Tuesday, 17 January 2012

On adopted families

We have an old saying in Italy: “When your daughter marries you gain a son, but when your son marries you lose one”. I didn’t really marry Lady V, but this Italian saying is still applicable to us. Since our adventure began, Lady V’s family has wholeheartedly adopted me - and what a family to be adopted into! – while I have seen much less of my own family, mainly due to the fact that they live 2000 miles away and travelling with a small kid is much harder than without it.

At first, I wasn’t sure about the idea of becoming part of someone else’s family. I was particularly concerned about the moment when my ‘new’ family would find out about my God-given one, with its scores of decaying aristocrats, random convicted murderers, occasional B-list TV celebrities and clergymen of sorts. Not the kind of family one would talk about with ‘normal’ people without feeling a little queasy. But as soon as I met Lady V’s family - which sports a 1970s hippy commune, Oxford-educated mathematicians-cum-farmers, French-born aunts who speak in tongues and suicide brides – I realised her family was as bizarre and interesting as my own. And now these two families are one, united in the flesh and blood (and other bodily secretions) of the Boychild. Bloodlines, I realised, only mix when they have something in common, otherwise they would repel each other like oil and water.

The uniqueness of Lady V’s family came to the fore this Christmas, when we visited her native Lake District to celebrate her mum and dad’s 40th wedding anniversary. The whole event took place at Lady V’s sister’s huge Georgian farmhouse, where she lives with her climber husband and scores of children, which she seems to produce at the rate of one a year while simultaneously running a hugely successful business. And when I say ‘simultaneously’, I mean it literally: the last time she gave birth, she was still sending emails while contractions were less than a minute apart. She only stopped when a midwife grabbed her Blackberry out of her hands and forced her to concentrate on the pushing.

The 5 of us - Lady V, DJ S, T, the Boychild and myself - set off from London on St Stephen’s Day, after a wonderful Christmas at home. I drove the first half of the journey, following detailed instructions from Lady V (“Go North!”), who spent most of the journey passed out in the back seat next to the also-sleeping Boychild and DJ S. Three hours later we switched, and as T and I dozed off in the backseats, the girls proceeded to get completely lost and leave the motorway in favour of narrow country lanes winding down the Peak District. I have no idea what rationale they were following, but the result was that we added two hours to a journey that was already pretty long. By the time we got to the Lake District, it was dark, raining and while the Boychild was in dire need of a nappy change, we were desperate for a J.H. (A J.H. is a very stiff drink, named after Lady V’s mum, who has the wonderful habit of pouring some of the strongest G&Ts known to mankind).

A J.H. is exactly what we got served as soon as we arrived. Getting hammered seems to be the default coping mechanism of Lady V’s family when it comes together. Before I knew it, and soon after putting the Boychild to bed, we were all highly intoxicated, sitting in the living room and watching a DVD entitled “Memories”. It was a collection of Super 8 reels taken in the summer of 1976, the year Lady V’s parents moved into a dilapidated farmhouse with another couple – generally known as “the cousins” (more on them later). They were real hippies, and these were the ‘70s, a time when growing your own food was considered an act of rebellion. I don’t know who the ringleader was, but I suspect it was Lady V’s dad. He was the above-mentioned Oxford-educated mathematician-cum-farmer, but he was also the village vicar, and a theology expert with a weakness for atheism. A mathematician, a farmer and a vicar all wrapped into one rather fine specimen of young lad, lean and muscular, as the movie made clear every time he appeared shirtless and performing one of many acts of torture onto the farm’s animals. These acts ranged from castrating little lambs to pulling teeth out of newborn piglets (“they bite their mummy, you see”, commented Lady V approvingly, making me wonder whether the reason why the Boychild only has 2 teeth so far is that he had the temerity to bite her once, and is now being punished with regular teeth extractions). Sometimes, it was Lady V’s mum J.H. on the tractor, usually in a bikini, smiling and looking glamorous in the sepia-toned colours of the movie. God, I love the 70s.

Lady V’s parents had embarked on this adventure with another couple, composed by J.H.’s cousin G. and by his French wife A.M., a slender and dark-haired woman prone to attacks of religious fervour, who had converted from Catholicism to Evangelism when moving from Bretagne to the Lakes District and was clearly another powerful force to reckon with on the farm. The two couples produced 5 kids in total – 4 girls and 1 unfortunate boy. I say unfortunate because I saw the effects of what growing up with 4 dominant sisters had on this particular young man: he’s got the look of a Holocaust survivor.

Legend goes that on one occasion the 4 girls – led of course by Lady V – whipped him with stinging nettles until his skin broke and eventually tied him to the rail-track that ran behind the farm and on which a train passed at least twice daily. They left him there for hours, until he managed to free himself and crawl back to his mum, crying. The boy was 7, maybe 8. If that isn’t enough to break a man, I don’t know what is. Unbelievably, the boy – now a fully-grown man in his late twenties – didn’t turn out gay, but still likes women. He is, in fact, marrying one this summer, a half-Dutch virago with the attitude of a prison guard. I think his condition is called Stockholm Syndrome.

The video also contained a number of images of Lady V aged 2 or 3. She looked, back in the ‘70s, very much like today: small and mischievous. She was often naked running through fields, occasionally dragging a terrified-looking smaller little girl with her (one of her sisters). And most of the times she was simply the portrait of joy, bouncing like a little blond ball down haystacks and chairs.  I saw a lot of the Boychild in her, and this made me happy, although I also wondered whether he might have inherited not only Lady V’s bouncy personality, but also her penchant for torturing siblings. We stopped watching the movie and started chatting late into the night with J.H. and Lady V’s dad, as they recalled old memories of Lady V’s youth on the farm. She denied everything, growing purple at every turn of the story, until she eventually sniggered and admitted it all. It was, once again, a remarkable reminder of what an amazing family I have mixed my blood with, and how wonderfully odd they are. Compared to them, I almost feel like a bastion of bourgeois conventionalism.

The following day, we headed to Lady V’s sister’s farmhouse well ahead of the event. When I accepted the invitation, I thought I’d simply turn up at the Lakes for a couple of days, chitchat my way through the anniversary soiree, and go back to London happy and restored. In fact, the event was far from restful, since T and I were asked to cook for the 50 guests that were going to turn up that night. I have cooked for large numbers before, but 50 meals beats my respectable CV, which peaked at 30 at my friend PDF’s 40th birthday weekend. T and I assessed the potential damage, then decided to go for it. We equipped ourselves with all the baking trays with could find in London, several kilos of vegetables, mincemeat and Parmesan cheese, and proceeded to cook 7 trays of lasagne for everyone.

Just as T and I were placing the last tray into the oven, and were beginning to get the kitchen back to its original state, the first guests started to trickle in, at least 30 minutes before the official invitation time. This would be seen as heresy in London (or in any city, really), but in the Lake District it is apparently the rule. For a brief moment, as the aroma of the roasting lasagne filled the air, T and I were left alone in the kitchen surrounded by a menacing group of Cumbrian spectators, watching every one of our movements as if we were aliens with giant almond-shaped eyes and infinitely-long limbs.

I tried to break the silence with some inane chitchat, but they were having none of it. They just stared ominously at us – I could tell – with the look of people who can’t help thinking: “They are the gays!” Soon, I started wondering whether we had made a fatal mistake, and weather a bad supper would trigger a manhunt and ensuing burning at stake. We were, after all, in the middle the countryside, miles from any form of civilisation, and even if we had tried an escape from a crowd of angry Cumbrians, the cold rain and sticky mud all around us would have certainly killed us. Feeling increasingly nervous, I made my excuses and went upstairs to get changed.

Once upstairs, I found Lady V and her siblings all gathered in a room, signing a book of family portraits for the celebrating couple, which had not arrived yet. The younger brother was sitting on the bed, occasionally humiliated by one of his sisters or by his fiancée, whom I hadn’t at first recognised until she barked in my direction something about being rude, which I took as an invite to kiss her on the cheek three times, the French way. Babies had all been dispatched to bed in various rooms, and the oldest cousins were warned that if the Boychild woke up they would be held personally accountable. Clearly, torturing children was still en vogue up North. I sat on the floor, observing the scene. The 4 sisters looked radiant. All were in their prime, having given birth to a child in the last year or so, and were busy comparing notes, telling stories about their children’s achievement (or lack of), despite the fact that most of them could barely crawl, let alone talk.

