Fatherhood is a funny thing
My husband was planning a two-day trip to Amritsar and suddenly he had an idea.
“Will you come to Amritsar with me?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said impulsively, “let’s go.” Many lifetimes ago, when we had met as two wanderers, this is how I had imagined our life together. But now I am a practical woman, so I proceeded cautiously. But what about the children? If we both get away, the children will miss too many school days.”
I was assuming that our three children would have to stay with my parents while we were away and it would be too complicated for them to handle the separate school schedules.
“Let’s see what days of the week these dates are,” he said, bringing the calendar from the wall to the table in front of us. The dates on which he needed to be in Amritsar turned out to be Friday and the weekend after it.
“Brilliant,” I said. “We can leave the children with Mom and they won’t miss more than one day of school.”
“This is great,” he said simultaneously, “we can take the children along and they won’t miss more than a day of school.”
“I thought you wanted to go with me,” I said, picking up a biscuit to dunk in my tea.
“Yes, but, isn’t this lovely? Now we can take the children also!” Then he noticed my face.
“No,” I said.
“No?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I mean no.”
He picked up a bread rusk and dunked it in his tea. “What have you become?” he said.
I tried to explain. “I mean, what’s the point? If we go away for a short break and then spend all our energy managing the chaos of our children’s hunger, toilet breaks, mood swings and interpersonal relationships, then why not do the same thing more peacefully at home only? It’s cheaper.”
He looked at me like I was a lugubrious monster.
This fatherhood is a funny thing and I am going to tell you about it. In our family, it has blossomed slowly and appeared suddenly. It has surprised no one more than the father himself.
In the beginning, each time our babies were born, he would seem numb and slow to me. He would be there and he would look like he would rather be elsewhere. Whatever he started doing, he would take twice, thrice as long as he needed to. He would fall asleep. Deep, early sleep in which he did not hear any sounds. He was exhausted. Even discussing baby names would be a chore.
He held the babies, rocked them, burped them and shaved their little heads with his own razor. He called everyone with the good news. He helped me. I helped him.
One day he found a thought that made him feel lighter. He came to me with our firstborn infant sleeping in the crook of his elbow and said, “When I am holding her, sometimes I feel that I am holding baby Natasha and rocking her to sleep.”
He booked tickets; he got on trains, night buses and flights. He visited friends, stayed in hotels, and started new projects without a plan.
Sometimes I fought with him and sometimes I let it be. The children waited for him. They ambushed him when he returned home. They sent him misspelt text messages from my phone. They recorded their voice and took their own photos on his phone for him to discover later.
“Why do I love your children so much?” He hasn’t entirely understood how and when fatherhood enveloped him like a protective cloak.
“Because we are your children also, Papa.” The children never tire of his question. They always answer him.
Over the years, he has become the joy-manager of the family. He has banished hunger from our home. I make sure the basic meals are available and he is in charge of fruits, salads, sweets and savouries. “There must always be some whai with our chai,” he announces, making “chai ke saath whai” a term everyone understands and relishes.
He is in charge of badminton, swimming, skating, cycling and football. Also towels, combs, bedsheets, and tea sets.
“You have no idea,” he shares sometimes. “In a traditional joint family, it is almost a taboo for a father to express love for his children. To even speak to them, touch them or be tender. It is considered selfish to be invested in your own children.”
“Papa, you are a good man,” his firstborn, who is now a teenager, says to him. “I like you. I like you so much that I love you.”
The children were explaining a game to him in which each person had to introduce himself or herself with an adjective that started with the first letter of the person’s name.
“Scintillating Sahar,” said Sahar.
“Naughty Naseem,” said Naseem.
“Agreeable Afzal,” said their father.
“Papa, you are not agreeable,” Sahar said to him.
“Of course I am,” he said.
“You are not,” she said firmly.
“I make such an effort to be agreeable…”
“Look, you are disagreeable right now,” Aliza pointed out, winning the argument hands down.
He conceded defeat and came up with another idea. “Azaad Afzal,” he said, sounding very much like the man I know.
“You are not azaad,” said our youngest child. “I own you, Papa!”
You know what I saw on the face of this once reluctant father? I saw pride. He gushed. And he agreed that he is owned by his daughters.
Sometimes, I think I could send all of them away for a short break and have a perfectly wonderful holiday all by myself at home.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.