Yesterday morning I dropped my five-year-old son off at his school breakfast club. Before leaving, I turned back to wave him one last goodbye – as I usually do, just in case he thinks I’m legging it out of there as fast as possible, which is only half true – but the sight of him sat there all alone at the breakfast table with no one to talk to, not sure who to play with, a bundle of social awkwardness and un-self-aware innocence, hit me with a pang of… well, something.
I’ve felt that something before – when taking him to the park, at kids’ parties, and when he plays with other children. It’s like an uncomfortable jolt from my own past, somehow putting me right back to being a kid myself – because, I realised, it was the exact same thing I felt when as child I was in the park, at kids’ parties, or playing with other children.
Aside from all the joy, happiness, fulfillment, and other stuff you’re supposed to say about being a parent, I have found fatherhood to be one long anxious worry. Am I doing right? Do I raise my voice too much? Am I spoiling them? Are my parenting methods inadvertently turning these angels into deranged, emotionally-scarred serial killers?
One of parenthood’s biggest surprises has been discovering that the worries and fears that haunt us as children – daft as they may seem to any right-minded adult – are still there, suppressed by years of pretending to be a grown up, but all lurking beneath the surface. It just took becoming a dad to bring it all back.
Here’s an example. I remember taking my son to the playground a while back, and a rabble of bigger boys turned up (eight or nine-years-old – proper big boys, no messing).
My immediate reaction was one of nervousness – not that they’d gang up on me, of course, or so I told myself – but in case they were too boisterous with my son, or intimidated him with aggro nine-year-old ways. The real issue, of course, was that they would have been too boisterous and intimidating for me as a kid.
I felt the uncomfortably familiar anxiety at a recent birthday party too. My son only knew a few other children there, and was being purposely excluded from the games. His feelings were hurt, though I suspect not as much as mine were. Watching him get rejected – and particularly his expression as he tried to make sense of why they wouldn’t play with him, not understanding that some kids (even five-year-olds) are just arseholes – was like being rejected myself.
Of course, these anxieties are all relative. I was a particularly wimpy and socially nervous kid. I was never physical or gutsy enough to play boisterous games (I wouldn’t even take a backy on a bike, let alone climb a tree), I cried easily, was terrified of getting hurt, could never be part of the cool kids’ gang at school – who I later realised were actually the the thick kids – and I was usually one of the last three to be picked for team sports.
But my biggest anxiety as a parent is not about having to feel those things again, it’s that – despite trying not to project certain parts of my personality – my boy is already like me in deeply emotional and psychological ways.
He’s remarkably unphysical compared to other boys, screams the place down if he gets hurt, and will almost certainly be one of the last three kids to be picked for team sport (honestly, his performance in the three-legged race last year was a disgrace).
Not that any of those things are a problem, of course, or that I’d ever let him think they were. But you want your kids to be better, stronger, more confident and emotionally equipped than you are.
And I’m sure my son is, like a slightly improved version of the older model. But it still seems like he’s destined to inherit some of the anxieties and I’ve carried around my whole life, just because, even at five, I can tell he’s already a lot like his old man: the demeanour, the social awkwardness, the un-self-awareness soon to become very-self-awareness.
(At this incremental rate of improvement, I predict my offspring will be perfectly rounded specimens in about 25 generations’ time.)
Maybe those anxieties are a good thing. Perhaps they help us grow into the people we are as adults. Either way, childhood anxieties aren’t just part of growing up – they’re part of being a parent too.