‘I’ve been good and bad, caring but useless’: Tim Dowling on two decades of fatherhood

His parenting skills, he thought, were a work in progress. There was still time to get better only now his youngest is about to turn 18. What has he learned?

From time to time, and without success, I have tried to track down the episode of EastEnders broadcast on the evening of 1 December 1994. I thought it might remind me of what it was like not to be a parent, because that was the last time I wasnt one: my wifes waters broke in the middle of the episode. We watched the rest anyway, partly because we suspected nothing would ever be this normal again and partly because Peggy had just moved back to the Vic after a long absence. We didnt realise quite how many times that was going to happen.

The intervening 22 years have been, in retrospect, a blur. Ive been both a good and bad dad, caring but often useless. I would read to my children, but I wouldnt do the voices. I was terrible at sport but good at making things, if a bit of a micromanager (trust me, you dont want my help with your school project; you want me to do it for you).

As much time as I spent happy and engaged in my childrens company, I probably spent more just looking for the light at the end of the weekend. As a father who worked from home, I was positively underfoot, but I still managed to be less than present. I once accused my children of lying about not having any homework due the next morning, only to be told it was the middle of half-term.

Oh, I said.

Yeah, thanks for knowing about us, the middle one said.

For more than two decades, my parenting skills were a work in progress: I was learning; I could still try harder, and do better. There was time.

Then time ran out. The youngest of my three sons turns 18 in a matter of days. The middle one is at university. The oldest is back home, but only because hes doing a masters degree in London and cant afford to live anywhere else. The nuts-and-bolts phase of parenting is pretty much behind me, and most of what I learned, I learned too late. I have already moved beyond the realms of guidance into the era of unsolicited advice. All thats left now is the self-assessment, and I am not inclined to be generous. I dont think it matters that I was not the worlds greatest father; only that I did my best. But then I dont think I did my best.

Most parenting, especially in the early days, is donkey work. The toll it takes is physical: it gets you in the legs, and the arms, and the back. The rest amounts to a lot of worrying and a handful of difficult conversations, when you are called upon to provide wisdom or enlightenment, and are mostly found wanting. More often than I care to remember, I answered challenging queries with the words, Ask your mother. This wasnt a ploy to dodge a difficult discussion, but an acknowledgment that any pronouncement I made was likely to be countermanded by a higher authority.

When my children were small, I sometimes tried to compose in my head answers I might have to give to certain delicate questions later on. For example, I had a whole conversation planned in which I confessed that, because I was American, I did not grow up supporting a Premier League football team and therefore had no allegiance to pass on. I even outlined a process by which we might quietly select a club at random and then concoct some fake history of devotion. When the time finally came for me to explain all this, they looked at me blankly and said, We support Chelsea. I wasnt just coming up with the wrong answers; I was preparing for the wrong questions.

When are you going to die? the oldest one asked, aged three, as I carried him up to bed. I tried to adopt a breezy tone: Oh, not for a long time.

Yeah, but when? he said.

Pets are meant to help children learn about death, depressing lessons to prepare you for the eventual loss of everyone you care about. But I was the one who kept learning about death, over and over, becoming more despairing with each: Ray the budgie; Bluey Fin the amazingly durable goldfish (if wed known you were going to live so long, we might have thought harder about your name); Pepper the hamster. When our cat Lupin disappeared for three days, then turned up dead in next doors garden, stiff as a salt cod, something inside me gave way with a lurch. Suddenly the world seemed leached of promise, devoid of hope. We should stop getting new pets, I said, or at least stop naming them. I was overruled. That was two cats ago.

My father used to begin certain kinds of conversation with the words, Im not going to be around for ever. These usually revolved around some appalling lapse on my part bad grades, shocking dishonesty, damage caused by high spirits in rented holiday accommodation and he wanted to imply that the day when I must finally assume responsibility for my own actions was nigh. I avoid using this opening with my own kids, because its so insanely depressing, and it turned out not to be true: my father is still around. I could borrow money off him tomorrow. And personally, I never found it morally bracing to contemplate a future without my parents in it. How much did my three-year-old need to know about death, anyway? How many answers did I actually have?