After we had all signed the book, we made our way downstairs, just as Lady V’s parents walked through the door. They had dressed for the occasion in ruby-toned Edwardian costumes, J.H. in a long gown with a tight blouse and straw hat, her husband the mathematician/farmer/vicar in dark red tails. The sight was extraordinary, the crowd ecstatic, everyone kissed and hugged them with genuine affection. They hadn’t seen some of their guests in 10 over years. But I was distracted, because finally, the moment of truth had come, and the 7 lasagne were making their appearance on the large kitchen table. People looked suspiciously but gratefully (everyone had had a few drinks by now and hunger was beginning to bite) at the foreign dishes being displayed. As the Cumbrian mouths and stomachs came into contact with my Bolognese family’s centuries-old recipe, sudden eruptions of delight filled the room. Old ladies, barely able to walk, pushed their way to the kitchen table, no longer needing their niece’s help, demanding a second helping. Wives who had been dieting for months trying to lose their 5th child’s baby weight ignored their husbands’ surprised looks and gorged themselves with yet another layer of pasta. It was, in other words, a culinary triumph. They turned to Lady V with looks of approval that said: “They might not be real men, these gays, but damn, they can cook! You are a lucky woman!”. And Lady V returned their looks with grace, promising lasagna recipes all round, and ignoring my pleas that it was a family secret and I could be killed for passing it around carelessly.

As we drove back the following day, tired but happy and with a trunk full of new noisy toys for the Boychild, I thought how lucky I was to be part of this new family, and how much I looked forward to my son growing up amongst it. 

Mamma Christmas

Ah, Christmas. People told me it’d be different with a child around.

They were right.

It’s all about the children, they said.

They were wrong.

Christmas this year wasn’t about the boy-child. Sure, he was the excuse for not going home to our respective families, but while me, Papà A, DJ S and T were rolling out tortellini on the kitchen table for our Christmas Eve banquet, knocking back fine wines, and opening our stockings, he was in bed, with no idea of the carousing taking place two floors below. He kind of liked his presents, or the wrapping paper, at least, but the best thing for him was having us all with him for the whole day.

No, the big difference this year was in myself. Becoming a mother has had an extraordinary, and somewhat scary effect on me, which reached its zenith in the run up to the festivities.

I’ve never cared much about Christmas decorations, or trees, or bothered about cards, except to favoured aunts of whom I’m terribly fond, but never see. This year, all that changed.

The first weekend in December, I harangued Papà A into going out en famille to buy a tree. Luckily, he played along nicely, and despite his bad back, lugged it home to stand proudly in the corner of the dining room. Wine was mulled, and decorations, collected on our travels over the year, were hung, including – from Uncle Filippo – a Saudi Arabian teddy bear in a burqua who graced the top of the tree as a fairy.

That was just the start of it. As Papà A made a sharp, and somewhat grateful exit back to work in Milan, I settled down to business, creating complex arrangements of eucalyptus and hawthorn berries, (potentially lethal to the boy-child but awfully pretty), trawling the internet for gifts, and writing cards at the kitchen table to a soundtrack of King’s College Choir singing Christmas carols. I began to scan the covers of women’s magazines, wondering if I should be following their tips on how to create the perfect family day. Parcels dropped through the letter-box twice, three times a day, containing vital stocking fillers.

The worst came when I found myself in John Lewis, buying a Christmas table-cloth. It was a trip I took in secrecy, with only the boy-child for company. I know DJ S well enough to anticipate her snort if I confessed my desire for festive linen. Unable to choose between red and white, I bought both and smuggled them back to a corner of my wardrobe.

In short, I had become the kind of woman I’d never wanted to be. When I was a little girl I never thought I would be married. I looked down on my sisters for dreaming of white weddings and babies. From about the age of ten I wanted to live in a garret, preferably in Paris, definitely on my own, and being a lady novelist. And until last year, that’s pretty much what I did, albeit without the Paris part. I had a little flat, in north London, at the top of a tall house, and I lived there happily, on my own, writing books.

And then, and then. Somehow, over the last twelve months I seem to have gained both a husband and a wife, a baby, and a large house in a terribly nice part of town.

I have, in short, and despite my best intentions, become a matriarch.

This realisation came to me in a flash one evening recently as DJ S and I were curled up on the sofa watching our latest box set obsession, Downton Abbey. It wasn’t so much watching Lady Cora direct her staff – even I am aware that I am not running one of the stately homes of England – but more about how much work it takes to keep a household going.

In my previous life, I didn’t think much about cleaning, and didn’t care what I ate for dinner, as long as it was washed down with a glass or two of red wine and a couple of Marlboro Lights. It was just as likely to be a bowl of muesli as a proper meal requiring a knife and fork.

How things have changed. A house with 4/5/6 people living in it, including one child and two Italians, requires standards. There’s always something that needs to be cleaned, or repaired, or replaced. Having a baby means constant loads of laundry. Family dinners mean making lists, and shopping, and cooking, and cleaning up afterwards.

It’s not even as if I do it all myself – we have a cleaner, and more often or not it’s the boys who do the cooking. It’s not as if I spend my days staggering to the well and beating laundry on a stone. But oddly, and against every feminist principle I ever had, the running of the house fills my head much more than I ever thought it might.

Nobody forced me to run around London buying Christmas table-cloths. No-one is really upset if the windows aren’t sparkling clean. Except me. My perfectionist self won’t let it lie. If I’m going to be the lady of the house, then I’ll do it right. I shall care if the brass on the letter box isn’t polished, or if the leaves build up outside the basement. The boy-child will be fed home-cooked meals and I will write thank you letters to those who gave him Christmas presents.

But I also reserve the right, every once in a while, to run away to Paris and smoke Gauloise Blondes in profusion, washed down with fine red wine. 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Hell is other people

I’ve never been any good at joining in. I’m not a team player. It’s no accident that I choose to spend my days in the corner of a library, head down, ears stuffed with ear-plugs. I don’t ever get lonely - solitude is something I thrive on. Without it I get twitchy and somewhat dysfunctional.

So I wasn’t worried about being on maternity leave. I had no office, no colleagues to leave behind. I liked the idea of me and the boy-child hanging out on our own, just the two of us, doing whatever we liked, without anyone knowing what that was.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t reckoned on the compulsory sociability that descends on first time mothers, the unchallenged assumption that you need new friends in the same position as you – comrades to share the burden and discuss sleeping patterns and bowel movements over cups of coffee and slices of baby-weight maintaining cake.

It started with our NCT class before the birth. I was already starting to get twitchy as Papà A and I dutifully trundled off to a church hall to learn how to be parents. It was all my fault, of course, for insisting that we join because it was the thing to do. All my friends had done it, and made lasting friends who got them through the first crazy months of motherhood. They swore by it.

I swore too on the way back home after the first meeting.

?!?!****! I won’t do it,’ I muttered to Papà A. ‘I won’t go to any more meetings. I can’t. And all those women are thinner than me! I hate them.
You don’t have to go.’
I do! Everyone does! It’s the way it is. I hate it. I don’t want to have a baby if I have to do that.
[Silence from Papà A]

I spent the first few weeks after the birth launching my new book, and using it as an excuse for not meeting up with the other mothers. Then, feeling guilty, I bit the bullet and joined an exercise group in the park, a post-pregnancy Pilates group, a baby massage class, and singing in the library. But afterwards, while the other mothers chatted nicely and then went off to lunch, I made my excuses and left, desperate to escape. It wasn’t as if we were actually doing anything – a trip to the supermarket at the most – but it was better, in my sleep-deprived mind, than talking to other people in the same boat.

I knew I was being weird.  The other mothers were perfectly nice. We had, at least, the babies in common. They might have been my friends. And everyone else could do it. I hadn’t felt so bad for not joining in since Martha Porter’s party in 1983 when I sat in the corner and refused to sing Happy Birthday.

