Last December, right before I became a dad, a friend said: “Having a kid is the best and worst thing that will ever happen to you.” I think about this every day, as there’s barely been one, since my daughter was born, that I’ve not felt both delight and despair. I can flit between each state, many times over, during one seven-minute episode of Hey Duggee.
I’ll never know if it’s simply my reaction to fatherhood or a symptom of the pandemic we’re living through, because I’ll only ever become a dad once and this is my lot – but I can certainly hazard a guess. While no first-time mum or dad is ever fully prepared for the frenzied first months of parenthood – a mix of sleep deprivation, adrenaline and joy, like vodka Red Bull for the brain – they don’t usually get shunted into a nationwide lockdown straight after.
Nor do they have every conceivable support rail snatched away at once. (Grandparents? Gone. Baby classes? Bye-bye. Quick decompression pint with a pal, to discuss anything but milk and soiled Pampers? See. You. Later.) Forgive me, then, for being a bit more grumpy and tired (so very tired) than your average new dad.
All this whinging is my way of explaining why today’s landmark study by the Royal Foundation and Ipsos Mori doesn’t shock me. The data, following a landmark survey by the Duchess of Cambridge, shows a big spike in parental loneliness – from 38 per cent to 63 per cent – since the dawn of Covid. More than a third of those surveyed believe the pandemic will have a negative impact on their long-term mental health.
Frankly, the only way these stats could have described me better is if Kensington Palace put my actual face on the press release.
Here’s the paradox I live within: being a suddenly-stay-at-home dad means you are never actually alone, yet feel so very, hopelessly lonely.
I adore my daughter. And I cherish every second of being her father. Without a newborn in my life 2020 would have been seriously, significantly bleaker. But at the same time, I’m not ashamed to say that, right now, everyday life is relentless.
Working from home, for instance, is an exercise in failure. Where I used to work in a shared work space, now I’m tethered to a shared family home. I’m always on – and always neglecting something. When I skip work to spend time with my daughter, I’m bad at my job. If I ignore her: bad dad. As I write these words my daughter is napping, on me, in the Babybjörn carrier. I suppose that’s one way to fix it.
Throw my wife’s epidural-ravaged lumbar region into the mix, and the times I’ve had to decline invitations to change a nappy, or tag in during bathtime, due to work, and I’m left feeling like a thoroughly s*** husband to boot. It’s a Venn diagram of inadequacy and guilt, where the sections are labelled ‘lose’, ‘lose’, ‘lose’.
The Royal Foundation and Ipsos Mori also noted the amount of parents uncomfortable to seek help has almost doubled – from 18 per cent, pre-pandemic, to 34 per cent. Why? In my experience, it’s two old friends: selfishness and fear.
Dig into the lockdown legalese, and these days it’s fine for grandparents to help with childcare. But is it? Covid-19 infects whoever it can grab with its grubby little barnacles. So should we muddle through, knackered and alone, or let our at-risk relatives spin the Wheel of Potential Misfortune? Many doting grandparents will readily gamble (“I’d rather die than not see my grandchild” is a common refrain), but what happens if we – but not they – have to live with the consequences?
Perhaps the most painful statistic from the report is that 70 per cent of parents feel judged by others, and half of those admit it screws with their mental wellbeing. Perhaps because my wife and I are open about the fact that child-rearing in 2020 isn’t candyfloss and fireworks, some around us have quietly questioned our parenting. They worry that – during a wretched health emergency that forces everyone indoors for weeks on end, and cuts us off from our loved ones – we’re just not enjoying it enough. They’re right. Every day is not Christmas. This year, even Christmas is not Christmas.
And yet, we’re lucky. Neither my wife nor I are key workers. Our daughter was born just before Covid appeared – unlike friends of ours, who had a baby last month and (NHS staff aside) haven’t seen a soul since. We and our family members, touch wood, remain virus-free.
In my darker moments, I remind myself of these solaces. And I tell myself it’s OK to feel alone while living on top of each other; natural to experience delight and despair in almost the same breath. To be utterly in love, but also a bit hopeless.
And that’s just the latest episode of Hey Duggee.