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36 JANUARY 2002
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On trying to make sense of fatherhood

Niall NcElwee

Introduction
In my last column I mentioned that our first child is due in mid January. Much has happened since then and we are really getting into the swing of baby purchases. But I want to concentrate on two days in the life of a father to be. By now I feel like the Steve Martin “Dad” character in that movie Father of the Bride where things appear on the one hand familiar, but on the other wholly strange. Steve starts off the movie facing the camera admitting that there is no point trying to stay in control. One has to simply get on with it and go with the flow. As with the father of the bride, control is a commodity that fathers-to-be are in short supply of. It’s two weeks before our baby’s due date and I already feel shattered.

Friends, it all started in our penultimate ante-natal class. I was handed by Fiona, our facilitator, a doll with a diaper on it with a little basket of goodies including gel, cloths, vaseline and nappy rash cream and asked to see what I could make of it all. When I eventually got the diaper off, I was greeted by a sight a man should never be forced to confront. The doll had brown mustard generously spread throughout the vicinity of the diaper, the hips, legs and tummy. I barely managed to control my reaction just enough to prevent myself fainting in front of the group. So this is what I have to look forward to in the coming months. This experience got me thinking.

When I was a baby my mother used to push me around in a pram. Wherever she went, we were gently placed in the pram and thus travelled the highways and byways of Ireland. That pram was used by all six siblings and is safely tucked away in my father’s attic. Now, however, I am reliably informed by those wonderfully enthusiastic women who work in “mother and baby” shops (I haven’t come across any “father and baby shops” yet) that babies use “travel systems”. Now excuse me, but I thought that mom and dad drove around in travel systems. Indeed, I understand we call them cars! But, no. Babies now have dispensed with their oh-so-out-of-date prams and prefer, instead, the comfort of the postmodern travel system. Let me provide readers with an example from the field so to speak.

Christmas Eve and it is late. I want to go to the pub for a quick pint (you know, to celebrate the season of goodwill) but my wife Susan, being a dedicated Child and Youth Care worker, wants to go to yet another toddler shop to check out the latest offers that “any self-respecting parent who really cares for his child will want to buy”. We arrive in to the shop to be greeted with an array of travel systems starting out at around $300. The sign said in big bold letters, “Sometimes its hard to convince people that the travel system really does only cost $300”. Whaaaat? $300 I say aloud to four rows of frankly indifferent teddies to register my horror.

I kid you not friends. A neighbour of mine recently purchased a small second hand car for just slightly less than one of these deluxe baby’s travel systems – and that covers four people’s travel. Now, it really starts to get confusing. Should we get a front-facing or rear-facing seat? Should we buy a model with small wheels or large wheels? Apparently baby likes a different suspension system depending on whether he is being taken for rural walks or urban walks! Should we get a travel system with a reversible cover or not? Should we get one that folds with the press of just one button or two? So many choices and so little time. Eventually, after simulating rough terrain around the shop floor by banging the travel system up and down a few times and trying to turn it between the “slings for caring parents” and talking tree (don’t ask), we decide to buy a two-in-one deluxe model. I am proud as only a father can be the day his son scores a touchdown for his college team or a try in rugby for the province against serious opposition. Surely, I think to myself, it can’t get much better than this and I should just about make it to the pub before early closing.

“But”, says that helpful shop assistant again, “Wouldn’t you like the latest in baby mobiles/drive gyms to go with your travel system?” “What”, I innocently ask, “is a baby mobile/drive gym?” I am told that the drive gym will “grow with my child”. And off we go again. After twenty minutes of having the many educational aspects of three red coloured hanging balls and one yellow triangle that hang out of the ceiling (sorry, drive system) for baby to play with explained to me, I am really sorry that I didn’t insist on going to the pub for two pints and a small one (in Ireland, a whiskey to follow the pint). We buy the travel system and the crucial mobile.

As I try to escape from the shop, we are harassed yet again. We have forgotten something else. How could we not consider the deluxe plastic purple see-thru baby bath? An absolute steal at only $20. “Why would I want a baby bath. Can I not just bath the infant in our bath at home?” And then I received one of those withering looks that only shop assistants who know infinitely more than us customers can give. “My dear, Baby likes his own space to express himself”. I feel like I’m living in the twilight zone. I’m in my mid-thirties and still fighting to express myself, never mind baby. And there and then, my friends, I decided to give up just like Steve Martin in that movie. Next time you hear from me I will, no doubt, have that rabbit-caught-in-the-headlamp-glare look about me. And they say I should be looking forward to all of this!

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