Even worse, the Boy Child seemed to pick up my bad attitude. Whilst all the other babies lay nicely on their backs in Pilates he would begin a commando attack, inching forward until he could swipe their toys, screeching loudly if anyone stood in his way. I had to struggle not to feel a certain pride and relief when the instructors suggested that it ‘might be time for him to graduate.’ We’d been expelled, and so could leave the class with no guilt.

But the Boy Child must be socialised. He needs an education. And thus it was that I found myself recently in a baby group – not any old baby group, but one with a philosophy, one that leads to a nursery, and up to a school.

The group takes place in the crypt of a church. I approached it somewhat sulkily, intimidated by the mothers milling about outside, chatting while rosy-cheeked children clothed in hand-knitted jumpers ran around screaming.

Everything about the place was wholesome and organic and hand-made.  I managed to secrete the Boy Child’s plastic toy under the pram as the playgroup leader (although she declared that no-one was really the leader, and we must develop our own dynamic) welcomed us in a hushed voice. Babies lay on sheepskin rugs, gurgling. Suppressing my fears about the Boy Child’s ability to be quiet, I joined the other mothers, who were sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor.

We’ll just observe them in free play,’ the leader said, ‘let them do as they wish.

As the Boy Child lurched towards a cupboard, pulling everything out and putting it in his mouth, I calmed myself with a home-made piece of banana cake and a cup of fennel tea.

The other babies rolled and gurgled and cooed. The other mothers smiled.

It’s for his education,’ I told myself. ‘You have to do this.

I held out quite well for the rest of the afternoon. I didn’t flinch when we had to join hands to make a magic circle. I sang songs to the tune of ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’, the words changed to cater to the sensibilities of small children and Islington mothers to ‘what shall we do with the lazy baby’. I even participated in ‘craft time’, where we sat and wound wool around cardboard disks to make pom-poms, something I was bad enough at when I was in the Brownies, and at which I clearly haven’t progressed since, looking at the ratty lump of wool.

When it was time for the Boy Child’s milk, I got his bottle out of my bag. As the leader looked slightly nonplussed, I realised that the other mothers had been breastfeeding on and off all the time we’d been there.

I need to warm this up,’ I said sheepishly. ‘Is that a microwave over there?

Oh no!’ she said in horror. ‘We don’t use microwaves here.

I snuck out soon after, raggedy pom-pom dangling forlornly from the Boy Child’s pram…

The female of the species is more deadly than the male

The thing about gay men, I believe, is that they are not that different from us’, I explained to three 40-something women, who were sharing a taxi ride with me during a recent work trip to Malta. As I was uttering this banality during a bigoted discussion the women had started about homosexuals, my heart was sinking. How had I come to this? How was I betraying my own people and pretending  - years after my coming out - that I was one of THEM? It’s all, of course, the Boychild’s fault.

In our world, most people understand the following equation:


and some have come to understand the following equations:




No one, however, is really ready to face the complexity of:


Everyone who knows me, of course, knows what ‘the Situation’ is. But when I come across complete strangers, and for some reason the topic of babies comes up - either because someone else mentions the fact that I am a new dad, or because they spot some compromising evidence (in the shape of the Boy Child’s picture) on my phone’s wallpaper or my laptop’s screensaver - it is impossible to stop them from assuming I am straight. The whole thing starts off quite innocently:

- Ohhhh he’s really cute! How old is he?
- 8 months old.
- You and your wife must be sooooo proud.
- Actually... we are not... er... married, we...
- Oh well... you know... I just used the word ‘married’, the way one uses this word... you know...
- Er... yes, of course... but what I meant was...
- Anyway, you must be soooo happy. First one, isn’t it? When my wife and I had our baby girl, we simply couldn’t stop looking at her, we just sat there for hours adoring this little human being, our hearts filled with joy. Make sure you make the most of these first few months, because, let me tell you...

And the train has gone. By the time - 15 minutes later - the long tirade on the joys of parenting takes a breathing pause, it’s too late for me to finish my opening statement and explain that I am gay, that Lady V is this ‘special’ friend with whom I decided to have a child, that we have our own partners, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Besides, these days the simple act of explaining ‘the Situation’ fills me with dread. Every time I talk about our special arrangement, a fragment of its magic dies. We are our own thing, our own feelings, our own relationships. It’s nothing to do with labels, sexuality, who is on the birth certificate, who isn’t, what the details of the arrangement are... Like every other human being, I have become quite protective of my family, I don’t like people snooping around it just because it’s a little different. To me, it feels natural and warm like a sunny spring day. For lack of words and for the growing reluctance to disclose to strangers my family ‘situation’, I have now taken to silently acknowledge whatever people assume. People believe I am straight when they hear I am a dad? So be it. What harm can it do? Is it really such a big deal?

Well, it wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the female of the species. Let me explain why.

I am one of those gay men known on the scene as ‘straight-acting’. That means I am not flamboyant, I do not look like an inflated rubber doll, and I do not talk in a high-pitched voice using the expression ‘OH MY GOD’ every 3 sentences. In fact, I don’t even look Italian (an appearance which people often mistake for gay). I don’t have to try hard to look straight. I simply look straight: I wear corduroys, I usually look unshaven, I like videogames and indie rock music. And for a long time, I even behaved like a straight man in the bedroom, sleeping with girls and leading a parallel secret gay life (like many ‘straight’ men do), until I accepted the fact that pussies weren’t really my thing and women were much better as friends than as dates.

Once I realised this, I had to develop a series of sophisticated but effective strategies to make sure women did not consider me potential prey, but understood despite my straight appearance that I was into men, not them. Tricks include: dropping into a conversation how much I hate football; offering spot-on fashion advice; dropping into a conversation what a complex relationship I have with my mother (*this only works outside Italy); revealing how much I love cooking (**this also only works outside Italy - now you understand why it’s so hard to tell Italian and gay men apart). In rare but desperate situations, I resort to uttering a couple of strategically-positioned ‘OH MY GODs’ and revving up my inner campness a little (every man has a little lurking underneath the surface, even the De Niros and the Brandos). These strategies have never failed to switch the ‘husband-hunting’ mode off a woman’s brain and to switch the ‘gay best friend’ mode on. They have worked seamlessly for years, and I have never found myself in awkward situations with women wanting to get more than just smiles and kind words from me.

But as soon as I started walking down the street with the Boy Child strapped to my chest, my entire sexual camouflage was shattered to bits. Suddenly, I became VERY visible to the female of the species, and started attracting the kind of looks a fat gazelle might get from a pride of very hungry lionesses in the savannah. The term ‘predatory’ is an understatement. Women spot me at a distance, notice I am with offspring, as they get closer their eyes lock me like an F14 Tomcat jet (remember Top Gun?). Since my reproductive organs are clearly functioning - the evidence is wriggling in my Baby Bjorn - I am immediately categorised as straight and potential prey. Sometimes they smile coyly as they walk past, but most of the times they don’t even bother. They just cruise me the way sailors cruise each other in the dark recesses of harbours: with a long, hard stare straight into the eyes. I never thought women could be so blunt about their sexual appetite. Sometimes I wonder whether other fathers - the straight ones - ever take advantage of this sudden reversal of roles. Then I remember that the sight of a dad with a baby and without the mother is pretty unique, and I realise why. Women know VERY WELL what lurks out there: thousands of other females ready to pounce on their husbands. As the predator-in-residence, they are not going to run any risks. One careless oversight, and they will be raising their child on their own.

Back to Malta and my work trip. The female of the species - I discovered on that occasion - has little consideration for the one who is left at home with the screaming bundle, as her ‘husband’ goes out in search for food and public contracts. In fact, this is the PERFECT opportunity for an easy hunt. After the taxi dropped us back at the hotel where we were all staying, one of the women who was with me - an attractive 40-something MILF whom I had barely met a few hours before at a workshop - declared that she needed a drink and wanted ‘a young attractive man’ to be her chaperon, as she was not in the habit of drinking in hotel bars on her own. I looked around in search for someone else she might have been talking to, but immediately realised that she had set her eyes on me.

