Fathers Day in the UK is rolling around again. Every year since my daughter Zuzu died in July 2005 in her room in my flat in Sydney I contend with this day. This year it’s hit me in a different way.
Most years I consider if I’m still qualified to call myself a father. Kind people say that I am and I always will be. So, this year I’m accepting that fact. It brings with it both a sense of peace, and also a lot of pain, of grief are packed into it.
This year, I’ve look at the way Fathers Day is sold compared to Mothers Day – and why that’s a terrible, outmoded thing. The former is all discounted whisky, “dirty” meat recipes and “thanks Dad for always being there to teach me values”. The latter is all Prosecco, roses and “take the day off, love… well, at least the morning”.
This distinction genders parenthood in such a clumsy, lazy way – much like I was as a father until the day my then wife snapped and told me to take responsibility.
She did this by leaving me. She walked out one day, leaving me with our daughter Zuzu.
(Zu’ was severely disabled, you should probably know that.)
My then wife could no longer take any more of my performative parenting. So, she left. This was in Sydney, where she grew up and to where we’d relocated. I grew up in England.
She called me the next day to say that she really meant it. She was moving out. She’d thought it through and enough was enough. She would find a new place to live. We would then take turns to look after Zuzu: two weeks on, two weeks off. And that’s exactly what happened.
From then on it was down to me to do everything for Zu’ for two weeks every month unless prior agreement superseded this arrangement. Once a month for three hours on a Saturday we also got respite care.
Parenting a severely disabled child is another story that I’ll write one day. Both my ex-wife and I loved Zuzu.
The point I’m stumbling to make here is that this arrangement de-gendered parenting. It came as a shock to me. It shouldn’t have. I was bought up by a single mother in the 1970s, I should have been a least a little informed.
Of course, as a liberal kind of a fellow, I was all over the idea that Women’s Work and Men’s Labour were tawdry ideas, outmoded, failed. In reality though, when left to them even the simplest of parenting activities rose up like like fabulous, new and Herculean tasks. In the beginning I thought of myself as quite the hero. As time went on though it became apparent that there was nothing heroic going on at all. What was happening was that I was discovering what actual parenthood entailed.
This was in the early 2000s by the way. Not the 1950s. What a sad admission to make.
Then these simplest of parenting tasks were combined with working full-time, maintaining our living conditions, ensuring that Zuzu’s overnight feeds were carried out via her stomach tube, and that her bedclothes were changed, her hair was washed and she was calmed down after every, inevitable, round of vomiting at 3am.
Parenting is different to “fatherhood” or “motherhood” when you’re doing it for real. Most of the time prior to our separation, my wife later explained, it had felt as if she was parenting alone with a passive audience. I was just being a father.
“You were babysitting”, she told me as we planned Zu’s funeral.
“When you did ‘get involved’”, she said, “You were imagining what the rest of the world thought of you, how it looked”.
That hurt in the same way as having a broken leg reset hurt. It needed to be said, it made things better, but fuck it was agony.
The point this of this Fathers Day post aside from a bit of self-knowledge, an open mea culpa? I still miss Zuzu. She was eight when she died. I still love her. But I would, I’m sure miss her less and not even understand the depth of love, the joy of her in my life, that she brought had my then wife not done what she did that day.
So, today I’d prefer to think of myself as a parent – part of a joint enterprise, part of a relationship that endures and is a grand thing to look back on.
This year I’d love to see an end to Fathers Day and Mothers Day because the roles are consequential in all the worst ways.
In case you’re wondering, after Zuzu died my ex-wife and I combined forces to ensure that she had the best funeral. We then divorced after I moved back to the UK. We still talk every few months. We console each other on the anniversary of Zuzu’s death each July, we chat about each other’s lives, we both remarried and we’re both happy.