Updated: Feb 20, 2021
I was absolutely shattered last week and totally crashed, as four months of sleep deprivation and 24 hour 1:1 time with my son during the UK's second lockdown. With all our classes cancelled, all our coffee haunts closed, all our walking groups now branded illegal, and all my friends similarly confined I found myself going loco. I was singing the same nursery rhymes, jingling the same bells, dancing around him every day, and all day like a nutter in solitary confinement - wringing dry every ounce of Dadness I had left. As a single dad there is no one to hand over to in the evening, no tag team saviour. No one to feed him at 5am, when the feed at 2am has utterly floored you. Nobody to hold him whilst you shower, shave, pee, eat. Like a screaming wild thing during the evening witching hour (4-7pm) he cried because of some indefinable ‘not quite rightness’- a heart wrenching case of the pure baby blues. In some ways it was worse than the weeks of colic he suffered from, when his little body doubled up in agony with trapped wind. At least I knew what to do for that, could alter his feeds, give him the right tonics, change his bottles. In other ways the colic was worse, and unimaginably hard to deal with, such an awful condition for a tiny soul to endure. But now as he moved into his fourth month, he wouldn’t let me put him down. Just clung on tight like an 8 kilogram whelk, sobbing against my beard, crying if I sat down and forcing me to pace for hours holding him, until my back broke.
The photo people don't share of their babes. I'm utterly exhausted, I've been up since 5.30am engaging with him. He's in full Miles mode, flitting his attention from one thing to the next. Did I say he doesn't really nap past 10am?
During the long days of lockdown I walked for my son and my sanity. I used to say it was miles *for* Miles. Sometimes the pram was all that would calm him. I lost over a stone on those hikes walking further and further each time, knowing there wasn't an awful lot to do at home if we went back. A friend called me gaunt the other day. Someone else said I looked ill. Then one day even the walking didn’t work, and I carried him back screaming and writhing, a fireman's lift over my shoulder, whilst I pushed the pram with my other hand, careening into pedestrians with sympathetic looks on their faces. One old lady looked at us as we waited to cross the road, "That''s a tired cry," she smiled with a tilted head and half knowing eyes. What a well-meaning cow you are, I thought but didn't say. As a man I get sympathetic rather than judgemental looks with a screaming child. Most people assume that dads are incapable anyway. A man failing as a father is expected. A woman failing as a mother derided. Probably why absent fathers are self-fulfilling prophecies and women feel so much pressure to be the perfect mum.
Online I celebrated Miles 4 month birthday with pics of him at his best. I was so immensely proud of him, my most incredible boy and I wanted to share his life with others. I wanted to capture the good times in those photos,...but I was starting to find he was as exhausting a child, as I was exhausted. Lockdown had me weak and proud. I also recognised at the same time that this exhaustion was not something I felt I could say.
Maybe it was the weather but those walks became like marathons.
Being a single parent is fucking hard. The days are intense. The hours can drag. What you do at the beginning of the hour you will often be repeating at the end. There is a lot of repetition. The towers we stack. The books I read to him. The games we play, It's all down to you. No one else. Just you. I'm a first time Dad so this is all new to me, but I get the impression that you’re not supposed to say it’s hard- *especially* if you have a long sought after child whether that be through IVF or surrogacy. This is because I never once heard someone on our surrogacy groups talk about the horrors of a colicky baby at 4am in the morning when you're so tired your vision is blurred. I sought advice instead from close friends and those who knew Miles best, whilst keeping my posts light, celebratory, honest yet bounded by a line I would not cross.
I searched the surrogacy support groups for parents who had found it hard, but the narratives were always only about how you became a parent, not who you became when you were a parent. After their respective births, everyone's team pictures just seemed to tell a similar tale of gratitude and the start of bliss. Mine too! And I understood why. The bliss was real.... but in private I was having conversations with parents who like me, also acknowledged the challenge. On one support group a new mother confessed to having the signs of post natal depression. After an uncomfortable silence it eventually started a conversation where people shared similar issues, so much more vital than the usual talk of naps and nappies. I had so much respect for her. Her courage had started a mini Me Too movement for those mums. In another private parent group, people shared hellish stories of crying that went on for hours. Babies I learned, could be dragons or unicorns. Some were even a combination of the two, called dragi-corns. I posted that I thought Miles hadn't yet earned full dragon status, but he was most definitely a wyrm - maybe even a uni-gon. The fact that in some of these groups, parents were from adoption and surrogacy communities too was telling. Never before had I heard people talking so frankly about the reality of the parenthood dream. In one memorable post a woman confessed she felt guilty complaining because her baby was born via IVF. I knew exactly what she meant.
By this point in lockdown, with all our activities cancelled, I attempt hypnosis by carousel to get us through the day.
On social media the stories of new parents not just succeeding but excelling kept filling my feed. Beautifully ordered nurseries, perfectly dressed babies snoozing exquisitely in prams whilst parents sipped coffees or enjoyed the view. I was guilty (if that is the right word) of posting similar pics of Miles when he was at his happiest too. The dopamine hit from people liking those shots felt good, especially when I'd been up for 20 hours, and he was crying and the isolation felt so unjust. To be clear, this isn’t a critique about people posting beautiful pics of their families, because they *are* part of their stories and part of mine and Miles'. And I want to post more, see more! What I was missing seeing from those in similar situations to myself, was the other part - the posts about their child killing their back; turning them into zombies; making them sick with worry as s/he cries and screams for hours and hours; or has colic or has reflux or has allergies, or the arguments with partners about who does more; or the doubt with themselves about whether they’ve failed as a parent before they’ve even begun. I want the dirt, the nitty gritty, the harsh reality of being a parent, because I need to know I’m not alone. One day I braved a text to my walking group about how Miles was a challenge, tempered with all the things I adored about him. It was the first time I realised I had told anyone that being a single Dad felt at some times impossible. But my words were still always tempered, the frustration always diluted with 100 things I loved about him - I still wasn't ready to be completely raw.
