I'd agreed many months ago that I'd look after my sister's 3 kids while she was away at a conference on the 14-18th of May. Well, as this date approached, I'm not afraid to say I was feeling VERY intimidated by the idea. It was fine when it was months and months away, but as the date approached I got really nervous – even though I'm a dad!
I had help – my sister Judith was going to be in town for a couple of the days, and my other sister Sara was also going to be covering bases. But nevertheless the preceeding day was fairly nervy as to what to expect, when to do pyjamas, read stories, how to entertain them etc. I've never been too confident of my fathering skills – a feeling the origin of which I can't really pinpoint, but seems to be a combination of standard-issue parenting worry/guilt and some shit I've invented in my head (which I have a tendency to do).
As it turned out, the kids (Jude, aged 2, (pictured) Finn, aged 4 and Suzie aged 6 (also pictured)) were beacons of pure joy. Seriously. No tantrums, whining, anger, hardly any "I WANT MUMMY" and never once did I have to say "go the fuck to sleep". They played with each other, ate their dinner and settled when they needed to. Lying there on the last night, putting them to bed, I think I finally got the feeling that I really was a good dad.
That last sentence probably sounded a bit odd as these weren't my kids. For context, my own daughter, Sophia, lives with her mum since we separated in November. Lying there, it was immeasurably strange to be putting these beautiful kids to sleep while recently very rarely having the experience of doing that with my own daughter.
Since separating, I've realized that for her first 4 years, I voluntarily outsourced a lot of my parenting to my ex-partner – that I lazily allowed her to be the bedtime Mum, the getting-dressed Mum. So I've been challenged lately to really think about what kind of Dad I want to be, not just "default Dad" according to the patterns that've been set up by the (very close) relationship my ex-partner had formed with Sophie over the years.
Those efforts have been hampered by the aforementioned insecurities about fatherhood, but haven't to this point been a great impediment – and the exploration of this relationship with her in this brand new context has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my 31 years, and most importantly, she seems to be really enjoying it too. Sophia is so central to my thinking, so essential to my decision-making that it's fun to explore the ideas we have on how to use our time together, how to play together, how to interact with the rest of the world together and letting her lead a lot of that exploration.
In the end, the babysitting worked out a lot less stressful than I expected. It showed me that with security, love, attention and earnest intent, that parents can raise confident, uninhibited, loving children – who instinctively trust that their extended families will love them and care for them as much as their own parents, and be perfectly at ease with that. And it showed me, as almost all experiences do, how much I love Sophia (below) and that the extent of that love is boundless and immutable.