This is part 14 of a series on my experiences being a parent. Read parts 1-13 here.
I woke up and said good morning to Oscar. “Go away daddy, I don’t love you.” I went downstairs. “Daddy can’t eat breakfast with me, he is not fun and he makes me sad.” I loaded Oscar onto my bike to go to pre-school. “Mummy I love you so much but I don’t love daddy at all.” Apparently normal, but starting to get to me. What if he was old enough to mean it?
I don’t worry that my relationship with Oscar is ruined before it’s even begun. He’s two and is civil to me sometimes, especially when we’re on our own. When I went away for a few days he sent me a video saying “I want you to come back soon, I love you daddy,” although he wouldn’t talk to me on the phone. But when he’s browbeating me I do question the point of me being there if I’m just going to be ignored and abused. I wonder if I’m being over-sensitive. Aren’t children meant to crave the approval of their parents, not the other way round? But Gaby says that if he was like that to her then she’d be devastated. She also says that when I’m not there he tries to call me to tell me that he loves me but his phone is made of wood and he doesn’t know my number.
Gaby thinks that he might like her more because she’s more attentive to his needs, but I don’t think that’s fair or likely, or even necessarily a good thing. The internet says that his hostility shows that he feels strongly bonded to me and knows that my love is unconditional. I think that’s a little too self-serving. This is surely just one of those things that toddlers do for reasons beyond our jurisdiction.
I think that the core solution is for me to do affirmations in the mirror to keep up the self-esteem and wait for Oscar to get older. In the meantime the internet says not to get angry or give up. We don’t tell him that his behaviour is unacceptable, even when it is, because that’s probably a battle that we lose by having. Instead we deflect and abide and trust that he’ll change. If he acted like this towards anyone else then I think we might address it more directly, somehow, but Daddy is a special and complicated case.
Oscar demands that mummy makes his dinner and brushes his teeth and puts him to bed, but we still try and split these duties approximately evenly, even if it pisses him off, unless it’s the end of a long day without a nap and he’s past the point where he can appreciate the teachable moment. Gaby’s agreed to stop using me as a threat: “If you won’t let me put your trousers on then daddy’s going to have to come and do it.” She admits that she still does this occasionally during now-rare 3am wakeups, since it is effective.
That all sounds enlightened, but what if he doesn’t change? Until what age does this logic hold? Let’s leave that until we get there.
When Oscar and I are on good terms I enjoy being a solo parent in the outside world. We went on a trip to a children’s theatre. I packed snacks and made sure he ate them. I made sure he went to the toilet. I insisted that he had to at least sit on the seat when he said he didn’t want to. When Gaby’s there it requires effort from all three of us to have me do these things, since Oscar still clings to her. But I enjoy doing them, at least when they go well.
“What happened at the theatre Oscar?” asked Gaby afterwards. “At the theatre it went dark, then there was a lion,” said Oscar. He remembers everything we do for weeks, which is a good nudge for us to make an effort even when it doesn’t seem like it will be worth it. These things mean a lot to him, for a little while. Later: “Did you have a nice time at the theatre Oscar?” I asked. “No,” he said. I think I see a grin. “You deserved that,” said Gaby. Even later: “Gaby, what was the name of that lion play I took Oscar to?” Oscar, eating porridge: “How to hide a lion.”
“It’s so nice to see a dad taking an interest in his child” someone says at least once per trip, even when I’m tired and not that interested. Gaby doesn’t get that, but Oscar’s nicer to her and someone’s got to make it up to me. A friend used to take his now-adult daughter to a cafe every Thursday evening while her brother was at judo. The staff fussed over them and always set aside a croissant. “Can I have that croissant please?” other customers asked. “No, it’s reserved for a darling daddy.” Our theory is that they thought he was divorced (he wasn’t) and this was the only time he got to see his little girl.