Miles doesn't really nap. Neither do I. I remember thinking to myself ‘I’m going to take a picture of how I really feel today‘. It felt revolutionary.
By this point it was clear from the silence on Facebook that it wasn't the done thing to complain about your IVF baby, or rather complain about the situation you so clearly orchestrated for yourself. My health visitor told me this is an issue in adoption communities where parents who work so hard on the journey to actually get their kids can be wildly ashamed to talk about how challenging those kids can be. The fear is of course that people think you’re selfish when you complain. Selfish and ungrateful. When you fail at something that has become such a core of your identity it’s like you’re failing at being you. Will people question how much you really wanted parenthood in the first place? In adoption and surrogacy where so much of your journey is about people working together, it can seem almost like a slap in the face to the people, groups, and communities who helped you get there. With parents giving over so much to trust on their surrogacy journeys, giving up so much control, through unimaginable trauma from childlessness and with costs that could go easily past £50,000 after years of IVF and surrogacy expenses - publicising how hard the actual parenting experience is once you finally *had* your child just felt gauche, awkward, embarrassing. It was like breaking the template of the dream journey. Subverting the unwritten rule that your happiness should be absolute. The trouble with happiness in dreams however, is that at some point, you have to wake up.
In the early days the sling afforded me some freedom to move about the house. Before he learned to love the shoulder. He looks so tiny here, no hint of the bruiser he was to become.
In surrogacy, our dialogue is about getting to the birth. Those that do narrate their journey after their child is born instead are supposed to invert their challenges into accomplishments, their struggles into successes, their pain into pride. We need to see that things have turned out right. We need that happy ending to give hope to others who come after us. But let me say something to those for whom the dream of parenthood has finally come true after years of struggle. Despite being blessed with your new life, it is absolutely OK to grieve the life you gave up. It is OK to want both a family and the things you used to lived for. It is OK to be exhausted. It is OK to miss the gym. It is OK to feel you‘re doing it all wrong. It is OK to share that your child cried today. It is OK to hate your ever fattening body. It's OK to give up on breast feeding. It is OK to resent your partner for whatever reason and not be the perfect unit. It is OK to be grateful and still feel scared that you haven’t been gratful enough. It's OK to look at your child and see a unicorn one minute and a dragon the next. It is OK to feel ashamed that it’s hard. It is OK to post pictures of the good times. It's OK that the last 24 hours weren't anything like the cute emojis that sufficed all your posts before they were born. Miles' surrogate understood all this, for her and her husband they wondered why I hadn't talked about it sooner. Talking to them during lockdown was like a sudden outpouring of my heart. They helped me understand that as parents we're all fucking exhausted and that this is real life. We're trying to the utmost best by our babies. It's called love. And sacrifice. And as a father I understand that now.
No parent can really anticipate the ride until it starts. Miles is a dream come true, but that's in some ways not fair on him. I must acknowledge that Miles is also just a boy - like any other boy with all their normal baby boy challenges. I must talk about those challenges as well as the dream. If I am not true to my heart, I risk mediocrity as a father and as his role model.
Trying to perfect the art of Play/Sleep. He plays, I sleep. It never really worked.
And so in the last days of lockdown when I was utterly spent and the blue nights drew in, I called in the cavalry and sent a simple text to my mum asking for help.
Every week so far, Miles had stayed with his grandparents for a day or a night. This has been a flexible weekly arrangement that has always kept me sane. Their door had *always* been open and we spend time together when I have nothing left to give. But when I dropped him off for his weekly visit at the end of lockdown, the time away somehow recharged me like never before. I ate (still managed to burn my dinner) slept (still managed to wake up at 6.30am), and went to the gym (overdid it and now have tendinitis) but oh my god it felt amazing: My Old Life : freedom and independence, the sweet taste of liberation ... of leaving the house with just my keys...and sweet babes did I miss my little dragon.
Being his Dad is my life’s work but having amazing parents makes it all possible. I’m so proud of them- they keep me strong. I talk to them about the challenges I face as a single Dad, for they listen without prejudice and judge me not. They also tell me they are proud of me, as a son, and a father.
Hail to his only grandparents - thank you for the memories you’re making for him and the meals you’re cooking for me.
But embracing the pain and hardship of raising children should be celebrated together, not just with trusted family but in the communities that enabled us to become parents in the first place. Men and women who have children through surrogacy are bloody heroes, the strength that has seen them survive through childlessness, fertility treatments, miscarriage, relationship break-ups and years of waiting to meet the right person to help them carry, is the same strength that needs to be harnessed by our communities, to get them through parenthood when it finally comes. I was so desperate to be a dad, focused so single-handedly on finding the right egg, and the right womb for my baby that I forgot that that the greatest challenge.... would be my baby himself.
I am good father. I will look back on these crazy days with pride. I will also continue to share the joy, and post those ’good time’ pics - we need those ‘good time’ pics! But I’m not worried now if I also talk about the days that feel long, the months and months of barely any sleep, the way your heart is torn when your baby is crying and you don’t know why, and the times I need my own parents just as much as he needs me.
The Dad Dream has finally become... the Dad Reality. Acknowledging that is not always easy, but it is the only way I know that I am living it right.
My favourite picture of Miles and me, not least because every grey hair in that beard has grown thicker with love since he arrived.
Read more from my Dad.Be blog here
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