Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The anguish of being a weekend dad

The Daily Mail Online, UK

The anguish of being a weekend dad: One part-time father gives his poignant testimony

By William Leith
Last updated at 11:53 PM on 07th October 2008

Three years ago, in his mid-40s, writer William Leith, who lives in Lewes, East Sussex, rejoiced at becoming a father at last. But two years later, his relationship with his partner - whom he had known for 20 years - broke down.

Now that he is no longer part of a family home, he finds himself among the ranks of Britain's part-time parents. Here, he reflects on the loneliness and anxiety of being a weekend dad.

Every week, I walk up the road to my son's house, either to pick him up or to drop him off. I walk up the road and down the drive and knock on the door of the house I used to sleep in. These are anxious moments. I stand on the doorstep while my brain whizzes around, taking in detail, thinking about what might have been. But I must edit these thoughts. I must move on; I must move on.

I'm fine, I say to myself as I look at the front door. Just fine! And now I can hear something. My son's mum, my ex in other words, is getting his stuff together. There is rustling. And now I can hear his voice! Billy! A balloon expands in my chest. My son!

It's still weird, this feeling, even after three and a half years. My son! I don't usually go more than three days without seeing him. But sometimes it feels like a long time not to see your son. Of course, in the Stone Age, men probably went off on hunting trips and didn't see their sons for days on end. And lots of people I know didn't see their dads much, even when they lived at home.

William Leith and son

Precious: William Leith wth his son, who he sees once a week since his split with his son's mum

But a three-year-old can change appreciably in half a week. Then again, if I saw him every day, the change would be more incremental, so I might not notice it as much.
I can hear him through the door. 'No!' he's saying. Is he going through a 'No!' phase? How sweet, I think.

He says: 'I don't want my wellies!' This might take a while. I stand there, peering at the frosted glass.

I didn't think I'd have children. And then my son was conceived when I was 44. I'd got to a point where I thought I'd missed out, thought I'd spend a lifetime of what-ifs and wondering about the mysteries of parenthood. I'd wanted children, but it kept on not happening.

The moment I knew I was going to be a father I felt elated in a very strange, time- standing-still way. I looked at the line on the pregnancy testing kit. I felt great. We felt great.

Of course, things didn't work out between me and Billy's mum. And so I have these confused memories; they start off with 'us', which is me and her, and then 'us', which is all three of us after Billy was born, and now, for me, the 'us' is just me and him.

Wanting a son

I desperately wanted a son. I don't know why. I really don't. I also felt sure that he was a son. We - there it is again, that 'we' - decided not to find out the sex of the baby. But there were complications with the pregnancy, scans and, at one point, a nurse said something like: 'Look - there he is.' I said: 'But I thought you weren't going to tell me the sex.'

She thought for a second and said: 'Um, I always say "he", whether it's a boy or a girl.' I didn't believe her.

I was right not to. A boy! He was born, by Caesarean section, nearly six weeks premature. He had to lie in an oxygen box because his lungs hadn't formed properly.

They said he was pretty likely to survive. But they also said it wasn't absolutely certain. A nurse told me I should spend some time alone with him. I was allowed to hold his foot, but nothing more. I talked to him and tried to stop myself crying. Three days later, a doctor said he would be fine. Then I really cried.

And now at his house the door opens, and it's him. 'Daddy!' I pick him up, and then put him down gently. He is full of things to tell me. As a three-year-old boy, he's interested in machines and creepy-crawlies. 'There was a big spider and it made a web, and that was to catch a fly!'

And: 'Look, Daddy, there are more webs! With more spiders! There was a spider in the car!'

I talk to his mum. My ex. We talk times, dates. There is so much more I want to say. One day, soon, I will find the words. We talk wellies, Crocs. My voice is shaky. But less shaky than it was.

And now we're off. I hold his hand and turn the corner and we're gone; now it's just the two of us, and this is one of the best moments of my week.

I've lost a relationship, and that's sad, but I've gained this boy, I've gained these moments, and it's terrific.

I say: 'It's lovely to see you!' To which he sometimes says: 'I love you, Daddy.' And sometimes: 'I want to talk about spiders!'

I say: 'What have you been doing?' 'Playing.' 'Who with?' 'People.' It occurs to me that one day he might say a name in answer to that question, and it might be the name of a future stepfather. But I must take this in my stride.

Always vulnerable

'A single father is always vulnerable. I mean, my God, those Fathers 4 Justice guys who dress up in superhero costumes and climb up the sides of buildings... I try to dispose of these thoughts as soon as they enter my head. Mentally, I cross myself.

I say: 'So, how are you?' And sometimes he scowls. Sometimes he's grumpy. But I love that, too, his grumpy face just like my grumpy face from old photographs.

One of the complications of being a part-time parent is that you tend to love everything they do, even when they throw things and have tantrums. I worry that it might be more difficult to keep these things in perspective. Maybe I find it harder to tell him off than I would if I lived with him.

Once, a while back, I took him to the open day of a nursery school. We were standing in a semi-circle listening to the principal, and all these kids were being very well behaved.

Father and son

'Can we go and see some more dead things?' William's son asked him, after he saw a bee 'come back to life' (picture posed by models)

But I could feel my son tugging at my hand. Then he pulled his hand away and ran into the school. I ran after him. I could hear things being thrown and over-turned. He was shouting. I remembered that there was a table with children sitting around, stringing things on beads. And then I heard a noise that meant the box of beads had been tipped over; when I got there, the floor was awash with beads.

