A while back, I wrote an article for Sunday Life in which I admitted to wanting a baby. This, apparently, was quite an unusual confession for a man to make – in which case all I can conclude is that given the birth rate, there are a lot of guys around who are either hopelessly out of touch with their feelings, or pretty darn unhappy with the amount of sleep they're getting right about now.
Flash forward to last weekend, as I was driving back from yet another visit to yet another couple who have just produced their second baby (a form of reproductive gloating if ever I saw one – hey, we're so fertile we even have a spare!), it occurred to me that it must have been about two years since I wrote that first article. And in this, at least, my biological clock was spot on – it's two years this week.
First, to answer the obvious question – I'm still not a dad. (As far as you know, people sometimes quip under these circumstances, but given the terrifying expense of inner-city living nowadays, let's just say that I think the mother would have been in touch.) My progress towards that particular life goal can best be described as minimal.
But although I've accumulated a grand total of zero offspring over the past two years, I've spent a great deal of time in the company of babies and their parents. And while the desire for fatherhood is, if anything, stronger than ever, the picture has grown considerably more nuanced. Here, then, are the five things I've learnt in the past two years.
1) Toddlers are even better than babies
Okay, we might as well start with the sappy bit. If anything, I'm cluckier than I was two years ago because I've come to appreciate how great toddlers are. Two years ago, my friends mostly had newborns. They're delightful in their own way, of course, and the portability factor was certainly a plus – many parents I know simply carted their babies around with them to a succession of great restaurants, and parked them safely under the table.
What we all want, I suspect, is the joy of parenting maybe 70-80 percent of the time, but the ability to ditch the sprogs now and then to enjoy what remains of our youths
But as adorable as babies can be, it's when they graduate to toddler status and gain the ability to converse that they start to become excellent company. I've had more engrossing conversations about Toy Story lately than I would ever have imagined, even if my interlocutor seems not to realise that Zurg is meant to be the bad guy.
What's more, the older a child gets, the less likely they are to randomly spray miscellaneous fluids over you, and that has to count as a plus.
2) It's a bigger sacrifice than I realised
One hour with a baby is almost always delightful. But after a protracted period of playtime, I sometimes find myself wanting to do other things. As time goes by, I find myself inventing games with the specific objective of tiring the child out. Because until they finally drift off, any other task I may have, no matter how urgent, simply has to be put on hold. I've seen friends run out of wedding ceremonies (from the audience!) because their children suddenly decided to race off somewhere, or couldn't remain silence. This requires a fairly radical adjustment in priorities, to say the least. Because in the rest of my life, the only capricious, unpredictable whims I'm forced to cater to are my own.
It's at this point in the conversation that my parent friends remind me that they're just as wistfully envious of my total lack of responsibility for any other living being as I am about the adorable dependency of their offspring. Sometimes a babysitter will allow them to escape for a precious evening evening, most of which they'll devote to commenting on just how weird it is to have a night out, and how much they miss it. And since I'm a person who views a Saturday night at home indoors at home as a personal failing, I wonder how on earth I'll ever be able to adapt to that.
When my parent friends are waxing lyrical about how lucky I am to have all of this free time, I gently suggest that there are times when it can be a tad lonesome. I mean, there are some weekend days when I realise I've forgotten to organise anything, so the entire day looms with absolutely nothing to do. But of course when I mention that, I'm describing their most cherished fantasy.
3) There's no middle ground
Or at least it's difficult to achieve without a phalanx of grandparents and/or professional carers – I gather that Hollywood celebrities manage it. What we all want, I suspect, is the joy of parenting maybe 70-80 percent of the time, but the ability to ditch the sprogs now and then to enjoy what remains of our youths. To be fair, this is something that most parents manage to achieve by the time their kids hit primary school and are able to be left with babysitters, or, better yet, to fend for themselves.
But with young children, the compromise position simply doesn't exist - at least without shared custody arrangements, and of course that results from a whole pile of other difficulties. And this realisation has made me realise that I'd better enjoy my freedom while it lasts, however long that may be, because as soon as I'm a dad, it'll be more or less over forever.
That said, some dads I know have managed to negotiate the odd week away with their mates. All I can say is that I hope I'm allowed to do that someday, and that the women who have agreed to this are both saints and deserving of their own childless weeks as payback, just as soon as their kids are old enough.
4) The fear sets in
I'm lucky to be male, and not just because for us, childbirth is a process that gets outsourced to somebody else. I'm lucky because the fertility clock simply doesn't affect me the same way. I'm now 35, the age at which pregnant women are routinely offered amniocentesis and other tests for being "older mums". I'm sure it's a great deal more stressful being 35 and wondering whether your capacity to conceive children might decline before you can actually do so.
But it's still stressful wondering if it will ever happen for you, and if it does, whether you'll be too old to be able to enjoy it, or even participate fully. I find myself doing the maths that says, "Well, if I have a child when I'm 40, then I'll be 61 at its 21st. If I have a child at 50, there's a higher chance that I won't be able to be a grandparent myself." And the longer I leave it, the less capacity there is for grandparents to help out, which I've come to appreciate is a vital factor.
The fear is still mild, and only really bites when I'm actually hanging out with young families. But I can tell that it will grow with every passing year.
5) It's just too darn hard to do with the wrong person
Here's the kicker. There are people in committed relationships who want to have children but can't, and that's a different kind of unfortunate situation, of course. But most of the reluctantly childless people I know haven't found the right relationship. I reckon they're wise to wait nevertheless.
When I reflect on how much of a jolt parenthood is, and the strain sleep-deprivation can put on parents, it reminds me that it's worth waiting for a person with whom the process can be as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.
What I've come to appreciate in the past two years is not only how great parenthood is, but how hard it is. It's made me appreciate what my parents did for me, and what my friends do for their children. And it's made me realise that even though my script for my life had me being a parent by 35, and I still regret that it hasn't happened, there are people who have it considerably worse than me, as well as better. I'm lucky that I still have the chance to get it right.
What's more, I've come to appreciate from my trapped parent-friends, who can think of nothing more pleasant than spending a day in my irresponsible shoes; that the grass is always greener, whether there's a tricycle on yours or not.