I obliged with a half smile, hoping the other two women might join us too, but these quickly disappeared into the elevator, probably obeying some unspoken hormonal orders of the alpha female in the group. I found myself sitting on a sofa at a disturbingly close distance from the woman, sipping a G&T and using all the lines in my dissuasion repertoire. All of which failed in quick succession. A trickle of sweat suddenly appeared on my forehead. The MILF moved closer, a hand dropping nonchalantly on my knee, fingers wrapping firmly my kneecap like it were a doorknob. I started talking about my child and ‘my lovely life at home with Lady V’. She blanked me, drawing even closer and letting her hand slip up towards my crotch. I watched in horror as years of carefully-constructed protection had been destroyed by the mere existence of the Boy Child. Then, as she finally pounced and reached for my lips, I jumped away from her, yelling - a little too loud for a fairly crowded hotel bar in which we were - that I was gay!

She straightened herself with an incredulous look in her eyes:

- Gay?
- Yes. I’m sorry - I explained hastily - I should have told you from the start, but... well... it’s not easy... the situation... you see...
- I am a very desirable woman - she replied, ignoring my remarks.
- What...? Yes, of course you are... but...
- Shut up. You lead me on until here and then you come up with this preposterous excuse?  Are you not man enough to say you love your wife?
- But she’s NOT my wife! And I am gay!
- No you are not. I know a gay men when I see one. You are not. And that baby of yours is the living proof you aren’t. You are not gay, and you are certainly not a man.

And within seconds she was in the elevator, heading back to her room, and leaving me shaking in the lobby, under the bemused eyes of other hotel guests. That was my first real post-paternal encounter with the female of the species.

And it was scary.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Parental advice

I had never met gay dads before becoming one. Now, they are everywhere. I am not sure how this happened, but I am forced to confront a genre of people that, in all honesty, I detest: militants.

It all started when my friend C found out I’d become a dad. He’s one of those hugely networked and successful gay men, who knows everyone worth knowing within the London Gay Mafia. He is also a banker, which should make me hate him, but he’s too cool and fun, so when I am with him I suspend my well-founded prejudice on the banking profession and enjoy his amazing company. He called me up a few months after the Boy Child was born, and organised in quick succession two dinners with two gay couples, both of whom had fathered a child. At first I wasn’t too enthusiastic, but I accepted trusting C’s judgement and dragged my boyfriend T along for the occasion.

We met the first gay couple in a dimly-lit Turkish restaurant in Islington. They were in their mid-forties, ridiculously handsome and successful - one was a TV actor, the other one a journalist (or was he a lawyer? I cannot remember, I couldn’t get my brain to work as it was constantly distracted by his perfectly-sculpted arms). Before starters were served, the Inquisition kicked off.
- ‘So, how old is your son?’ asked the TV guy.

- ‘Three months old, give or take’ - I replied.
- ‘Ah, right, let me tell you about the first three months. They are mental!’

And before I could utter a word, he had launched into a long monologue explaining to us everything about nappy changing, sleepless nights, swaddling and whatnot. I tried to interrupt him, explaining that we had already got the hang of all these things, but he didn’t pay any attention to my remarks. So T and I just sat there and listened patiently to all the obvious suggestions they made.

- ‘Anyway’ - the journalist added – ‘you can also read a book or two about parenting.’

- ‘Actually’ - I interrupted, by now slightly exasperated, ‘not only have I read more than a book or two, but we really didn’t find these first two months so awful as you did. It might be because we are raising the Boy Child with his mother, and women tend to understand and cope with the challenges of parenting much better. We simply follow her lead.’

It was as if I had insulted the Prophet in front of a roomful of Muslims. Their eyes bulged at the suggestion that a woman would be better than a gay man at childraising.

- ‘You’re joking, surely! How could you possibly say that, as a gay man? Don’t you think gay men can be good parents too?’
- ‘That’s not what I said.’

- ‘Well that’s what you’re implying. I really don’t think a woman is necessary to raise a kid. We’re good friends with our daughter’s mother, she takes care of her most nights and most days, but we could really do this just as well ourselves.’
- ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘that explains your perfect bodies. I am sure your daughter’s mum has just as much time as you do to keep her body in perfect shape, right? ‘

- ‘Are you a homophobe as well as a bigot?’  the journalist/lawyer asked tonelessly.

I looked over to C, who was sliding quickly under the table. He was mortified at how quickly things had escalated, but this didn’t stop him from inviting us to a second gay dads’ dinner, a few weeks later. This time, it was an American couple who were visiting London for the summer. We met them at C’s private club in Soho. They were less handsome than the first ones, which helped me focus my arguments a little more than the first time, although the gym routine was clearly in full swing, judging by the oversized biceps on both of them. They showed off - in classic American style - a row of perfectly manicured white teeth when they first met me and T, although we didn’t get to see much smiling after that.

- ‘Well, helloooooo!’ said the first one, a tall, blond, pasty guy, who introduced himself as the next Mark Zuckerberg. This made me want to kill him immediately.

- ‘Hello hello!’ said the second one, a short, buffed-up Asian man, who said he was the wannabe kept man of the first one, waiting for him to make millions with his Zuckerberg plan so that he could just lie next to a Beverly Hills pool surrounded by naked Brazilian rent-boys. This made me want to kill him more than his boyfriend.

Over drinks, we started chatting about life, work and interests. The usual gay way of assessing whether you are potentially useful to someone, or should be quickly discarded as a waste of space. Their questions were mainly directed at T, whom they seemed to be far more interested in than in me, probably because he is 8 years younger and has the body of an Adonis. He tried to explain what he did as a Transatlantic PhD researcher in Global Governance issues. The two nodded with enthusiasm, but I could tell they didn’t understand a word of what he was saying. I ordered a second drink for good courage.

- ‘Soooooooo’ the blond guy turned to me, ‘I hear you guys have just become parents!’

- ‘Yes, that’s true, about 4 months ago, although it’s not entirely correct. I have become a dad, not T.’

- ‘Oh dear. What do you mean?’ - they asked with a hurt expression on their faces, turning in condolence to T – ‘you said you’ve been together for 3 years. Won’t he let you be a father too?’

- ‘It’s not that I am not letting him be a father. I am the father. There can only be one biological father, unless you are a duck, whose females, as you know, get gang-raped by several males, who inseminate their eggs collectively. But with humans it’s different. There is one father, and one mother. I am the father, Lady V the mother. We are the parents. Full stop.’
- ‘OH. MY. FUCKING. GOD’ they cried in unison, ‘you’re, like, one of those Christian fundamentalist preachers!’

Remembering how the last dinner had gone, and seeing C’s and T’s faces drop, I decided to take a deep breath and to be courteous. I really didn’t want another sour evening on my conscience.

- ‘Look, I’m sorry, this really didn’t come out properly. What I meant to say is that, although T and I have been indeed together for 3 years, the plan to conceive the Boy Child was developed well before his arrival, between me and Lady V, whom I live with. It’s a different arrangement altogether. We both wanted the child to have a dad and a mum. That’s all. Of course T and DJ S are more than welcome to play a role into the Boy Child’s life, but they are our partners, not the parents. Simple as that.’

- ‘Well, that sounds awfully bigoted,’ replied the Zuckerberg guy, rolling his eyes - looks like you are desperately trying to build a really nice bourgeois family mock-up. You are not really helping the cause.’

- ‘Cause? What cause?’ I asked, confused. 

- ‘The gay parenting cause! What else?!’ replied the Asian queen.

- ‘Well, I think everyone should have the right to have children and raise them in a family, whether they are gay, straight or bisexual. This is our way. I don’t really feel like a Crusader, nor do I feel like I am trying to conform to a bourgeois standard, although I appreciate the work done by those who have fought for gay rights in this country and continue to do so.’ (I was really being as diplomatic as I could).

- ‘You should be grateful. Because people like you would not be able to have a child otherwise,’ said the Zuckerberg guy, turning to T and winking. 

- ‘Well, darling,’ I replied, as my bile started boiling again, ‘maybe you should go back to a biology class. We are A MAN and A WOMAN having A CHILD. That’s how children are born, through a VAGINA. Or did your son come out of your boyfriend’s ass?’
- ‘How crude!’ the Asian commented half-heartedly, as if the thought of a baby emerging from his anus might not, after all, be that unpleasant.

