I had grown up with the fairly unshakable conviction that relatives were irretrievably problematic things, and that, in general, they were best avoided. I had good reason to think this way. My grandmother had an awkward relationship with her mother, just as my mother endured a difficult relationship with her. My parents were spectacularly mismatched but stayed married – against my grandparents’ gloomy predictions – for a full 10 years before going their separate ways. After they split, my relationship with my younger brother dutifully headed in a similar direction: eternal enmity. We grew stealthily into polar opposites and our adolescent issues didn’t mellow with age. The last we saw of one another was at our mother’s funeral, 20 years ago.
Hardly surprising, then, that I never much wanted to start a family myself, convinced that I wasn’t up to it. An absent father does not prime you for becoming an engaged one.
When my future wife told me, on our third date, that she didn’t want children, I almost married her on the spot. But after a dozen years together, biology, circumstance and lingering whim conspired to change her opinion, and she then worked diligently to change mine, patiently explaining that I didn’t have to perpetuate the circle of familial dysfunction; together, we could change it, and make ours better. Her reasoning was entirely sound. Ours was a happy union – my grandparents approved – and she had a confidence in me that I didn’t quite yet possess myself.
And so, in early 2004, we took the plunge and threw ourselves open to fate. A mere 13 months later, one week shy of a doctor’s appointment to test the increasing probability that I was firing blanks, a blue line appeared where there had previously been none. I was thrilled, and relieved. I was also absolutely terrified. I remained twitchy throughout the pregnancy, fearful a baby would expose in me a pair of great clunking achilles heels. I read books on the subject – not hectoring self-help titles but, rather, brave, unflinching memoirs from writers such as Anne Enright and Rachel Cusk, whose combined message, as I interpreted it, was that I was right to panic.
It changes everything, but not necessarily for the worse. Starting a family didn’t drive us apart, it knitted us together
The learning curve, when it came, was bewildering. Such ruction from so small a person; such flagrant disregard for bedtime. There were tears from each of us, but gradually I learned that fearing something so much actually prepares you for it all the more. It builds confidence, an inner steel, and once that’s established you become, if not quite adept, then at least increasingly fit for purpose. Cusk was right: it changes everything, but not necessarily for the worse. Starting a family didn’t drive us apart; it knitted us together. And, thus emboldened, we repeated the process two years later. Somewhere in the middle of all that, we got married, because why not?
My daughters are now 13 and 11. They have brought noise and chaos into our lives – the kitchen hasn’t been properly clean in a decade, and I can never find my keys – but I marvel at their existence, and the fact that I haven’t yet made a mess of things. I didn’t run away, and they don’t hate one another. We are an actual, functioning unit. We’re good.
My working day is generally interrupted each afternoon at 3pm. Successive, post-school texts arrive, asking if they can bring friends round, if they can stay out, whether there are any prawn cocktail crisps left. An hour later, they’re home, the younger one demanding immediate access to my computer in order to watch YouTube; the older one accusing me of finishing the Nutella. They hog my wife when she gets back from work, then conspicuously give us both a wide berth in pursuit of their own respective screen time, bedroom doors firmly closed, do not disturb, enter at your own risk.
I can still see why I thought having a family seemed so unsettling. Ever since their arrival, life has become comprehensively more complicated, more convoluted and far more expensive. The house is crowded with competing opinions, raised voices and withering teenage sarcasm. They confuse me, exasperate me, make me laugh and, occasionally, particularly on birthdays when they write cards with their careful handwriting, make me cry. They are utterly self-obsessed and astonishingly lovely. They ask so many questions and never like the answer. I couldn’t imagine my world without them. Families, I’ve come to learn, don’t have to be knotty and dysfunctional but can actually be a harmonious place in which to dwell – a realisation that has brought comfort and relief.