One day last week I tried to put Oscar to bed, but he started crying and shouting that he was hungry. He doesn’t usually do this so I decided that he was probably telling the truth. I made some porridge. He ate it in bed and we read Sam Sheep Can’t Sleep. He said he was still hungry so I got him some apple. He was still hungry so I got him some more apple. He was still hungry but it had been a big bowl of porridge so I told him that I thought he was OK now. He whined for a few seconds but then sat up and said “OK, that’s fine actually.” “I’m going to get your toothbrush,” I said. “We already did that!” he said. “Yes but then you ate more food,” I pointed out. He wanted to read two more books (which is what we normally do before bed), but we had already read eight while he ate second dinner so I said that he could only choose one more.
“No, two!” he said. I felt this was an appropriate time to be firm and insisted that he choose one. “OK, that’s fine!” he said, and chose Sam Sheep Can’t Sleep again. Eventually he went to sleep an hour later than planned, but I felt I had done a good job.
Now when he doesn’t want to go to sleep he bawls “I’m hungry, I want porridge in bed like yesterday! Can you say OK that’s fine? Say OK that’s fine!” Not a cause for concern, although it does show how quickly kids try to exploit deviations from the norm. Bed porridge was the right move in the circumstances, although now we make extra sure he’s eaten enough before winding down the day. I think I can tell when he’s hungry and when he’s being a monkey, although this is just intuition.
We went to New York to visit Gaby’s family. We got through airport security two hours before our flight and collapsed on a bench in the main departure lounge. I took Oscar to find a baby latte, even though it wasn’t a Saturday. Gaby read him some books about aeroplanes.
After a while I took Oscar for a walk and let him choose the route. We saw a plane out of the window. I tried to stop to look but Oscar wanted to push forward on the travelator. We walked past a gate saying “Gate Closing for the 11:15 to JFK”. But that’s our flight, impossible! Oh god is that the time? I called Gaby and told her to drag all our luggage to gate forty-something as quickly as possible. I slung Oscar over my shoulder and started sprinting back to help her. I realised halfway that I wasn’t going to be any help and should try to stop the attendants from closing the plane so I ran back to the gate. My shoulder was digging into Oscar’s stomach and he was screaming. The attendants said they could give Gaby two more minutes. I wondered if I should get on the plane without her. I decided that I should, even though I would have to entertain Oscar with my bare hands for seven hours, since Delta would surely charge us full price for each new seat we had to book.
Mercifully Gaby appeared, hobbling down the hall underneath a pile of bags. We fell through the gate and into our seats. Gaby didn’t seem to appreciate how close we had been to missing the flight and how stupid I would have felt if we had. She wasn’t sure that she’d got all our bags. For a second I couldn’t find my laptop, but I wasn’t too upset because I have disk encryption and backups and a new laptop would be cheaper than three last-minute tickets to New York. I thanked Oscar for somehow taking us to where we needed to be.
While we were away we exchanged videos with Oscar’s best friend Sophie. The kids told each other “I love you”, “I miss you”. Ostensibly these messages were between Oscar and Sophie, but I think that they were really between us and her parents to shyly reaffirm that we like each other.
One day during our trip we went into the city. We started at the Museum of Natural History; we had booked time slots and discount tickets. We walked the forty blocks north from Penn Station, but when we got there the queue was two hours long. What was the point of those time slots then? We decided that none of us would last two hours and so we gave up on the museum and improvised a new day. We found a free lunchtime concert at Lincoln Centre and walked the forty blocks back south. They wouldn’t let us in because Oscar, being two years old, wasn’t vaccinated against Covid. Gaby tried to break them down with American persistence but that’s less effective in America than in the UK. While we planned our next move Oscar played peekaboo with the receptionist, not realising that we were grumpy with him. I took Oscar for a loud wee in a silent library and we puttered around Central Park for a few more hours. On the train home we agreed that this had still been a good day because we had had a long walk and had shown Oscar the city. This kind of concord is a big benefit to a marriage. We got married quickly, before I had any idea whether Gaby could also consider hours wandering in circles failing to do anything to be a success. I got lucky on that one.
