Jonny McCambridge: What would I be doing if I wasn’t a parent?

It is Saturday morning and I am at an indoor children’s play facility.

Wednesday, 6th October 2021, 5:00 am
Father and son, destabilising sense of love, pride and worry present and correct

My son has been invited to a birthday party. Again.

He is bouncing on trampolines with his classmates and I am sitting in a plastic chair in the brightly lit cafe area, which reeks of burnt fat.

I peer suspiciously at my black coffee. The problem is that it is not quite black and I’m not sure why. The murky hue of the steaming liquid disturbs me, and I decide it’s best not to drink it.

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I do not see much of my son. On the one occasion when I ventured into the play area to check on his progress, he was with his friends and angrily waved me away.

Five minutes later he ran over to ask if I had a hanky to blow his nose, before rapidly departing again and leaving me with the soiled tissue.

There are other parents here and I’m struggling to keep up a competent line of dialogue with them. It occurs to me that I have little in common with some of these people other than the fact that we had children who were born in the same year. But this doesn’t seem like a very promising conversation starter.

I have lost count of the number of weekend days I have spent in this manner over the years. A thought suddenly creeps into my head. What would I be doing now if I was not a parent?

I am slightly embarrassed to have posed this question internally because it is a taboo. Over and over I hear parents say (and I’ve done it myself) that you can’t imagine a life without your kids.

But I’m determined to give it a try.

Perhaps, in this alternate reality, I would have time to work on the great, epic novel that I have always believed is buried somewhere within my psyche. If only I had the time.

Perhaps I would be at the gym working up a sweat. This more active version of me would not be burdened with an expanding waistline and would still be able to button up the trousers on his good suit. I would be able to have lunch in a fancy restaurant rather than having the leftover chicken nuggets from my son’s Happy Meal.

Or maybe I would be spending money on myself. Without the financial demands of parenting I could be shopping for that new tennis racquet that I have been promising myself.

Even better, take away the constraints of a lifestyle dictated by school term times and I could be on holiday, lying on a lounger on a tropical beach without a persistent voice in my ear saying over and over ‘I’m bored!’.

Maybe I would go to the cinema and watch a film which didn’t feature talking animals, or I could reclaim my telly in the front room which has been wired up to a computer games console for the past year.

But then it hits me. On this Saturday morning I could be experiencing something which I have not enjoyed for more than eight years. Something so distant and unfamiliar that I struggle to even believe that it still exists. I could be in bed having a lie in.

I sit back in the chair, lost in my thoughts. I forget myself and take a swig of the coffee. It is both tepid and rancid. I look around to make sure nobody is watching before I spit it back into the mug.

This is the crux point of this column, and the reader will likely be expecting that this is where I flip the narrative and explain that being a parent is all worthwhile and is the best thing I have ever done. That the emotional nourishment gained from having a child trumps all of the sacrifices made, the constant worry is smothered by the joy of watching his development.

And, of course, this is true. But yet, at times, it is a struggle. Perhaps it just comes more naturally to some than others. The utter upheaval of the life you knew before, the sheer exhaustion of giving every single part of yourself to another, the emotional wreckage of wondering if you are doing it right, the suffocating responsibility of trying not to pass on your own failings.

Most of my adult friends are parents. The majority of them have more than one kid. I know one family who have seven. Being the parent of one child, I am eternally awed and astonished at how they manage to hold it all together. The blunt truth is that the thought of doing it all again would fill me with something close to terror.

There was a time when I considered myself a decent journalist. And I had ambition. Since I’ve become a dad there is just so much going on that the highest professional goal I have left is to just get through the working day without making an ass of myself.

The children have now moved into a side room where they are playing with balloons and eating birthday cake. I am able to watch my son now. As always, I marvel at the length of his legs, the blonde hair which curls at the edges, the pale freckles on the bridge of his nose and below his blue eyes. I am impressed by his confidence and his independence.

After a while he casts a quick glance in my direction. I know exactly what he is doing. Amid all the fun and frenzy, he is checking quickly to make sure that I am still about. I smile at him and he smiles shyly back, just for a second before he is again engrossed in the games with the balloons.

I experience a feeling. One that I have had countless times before but which I don’t possess the eloquence to explain properly. It is a fierce, almost destabilising sense of love, pride and worry, all at once. There are lots of things which matter in this world, but I know that for me, there will never be anything else which matters anywhere near as much.

I sit back in my chair in the smelly café, with the horrible coffee, constipated by my inability to talk to the mummies. I am filled with a rare sense of certainty. I am exactly where I should be.