Baby blues . . . or nuclear war
"I'm tired. Go away."
“Sorry, give me a minute."
“I'll be with you in just a . . ."
“Sorry, I'm not quite myself today."
And there you have a sample of my attempts at communication over the past four months, since our son was born. A lot of people in this situation would refer to the baby as "our first" but that qualifier suggests a commitment to future procreation, which may be beyond the dead-eyed, hunched and broken people who have replaced my wife and me.
He is simply The Baby. He dominates everything. Barely a couple of feet long, he dictates practically every aspect of our lives, from work (he wants us to cut down) and sleep (again, severe cutbacks on the cards) to our conversational range (once reasonably expansive, taking in things like art and current affairs; now mostly about his digestive system).
You would think that two university-educated adults ought to have the advantage over a single micro-human who isn't even aware that we have a coalition government, or that a cat is different from a coffee machine. But, as the 1980s quiz show Blockbusters repeatedly demonstrated, two aren't always better than one. Especially when those two are so tired that they quite regularly walk into walls.
Bewailing the exhaustion that comes with a baby is as old a custom as having babies itself and, as recently as a couple of years ago, I would have had very little sympathy if someone else did it. Didn't you choose to have children, when you could have spent your time on less high-maintenance pursuits - boating, maybe, or building particle accelerators? Anyway, how hard can it be? All you're doing is changing nappies, feeding him, preventing him from sticking fingers into power sockets. It's hardly (to invoke another vintage game show) The Krypton Factor. Our own parents managed it all right, didn't they?
But in a way, it is the mundane quality of baby-care problems that makes them so exhausting. It's one thing to be weary and discouraged because you're trying to do something heroic - curing a disease or winning the World Cup. It's a lot worse to feel defeated by a task that people around you are carrying off, seemingly effortlessly, all the time. And moreover, a task in which success isn't rewarded by a trophy or a Nobel Prize, nor even a paltry round of applause, but simply by the absence of disaster. At least, in the early stages of parenthood, the best you can hope for is just
to earn yourself another day of the same struggle. Without wishing to be melodramatic, or overplay the gravity of parenthood, it is a little bit like a nuclear war: there are no winners, only survivors.
As I've said, all this is familiar enough. But it's for that very reason I wanted to devote my column to it; that, and because my brain has been so efficiently and entirely consumed and dulled that subjects beyond my immediate surroundings seem beyond me. I appeal to anyone bored by hearing about baby problems to cut some slack to the poor souls talking about them. They'd dearly love to be talking about something else - the BP oil spill, the possibility of alien life, Cristiano Ronaldo's paternity adventures; really, anything at all - but it's simply not possible at the moment. They'll get back to you on non-baby matters as soon as they can.
Only the lonely
And for all those in the same, fragile boat as us: remember, everyone else is not effortlessly achieving what seems to be beyond you. They are at best effortfully achieving it, at worst entirely failing to achieve it and going home and sobbing into their Indian takeaway.
Although we're much better at feeling sorry for ourselves as a nation than we used to be and much less constrained by the stiff upper lip, there is still a culture of positivity about parenthood. Nobody wants to admit it's harder than they expected; nobody wants to admit to feelings of loneliness or inadequacy. It's like Freshers' Week all over again.
I hope, by sharing this with the New Statesman's readership, to trigger an enormous backlash against the idea that being a parent is either easy, or irritatingly banal as a topic of conversation. If this works, I will be a hero in my home district of Crouch End. The people will erect statues and monuments to celebrate my bravery in speaking out on behalf of addled parents the world over. And then, perhaps, my son will be proud of me when he grows up. Or, if not pride, maybe I'll at least earn his pity.
PS: Can anyone babysit on Tuesdays?