That night I put Oscar to bed. Before we gave up on the museum we had pointed to posters of dinosaurs and explained to Oscar that triceratops is called a “triceratops” because “tri” means three and a triceratops has three horns. We pointed out that “triangle” also starts with “tri” because a triangle has three sides. Maybe he’d get it. As Oscar was going to sleep he asked me “daddy do you know why a triceratops is called a triceratops?” It had worked! The unglued day had been worth it. “Because it tries very hard.” Good tri son.
I came home from New York a week before Gaby and Oscar. On the plane back I read a book by an American woman about French parenting. The main suggestion that I took away from it was to set as few boundaries as you can, but to rigorously enforce the ones that you have. I like this idea. I like situations where we have strong patterns and so there aren’t any arguments because that would be like arguing with gravity. We know what happens when we go for a baby latte. We know that Oscar always puts on his helmet before going on a bike or scooter. He reads two books before bedtime, then he can read to himself if he wants. No eating upstairs, apart from cashew nuts, for some reason. Oscar brushes his teeth with the pink toothbrush, then we actually brush them with the green toothbrush.
When I’m feeling lazy I try to set extra boundaries because I don’t have the energy for mischief and don’t want to clean up afterwards. Gaby gently encourages me not to control things that don’t matter. The slope isn’t always slippery. Oscar has become less interested in taking turns when we play “chess” and more interested in hiding the pieces. I don’t want to lose any, so I’ve tried to set the norm that “chess pieces only go on the chess board.” But do I really want to spend Oscar’s childhood arguing with him about the appropriate places for knights and bishops? Maybe if we ever debate middlegame strategy in the Sicilian Dragon. But if I really care about having a mannerly game then I should put the board away and wait until he’s older. Oscar and I have now agreed that it’s fun and dignified to hide the pieces in one specific basket, so we’ve both won. This undermines the laissez-faire lesson I thought I’d taught myself.
I finished the book, got off the plane, and took the train home. Tomorrow I was going to see The Midnight play at Brixton Academy with my pal Moe (who Oscar calls Uncle Pancake). Oscar loves The Midnight, but the venue was over-8s only. If the band is still together in six years then I’ll take him to see them then, but eventually I’ll have to accept that it’s not my long-term job to rock out with him. He’ll find his own Uncle Pancake. After the show I was on my own for a week. I booked it all off work and planned to focus on myself and do work around the house that I’d been putting off. But I’m not as introverted or diligent as I like to think. I saw friends and watched TV until 2am.
I missed Gaby and Oscar, but I do like spending time on my own. I don’t think I’ll have that much solitude again for a long time. I’ve got a work trip coming up, but it’s only four days and it’s not the same in a Travelodge in a strange city. I wonder how much the feeling of freedom of being on your own actually requires seclusion and how much it can be generated by living in the present. For example, I’m on my own right now. I’m in my office; Gaby and Oscar are downstairs playing trains. They could interrupt me at any moment to help Oscar take a poo or get ready for pre-school. This makes it harder for me to feel focus or space. But what if I decided that it didn’t? Can I just assert my way around psychology? Or is it foolish to deny that there’s something different about being truly alone for an extended period of time, with near-total control of what you do, and that when you have children this is something that you mostly give up for a decade or two?
After a week Gaby and Oscar came home. They took a daytime flight because Gaby didn’t want to risk a sleepless toddler on a seven-hour redeye on her own. She managed to provide a full schedule of in-flight entertainment, but it was a slog. There was a 4 or 5 year-old girl in the seat in front of Oscar. She kept turning around and talking to him. After a while Oscar complained “she’s hurting me!” Gaby assured him that she wasn’t and that he was fine. But then she noticed the red marks on his hands. She saw the girl reach round and poke Oscar’s nose and pinch his arms. The girl’s mum was watching cartoons and seemed to have had a long holiday. She’d screamed at the girl when she wouldn’t sit down for takeoff and Gaby didn’t want to get her in trouble again. She showed Oscar how to sit back in his chair so the girl couldn’t reach him. They made it through the flight without too much incident.
