I now have a son. This is a pretty radical thing on so many levels that it’s taken me until now, seven and a half months after he was born, to know what to write about it. Only, in truth, I still don’t really know where to begin. Probably the most appropriate place to start is to point out that having a son is a truly great thing – possibly the best thing that has ever happened to me, though I wouldn’t want to blindly elevate this in the pantheon of life’s pleasures without more perspective – after all, seeing the Sistine Chapel on ecstasy is hard to beat. The key thing here is that having a baby is OK. I love my son more than anything in the world and am very pleased to have him, which is especially important considering that for much of my life I feared I would never be able to connect with, relate to or, indeed, love a baby.
I have always considered myself to be very empathetic, though it took some time to develop this faculty. As a young man I suffered some spectacular failings of empathy and behaved with incredible selfishness at times, yet the shivers and shocks of exploding relationships taught me to understand all the nuances of others’ emotions, desires and motivations. I became highly skilled at interpreting the feelings of others, which was especially useful in predicting the outcomes of narratives, both in life and in fiction. This did not mean that I always acted accordingly. Indeed, at times, rather like the psychopath, I confess I exploited my understanding of other people to my advantage, or simply ignored the signals I was receiving because they were inconvenient. Sometimes it was easier to maintain the fiction of not understanding people, to avoid having to acknowledge a situation in the hope that it might pass or could be dealt with later. I still made some rather clumsy errors of judgement, yet my greatest and without a doubt most significant failure of empathy was the inability to imagine the feelings of a parent towards a child. No matter how hard I tried I could not even get close to understanding this particular, intense emotional attachment. It was simply too difficult to put into proportion.
Part of the problem was that I never really wanted to have children, except in some abstract way – and the fact that I didn’t fondly fantasise about being a father was a barrier to intimately understanding the emotions of the situation. Yet even when I learned that my partner was pregnant and that this was, in fact, going to be a reality, I still feared, throughout the entire pregnancy, that I would be unable to connect with my baby – largely because I had never connected with a baby previously. Indeed, I had never even held a baby before my son was born, such was my fear of dropping them, but also on account of the fact that I had no idea what to do with them or how to relate to them. If anything my feelings towards them are best characterised as a sort of impatient resentment, even though I rationalised that this sentiment was entirely unreasonable and inappropriate.
Even when I saw the first scans of my son and learned his sex, while this made it much easier to imagine him as a person and to visualise better what was coming, I still felt disconnected and uncertain as to whether I would be able to connect when he was born. I tried to reassure myself in all manner of ways. I had grown up with dogs and cats and have always loved and respected animals – despite eating them – and could remember all too well how much love I had felt for the dogs and cats of my childhood. They were not merely family, but best friends. I was utterly heartbroken when our Dachshund, Jason, was run over when I was nine years old – I still miss him and wish he would come home, just as I miss all the other animals. Surely, I reasoned, my love of small, cute, vulnerable animals could extend to encompass babies, who are, after all, small, cute, vulnerable animals. Yet, before Magnus was born, I didn’t really think of babies as cute. Indeed, they seemed rather the opposite – noisy, disruptive and utterly demanding, and I never found them attractive to look at. They were categorised alongside Chihuahuas and Silky (yappy) Terriers as the kind of pets I didn’t like.
This fear of not connecting was the one fear which lingered throughout the pregnancy. Most of the others – such as fear of not being able to go out to dinner, not drinking, not being able to travel, not having sex – all evaporated in a puff of triviality as time passed. I found it easier and easier to accept that situation, but grew more fearful of what would happen when our son was actually born. A woman I had gone to school with had, only a few years ago, committed suicide just three weeks after her baby was born, and whilst I knew that she must have been under a very different and far greater kind of pressure, emotionally and physically, it reminded me that some people do have a real and debilitating difficulty connecting with their babies.
Fortunately, however, once Magnus was born, I felt an almost instantaneous and immense love for him. In a manner not unlike the scenario proposed by the Theory of Inflation, when the universe expanded exponentially within a fraction of a second, my love for my son seemed to explode at an incredible rate. When he first washed up on the shores of the world, with his face all red and squashed and his few strands of wispy hair slicked with blood, I was overcome by a great desire to protect and nurture this tiny, exhausted and utterly helpless creature. In 1981 I had seen my dog Poppy give birth to eight puppies, and little Magnus lying there was just another puppy, as cute and adorable as they had been. How could I ever have doubted that I would love this child? It struck me immediately what a gulf there was between what I was capable of thinking emotionally, and what I was capable of feeling.
In the months after Magnus was born, I have only grown to love him more and more. Indeed, those initial feelings for him now seem strangely naïve and undeveloped, like reflecting on the first time one says “I love you” to another, which can, in retrospect, seem premature. Not only do I dearly love my son and feel immensely glad to have him, I have become something of a baby fancier. I can’t stop looking at babies and small children and wondering about their stages of development, thinking backwards and forwards on Magnus’ journey through life. I can now understand babies, and this is a great thing to have learned. They always seemed to exist in a kind of pre-personhood state, yet I can say definitively that while, in the first few weeks babies can seem entirely animalistic and devoid of even the emotional sophistication of a dog, once they begin smiling and interacting in ways that are more reminiscent of people, they suddenly morph into people. This, despite their ongoing dependence and completely instinctual, needs-based relationship with the world. I already thought I was deeply connected to Magnus in those first weeks, but when he began to smile upon seeing me, and then began to laugh, my heart erupted with a love so intense that I felt completely reborn, emotionally. And that is perhaps the most extraordinary thing – I am completely in love with my son. Of course this love is entirely devoid of any physical desire, yet otherwise it is no different from the love I have felt for the great women in my life. It is a wonderful thing to fall in love again and Magnus is indeed an adorable little cutie.
Having a son has finally allowed me to understand what my parents went through, and, indeed, what the entire human race has gone through in the history of humanity. This, funnily enough, was always one of my goals. I said above that I wanted children in an abstract way – it was largely because I feared that if I didn’t, I would go through life without having one of the most key human experiences – indeed, one of the key experiences of any living organism. Having a son has also opened up thousands of memories of my own childhood; recollections I’ve not had in years or never knew were there. It reminds me how strange this period of Magnus’ life actually is – he will not remember any of what he is going through now, though it will shape his development. For this reason, as soon as Magnus can understand the question, I long to ask him what the first thing is that he remembers. Perhaps he will be able, at just the age of two, to tap into some of those early, amorphous memories, before anything in the world had a name, and before words could prioritise and shape the narrative of what was happening to him. So much to consider, and considering the sheer excitement of each milestone so far, I long for these first conversations with an expectant heart.
On a final note, I hope that any expectant fathers who might stumble upon this can have their fears allayed. Put simply, what is gained is far greater than what is lost. Babies might seem annoying and life-destroying to the man on the sidelines, but it truly is different when you have your own. It’s by no means easy, and there is also much that sucks about the business, yet overriding all of the petty irritations and disruptions is something so incredible that it is, as my own failure of empathy indicates, impossible to articulate. Sow your wild oats first, travel the world, live a life of adventure, but when then time comes for having a baby, fear not – it’s all good, bro. You will not only fall in love again, but have the chance to relive all the long dormant tenderness of your own childhood and infancy. You will also make your mother a very happy woman indeed.