A look back on my first year of fatherhood
In no other country would much-abused mothers-in-law cycle halfway across town to turn up at 6am every Saturday to look after the grandchild
Daniel has turned 1 since my last column, so this would seem like a good time to pause and reflect on the first year of his life – but instead, in keeping with the self-obsessed nature of these columns, I will write an account of my first Olympic year of fatherhood.
First and foremost, of course, fatherhood has meant fame and stardom as a beijingkids columnist. I frequently suspect strange looks from parents in restaurants popular with laowai families. There have been incidents in which people have actually spoken to me about my columns – confirming rather worryingly that these musings are, in fact, read. On one occasion, a new acquaintance even recalled the issue in which I wrote about how my father-in-law had pounded my underwear ragged with his fierce hand-washing technique. She had a laughing-at-you-not-with-you look on her face, I fancied. Another time, I was chuffed when someone quoted a line from one of my articles to me.
The thing that has surprised me most about these encounters, though, is that the magazine seems to be read and appreciated by some young and child-free laowai. Why do they read it, I wonder? Schadenfreude? (“Thank goodness I don’t have kids.”) Boredom? Because the columnists are so witty?
Perhaps – and I’m assuming it’s this – they are looking for answers to questions like “What’s it like being a father?” – a question I once asked people in my innocence. Even with my great wealth of one year’s experience, though, I find it a tough one to answer. It’s a bit like being asked “What’s China like then?” by your great aunt Joan. It’s probably unanswerable, but here, for you aspiring daddies, is my best attempt.
Let’s take the “challenges” first. These are not things like learning to affix a nappy to your screaming child, as I had fretted. Rather, for me, it’s the exhaustion above all. The emotional strain of the birth itself is easily forgotten, but make no bones about it: Modern fatherhood is (quite rightly, of course) hard work. Gone are the days when it could all just be outsourced to the mother, and especially watch out for the post-breastfeeding phase, boys. After this, when baby cries in the middle of the night there’s no more rolling over and muttering “xie xie” as the natural milk dispenser does her job. Men can make formula feed just as well as women, unfortunately. (Well, actually, mine doesn’t turn out as well as my wife’s, but it’s a poor excuse.) And just when the bundle of joy starts sleeping through the night, he stops sleeping so much during the day. I’m still weary now.
Many of these moans are universal complaints of parents worldwide, of course. But they can be compounded by China-specific stresses. And, if you are going to employ an ayi, cultural “challenges” lie in wait – even if you are not blessed, like myself, with a Chinese mother-in-law. Or even just walk down the road with a child dressed for the weather rather than the season – there always seems to be someone willing to offer free advice on appropriate clothing.
Before you would-be dads all start burning your back issues of beijingkids, let’s move rapidly on to the happy ending. Moreover, to put it facetiously, China is the place to have kids. In possibly no other country would much-abused mothers-in-law cycle halfway across town to turn up at 6am every Saturday to look after the grandchild, let mum sleep off a week at work, and dad sleep off the effects of last night’s pool followed by midnight kebabs (the real reason for my weariness?). And I am slowly learning to manage my cultural frustrations – trying to remember to leave the little fights alone, and save the big guns for the larger issues, many more of which no doubt await me as Dan gets older. By that time, I’ll be really stressed.
All in all, my teething pains as a father have been far outweighed by joyful first experiences, which have recently been coming fast and thick. Dan has taken to calling out “baba” as he walks past my office/bedroom, and he sometimes even prefers me, not his grandma, to hold him. Things don’t get much sweeter than that!
When he’s not busy raising his son, Martin Adams is a freelance writer. During his three and a half years in Beijing, he has also been a warm weather kung fu practitioner.