When they got back I tried out a new, firmer persona like my plane book had suggested. I put Oscar’s pyjama trousers on, and once I’d got them round his ankles I needed to pull them up. I could have manhandled him into the right configuration, but I asked him to stand up on his own because I thought this would be more empowering. He refused and made his legs go floppy. I decided that I had to dig in because I’d made an explicit request and needed to show that I was in charge. I asked him repeatedly in different tones of voice until Gaby eventually said “come on, it’s 11pm and he’s been in a plane all day.” She had a point so I pulled his trousers up myself.
After a day or two of this Gaby said that she thought I was being quite authoritarian. “I don’t think it’s damaging for him or anything and you can choose the relationship that you have with your child. I just wonder if this is really the one you want.” Good point. The book told me to have fewer, stronger boundaries. I’d certainly made them stronger, but I hadn’t got rid of any. It’s easy to use a sterner voice and stop giving up; harder to figure out which regulations you can do without.
I wonder how many people’s relationships with their kids are based on the ideas of intelligent but inexpert journalists who had a baby and wrote a book about the experience in order to make some money without having to travel or do extra research. You’ve got to ground your parenting in something though: your own parents, your friends, strangers on the internet, intuition. There can’t be any harm in mixing in some novice writers too, so long as you don’t over-respect them because they have an ISBN number and a short Wikipedia page.
I always want to copy the person in the book; they sound like they have a good life. Gaby has to talk me down and ask what it is I’m actually trying to achieve. She’s just herself around Oscar; she has more self-confidence than I do. I experiment with different personalities. It must be confusing for Oscar, like when your manager goes to leadership training and comes back with touchy-feely techniques that don’t suit them.
Gaby says that she doesn’t see Oscar enough. “I hate it, it makes me sick.” I think I see him about the right amount. I’m more likely to want to drop him off early at pre-school or dump him on my parents, whereas Gaby wants to keep him for herself. She shares him begrudgingly because she knows it’s good for him. She looks after Oscar on her own more than I do, so when I go out or upstairs to do my own thing I feel like I’m avoiding my family. She says it doesn’t feel like this to her. I’d still like to reciprocate because Oscar is kinder to me when we’re alone and then I can call things even with Gaby, even though there’s usually nowhere else that Gaby would rather be. I’ve learned that it’s better for me to say “I’d like to play with Oscar on my own now” rather than “would you like me to take a turn with Oscar?” It feels unkind to banish like this, but I don’t think she properly understands what it’s like being the second-favourite third wheel.
Last week we dropped off Oscar at Sophie’s house together. We were running a few minutes late so I assumed that we would put him in the pushchair and lengthen our stride. But Oscar was grouchy and wanted to walk by himself and read the street signs. If it was just me then I would have apologised and bundled him into the pushchair. But Gaby let him dawdle and read. I don’t like plans changing, even tacit ones, so I shuffled behind with an empty pushchair and an evil eye. “It doesn’t matter if we’re late!” said Gaby as we became later. This is true of course, in a sense. But if it doesn’t matter then almost nothing about day-to-day life matters. That’s either absurd or remarkably insightful.
At the suggestion of a random article on the internet we made a list of our core family values. We came up with: curiosity, presence, connection, skillfullness, and happiness. I don’t think this has actually influenced any of our actions yet, although it did make us feel more curious, present, etc. for a while. I think a more graphic exercise would be the opposite - come up with a list of the virtues that we explicitly don’t care about much. If every positive quality is important then none are apart from “niceness”. We hope to get Oscar involved in a refresh of the list once he has a moral compass and good ideas. We don’t think that our parents did this exercise, but we tried to guess at what their lists would have been if they did.
I have to forgive Oscar everything because he’s two and he doesn’t know what he’s doing. But if he’s fully detached from his actions then who do I have a relationship with at the moment? Are we doing anything beyond building a platform that he’ll only step onto once he’s ready to take responsibility for himself? That doesn’t sound right, too reductionist. He won’t remember what we did today, but in the fullness of time neither will I.