But my son was already somewhere else, way ahead of me, having located some plastic food. He was shouting: 'I want cake!' When I finally picked him up, he whacked me in the face, over and over.

But I wanted to laugh. I must remember not to laugh when he does stuff like this, even though I want to.

I know that I must not be over-indulgent. But am I too strict in other ways? Am I too careful? When I get him to my house, he wants to get on his tricycle or ride on the top of his toy bin lorry - 'bin lorry surfing! Bin lorry surfing!' - and he wants to go fast, wants to hurtle along, wants to risk crashing and falling off, and I'm always watching him, always worried about sending him home with a cut or a scrape I could have avoided, also thinking: 'But that's how they learn, you idiot!'

And I insist on holding his hand when we're near a road, always wondering if I'm being too cautious. When I press the button at the crossing, I wait for the green man, even if the road is quite empty.


I used not to worry about hygiene so much, even let him eat soil when he was a toddler. But then I split up with his mum and I became more worried. He won't eat soil on my watch, I thought.

Now I'm getting calmer. On our days out together, we wander around town. We look in shops. For a long time there was no part of my mind that could ever have imagined it: me, walking along, holding hands with a small boy. Me, a father! And then: me, a single father.

There's a whole world out there I didn't know about - not just the world of parenthood, but also the world of single parenthood - a daytime world of mums and dads with kids, in parks and leisure centres. And a part-time world of mums and dads who are sometimes on their own, whose lives fall into two separate parts - with their children, and without them.

Of course, there are endless questions. One thing about being a single parent is that you don't spend as much time as you might otherwise spend talking to your co-parent about what you should say about this and that. You do not present a united front, because you are not a united front.

On this particular outing, we see a bee on the path. My son asks me if the bee is dead. But then the bee moves.

'It's come back to life!' I say, well, no, the bee has not come back to life - it had never been dead. He looks at me, turning the thought over in his mind. We walk on. My son says: 'Look - what is that?' It's a dead squirrel.

'It's a dead squirrel.' My son looks at the dead squirrel. He says: 'What can we do to make it come back to life?'

'Um, nothing.' 'Why?' And here it is, possibly the first Big Question, and for a few moments it flashes through my mind, the panorama of death, and I don't know what to say, and what comes out is: 'Well, that's just the way it is. When something is dead, it's dead. That's it.'

My son looks at me. He ponders this, and nods his head.

'Dad,' he says. 'Yes?' 'Can we go and see some more dead things?'

Later, we go to the fish counter at Tesco to see the dead fish, and I realise I'd love to tell his mum about it, but I won't have time to tell the story, with all its nuances - the way he ran into the shop and shouted: 'Are there any dead fish in here?' and then what he said to the fishmonger.

Fear of a rival

Being a single father makes you vulnerable. You fear a rift, a rival stepfather, the fact that your child might move away. I sometimes wonder if this somehow hardens you emotionally, if your brain is secretly preparing for the possibility of these things.

You wonder what your child is doing when you're not there, when you won't be there, in his life, for days. You get good at blocking out bad thoughts. You get less shaky. But at what cost? Of course, you'll never know. There's a lot you'll never know, like what it would be like to live with your son in a family situation. There is guilt.

Sometimes I wonder: do I want more kids? Maybe. Maybe not. It's hard to imagine.
There are other things. I don't know if the stories I read my son are the same stories his mum reads him, or some of the same ones or completely different ones, and I wonder if we're talking to him about words and numbers in a slightly different way, because even if you talk about these things, you never quite see the other parent in action.

Father and son

Over indulgent? William struggles not to laugh when his son his son is naughty, and whacks him around the face (picture posed by models)

Some of the single mums I know say that there are unspoken rules: for instance, the non-custodial parent should not give or arrange haircuts. Haircuts are the province of the custodial parent. One mum told me she'd be mortified if her ex bought their daughter a pair of shoes. She said that would be going too far.

Sometimes I take my son back to the house on the bus. He says: 'We're going to Mummy's house.' Occasionally, when he says this, somebody will catch my eye. Recently he said: 'Mummy doesn't go to Daddy's house, and Daddy doesn't go to Mummy's house.'

'Yes,' I said conversationally. 'Why?' 'Well,' I replied. 'That's the way - that's the way it turned out.'

On the way back to the house at the end of the day, I have a pang of sadness. I know that, for a while, I will carry around a strange, hollow feeling, a bit like homesickness feels like when you're a kid.

I will walk away, this time on my own. Then I will not see my son for three more days. Three whole days.

Recently, I was walking in the hills above the town, in the early evening, and I took an unfamiliar path, and turned a corner, and saw a view that I hadn't expected. About a mile away, in the far distance, I could clearly see my son's house. He would be in there. Probably getting ready for bed.

I looked at the house for a while. And here we are. Back again! He runs towards his mum. My ex. 'Mummy!' he says. I stand there. I want to tell the story about the dead squirrel and the fish shop. But I won't be able to get in the nuances.

My voice will be shaky. My timing will be off. 'We saw this bee,' I begin.

Guardian News And Media 2008.
William Leith's latest book, Bits Of Me Are Falling Apart: Dark Thoughts From The


Anonymous said...

The thought that the guy in the first picture passed on his genes at all is pretty alarming.

Anonymous said...

Heil mothers.

The work of Fathers 4 Justice and the Pain of Fathers ~ Activism in the UK

Equal and Shared Parenting ~ The Movie