Darren Mattock is the former CEO of the Fatherhood Project, an organisation that runs courses for men as they prepare for their role as fathers. Here he shares his personal story of how he made the transition from fatherhood idealist to the real deal of dads – a journey with his wife Lucy Sporne and son Charlie.
I made the conscious decision that I wanted to be a Dad when I was in my early teens. I dreamt, wondered and questioned the kind of dad that I wanted to be many times in my life, well before I finally became a dad to Charlie (at age 33). But nothing prepared me for the experience of holding my son for the very first time. It was one of the fullest moments that I have ever lived. What I realise now is that it was also the final step – the last frontier – onto my path of fatherhood.
For some reason I assumed that I was going to have a daughter. In hindsight, there was something safe in that vision: a reflection of myself that I would never have to see or examine. So, as I cradled my son in my arms and laid him against my chest (feel my hairy chest and smell my hairy armpits, Son!), I felt the gravity of generations on my shoulders. My dad was an only child. I was the eldest child and my dad’s first son. It seemed having a son as your first was a family rite of passage that I now found myself accepting. Time froze. Memories, love, happiness, pain, hope and wonder surged through me in an ecstatic instant. In that moment, I relived my relationship with my dad and intimately observed the relationship my dad had with my Pop. When time had started moving again in seconds and minutes, I realised that I made some more profound conscious decisions: to be the best dad I could possibly be to Charlie, to do it differently than my fathers before me and to love him with all of my heart. It was an awesome and powerful moment of bonding and fusing with Charlie, one that I’ll never forget.
What did ‘being the best Dad to Charlie’ look like in the reality of day-to-day life, marriage and parenthood? I had more questions than answers. I had never had a man in my life that role-modelled the kind of dad that I wanted to be. All I had was my visions, hopes and aspirations. But I knew (even before Charlie was born) that I both wanted to and needed to be around to find my own answers and to make my own discoveries; that I needed to learn from him, that I needed to step in as a man and as a dad, and that I needed to be present and available.
So I did the only practical thing within my power to do: create the space to be the dad that I wanted to be. I didn’t work for a few weeks after he was born. I was just there. All day. All night. With Lucy (Charlie’s Mum, my partner). For Lucy. With Charlie. For Charlie. I decided that I would only work part-time and share the joys and challenges of raising Charlie. Our days and nights began to fill themselves with play times, walks, baths, restless nights, sleeps, feeding and nappy changing – the stuff of babies. And the more we shared of that, the more I came to love this demanding little cracker of ours.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream. When Charlie was six months old, Lucy and I became a statistic; we separated in the first year of our new child’s life. I was devastated for us and what it meant for Charlie and for my hopes as a dad. But I wasn’t prepared to give up on our relationship or Charlie. We lived apart for seven months. I saw Charlie every day. I worked a 35 hour week, kept my own home going – somehow! – and made space in my day for Charlie every single day – somehow! Of course I had moments of sinking. But I knew that I could only let myself sink so far and for so long. At the very least, I had to keep being a dad to Charlie. That was my priority, my commitment, my promise – to me and to Charlie.
I’m so grateful that I’d spent so much time with him in the early days and months. We didn’t just survive this time in our relationship; we continued to grow closer together and our bond became stronger. I felt capable and confident to be with him anywhere, doing anything. I knew him. I knew his noises, faces, words, expressions, songs, laughs, cries, howls, chuckles and even his silences. I knew how to be with him. He knew that he was safe and loved. He knew that when it was time to be with Dadda, he would be nurtured as well as entertained, fed, changed and rested. Charlie’s first word was “Dad”. I felt empowered. I was being the best dad to Charlie.
When I moved back into our family home, we celebrated that we would again begin and end days together and share more of the precious little moments of life that filled these days. There’s a saying that ‘Kids spell love T-I-M-E.’ Of course, that’s oversimplifying parent-child love, but I can’t help but feel that there’s some truth in this for me. Creating space for Charlie and to be an active and engaged dad was the best parenting decision I have ever made.
I didn’t do this alone. I’m incredibly grateful to Lucy for actively supporting and encouraging me to have the relationship I do with Charlie; she gets how special and important our time is together and what it gives to both of us. We are a team and I am an equal on our team. That means equal responsibility, but equal rewards. The best thing has been that by focusing on playing an active role as a dad, I also supported to Lucy to be his mum and shared the load. Yes fellas, women do find men doing housework sexy!
That’s my story, not my doctrine on how to best the dad. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of groups of expectant dads preparing for the journey of fatherhood. As a facilitator, I like to get them talking about and thinking about what’s going to work best for them and their family. What space do they want to create to be a dad? What space can they create to be a dad? What role do you want to play? What kind of relationship do you want to have with your child? What does that look like? Before baby comes is a great time to share with your partner the hopes, dreams and expectations of fatherhood and to prepare for the adventure (and the challenges!) ahead.
Cheers to your child’s birth!