When she was a few weeks old, an interesting thing happened as I tried to pacify a howling, frenzied Kitty. Well, I say interesting: it feels that way now. What it felt like at the time was that my head was slowly being emptied and the insides replaced with wasps. I was bouncing her on my lap and, when she eventually calmed down, I realised that I had totally blanked out and had no idea how hard, or soft, those bounces had been. I could have hurt her. Had I hurt her?
Instantly the wasps were gone and were replaced with an icy horror that rapidly spread to my heart and stomach and stayed there for days. That question, on repeat: Had I hurt her? In my attempts to help her, had I lost perspective and damaged her somehow? I sat up all night watching for signs that her head was going to fall off, all the while trawling forums to find out what to do if it did. I barely slept. Reassurance from Dr T, the nice NHS 111 people and my doctor didn’t make a dent in the chilly armour of paranoia. Nor did the fact that she behaved in resolutely the same way that she always did.
After a while this madness faded. Kitty was of course totally fine and I hadn’t, after all, bounced her spleen into her nose, but I didn’t come out of the madness as the same person. I realised that up until that point I simply hadn’t engaged, on some fundamental level, with the fact that I was a dad, and that this was a person: a real, flesh and blood daughter that I have the capacity to help or harm in an instant. The wall of laissez-faire parenting I’d somehow put up, insulating me from the important truth that THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING, MOTHERFUCKER, crashed down in an instant and the roiling sea of doubt that it had been holding back came crashing in and rolled over me. I could feel my former self drown in it. An undertow of dread about my failings as a father, fear for the world we’re building for my daughter, and yes, a sudden hyper-sensitivity to Kitty’s frailness, tugged at me. It was like that godawful baptism they give the Ironborn in Game of Thrones to awaken them to their destiny (or something like that – whatever it is, it looks miserable).
Like them, I eventually came to, choking out the water and gaping around me as if seeing the world for the first time (although without the tendency for incest, regicide and pillaging). I once helped to rescue a friend from drowning and will never forget his expression when we reached him: the terror and the relief mixed together. I felt – metaphorically, at least – the same way, the mingling of knowing what could have happened with the certainty of what has happened.
So after a while panting on the shore, reluctant to hold Kitty, suddenly doubting my every move and decision, I noticed that I had indeed been reborn as a different dad. A little more calm, a little more compassionate. Fearful, but perhaps in the right way. Far from perfect, but a slightly better, more aware version of what was there before.
Was it a necessary drowning? Maybe. Could be that evolution as a parent comes both in subtle increments and traumatic shocks. I daresay there will be other moments when the Dad Sea comes crashing in again, but since the bouncing incident I’ve just been paddling mindfully as all hell in the shallows, and that will do nicely for now, thanks very much.