- ‘We paid a lot of money to a surrogate mother,’ replied the Zuckerberg guy, ‘who carried our boy until he was born. We were in the delivery room and took the baby as soon as he was out of her. She didn’t even get to hold it once!’ he added, with pride.
‘Yeah, but she did hold the money for a long time as she was counting it!’ added the boyfriend, with a pained look on his face, as he clearly thought that money could have paid for a lot of coke and sex parties.

I was pondering what tool to use to behead them, when they dropped the final cherry on the cake.

- ‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘I really don’t understand what all this fuss about women is about. In our experience, they’re not that great at raising children. We did a much better job.’

- ‘Yes,’ added Zuckerberg guy, ‘like, our “friend” Jess’ (he really did use the quotation marks, brushing the air with his fingers) ‘had this baby girl, right, and we went over to her house, she was about the same age as our boy. Like 2 months or something. Anyway, every time she cried, Jess went up to her and picked her up, and we were like ‘Jess, you’re like totally doing this wrong’. We explained to her that when our boy cried, all we would do was to put him in his pram facing the wall in another room, and sure enough after a while he would stop. Problem solved!’

- ‘Yeah, women are, like, totally hormonal about these things, they fuck it up sooooo much!’

T’s jaw dropped. Mine was already on the floor, and couldn’t drop any lower. All I could mutter was:

- ‘Jesus Christ! I am beginning to see why so many people in the US are opposed to gay dads parenting.’

At which point, they both looked at me with horror, turned to C and - informing him that his standards in terms of acquaintances had clearly dropped and that they would see him in the future only on condition of him not dragging bigoted assholes with him - left the club in a huff. Without paying for the dinner, which they had in the meantime consumed.

C was terribly apologetic, and I tried to reassure him that no, it wasn’t his fault, it was an easy mistake to make, etc etc. But in fact, it was entirely his fault. He had mistakenly assumed that all gay dads would probably bond like soldiers in a trench. But the truth is, not all soldiers in trenches bond, because some of them are nice guys, others are cunts and will shoot you in the back to save their bacon. The former avoid the latter, and with good reason.

Crying it out

I write this sitting at the kitchen table in the dead of night, the Boy Child asleep upstairs. I am wearing - for the first time in a year and a half - an underwired bra. 

I am not telling you this for salacious reasons, like one of those bored housewives who tells eager callers about her lingerie for cash as she does the ironing. There is, in fact, a link.

The major design flaw in our adorable Boy Child is that he isn’t a fan of going to sleep. Granted, when he was tiny, he would snooze in the corner of the kitchen in his pram.

‘If he carries on like this,’ I told Papà A fondly, ‘I’ll be able to get loads of writing done. You hardly notice he’s there.’

How wrong I was. As he grew bigger, the Boy Child’s naps grew shorter – both during the day and at night. When he was born he’d happily sleep for five hours at a stretch, but by the time he was three months he was waking every two, demanding succour from the Lady V bosom and not giving up until he got it. Bleary-eyed, I would stagger from my bed, pick up the writhing little scrap, get back into bed, lean back and doze off while he slurped and snuffled at my nipple, until, satiated, he would give a sharp flick of his head (gums still attached to tender flesh) to let me know he was finished. I’d put him back in his cot hoping for the best but knowing that in a couple of hours he’d be back for more.

My days were spent on auto-pilot, waiting for when it was time to go back to bed. I pushed his pram around the streets feeling I was wading through mud. My front door keys were left in the lock for passers-by to break in. I filed yoghurt away in the cutlery drawer. I had conversations that I couldn’t remember 5 minutes later. It was like being very drunk but without the fun.

Try as I might, I couldn’t work out what was wrong. At two months we began a bedtime routine, as suggested by all the books and about the only thing they all agree is absolutely vital for a good night’s sleep. Wind-down, story, bath and bed in his own cot away from everyone else. The Boy Child resisted, screaming that he wanted to rejoin the party. 

I talked to other mothers, who smilingly told me about their babies sleeping through the night. The Boy Child’s lack of sleep became a topic of discussion all over Islington, in playgroups, Pilates classes and prams in the park.

Over the summer, in Italy, things got worse. Whipped into a frenzy of excitement by the various goings-on described in my previous post, the Boy Child decided that he didn’t want to miss any of it, and began to wake every hour. One night we even drugged him with Calpol. Instead of dropping off into sweet slumber like all the other babies I know of, he went into a strange, giggly state, stoned, yet alert, and still he did not sleep.

By the time we returned to London I was on my knees. After a particularly embarrassing breakdown at a house party in Somerset, by which time I had begun to hear noises instead of conversation and see dizzying, hallucinatory flashes of colour instead of people, we made the decision: to try controlled crying.

Now, people say all kinds of things about controlled crying. For some, it’s akin to child abuse. For others, it’s the first step on the road to showing your child who’s boss. I didn’t have a position on it. I just knew that I needed to sleep, and that if the Boy Child slept then so would I.  It would also – and here’s the link to the bra – mean that I’d be able to stop breastfeeding, which was vital for me being able to get back to the library and write the masterpiece that would keep us all in Chianti for years to come. As long as the Boy Child kept waking through the night, I would have to keep feeding him, because the thought of going downstairs to warm up bottles was even worse. So the two would happen together. We had just a week to get it right before Papà A went off to Southern Europe in his own frenzy of consultancy hunter-gathering to keep the family fed and watered.

The technique is thus: when the baby cries, you go to it and settle it but don’t pick it up. After a minute in the room you leave, and wait for five more minutes before going in, then a minute inside, then wait for ten. Repeat until the baby has sobbed itself to sleep.

The only strategy, it seemed, was to divide and rule. Everyone I spoke to told me that controlled crying is horrible for the mother, who has to be prevented by the father from going to the child. We decided to swap rooms for the duration - Papà A and Shu Shu T sleeping in my room next to the Boy Child; me and DJ S (delighted at the thought of a week’s proper sleep) scuttling downstairs to the basement out of earshot.

The first evening Papà A and I settled down in front of a movie and waited. When the first small whimpers came, I felt a chill run through my body.

‘This WILL work. I’m going to break him,’ said Papà A, with a certain amount of satisfaction.

I gave a small whimper of my own and tried to turn my attention to the screen. As the screams grew louder, Papà A took the baby monitor and turned off the sound, so all I could see was the red flash of the light, which means full on screams. A flood of maternal instinct began to wash over me.

‘I’ll go.’

‘No, I’ll go.’

‘No, really.’ I set off up the stairs before he could stop me.

I opened the nursery door to see a small, frenzied child beating his head against the bars of his cot, screaming loud enough to break the sound barrier. As I walked towards him he raised his arms towards me to be lifted up. ‘Shh,’ I said, ineffectually, and stroked his forehead. There was a moment of silence, probably from shock, then he started again, louder than before. It’s hard to count to a minute when a baby’s screaming like that, but those are the rules. As I stood up and walked out of the door, my breasts began to leak as if they were crying in sympathy.

I came downstairs shaking.

‘Do you think, maybe, we could…?’

‘No! I knew you would crack if you went up there.’

Papà A and I have never had a row before, however there followed a few minutes that I shall not describe, since I suspect they would make neither of us look very good. Suffice to say that words were spoken through gritted teeth and I soon made my excuses and retired to bed.

The next morning when I went into the Boy Child’s room to start the day there were none of his usual smiles: he turned his head away. As the day went on, and he continued to ignore me, I began to panic. I started to imagine the therapist’s couch in years to come, the Boy Child now a suicidal adult, muttering that ‘of course, my mother never really loved me, she used to leave me to cry myself to sleep EVERY NIGHT.’

There were tears before bedtime that day, and not just from the Boy Child.

Most babies are, to use Papà A’s phrase, ‘broken’ after a couple of nights of this. Perhaps it is a tribute to the Boy Child’s staying power that it took him a week. Slowly, but surely, he began to get the message, and Papà A would come downstairs looking marginally better rested, and utter the longed-for words ‘he only woke up once.’

And finally, joyfully, the Boy Child started sleeping through the night. I have stopped dreading going to bed. I can walk up the stairs without feeling like I’m going to pass out. I have participated in a conversation where someone used the term ‘ideology’ more than once and I understood what was going on. In short, I am a new woman.

