A disclaimer to begin with. Much of what follows will sound as though I hate fatherhood, and that I don't much like my children, either. This is not the case. Having kids is rewarding in ways that are profound and silly, clichéd and surprising, often within minutes of each other. But it's also hard – sometimes very hard.
Men are slowly getting better at talking about life's copious Hard Things. However, there are still taboos, blind spots and misplaced machismo that cause many of us to hold back. Nowhere is this more evident than the Black Mirror-image of reality that is social media.
A psychologist once described how we share our lives on Facebook or Instagram as "me on my best day". Which makes sense: we share selectively and protectively, especially when it comes to family. We also know our angles, especially the ones that make us look good.
"There's value in sharing the other side of parenthood, too: the sacrifices, the tantrums (yours and theirs)."
It means that #dadlife can sometimes look like one endless, glorious holiday of muddy forest walks, goofy dressing-up games, matching sports kits, the zoo, the playground, the beach, the garden, all of it wholesome, all of it wonderful, all the way up to the first day of school and beyond. More dopamine than you know what to do with.
Of course, we all know it's an edit. There's value in sharing the other side of parenthood, too: the sacrifices, the tantrums (yours and theirs), the head-spinning imposter syndrome. Not least because social media tends to increase the pressure modern parents feel, not alleviate it. Some of the most meaningful and cathartic conversations I have with other parents are the ones where we admit how much we're winging it.
So, in the spirit of honesty and group therapy, here are some of the left-field surprises about fatherhood that I wish I'd known in advance: some serious, some stupid, all extremely subjective. Few of us ever put these on the timeline... maybe we should.
You Think About Death, A Lot
There's nothing like birth to remind you of death – specifically your own and how much closer it is than you'd previously noticed. When kids arrive, it's impossible to ignore the fact that you're swinging past the halfway mark on the circle of life, and you know, maybe it's time you acted like it. In my case, it was a welcome wake-up call: a good time to reassess priorities and plan accordingly. It's probably for this exact reasons why you see a lot of dads suddenly get into cycling or yoga or CrossFit. Kids give you a strong imperative to want to hang around.
The Other Sacrifices
Everyone knows that parenthood involves sacrifice. Your money, your sleep, your social life: they're all on the table and, for the most part, it's a fair trade. What creeps up on you, and sometimes bugs you even more, are the stupid, inconsequential sacrifices that being a father involves. Wearing white T-shirts becomes pointless. Cartoons out-muscle the morning news. You're late for everything, all the time. You can go to the theme park but not on any of the good rides. Solo trips to the toilet are rare and constitute "me time". There are thousands upon thousands of these, and aside from being generally infuriating, they also give you a new perspective on the stuff you put your own parents through.
Your Personality Will Flip
A common complaint in parents is that they lose some sense of identity once the kids arrive, and it's not just down to the lack of time you have to yourself. There's something about the general havoc of family life that makes you behave in ways that take you aback. Passive, laid-back dads find themselves screaming at insignificant mishaps. Strong, stoic types blub their way through Frozen. The organised become chaotic and the disorderly find themselves colour-coding the shared family calendar. Everybody's personalities change with time, but one of the things that parenthood teaches you is that some of those changes are not self-development. They're forced upon you.
You Lose Your Space
Ever noticed how when parenting bloggers share pictures of their homes, everything is clean and neat, the toys organised in custom-built storage? That is an image more filtered than a Kardashian swimwear shot. Kid stuff will swamp your home, and you just have to accept it. The living room becomes a plastic Jurassic – toy dinosaurs as far as the eye can see. Your walls are more Weetabix than mortar. The bathroom, once an oasis of calm, is filled with rainbow-coloured trinkets purpose-built to spill water all over the tiles. You'll buy storage, of course, but that's just a painkiller. There is no cure for this particular ailment.
Whether you have a non-verbal but extremely vocal newborn or a five-year-old with a penchant for Paw Patrol, be prepared to spend multiple hours every week blinking gormlessly into the middle-distance. It's not like that all the time, of course. You'll engage and enjoy the games you play together and the stories at bedtime and the next messy batch of banana bread, but there will also be times when your job is just to sit there. A comforting, zombified presence to be prodded when more snacks are required. My advice? Embrace the stillness, because you don't get a lot of it.
Your Mental Health May Suffer
I forget the exact timings, but around six to nine months after my first child was born, my GP said something to me as he filled out a prescription for antidepressants: "Don't underestimate what the lack of sleep can do to your brain." After months of fever-pitch anxiety and uncontrollable panic attacks, I was at a genuine crisis point. I had no history of poor mental health, and its onset so soon after I became a father made me feel like a failure. It wasn't just the sleep, and it wasn't just fatherhood, but research has found that more than a third of new dads are concerned about their mental health. I was lucky: I got help not just from professionals, but from family, friends, colleagues and strangers, not least because I asked for it. If you find yourself in a similar place, I strongly encourage you to do the same.
Let's end on a positive note, shall we? Because it's not just the hard times that you'll conceal from your followers. You also guard the best bits, selfishly keeping them to yourself. It might be the little quirks that only you have noticed or the sucker-punch "Love you, Daddy" when you glue their smashed-up toys back together. Social media doesn't prepare you for how rough parenthood can be, but nor does it adequately convey the joy of it.