We make big decisions on Oscar’s behalf and we’re going to keep making them for a long time. Schools, hobbies, friends, overall family vibe. He’ll make his own decisions too, but they’ll be powerfully influenced by the values, culture, and after-school activities that come from us. Maybe his die is cast and we have less - or more ambiguous - influence than we think. But our choices surely matter somehow. In twenty years what will he wish we had done? What does he want us to do now? How similar are these two lists? His constraints are as few as they’ll ever be. When you can do anything, within reason, what matters? Yes he’s only two, but soon he’ll be three and soon he’ll be twenty-one.
We make our own big decisions too, and they’d certainly benefit from a theory of the good life. But many of our constraints are already fixed (although perhaps not as fixed as we think). Short-term considerations dominate, despite all our good fortune and degrees of freedom. Quarterly goals need to be hit and we’re tired in the evenings. Where do I see myself in five years time? I have some ideas but no convictions.
We’re half-heartedly hothousing him. We’re not particularly rigorous about it at the moment, but we’re trying to teach him to read, play piano, care about chess pieces. I feel self-conscious; is this admirable, misguided, or fully contemptible? Doesn’t matter if everyone’s happy. There’s no tradeoff if it doesn’t cost much and everyone’s having a good time. A family makes its own mores.
That said, Oscar’s all but stopped playing piano for the moment. Now he prefers to run around and pretend to be a butterfly. He used to be more suggestible and it was easy to get him to learn songs and name notes. Now he has his own ideas and they aren’t F major scales. This is of course wonderful, but it’s still a shame that his piano career is on hold. I had told my friends that Oscar has perfect pitch, but now I think this was premature. He might, but now he won’t tell me what notes I’m playing so I can’t be sure. Gaby watches back videos of him playing Christmas carols and is amazed at his skills where previously she just saw the mistakes.
On the other hand, when I watch him learn to ride a bike it seems obvious that qualities like resilience and stick-with-it-ness are more important than learning any specific skill a year or two early, even if those skills are your ultimate goal. I don’t know how to teach resilience though. Am I resilient? I’ve never thought about it before. Oscar seems to get pissy quickly, but I would guess that having your parents constantly evaluating your resilience doesn’t make for a dogged child so I’ll leave that there.
Whatever happens, I’ve noticed that I assume that Oscar will be part of the elite in some way. Worst case he’ll be a management consultant. What a privileged thought! It’s OK if you do turn out a management consultant, son. Or if you don’t. Let children enjoy childhood for its own sake, perhaps. Adolescence isn’t training for upper management. True enough, but I’m hopeful that it’s possible to both enjoy childhood and crush it. I was a junior international chess player; Gaby was a conservatory classical musician. We both loved our youths. On the other hand, I only ever came 30th in the European juniors. At the end of her studies Gaby looked at the professional musical world, concluded that she wouldn’t make it and moved to Silicon Valley. We both played a lot but didn’t practice as much as we could have. I’ve never had the conviction to commit to anything that requires sacrifice. There’s nothing noble about sacrifice, it’s just that’s where the difficult decisions are. 30th place doesn’t require much renunciation. 1st does. Worth it? Maybe, that’s up to you. We think we each got about as far as we could on above-average talent and a bit of work. We could have got further. Right now I’d be an old professional footballer but a young prime minister. I’ll never be either. I feel like I’ve squandered a lot of potential even though I’m only 33 and have a blog.
So what? Who cares about chess or music? OK, but what about something more valuable (I believe) like science? Urgh, more philosophy. I shouldn’t complain. Internal crisis aside I still have some of the world at my feet, just not as much as I used to. But I also have a lot of neuroses about success and no strong ideas about happiness. I’ve never stopped to think about the point of achievement other than to feel less bad about yourself. Gesundheit! Given all this should I really be sticking my beak into Oscar’s life? Despite my shortcomings I think that’s my job, at least for now. Gaby says she just wants Oscar to be happy and doesn’t care about vicarious success. I don’t really believe her, but we’ll keep an eye on each other. I love you Oscar no matter what, even though I don’t think I can say the same about myself yet.