Even better, from DJ S’s point of view, is the change in underwear. One of the worst parts of pregnancy and childbirth, according to her, was the vile and enormous lingerie that it required. Underwires not being recommended as they can damage milk ducts, and flip down cups necessary for feeding, I have been forced to contain the Lady V bosom in bras that can only be described as serviceable. Still, installed in the front window of our kitchen, I would unhook said serviceable items and expose myself to passers by like a whore in Amsterdam’s red light district. I found breastfeeding an odd experience, involving bodily exposure in the most unlikely of places, from the middle of an Ikea showroom to an audience of giggling schoolchildren at a literary festival in the French Alps. Some women find it the zenith of feminine nurture. For me it was a bit uncomfortable, slightly embarrassing and somewhat damp.

But now, thank god, it’s over. And so, to celebrate my newfound freedom to sleep, and the return of my body to other pursuits, I shall be taking a trip to Rigby and Peller, purveyor of lingerie to the Queen. I shall be reporting back, forthwith.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Fa latte

Summertime. And as the watery British sun filtered through the clouds, our little family cut its losses and did what was only right and proper: fled the country, weighed down by a plethora of bottles, sterilisers, eco-nappies for the Boy Child’s sensitive little bum, squeaky toys and improving books. Plus assorted robes, headdresses and jewels from the National Theatre’s costume department for our annual costume party at our house in Tuscany. (NB: I am aware that this makes us sound like New Labour politicians - or at the very least, somewhat smug. Although we live in Islington we could never be accused of being champagne socialists. We drink only prosecco, imported directly from the motherland).

I am not going to recount the journey – which happened to be the Boy Child’s first trip on a plane. Having eschewed budget airlines for British Airways it was a slightly better experience than expected, but still painful. Enough said.  Thus followed a short visit to the ancestral home and to Granny, who had spent weeks agonising about bedroom allocation so as not to alert the maid to The Situation, almost resorting to forcing myself and Papà A to share a room until he pointed out that she had in fact never shared a room with her own husband and that it was quite proper for a family of aristocratic standing to – in matters of repose at least – divide and rule. The Boy Child behaved impeccably, taking one for the team as he dipped and bobbed in the pool, which she had had cleaned especially, almost without a murmur.

Duty completed, we drove off down the peninsula to our little Tuscan hideaway. This may conjure up images of rolling hills dotted with cypresses and the odd medieval hilltop town. Wrong. Where we are is cowboy country, swampy marshland once drained by Mussolini and now covered in dense woodland, which houses a menagerie of wild boar, wolves and venomous snakes. Maremma is the Gordon Brown to Chianti’s Tony Blair – darker, brooding, and not remotely concerned with keeping up appearances. The valley in which the house is situated is known - by us at least - as Mordor, due to its tendency towards howling gales and storms whilst the rest of Tuscany basks in golden sunlight.

However, as we inched up the almost vertical hill that leads to the house, pushing our hire car to its limits, I breathed a sigh of relief at being back. This place has many happy memories for us, one being our decision to take the leap of faith into the strange and wonderful world of parenthood. I wondered to myself how the presence of the Boy Child might affect the holiday.

As the house filled up with the usual assortment of misfits, drunks and homosexuals (ie our friends), I began to realise that the answer to my question was at once not much and entirely. On the surface of things little had changed: prosecco was still opened at 11am, a medley of cheesy pop and 70s Afrobeat boomed from the speakers, and dinners stretched on late into the night. But the Boy Child was there, and making his mark. I began to realise that being on holiday with children is not being on holiday. It’s like every other day but without the reassuring routine of home. It means entertaining them without the usual means at your disposal. Children don’t know that lie-ins are the main point of being on holiday. Before the arrival of the Boy Child the only time I experienced morning was if I hadn’t been to bed the night before. Now I was up at 7 every day.

However, luckily, I wasn’t the only mother in the house, which gave me the long awaited opportunity to observe at close quarters an entity of mythical status: the Italian Mamma, revered, reviled, respected and feared by the males in our house in equal proportions. I was eager to find out why.

My sample was:

C: ever-smiling primary teacher from Bologna. Mother to 4 year old twin boys, married to the equally smiley F, who copes with the never-ending energy of their sons by making frequent dips into an jam-jar containing some of the strongest weed ever known to man. Makes excellent ragù.

Parenting style: firm but fair, videos of Toy Story on repeat, food offered at regular intervals, small glasses of red wine imbibed at regular intervals, JM cigarette constantly to hand.

M-C: throatily glamorous divorcee from Sicily. Mother to the 4 year old R, a golden-locked ridiculously beautiful boy, given to fighting with above-mentioned twins and wearing his mother’s jewellery. Makes excellent gin-and-tonics.

Parenting style: damage limitation of son’s violent streak, finger painting to Botticelli standards, food offered at regular intervals, large glasses of white wine imbibed at regular intervals, Marlboro Light constantly to hand.

S: a force of nature, known to dive for octopi clad in nothing but bikini bottoms and a knife between her teeth, ripping them from the rocks with only her bare hands. Mother to the 3 year old F, a light breeze to her mother’s tornado, and the smiliest, roundest little cherub you ever clapped eyes upon, and who will of course be leading the Boy Child up the sentiero di giardino as soon as he’s old enough to follow her. Partnered to The Silver Fox, a genial Sicilian of middle years, of Falstaffian proportions and appetite.  Likes to offer traditional Sicilian remedies for all childhood ailments, which usually begin with the phrase ‘first grind together with salt and garlic the carcasses of 25 slugs.’ Makes excellent everything.

Parenting style: has only to raise an eyebrow to get her point across, screenings of the execrable 70s cartoon Heidi when F will not go to bed, cordon bleu standard food offered at regular intervals, entire bottles of prosecco imbibed without interval, Camel Light constantly to hand.

A sudden gust of fresh air blew away the army of Islington yummy mummies that I’d spent the last 6 months with.  Gone was any pretence at remaining organic; the thought of post-pregnancy Pilates banished. These were women who said that their obstetricians insisted that they didn’t give up smoking whilst pregnant because of the shock it would give their unborn child. Bottles of lunchtime beer were explained away by the handy phrase ‘fa latte’ – or ‘makes milk.’

My downfall was swift.  One night, after an excellent dinner, having given the Boy Child to his father for the night, I sat at the kitchen table with S & M-C. A few bottles in, I gave way to a year and a half’s worth of cravings and demanded cigarettes.

That first inhalation was divine – and all the better for being the epitome of mummy badness.  S and M-C welcomed me into the bosom of bad maternal behaviour and we toasted to the agony of childbirth, telling ourselves we deserved a little bit of fun.

Before I knew it, it was 7 am and I woke, naked and sweating alcohol into one of the bunk beds that we had had made for future use by the children. Cursing lightly, I fumbled for my expressing machine so that I could express the boozy milk, a practice somewhat vulgarly known as pump and dump. Papà A and I had agreed on this strategy the night before – all was well. Apart from the loss of a valve absolutely necessary for the functioning of said pump.

Which is how Papà A found me crouched over the bathroom sink trying to milk my ample bosom, by now bursting with vile and poisoned liquid, weeping lightly at my bad behaviour. Giving a light tut, he sent me to bed and took the Boy Child off for some formula.

I woke, several hours later, to a raging headache and the dulcet tones of C, who not only reassured me that I had done NOTHING wrong and that frankly, ANY mother would feel the same way, but that she had nipped down to the village and hired a breast pump which we could keep for as long as we liked. Bursting into tears of gratitude, I immediately attached it to my enormous tits, and sank into a state of blessed relief.

We found the rogue valve two hours later under the barbecue.

I am still working on the retrieval of my lost dignity.

Après moi, le déluge

[credit: polaris37 @ Flickr]
It has been 6 months since the Boy Child has arrived. Wow. I can hardly believe it. Just a few months ago he was an immobile lump of flesh and bones, occasionally yelling until something (usually Lady V’s breast) filled his mouth. But now, how things have changed! He smiles, giggles, tastes mashed-up food, spits it, smacks his tiny little fists on the ground, slaps me and Shu Shu T when we take him into bed early in the morning - having broken his mum after being up most of the night - happy as a pea in the pod at being allowed to play with his dad and non-Chinese American uncle. Our life is changing, slowly but surely, in ways that we could never imagine.

