According to Grace Dent, I should be perfectly emotionally balanced.
I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, neatly ticking my manhood box in 1990 at the very moment the world switched from shoulder-pads and red braces to greasy grunge hair and Union Jack dresses. (At least, I think that’s what happened.)
The way Grace sees it, in an article for The Independent, fatherhood works best as a kind of psychological homeopathy: dilute obvious signs of love and affection until they seem effectively absent and they are at their most powerful. Demonstrate your parental love too vocally and it will swell their tiny heads; you will create attention-hungry little monsters, setting them on a lifelong course of selfies for cancer awareness and tweets about their dinner and nationally published opinion columns.
She might be right; I can’t pretend to be a parenting expert, and the proof of our pudding won’t be tasted for many, many years yet. But it seems a bit counter-intuitive, eh?
One of the abiding sense-memories of my Dad is the feel of his slightly-stubbly cheek on my lips when I kissed him good night every night. When he came to have a chat with a troubled Scruffy Kid in bed at night time, he would call me “me old cabbage patch”, and when I was old enough to sprout my own cabbages I thought of how treasured such a nonsensical nickname would make my kid feel. I almost wanted to have a kid just so someone could feel the way I’d felt in that moment. How needy does that sound? I don’t know, but it feels lovely when I think of the connection I felt with my old Dad in those moments.
In addition to his own series of weird (though never quite as opaquely surreal) nicknames J-Bone has been subjected to a humiliating torrent of hugs and kisses and sweet talk. He has picked up these peculiar habits himself and will regularly announce ‘tuddle!’, throwing out his arms or crooking one around our necks. He tells us that he loves us, that he loves other people, that X or Y is his best friend. You could argue that he is wearing the emotional weight from off these words, that he is simply learning to go through the motions. But what motions! I mourn the day that he doesn’t want to hug me any more, but then, if he becomes as needy as Grace fears, that day will never come.
I was never left in any doubt that my Dad loved me. It was not a flawless relationship, but his love was everywhere. He didn’t need to put his feelings for me into words: he put them into actions. Grace would hopefully approve. At the same time, would it really have done me any harm if he opened up all the communication channels? I’m hungry for affection from near-strangers on social media as it is, so he couldn’t have fudged me up any further with a couple of carefully-placed words.
And if every one of our generation is smothering their lovelings with public demonstrations of affection, won’t J-Patch be ideally equipped for a future of flying jet-tweets and smell-o-instagrams? A little bit of emotional literacy can stretch a long way.
He brought home some heavy-duty life bacon one lunchtime a year or so ago when he told me that he was feeling sad but he ‘will be happy later’. I was over a third of a century old and seeing a counsellor before I realised that emotions change by their very nature, and that even when things feel very bleak, those things will change. You can argue it’s a stretch to suggest he’s developed the world-weary wisdom of a late-late-adolescent man child in his thirties, but I reckon he’s pushing a nice set of buttons there. Perhaps he’s picked up the idea from seeing his Dad cry sometimes, then cheer up and give him a cuddle. He isn’t a persistently sweet kid, but he will offer people toys to cheer them up when they are visibly sad, children and adults alike, even if he spends much of his time at playgroup fighting over whose toys they are. That all seems evenly keeled to me; he seems to be sorting out some useful emotional equipment for himself. I might have done some actual parenting. (Because yes, it’s still all about me, Daddy!)
I’m really not sure whether I might be creating a narcissist twerp or not, but if I do, the family resemblance would be uncanny.