in all that life has to offer? This entire book is about a search for the truth, and here I was standing before the simplest truth of all. I gathered myself, made a commitment to follow my heart rather than listen to my mind, and then, with a familiar smile on my face, I chose beauty and love.
As romantic as those words may be, the reality of parenthood, with its sleep deprivation and scattered, acute episodes of helplessness, is enough to make even the most assured parent question their actions. I vividly remember the countless times I woke to the sound of a baby’s crying and felt immediately consumed by a contradictory combination of adrenaline and defeat – as if I was suddenly ready for action, yet I’d already lost. Unsurprisingly, then, there have been many instances, especially at the beginning, when I wondered what on earth I’d done.
Surely He Can Tell
It was at those times that I felt sure my son could sense it; that his intuition had a direct line to my doubt and the deeper-lying emotions, and that somehow he was trying to square what his five senses were picking up, with what his sixth sense was telling him. Why else would he shun me as readily as he has done? My open arms, soft voice and undulating tone said one thing, but what about that background noise of uncertainty, agitation, and sometimes even resentment? ‘Surely’, I would think to myself, ‘at some level, he knows.’
That was the crux of Karaj’s challenge to me: that I am giving my son a Don’t Exist injunction – that regardless of how I appear to him, the underlying message is: I didn’t want you. (I talk about something similar from my own childhood in the piece, It Was Never Just A Colour.)
It is, of course, not true that I didn’t want him. Those two years referred to in the Epilogue meant it had been a conscious, deliberate commitment. However, it was not without trepidation, and there have been times – most often in the darkness of a staccato night – when it felt like he is the price I paid to be with her.
And so, during the early months of his life, I found myself on numerous occasions wishing I had been stronger in my resolution not to have children. During those peak accusations, I saw myself as weak and having given in too easily. I tortured myself with thoughts that I simply couldn’t win: if I don’t start a family I lose the most beautiful relationship I have ever had; but if I choose the relationship, then I have to do something I don’t believe is right for me. Fortunately, there is another perspective which says that I have a wonderful relationship and a beautiful son. Not everyone can say that, and I do consider myself very fortunate.
Before he was born I remember hearing someone say, ‘The best thing you can do for your children is give them self-confidence and get out of the way.’ That advice has offered me considerable peace of mind over the last few years. I see how some people try to mould their children into little versions of themselves. I’m not interested in doing that with him. I want to see his true beauty unfold and reach full expression. (Having written that line, I feel as though it washes through all the difficulties I have with being a parent. Ah, the wonder of the writing process.)
At the end of the call, Karaj reassured me that all I have to be is better than my parents, which I certainly feel is the case. (In my view, my son already has a better life and a better future than I did at his age.)
It Isn’t Easy
I discussed everything that evening with my wife. She is very different to me and when I see how our son is with her, I wonder whether I might be better off being more like her (as impossible as that would be for me). She was surprised to hear that I consider myself a sub-standard parent. She told me there is no-one she would rather do this with and that I am a great parent. She added that our son already has someone who does things the way she does, and that he needs someone who does things the way I do. She also confirmed that parenting is hard. I didn’t want a family and it’s hard; but it’s also hard for people who actually did want children. She reprimands herself sometimes when it’s difficult, because she actually wanted it. I don’t have that, at least.
I spoke to her about an insight I’d had regarding the story I tell – I’m too quick to let people know that I didn’t want children. It has always seemed easier to mention it, either to settle the question in people’s heads about why we only have one child, or to give more context to my own struggles as a parent. There is no longer any need to tell that story. It’s not relevant anymore.
Three days later Karaj challenged me again. The call lasted 20 minutes. I spoke for about two of them, telling the story of the conversation with my wife. He immediately pounced on what I’d said, informing me that I’m seeking reassurance, and asking me when I’m going to grow up. He repeated that this is a serious issue and I need to tell him what I’m doing about it.
I went quiet. Anything I said would just make it worse, and I felt I wouldn’t be heard anyway. I listened until it was time for his next call. The end came hurriedly and he signed off telling me not to be unhappy about what he had said because he loves me.
That night, I felt the onset of the stomach bug which my son had had two nights previously. I had kept him at home the following day and we had played all morning. It was wonderful – a continuation of a marked difference I had seen in him since the initial challenge. He had immediately been more open to me. ‘I need to spend more dedicated time with him’, I thought. ‘And commit more fully.’
During that sleepless night, things began to shift. I lay awake for hours, partly feeling as though I might vomit at any moment, but mostly listing points in my head, one after another, about Karaj. They were criticisms, the opposite of every reason why I hold him in the highest regard. I felt some anger, but this was more than that. Allied to the sick feeling, it felt like a purge; a controlled, considered release of toxins about the relationship I have with him, what he has done for me, who he is, and how he expresses himself and his gift. In the days that followed, everything began to crystallise in my mind, leading to powerful insights (which I will outline in the next post).
Karaj’s challenges certainly woke me up. And the positive difference they made to my relationship with my son was instant and obvious. They have shown me that whenever I slip into an old pattern of doubt or recrimination, my son will let me know in the clearest, most unequivocal way. If that happens, all I have to do is recommit to him, to us, and to myself.
Some days later, during another conversation with my wife about what was happening, she told me this: ‘Our son senses your fear that he will destroy you; he’s afraid of what he’s doing to you; and he feels your fear that you are inadequate. But, as his mother, I can say with certainty that he feels loved by you.’
Love is one thing our family has in abundance, and as I allow that to wash over my difficulties with fatherhood, he ceases to be the price I paid to be with her, and becomes the reward I continue to reap for choosing love in the first place.