When people tell you “kids change your life”, they are right. Except, you have no way of understanding the phrase until you become a parent. When you do, you realise how real it is, how the certainties that have dominated your life quickly crumble with a single cry in the middle of the night. How the secure routine of daily activities, governed by a certitude stemming from years of independent adult living, sizzle and burn when faced with the constant demands of a newborn baby. The Boy Child knows no time, no space, no concern for other people's needs. He knows no mercy when you crawl at 3 am to his cot, begging him to go the fuck to sleep. He is like the Biblical Jewish God: capricious, irascible, vindictive, all-powerful. And we are the little humans God likes to play with, to plague with unimaginable tortures, to batter until we are broken, and occasionally to reward with a beaming, glorious smile. But what I really understood about the phrase “kids change your life” when I became a dad was not only that they dislodge you from your previous life’s pace and securities; they also change you as a person. More specifically: they turn you into a horrid human being.

Before the Boy Child arrived, Lady V and I were two very nice people, loved and trusted by our community of friends and by the world at large. We were kind to strangers, holding doors open for people entering a store behind us, giving up our seats on buses to anyone who looked a little older/fatter/more tired than us. Our strong social and environmental principles meant we would only consider working for non-profit organisations, accepting minimal or no-payment for hours of back-breaking servitude. We considered the idea of working for a large corporation and of earning shitloads of money absolutely shameful. We felt sorry about other people’s misfortunes, especially overseas, and donated to NGO appeals every 6 months or so. We often thought about volunteering in our communities, without actually doing anything about it. We were basically quintessential white middle-class Islingtonians. But once the Boy Child had installed himself into our lives and house, these feelings of goodness, generosity and love started slowly disappearing from inside our hearts. After 6 months, I can safely say they are completely dead and will never resurface into our hearts again. In their place, there are now feelings of contempt, greed, rage and schadenfreude towards everyone that surrounds us.

For example, when I first realised people got out of the way when they saw a man carrying a baby (they really do, out of what I think is a mixture of respect and fear), I started using the Boy Child - strapped to my chest - as a tool to get from A to B in less time. I now make it a point to snarl at people who are in my way when I am carrying him, especially those who stand on the left on escalators: “I am a father” - I tell myself  - “I don’t have time to waste. These idiots should know better”, and I push past them violently, telling them to return to the bloody provinces if they are unable to adjust to London’s rules. When before, in an act of exaggerated but well-meant courtesy, I’d wait until everyone got onto a bus before boarding it, now I push to the front to get on first, regardless of whether I am with the Boy Child or not, secure in the conviction that - as a father - I need that last seat far more than that whiney old hag. And work-wise, as my bank account hovers dangerously into the red zone after yet another nappy purchase, I have re-written my CV to make it appealing to Exxon Mobil. If during the interview they want me to club a baby seal to death to prove that I am worthy of their trust and their large paycheque, I’ll do it. No problem at all. Just give me the axe.

At first, I thought it was just me, and I felt a bit ashamed at how horrid I had become, so I decided to share my feelings with Lady V:

- Darling, I think I am turning into a cunt. I stopped caring about ordinary people out there and have become a total selfish bastard. I really only care about you, the Boy Child, our partners and our closest friends. I want to earn lots of money and I really don’t care if climate change drowns half the world population. I just want to make sure we survive and have enough cash to buy a house with really high stilts. Fuck everyone else. Should I be concerned at the fact that I am becoming a horrible person?
- Oh not at all - she replied with a loud sigh of relief, - in fact, I am really glad you shared this with me.
- Why is that? - I enquired.
- Well, I feel exactly the same way and I thought I was the only one turning into a bad person, but now that you told me it’s happening to you too, I am actually relieved!
- You feel the same way? Really? That’s great!!

How silly of me to believe her. As a matter of fact, Lady V had taken this plunge into the dark corners of the human heart far more seriously than I could ever (of course) do. While I confined myself to being a bit more bullish and assertive in public spaces, and definitely more preoccupied with money, she had turned into someone who actually rejoiced at other people’s misfortunes. On one occasion, for example, she set off on one of her weekly running dates with other new mums, who stick their babies in a pram and use it as an exercise tool as they jog around a park, terrifying anyone who stands in their way. When she came home, she had a massive grin on her face:

- Hey darling, looks like Pushy-Mummies was fun today, uh?
- Oh yes it was! - she replied beaming.
- Did you get lots of exercise done then?
- Yes, but that’s not the reason why I am happy. It’s that horrid M., the mother of baby-boy C. She’s always gloating about how her fat, ugly child has been sleeping thorough the night since he was born. And she’s pretty and thin as a broomstick.
- And? - I asked, frightened.
- Well, for the last 10 days, fat little C has stopped sleeping! Apparently he only passes out for 20 minutes at the time, and then scream for 2 hours. She’s a wreck, bags under her eyes, tearful and shaky. You should have seen her! Ah ah ah! The stress even gave her acne all over her face. Brilliant!
- Er... yes... brilliant...!
- Indeed. It made my day!

And with these words she tottered off downstairs with the Boy Child looking puzzled into her arms. I was left speechless, and wondering whether she might, at some point, turn into a mass-murderer. Because, let’s face it, when they set their mind to it, women are far better than men in pretty much any field. If Lady V has decided to become evil, God save us all. Britain won’t have seen the like of it since Maggie beat the shit out of the miners in the 80s.

Friday, 1 July 2011

It’s Grim up North

The Boy Child is half Italian and half British. This makes him a cultural mongrel, and a soon-to-be bullied schoolboy. But before other, more culturally-homogeneous children make his life hell, Lady V and I have decided to embrace this beautiful duality and make sure he spends as much time as possible in his ancestral lands - Italy and the Lake District - and hopefully pick up the deceiving traits of the inhabitants of the former and the bullish traits of those of the latter. This way, he’ll be better equipped to fend off the little pricks who will want to make his life hell. But our objective is not just educational: spending time with his grandparents means he’ll become familiar with them, thus enabling us to dump him onto them as much as possible when we want to go on fun, ‘adult’ escapes. Nothing pornographic, mind you. We would simply like to rediscover the ability to enjoy a dinner (at home or in a restaurant) without having to get up every 3 minutes to go calm down the screaming Boy Child who is meant to be asleep in a different room but has instead chosen to test whether he can be heard from people living in Brixton. It has only been 3 months since the Boy Child has arrived, yet I have had countless disgusting meals because I have been unable to eat them while they were still warm. This is when the Italian in me says: enough is enough. There is only one thing more sacred than a child in Italy, and that is food. Hence, my desire for the Boy Child to spend time with his grandparents, especially his maternal ones who are easier to reach, has increased tenfold in the last 3 weeks.

The opportunity to introduce the Boy Child to his Northern kindred came when Lady V’s sister, Aunty S, decided to christen her third daughter J. In many ways Aunty S is very similar to Lady V, while in others she appears to come from a different planet altogether. They share a strong physical resemblance - both have fair skin, blue-grey eyes and a below-average height - and some character similarities: open-mindedness, trustworthiness, kindness, mischief, tolerance. But while Lady V hated growing up in the Lake District and dreamed of escaping to the buzz of London and to her seedy spiritual home of Paris, something she did as soon as she was 18, Aunty S always wanted to become a mother and raise her children in the muddy fields of the Lake District. It comes as no surprise, then, that her 3 children - which she had in quick succession with her climber-husband (a lean, bespectacled figure who seems content with life insofar as he can regularly wear tight lycra shorts and haul himself up to the top of rocky mountains) - are all covered in a thick layer of mud. The Boy Child’s three little cousins - aged 5, 3 and 2 - are ashen blond, blue-eyed and have the terrifying look of kids who are being raised in the countryside and who are used to entertaining themselves by dismembering small mammals. No doubt, at some point, they will try to dismember the Boy Child too.

