Someone asked me once what it’s like watching your children grow up. The thing is, you don’t. It just happens around you. Like the sapling from next door’s back yard you once couldn’t see, until the day comes when the branches reach over the fence and you only now notice them.
The clichés are all true. One minute they were the tiny infants you cradled tight, the soft down of their hair pressed to your nose as you inhale that intoxicatingly sweet baby smell. You love them so fiercely. They squeeze your pinkie with their tiny fist, they smile at your sing-song voice, and you feel it like a hard lump in your throat, a ball expanding in your chest. You wonder how something so perfect could ever have come from you.
Then they are rolling over, crawling on their own. You shout with delight as they take their first stumbling step, grinning big at you. They utter their first word and it seems a profundity. They decide they don’t want to wear nappies anymore, and you share their pride. And as each new shock comes, each little epiphany unfolds, you realise they are no longer the perfect baby, or the cute toddler, or the happy little boy or the strapping lad that they once were.
Now they’re running. Climbing. Their shoes no longer fit. They’re heavier now, harder to pick up. They stop mispronouncing the words that you so adored and you miss it. The foot that you once held in one palm is now bigger than your whole hand. They’re riding bikes and swimming. Reading and writing. Becoming better at things than you ever were. Growing defiant. Questioning your way of doing things. Chastising you for being over-protective. Finding their own way and evolving into their own person.
Along the way, if you have any degree of self-awareness, you’ll recognise traces of yourself in them – a facial expression, a turn of phrase, a way they hold themselves, a bad habit, a smile. You come to own your failures and mistakes as much as your successes, and you constantly wonder if you could have done more or less.
In sad, staggered little starts these truths hit you, but you quickly file them away as the norm. Because no one ever tells you it is bittersweet – that even as you celebrate each new milestone, you also mourn the child they once were, gone forever. Lost to old lined photos and faded, dog-eared memory.
When my partner fell pregnant, I called my mother and said, “I don’t know if we’re ready yet.” She said, “If you always wait until you’re ready, you never will be. You can always have a better job, more money or a bigger house. All you need is love. Life finds a way.”
Recounting it now, it seems a mere collection of clichés, and yet it remains the best advice I’ve ever received.
Since 2009, I have been a single dad with shared custody. I have my boys every weekend. I couldn’t bear to ever have been one of those fathers who only get to see their kids once a fortnight. I love my sons more than anything, and I realise I am very lucky that way. Luckier still that my new girlfriend also loves them, just as they adore her.
My youngest boy is seven. Kind, affectionate and empathetic, he is a very gentle, emotionally intelligent creature who still crawls into our bed every weekend morning for snuggles. Sometimes he drifts back to sleep, sometimes he kisses my eyelids until I wake, and sometimes we watch movie trailers and funny YouTubes. Then my other big, wild, rough ’n’ tumble lad of 10 will come in – the one who loves his sports, superheroes and surfing – and we will have a wrestle on the bed. Weirdly, he always wins.
I dread the day when all that inevitably stops. When they’re too old to want to cuddle their old man in bed. But it will. So until then I intend to savour it.
If my sons have taught me anything, it’s that life happens so quickly. Blink and you’ll miss it.