It was a beautiful dawn. Not the showy, look-at-me kind of dawn you get in Africa or on the Pacific, but a quiet, unobtrusive Dublin sunrise, golden and full of promise.
It was about 5.30 on a Saturday morning. I could just see the glow of light spread over the city from the window of the room in the National Maternity Hospital.
I was sitting in a chair rocking my brand new baby daughter in my arms. My wife was a few feet away, resting after her labours. She was gazing over at us, a silly, happy grin on her face, and I thought: it doesn’t get any better than this.
Soon, a nurse came to give our baby girl her first bath. Then the midwife helped me get the new arrival into her tiny babygro. We put her tiny hat and gloves on (she was quite a formal dresser, even then) and it suddenly hit me: oh my god, I’m a father.
Not that it should have come as a shock. I’d had plenty of time to get used to the idea. It’s not as if this birth thing came as a complete surprise. I mean, I had the whole nine months of the pregnancy to think about it.
Plus the six or seven hours of the labour. Well, I was kind of busy towards the end. And terrified. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be there. I swore I wouldn’t get involved in the business end of this birth lark, but in the end, I had no choice.
“Look at this Dave,” said our midwife, Niamh. “The head is engaging.”
“Really?” I said, making a show of mopping the maternal brow. “Is that important?”
“Yes, come and have a look,” she said.
“Put your hands there,” she said, making a cupping gesture with her own. I obeyed, and lo and behold, a baby girl was born right into my arms. I didn’t really take it all in at the time, but now I understand that Niamh arranged everything so that I could catch the baby as she was born. She knew that it would take just one more push to do the job, and she made sure I was there to make the most important catch of my life. (My rugby mates said later they were surprised I didn’t knock it on.)
Yes, it got hectic there right at the end. But I did have the last two years, while we were planning and trying to conceive, to give some thought to being a father. I just somehow never got round to it. And now here it was, upon me.
Men, I realised, have a happy-go-lucky approach to the whole area of conception, pregnancy and birth. It’ll happen in its own sweet time, we think. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Women plan the whole thing like the Normandy landings. Watches are synchronised. Charts are aligned. The astrology page of IMAGE magazine is consulted. Tea leaves are scrutinised. Various other omens are examined and interpreted. And that’s only for the sex part.
In fact, I have come to the realisation that men are happy to partake in the more pleasant aspects of parenthood, but contrive to leave the messier bits to women. We don’t mind getting involved in the conception end of things, but would rather steer clear of the actual birth. The word placenta can have a strange effect on us.
We quite like putting small children into those harnesses and basking in the admiring glances of other parents. We like pushing complicated-looking buggies around city parks. We like throwing children into the air. We like bouncing them on our knees or sitting them on our shoulders.
But when they get sick, we call for momma. When they’re holding a dangerously unstable ice cream, or playing with a sharp implement, or crying, or throwing one of those lie-on-the-ground-and-thrash-about tantrums, it’s time to hand them over to a real grown-up.
Now, I like to think of myself and an equal opportunity parent. I change nappies and do feeds and generally pull my weight. And yet, I sometimes feel like an impostor, like I’m playing at being a dad.
Because, when there’s anything serious to be decided, I find myself letting my wife take charge. Somehow, it became her job to chose a childminder. The babysitter is her baby too. All medical matters devolve to her. She orders in the eco-nappies and says things that make me feel like an interloper, things like: “Did she get her probiotics today?”
It’s not that my wife doesn’t have fun with our daughter; she does. It’s just that she knows how to be a parent when she needs to be.
Me, I do the nice, irresponsible things, like pretend to be Nemo when she’s having her bath, or tell her I met Tintin/Asterix/Little Miss Tiny (depending on the current obsession) at the bus stop.
Or tell her stories. Her favourite at the moment is the story of the day she was born, which brings me back to that sunrise in Dublin a little over two years ago, which is where we came in, right?