My son Leif turns 1 today. I’ve written this for him to read in seventeen years. Promise I’ve kept the schmaltz as much at bay as I can, but still….
You’re 18 today. I might not be around to read this with you, and if I’m not I’m sorry. I’ll try and stay healthy so I do. I can’t imagine what you’ll be like as an adult, I can barely get my head around you moving to mewling infant to grinning toddler. Imagining you with stubble and a broken voice before I’ve even heard the unbroken version is head-spinning. I’ll get down the gym. I’ll take my vitamins. I won’t interrupt mummy during Bakeoff1 and tell her ‘It’s just cake”. I’ll do my utmost to be around, ok? Ok. Let’s talk about your appearance in our lives.
A year ago today from when I write this, and 18 years before you read this, you came along. 5.40am in the morning, after a 52-hour labour where every fear was thrown up and we went from the tranquillity of a softly lit birthing suite to the clinical shiny fluorescent-lit operating suite.
You appeared on the second yank of a pair of forceps (check the above photo for the temporary mark they left behind, which gave you a strange sideburn effect) and when they put you to your mother’s chest I shouted ‘Oh fuck it’s a baby!’. I’m sorry about that, I was tired. Swearing isn’t big or clever, but sometimes you have no choice.
I also apologise for appearing surprised: I was aware that you were coming along, although my sweary shout would perhaps make it seem like your mum had just popped by to have her appendix removed and they’d found a son swimming around inside. I knew you were coming, so no idea what that was about. Probably because when you were the size of a poppy seed, or even full size but shielded behind a swollen belly in a sac of warm heaven, I couldn’t imagine you. On telly, where you appeared when they pushed an ultrasound against your home, you were just a mess of topography ‘There is his nose!’ the sonographer had cried, pointing to a small blob on a larger blog next to a larger blob. You then moved around, annoyed by this sonic intrusion and two buttocks appeared. I felt strangely proud as the sonographer blushed.
Yet you weren’t real, and it wasn’t until you were there in the flesh, a tight tiny but huge thing utterly helpless and wailing, that it hit me. They say it’s the most wonderful moment of your life. Not true, that was probably last week when we both lay on our backs and kicked our legs and waved our arms and both joyfully yelled before bursting into laughter that made us both cry. That was much better. To be honest, when you appeared I was just so, so relieved: relieved you weren’t dead, mum wasn’t dead. Relieved you were now breathing air, warmed by arms not amniotic fluid, alive. I wanted to wrap around you and mum, enclose you and be enclosed, create our womb we could rest in together and never have to look the fear in the face again.
A lot of mad thoughts fly through your head at that point. Again, I don’t hold that childbirth is miraculous: if it was they could have cleaned it up around the edges a bit. Walking on water, water you then turn into wine: miracles. Childbirth: intense it is, miraculous it’s not. You don’t remember it, mum was whacked out on a cocktail of drugs and sheer exhaustion, and I was really sweary and emotionally wrought. Let’s not dress it up. It was utterly awful. Great end product, for sure. But jeez. Sort it out, evolution.
The tears came then, from which emotion I do not know. The hugeness of the occasion was broken by a conversation between two of the otherwise heroic NHS2 theatre staff
“Looks like Donald Trump3 got in then” a face-masked surgeon told the woman standing by the machine that went bing ‘That’ll be the end of the world then”. I had last checked my phone about midnight, when it still looked like Clinton. Oh crap. We’d just bought you into the world only for that same world to be scheduled for annihilation.
Your mum didn’t want to hear this ‘DON’T TALK ABOUT DONALD TRUMP!’ she gasped, her utter weariness not masking her indignation. You began to cry, and you were held harder to the breast.
I cut your umbilical cord: when making the birth plan4 I’d asked not to but when you appeared I had to do it, some possessive parental compulsion taking over. You have probably realised now that I’m quite clumsy, and that could have been disastrous. But I encourage you to do some navel-gazing son: I did a pretty good job there. If you need your tonsils doing, bear me in mind, yeah?
