I used be frightened of children — my greatest fear was that I might one day have them.
It wasn’t an allergic reaction to responsibility and commitment that deterred me from rushing towards fatherhood. It was the suspicion that I did not have what it takes to be a great dad. ‘Anyone can be a father,’ the saying goes, ‘but it takes a real man to be a dad.’ The trouble was that as far back as I could remember I had never felt I was a ‘real’ man. Real men were strong and silent; they watched football down the pub and exchanged banter with the lads; they could assemble flat-pack furniture and they loved cars. I admit it: this list reads as absurdly reductive, but throughout my 20s and 30s this was genuinely what I associated with maleness. I didn’t drink, couldn’t care less about football or cars, preferred cafés to pubs and most of my friends were female — all of which made me doubt how much of a man I really was.
There is a brilliant scene in Blackadder Goes Forth when Mary, played by Miranda Richardson, asks Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder, ‘Tell me Edmund, do you have someone special in your life?’ Blackadder replies: ‘Well yes, as a matter of fact I do.’ ‘Who?’ asks Mary. Edmund answers, ‘Me.’ ‘No, I mean someone you love, cherish and want to keep safe from all the horror and the hurt,’ clarifies Mary. Edmund thinks for a moment and then says: ‘Erm… still me, really.’ That scene is very funny, but for me particularly so. I was a selfish and self-absorbed person (my wife might quibble with the past tense here) and having a child seemed to be about sacrificing one’s own hopes, dreams and sleep in return for… well I wasn’t really certain what the rewards were. What I did know was that fatherhood was a role for which I did not seem well-suited.
My own father, inevitably, shaped some of my ideas about fatherhood. He was one of those working-class men who demanded respect and commanded authority. He worked all day on the production line of a car factory and by the time he returned home he was often angry and exhausted. He wasn’t one for hugs or telling his children he loved them and he had a temper. He worked hard, accepting all the overtime he was offered, so wasn’t always around, and when he was around we sometimes wished he wasn’t. I don’t judge him for those things. He was a man of his time and he fulfilled his most important duties: he provided and he protected. My father died suddenly from a heart attack when he was 62 and I was 23. It remains the most shattering event in my life and the one that shaped all that has happened afterwards. That perhaps is another reason why I feared being a dad, because to have children means that I might do to them what my own dad did to me: die too soon.
My ideas about fatherhood weren’t only based on my own dad, they were also inspired by the films I would watch and seeing the fathers of my friends. A great dad was, based on what I saw on screen and in my friends’ families, someone who was physically robust and financially solid. He was strong and capable and he didn’t need to call an electrician when a light bulb went out in the living room. I wasn’t any of these things so why should I believe I could be a great dad? And yet even though fatherhood frightened me, I was also plagued by another parallel fear: that by not experiencing parenthood I might miss out on its unknown pleasures.
In the end the decision was taken out of my hands. In the summer of 2008 I met an extraordinarily wonderful woman and two years later we were married. I knew Bridget wanted children and the fact I knew she would be a spectacular mother made me less nervous about the prospect of becoming a father. On 11 August 2011, Bridget gave birth to our daughter, Laila, and last November she was joined by her new baby brother, Ezra. I am now 46, Laila is six and Ezra not quite one, and in the past six years everything I had assumed about fatherhood was revealed to be nonsense and I was freshly reminded of just how little I knew.
I had always associated fatherhood with loss — the loss of freedom, the loss of sleep, the loss of time just with Bridget — but I had not appreciated what I would gain. It was only when I had children that I realised that fatherhood isn’t a mould into which every man must pour themselves, but rather it offers the chance to create your own unique mould. My version of fatherhood is rooted in who I was before I had children. I am still not into football or pubs and in my family it is my wife who drives and mostly assembles furniture and has the job with the predictable income. But I can offer other things.
I’m still not great at unfolding the pram but my daughter can sing along to ‘Dancing in the Dark’, ‘Jolene’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’, and that has to count for something. I can give my time and I can be present in their lives. I don’t want to be one of those men who hardly sees their children grow up and later regrets it. I would rather accept that I might not be as successful as my single or childless peers, but I get to enjoy other compensations, which are worth more than money. The worry that gnawed at me when I was childless — that for all the striving and outward successes there really was no great purpose to my life — evaporated on the day Laila was born.
Fatherhood has offered me the opportunity to not repeat the mistakes my father made and the chance to make fresh mistakes of my own. Where my own dad was too strict with me I am possibly too much of a soft touch with my own children. I wouldn’t have dared defy my father but my daughter barely listens to a word I say. I make my share of mistakes but these days I worry less about whether I have what it takes to be a father because I am blessed to have two rather brilliant little teachers. They haven’t just taught me how to be a better dad, they have shown me how to become a better human being; more patient, empathetic and tolerant than I once was.
They say that 90 per cent of being a dad is just showing up. The magical thing about fatherhood is that if you just keep showing up — for school drop-offs and dinnertime, for birthdays and bath times — if you just put in the time, you can learn everything you need to be a dad. Laila and Ezra are reminders that in life, if you are lucky, real happiness comes not when you get what you want, but when you get what you need.
Sarfraz Manzoor is the author of ‘Greetings from Bury Park: Race. Religion. Rock ’n’ Roll’, a memoir of growing up in the 1980s, published by Bloomsbury.