When I think back, it occurs to me that one of his grandmothers had just died and the other was about to. It was me, not him, who was preoccupied with death. With a grieving wife and a terminally ill mother, I was in full avoidance mode. At the time, he was at an exuberantly religious nursery school; I was never going to survive a conversation about heaven, nor did I want to risk blurting out some grim, off-the-cuff homily such as, Enjoy the journey, because the destination sucks. So I told him it was bedtime and went downstairs.

I got away with it on that occasion, but in those days the oldest ones curiosity was marked by a furious persistence and, not unreasonably, a suspicion that the world was withholding vital information from him. He was no more than five or six when he demanded to know what sex was.

If I have a strategy for difficult conversations, it is to bore: I begin at the beginning and bury my children in detail. If I cant avoid answering your question, at least I can make you sorry you asked.

I cant recall how I started my sex explanation I definitely had no plan but Im sure I began by explaining that it was the process by which eggs got fertilised, women pregnant, children born.

Yeah, but what is it? he said.

I hesitated. He was so determined that my wife finally wheeled round and gave him a brief but frank description of the whole business. When she finished, he thought about it in silence for a bit, then turned to me: You certainly wouldnt want anyone to walk in and see you doing that.

No sir, I said.

***

The oldest one was born before the advent of Google, but his brothers came after. For a while, I thought the age of the difficult conversation was over. If the middle one had a question about sex, I could point to the nearest screen and say, Why are you asking me? Wikipedias that way, brother.

Once theyd reached a certain age, I found it safe to assume that if my children had a question, the internet would be their first port of call; if they wanted verifiable facts, they knew better than to come to me. Id been proved wrong often enough. In practice, this meant my wife and I never had any real idea of our offsprings current level of enlightenment or ignorance on a given subject. The only thing that could stop them accessing information was incuriosity.

I recall an evening when my wife complained of a headache. The youngest one, then about 10, was doing his homework at the kitchen table. You might be having your period, he said.

I am not, my wife said. How dare you.

Its one of the symptoms, he said.

She faced him, arms folded. Dont talk to me about period symptoms. You know nothing.

Cramps, he said, counting on his fingers. Bloating, cravings, breast tenderness

In any conversation with my children, the hardest part for me has always been admitting I dont know something. Its not a trait Im keen for them to inherit theres a power in admitting you dont know; a power many men unnecessarily do without so I make an effort. I try to remember to say, I really have no idea. Look it up and read the answer to me. But often I end up bluffing, or making pompous pronouncements unsupported by evidence. Becoming a parent unleashed in me a strong didactic streak, which I cant always suppress just because I have nothing of value to impart. I know when a difficult conversation is in the offing, because this urge deserts me completely.

***

Every adolescent cohort will have an expression to denote incredulity. Teenagers fear credulousness; incredulity is their default reaction to everything. At that age, you treat every uncorroborated statement as if it were mind-blowingly unlikely. You get headaches from rolling your eyes all day.

Adolescent conformity being what it is, a single expression of incredulity usually rises up to crowd out all others, indicating everything from mild scepticism to shocked denial and disbelieving outrage. My children, for example, often deploy the interjection, Shut up! in this fashion. In my adolescence, that expression was, What are you, high?

If the person you were conversing with persisted in talking nonsense, you were then meant to say, Now I know you must be high.

This remains my default incredulity response, still occasionally giving rise to such exchanges as:

Dad, Im going to a movie. Can I have 10?

10? What are you, high?

Plus a bit more for popcorn.

Now I know you must be high.

Tim
Boys to men: Dowling with sons and Nellie the dog. Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian

This is not, I accept, wholly appropriate. It also hints that in a past life I was at home among the perpetually stoned and while this is true, such an admission should have been part of a more serious conversation with the child about drugs that I had already earmarked for the later date of never.

That conversation ends up happening well before never, when my wife and I decide to drill it into the oldest ones head that no matter what moral, medical or legal arguments one might muster in favour of a more enlightened national drug policy, they will still kick you out of school if they catch you smoking pot. Our message is clear: under no circumstances are you to get caught.

The boy nods. What drugs have you done?

