When I was reading Marcus Berkmann’s Fatherhood on the tube, I kept having to make sure the cover was flat against my knees so that no one could tell what it was. Otherwise, I risked ‘Ah, how sweet – he’s going to have his first baby’ looks from all the mums in the carriage and patronising, ‘Welcome to the third circle of hell, matey’ looks from all the dads. And I might have had to keep giving them looks back conveying: ‘Actually no. Been there, done that already, ta very much.’
You might believe this is a silly way of thinking. But if you do, you clearly haven’t been through baby-parenthood. Baby-parenthood is the period of your life which lasts between the birth of your first child roughly up until the third birthday of your last. After you’ve emerged from the tunnel at the other end (blinking into the light), you suddenly realise just how self-obsessed, baby-obsessed, warped and dreary the parents of young children are. And just how similarly awful, until very recently, you were too. If you have any sense (though the brooding urge never quite dies completely), you’ll decide not to go back to that dark and terrible place ever again.
For those men who have yet to enter that tunnel, though, I can’t think of a better guide than Marcus Berkmann’s. He’s sound on all the boring technical stuff that normally you have to sit through NCT classes to learn: trimesters, induction, ventouse, epidurals (though I wish he hadn’t felt it necessary to tell us what an episiotomy is – God how I squirmed, and it’s not as though it’s something that’s ever likely to happen to me). And he’s even better on the stuff they don’t tell you in most classes or textbooks, notably the strange things that go on in your head while girlfriend/wife and her bump are stealing all the limelight.
I remember, seconds after my son was born, watching this swaddled alien thing in my lap staring up at me with its preternaturally knowing eyes and thinking: ‘I don’t know you. I’m not sure I like you that much. Where the hell did you come from?’ And then feeling desperately guilty.
And before that, I remember my wife’s pregnancy as being one of the most miserable periods of my life. It was like living with someone who had attacks of PMT times ten every single day (once, at a barbecue, she assaulted me with a sausage stick because she’d caught me enjoying a conversation with someone female), and by the end I was so messed up that I had convinced myself I had a brain tumour or MS.
Had Berkmann’s Fatherhood been around to forewarn me, I might have been more philosophical about these things. He tells you, for example, that it’s perfectly normal to fancy all the other pregnant women you inevitably encounter something rotten; that it’s normal to go through desperate periods of no sex (especially in the months after the birth, when you start wondering if you’ll ever do it again); that the ‘profound and unbreachable’ bond between mother-to-be and baby-to-be can induce monstrous jealousy – ‘These men look at the bump with suspicion. It mocks them silently. It knows it will be getting all the milk and they won’t.’
The whole book is very well written, wise and funny, and among the many sections which I would have circled and put ticks by, if I did such things to books, is his one on soft toys. ‘Before you became a dad, when you went into the houses of people with small children you probably noticed they all had 300,000 soft toys. And you probably thought, what spoilt little bastards, and what pitifully indulgent parents.’ Only after parenthood, he explains, do you discover that the real reason for the soft toy phenomenon is friends and visitors: ‘It’s the default present for small children when the imagination fails you, much as candles are for grown ups.’
He’s also hilarious and spot-on when discussing subjects as diverse as the changing textures and smells of baby poo (the scentless primary-stage meconium, he suggests, being nature’s way of breaking parents in gently), The Fear (the dread all parents have and never lose that something unspeakable will happen to their child, starting with cot death, moving on to the MMR/autism debate, thence to meningitis, saucepans of boiling water, et al), and the importance of differentiating between the few people prepared to lend a willing ear to your tales of baby’s marvellousness (grandparents, mainly) and the many who are not (‘People who have not had children’; ‘people who have already had children’).
At least now, if you’ve got a friend who’s about to become a dad, you’ve got something other to buy for him than the statutory soft toy.