We left London by car on a Friday afternoon just in time to hit the interlinked rush-hours of London, Birmingham and Liverpool, which formed a long snake of immobile cars across the entire width of Britain. I was driving, while Lady V sat in the back, shoving her breasts into the Boy Child’s mouth every time he expressed dismay at the state of the country’s traffic. T. was still hiking across the Americas with his brother, but DJ S came with us, using this opportunity to lure us into Blackpool for the night - her birthplace and the mythical stomping ground of her mother’s family. I had never been to Blackpool, and I was somewhat unprepared for it. I had always thought of it as a grim northern town where people from less fortunate backgrounds who could not afford going on holiday to - say - Tuscany, spent their annual leave in pursuit of cheap thrills. As it turns out, I had overestimated Blackpool’s grimness and underestimated its thrills.

After a night spent in a lavish (and, for London’s standards, extraordinarily-cheap) hotel on the ‘sea-front’ - I never really got to see the sea, only miles of wet sand stretching into the horizon, so I am not sure Blackpool is actually built by the sea - DJ S took us to the Pleasure Beach, an amusement park that spreads over the middle of the town. It is an extraordinary sight - as if an alien spaceship had landed onto Blackpool, and had become its living heart, with pulses of blinking lights and arteries of interwoven roller-coaster tracks. It was early on Saturday morning when we got in, so the place was relatively deserted, except for a few young teenagers and eager hen and stag-night groups, who surely by the end of the day would be finding themselves drunkenly in bed with each other. DJ S and I headed for the most scary-looking rides, while Lady V sat herself into a champagne bar with the Boy Child. For her, the idea of diving 400 ft into empty space is equivalent to going to the dentist to have all your teeth pulled out. The roller-coasters did not disappoint. Indeed, they were better than I could ever hope for: shockingly well-designed and exquisitely thrilling. By lunchtime, having pumped litres of adrenaline into my bloodstream, I was primed for the northern relatives.

I had visited the Lakes before, always with Lady V, and had met her parents several times, whom I was introduced to first as a friend, then as a ‘very good friend’, and eventually as the man who was going to become the father of their second grandson. While Lady V’s mum and dad had immediately welcomed me as a long-lost son, the rest of the family, made up of a complex array of aunts, uncles, first- and second-tier cousins, had been decidedly less enthusiastic. Until the arrival of the Boy Child, no matter how polite they had all been to me, I had remained an outsider, especially in the eyes of the clan’s men. When I had turned up at family gatherings in the past, they had looked at me with mild curiosity, wondering why this dark-haired, clearly-foreign and sexually-deviant man was amongst them. Their quintessentially-English reserve had only turned into open hostility once, when one of the younger cousins, under the influence of several shots of whisky, had tried to strangle me, drunkenly accusing me of ‘disrespecting’ Lady V. How very bizarre. This time, things were going to be different. I had fathered one of their own kind, and even more importantly, I had fathered a boy. I expected more than just polite hospitality. I expected to be socially embraced and celebrated by the entire community, and to take my rightful place in the Valhalla of Northern Fathers. The opportunity was symbolically optimal: Lady V’s entire clan was coming together that very Sunday at Aunty S’s farmhouse for J’s christening.

I wore my best Prada suit and Ferragamo shoes, not because I wanted teach a fashion lesson to the northern relatives, but because I knew that would get me out of any of the compulsory outdoor activities that seem to characterise each family gathering. The idea of tossing leeks or running a one-legged race across a muddy field might have been appealing when I was 12 (in fact, it wasn’t: I have always hated competitive outdoor sports). At 35, it felt at odds with Western civilisation. People of all ages or physical conditions where forced to partake in these ‘fun’ activities, no matter how good their reason not to. On one occasion, I had seen an eight and a half-month pregnant woman being dragged - literally - by her father into a field to toss leeks, despite her pleas to be allowed to remain seated and resting. The sick, the elderly, the disabled: all were caught up in this frenzy of mud-saturated excitement. The only way to escape it, it seemed, was to be inappropriately dressed for it. Northern men seem to go to formal events with an extra set of informal clothes, and are all-too-keen to toss their jackets and ties and slip into trainers and hoodies if the word ‘games’ is uttered by someone. For this reason, I always make sure I have no change of clothes and that my attire looks fit for a royal wedding. I am thus guaranteed to be left alone.

Before lunch at Aunty S’s farmhouse, we had to endure a never-ending service in a small church up a nearby fell (the local name for an oversized hill). I am a firm atheist, and although raised a good Catholic boy I stopped going to Church for god-bothering purposes when I was 18. On the rare social occasions when I have to make an appearance, I am always surprised at what little attention people pay to the sermon, for if they did they surely should realise what a load of crap they are being told. On this occasion, the local vicar, a pink-coloured man in his early forties, had launched in a very ill-constructed argument about why free will was a bad thing for good Christians: better to trust the writings of the Bible and do what the Church tells them to do, rather than go around questioning things and thinking for themselves. I looked around expecting people to kick him out of the Church - surely free will is one of the very theological foundations of Christianity, the idea being that you will be rewarded with Heaven if you choose to renounce evil and embrace goodness, not because someone else tells you to do so. But most of those around me were too busy trying to keep their children silent to listen to the vicar’s drivel.

I had forgotten how many children populate the Lake District. Thousands. It’s like being in a developing country, where people have no television (and no sustained source of income) so the only thing left to do is make babies and then find a wealth-generating use for them - in factories, in fisheries, in fields, on the street. There were tens of them in the little church the clan had suddenly invaded, ranging from the Boy Child’s 10 weeks to a distant cousin’s 7 year-old son. Covered in various shades of mud stains - the lighter ones older, the darker ones acquired more recently - they ran up and down the aisle, pulled at the vicar’s robes, dove into the baptismal font, crawled under benches and onto the altar, pulled each other’s hair out, yelled, cried and laughed. It was like a rat infestation. Had Jesus ever spent any real time with kids, or produced any of his own, I very much doubt he would have uttered the famous lines “let the children come to me”. Rather, he would have said “make sure they stay as far as possible until they know the meaning of the words ‘ejaculation’ and ‘drug-addiction'. Only then does it make sense to start talking to them”.

Two of Lady V’s cousins had just produced offspring of their own, so, once at Aunty S’s farmhouse, there was a lot of comparing and contrasting. Lady V was thrilled to find out the Boy Child was by far the cutest of all the present babies (thanks to the aforementioned genetic mix), and I could read the ripples of satisfaction in her mouth-lines as she grinned every few seconds for yet another photograph. Like in all other matters of life, birth too seems to be about winning the race, not taking part in it. In the meantime, I was surrounded by the clan’s men, who all had kids of their own, despite at times being 10 years younger than me, and who congratulated me with firm handshakes like an old friend. They treated me like the straightest of man, even making some little jokes, of the kind that straight men tell each other when women are not there. This led me to wonder whether they had forgotten I was gay, and assumed I had shagged Lady V to produce the Boy Child. I decided to avoid any conversation on how the conception was achieved, and took with a manly grin the slaps that kept descending onto my back, and that - as the alcohol intake increased - were suddenly turning into hugs and even gropes. I was beginning to find it really hard to hide the pleasure I was deriving from all this manly bonding, especially since all of the guys were climbers, and I was being given a free ride at feeling up their muscular arms and thighs.

Then, catastrophe struck. Despite my attire, they asked me to play football with them. In hindsight, I guess this was supposed to be the ultimate male-bonding moment, but to me football is what roller-coasters are to Lady V and holy water to the devil. My first reaction is to recoil in horror, and the second one is to launch into a 10-minute long tirade about why it’s an overrated sport, why it’s socially dangerous, why the values it promotes are bad for our kids, and on and on and on. If I am drunk (like I was then), the tirade can go on until there are people willing to listed to me. At first the blokes laughed, thinking I was joking when I suggested we play volleyball instead, but as my rant continued and I started waving my right-hand index into the air - usually a sign I should be dragged out of the room - their mouths started dropping and their hands moving away from my shoulders and thighs. In just a few seconds, I had gone from total social acceptance to complete ghettoisation. They waved their hands, shrugged and moved away, leaving me standing in the middle of the room.

DJ S approached me.

Nice one”, she said patting me on the back, “you’ve outdone yourself”.
Well”, I replied “at least I don’t have to worry about my hardon showing when we shower together after the match”.