Now, for me, the most onerous part of fatherhood has always been the oppressive obligation to lead by example. Nothing has ever worried me more than the possibility that my sons were using me as some kind of role model. Theyve been present on countless occasions when I have, as they say in my homeland, completely lost my shit in the face of petty officialdom, or in frustration while dealing with a stolen credit card hotline, or in panic when pulling up at a foreign tollbooth without any local money. Being a role model in the present is hard enough; there ought to be some kind of statute of limitations. Fortunately my son is not looking at me when he asks, What drugs have you done? He is looking at my wife. There is a brief pause.

It would be much easier for me to list the drugs I havent done, she says. I stare at her with a pointedly blank expression, as if to say: what are you, high?

What about you? the boy asks, turning to me.

I have done some drugs, I say, but not that many. I mean, Ive never taken acid, for example.

Youve never taken acid? my wife says.

No, I say.

Nerd.

So is acid good? the boy asks.

Christ, no, my wife says. Its horrible.

This is not at all how I imagined this conversation going, but at least I can tick it off.

***

If there is one difficult conversation I am good at, its the one about failure. Its one of the few areas of parenting in which I do not defer to my wifes expertise because, compared with me, she knows nothing. I have plenty to say about disappointment: I have considerable experience in letting people down, and a wealth of stories in which I figure as a terrible moral coward. I have taunted the weak, even though I was weak and tauntable. Ive stood by and done nothing when action was called for. I have tried at things and not succeeded, and not tried and not succeeded. And Ive never put my failures behind me; I keep them with me always.

Boys have a terrible time with failure. You can tell them it is a necessary part of growing up, but it can also be psychologically devastating, and the alchemy by which repeated failure is transformed into eventual triumph is not straightforward, or guaranteed. On this subject more than any other, I think we do our children a disservice by lying. Failure is unavoidable, and while it may be instructive, it doesnt have to be. Failure does not always make you a better person. Failure can be addictive. Failure can run away with you.

So when my children fail at school, at sport, at friendship, at life I tell them stories about me: stories of dead-end jobs, academic disgrace, poorly conducted relationships, opportunities missed, rejection letters received. I do not come out of them well, and for that reason my children love them.

Im not trying to encourage failure, nor suggest I have known and conquered it. Im just pointing to myself and saying: this is what failure looks like. Its not so bad. When were discussing morality, I make all the right noises about honour, courage, honesty, but the message Im pressing home is this: theres a weird dignity in being a frightened little man who still gets up every day and carries on.

In this one arena, my role as a parent will continue to be relevant. My sons will experience failure alongside larger measures of success, I hope throughout their adult lives, as have I. They may have to return home because of some professional or personal setback, and when they do I will sit them down and say, At your age I was parking cars outside a restaurant, and my girlfriend broke up with me for being a loser.

This, I think, is my true purpose as a parent, apart from all that money I was obliged to spend. Im here to teach my sons that success is relative and self-esteem fleeting: it can get rolled right out of you at short notice. But you can easily get by in life without any, as long as you dont want to be on The Apprentice. That, at least, is my experience. And, for what its worth, my example.

What its like to be Tim Dowlings son: by the oldest one

Its amazing to have a record of our family life that goes back so many years. Everything is there, from learning to ride a bike to leaving home. The column was a great way to keep up with events at home from university while simultaneously avoiding my parents.

It can be alarming, though, when a friend of a friend, or a teacher, or even a complete stranger knows much more about my life than Im expecting. Are you the oldest one then? is the usual introduction to a detailed description of a tantrum I barely remember having or a house party I barely remember hosting. One friend read the entire back catalogue, mining it for embarrassing stories from my adolescence.

My brothers and I have always taken great pleasure in reading aloud any particularly nasty comments left below the articles online. My favourite is always, I cant believe Tim gets paid to write this rubbish. Neither can he!

Everything he writes is true, especially with regard to his own incompetence, mixed though it is with wisdom and great kindness. As a dad, Id put him halfway between Atticus Finch and Homer Simpson a high-minded idealist and a great teacher who nonetheless watches a lot of Homes Under The Hammer in his pants. I will always treasure these columns, though, as a reminder of many happy times and a promise of more to come.

Dad You Suck, inspired by Tim Dowlings Weekend columns, is published next week by Fourth Estate at 12.99. To order a copy for 11.04, go to bookshop.theguardian.com, or call 0330 333 6846.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/may/13/tim-dowling-sons-growing-up-parenting-lessons-learned-teenagers

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