There were tests to ensure you are ok, beds on wards sorted (mum had to stay in for a few days after, due to fatigue). Phone calls were made, after frantic running around the reception of the QMC trying to find the islands of phone reception. I couldn’t stop looking at you. You were perfect. You were fascinating. It made me gasp to think of what you were to me. I realised I was in love, deep deep love that shocked me when I approached it. How did wattle and daub dwelling peasants feel when they first stepping beneath the dome of a grand cathedral? The sheer awe, the breath-taking dimensions of it. I just looked at a picture of you, and I felt it freeze me again: to know such love is a fearsome, beautiful thing.
At some point, I went home for some sleep, sitting on a bus5 amazed that people were doing normal things, commuting and suchlike. I felt like grabbing them all and shouting ‘DON’T YOU KNOW WHAT HAS HAPPENED? SOMETHING WONDERFUL HAS HAPPENED!” , The woman sitting next to me was reading an article on her phone about trump, and frowning. How could she frown? What madness was this? In retrospect, she probably had more right to question the sanity of the crazily grinning, rumpled red-eyed mess sat next to her.
I never really thought I’d have kids. I had a pretty disastrous relationship with my own parents, which you probably know all about by now. I was terrified I’d make their mistakes, that the violence they dispensed and had in turn been dispensed onto themselves, generation after generation, the misery that, as Larkin 7 put it, ‘Deepens like a coastal shelf’ would be as locked into my genes as surely as the green of my eyes. I don’t know what type of father I have been over the years, but I know from where I am sitting right now I would never do anything to hurt you, would never do anything that didn’t somehow ultimately lead to your happiness. I don’t just know with a simple clarity I would stop a bullet for you, but find myself willing that situation to occur to demonstrate that I would.
I wish you’d met your great granma Lil. She would have been so proud.
I don’t want to live vicariously through you, but I do want you to take your parent’s curiosity for the world, couple it with kindness, love nature, help those less fortunate, and realise that all that remains is love 7 Son, I orbit you. Son, I love you. Welcome to adulthood.
1 Bakeoff was a popular TV series in the years around your birth where ten people made cakes and the one who made the worst cake was sent away to consider their awful cake until one person was crowned king or queen of the cake and everyone cheered and bought their branded cake or cookbook in a shop for a maximum of 9 months before they abdicated and the hunt for a new cake emperor or empress began anew.
2 If you still have an NHS when you read this, congratulations. They did things prior to your birth which made them seem like superheroes. A whole team appeared at 5am. Just like that. Imagine. I hope you don’t have to. If the NHS isn’t cherished then it’s likely that when you find yourself in such a room again, there will be no instantaneous response in the maternity theatre, but a 10-month waiting list.
3 A quick primer on Trump: by the time you read this the orange fascist who conned a nation will either be a bizarre regrettable footnote in history, not unlike when all them Eastenders stars had pop careers; or PREZTRUMP3000, a half human half mechanoid tango-faced cyborg of hate ruling over the galaxy and enslaving us all. He won the election on the day you were born, and your appearance was for many a silver lining on a huge sulphurous cloud.
4 A detailed plan you make a few weeks prior to the due-date outlining how you’d like things to precede once birth begins, drawn up utterly ignorant of the fact that NATURE DOESN’T CARE and only the really arrogant won’t wave a little white flag the moment they feel the baby move down and defer to the infinitely more trained and knowledgeable midwifery team. Ours had all sorts of things on it. Not one of them was an excruciating terrifying two days of sheer tedious horror. It had whale music. Bollocks to whale music.
5 Back then, these didn’t fly, but instead trundled down these big tarmac rivers called ‘roads’. Madness!
6 ”Bloody hell dad, quoting Larkin in a piece about child-raising. Nice. Any other clichés you want to get out the way? He also said ‘Get stewed. Books are a load of crap’. Perhaps you should take heed here: stop writing and get me down the pub. I’m 18 now, you realise?”
7 “I spotted that and don’t think I didn’t”