This is part of a series of blog posts under the title Fatherhood Diaries.
“It’s the first time that I truly feel like I need a break,” I told colleagues at work on the last day before my summer holidays. “This is what you always say,” was their reply before they wished me a good break. The plan was to take a week and a half off in order to spend some time with the baby whose nursery was closed for the whole month of August. We planned to spend three days in Sunshine’s village up in the mountains and three days in Protaras, which is a coastal, touristy place in the south-eastern part of the island, famous for its blue-flagged, crystal clear waters.
Although this sounds like a holiday, and despite our best efforts to make it feel like one, the primary objective was to take care of the baby whilst the nursery was closed. Had it been an option, we would have taken our annual leave at a different time and not in the middle of August, which is the most busy holiday period of the year as companies shut down for their summer break and employees take mandatory time off and storm en masse to the beaches around the island.
Off we went to the mountains where we stayed at the house of Sunshine’s grandma, who is no longer living there. The village, Omodos, is lovely. It’s full of recently restored traditional houses adjacent to cobble-paved narrow paths that take you around the village. It feels like walking in the 17th century but with little stores for the thousands of religious tourists that visit the UNESCO protected church located at the centre of the village square.
When we arrived, we thoroughly cleaned the fenced garden and left the baby to wander around. He absolutely loved it. He was crawling in gardma’s yard, playing with the flowers in what is not far off a secret Edem’s garden, covered by a vine and surrounded by the smell of flowers and herbs. The baby was enjoying the cooler temperature, away from the fourty-plus degrees of Nicosia’s hell of a summer weather. We had a good time as well, bar all the loading and unloading of the car; we had to carry with us not only the many things that inevitably come with the baby, but also food and any other items needed since the village does not have a groceries store.
After the three days in the village we returned to Nicosia with renewed confidence that our forthcoming holiday by the coast would be just fine, possibly even enjoyable; but little did we know. The plan was simple and the risks clear: three days by the coast with as minimal disruption to the baby’s routine as possible. His routine comprises of fixed hours for all of his meals and snacks, and a choreographed, well-rehearsed and perfectly executed procedure for his bath and sleep. Obviously the biggest challenge we foresaw was the possible disruption to his bedtime routine. Whereas in Nicosia, our hometown, we either dine in or have someone babysit until we return, neither options were available or attractive in Protaras. We didn’t have anyone to babysit and dining in our hotel room was simply depressing. We instead tried to follow the baby’s exact routine up until the moment we physically put him to bed. Rather than his cosy bed, we placed him in the stroller, hoping that he would sleep whilst we were having a nice dinner at a restaurant.
Clearly things did not work out as we anticipated. He loved the sea, despised the beach and the sand, ecstatically experienced the swing for the first time, and could not get enough of all the new faces and scenery around him. The over-excitement and stimulation, in conjunction with the hot weather, had really an impact on the little monster. He lost his appetite and any desire for sleep, with the one reinforcing the other – he was tired and frustrated throughout the day and, unfortunately, the night. He was waking up numerous times at night and wouldn’t go back to sleep. It was like a regression to the nightmare of sleeplessness that was our newborn experience.
The following two weeks following our return to Nicosia and back to work were horrible. All of our efforts to establish his routine were gone up in the air. We had to try all over again. Sleeplessness exhausted us. Coupled with a lot of stress at work, it was the perfect storm, and required a fair amount of discipline to remain calm and not to constantly snap at each other.
I wish I could have ended my reflections here and file this in the uncomfortable yet predictable experiences of early childhood. Alas, let’s make it a bit about me. In those two weeks, among the delirium of tiredness and sleeplessness, I could not but wonder whether my new life, the years of fatherhood, which for me also signify adulthood, will forever deprive me of the peace and quiet that is essential to maintaining my emotional stability and well-being. This goes beyond having a bad holiday, or even the prospect of having a few more in the next couple of years. What this triggered was a reflection on the primary limitation of fatherhood – the sudden and utter lack of time for one’s own self.
I don’t profess to have any smart way of balancing responsibility and solitude, besides the obvious realization that there is no solution without compromise. I don’t really think it’s possible to have sufficient time for myself whilst being the parent and husband that I want to be. But not having enough solitude and reflection time does affect my whole demeanor. I therefore tried to strike a compromise. I’m not sure whether my solution works or if it’s at all sustainable.
My solution to the need to have some time to myself is to wake up at 5:15am in order to get some exercise, thinking and writing before the day and its responsibilities start. But it comes at a compromise. In order to get out of bed shortly after 5am I need to go to bed not long after 9pm the previous evening. This means that effectively I am “stealing” time away from Sunshine, which makes me feel both guilty and inadequate. Another compromise is the inevitable hit to our social life, which is already suffering from having to turn down a declining amount of invitations for activities past the baby’s bedtime (parenthood can sometimes be a very lonely affair, especially if your friends are single or without children.)
But the single, most important side-effect of taking some time for myself, is the constant sense of guilt, the feeling that I am an egoist for having this need and for not realising that what I currently have – a lovely boy and a brilliant, attractive wife – is enough. A proper catch-22 situation. I resent having this need for personal time, whilst at the same time I realize that without it, I cannot be the father and husband that I aspire to become.
Scratching beyond the surface, I further realize that my main source of guilt is the realization that Sunshine does not get to have any time for herself. My long hours at work mean that she is the baby’s primary caregiver from the time he gets off the nursery and until late-afternoon. Given that she does not get up at 5am, she has no time to wind down other than a couple of hours between ours and the baby’s bedtime, which is not really time-off as there are still things to be done, including a shower and dinner.
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Writing this I realize that most of my reflections about new fatherhood boil down to a prevailing, all-encompassing sense of guilt and inadequacy, which I need to fight as it is very toxic and does not help anyone, definitely not my wife or the baby. Some time has passed since the summer holidays and the baby has gotten back to his routine. He now sleeps more regularly, though having gone back to the nursery, he keeps on bringing home a different bug every week.
I’m actually writing these last few paragraphs from a café in Florence, sipping at a five euro cup of espresso waiting for the rain to stop. It’s our first holiday without the baby, right after a very hectic period at work that followed the train wreck that was our summer holidays. It feels great to get an undisrupted night’s sleep and to actually have time to fill. Predictably, I feel guilty for having left the baby behind, though I’m certain that he is more than fine with people who love him to pieces and who are able to take good care of him, possibly better than we can. This, I guess, is the only perk of living in Cyprus close to family and friends, though, granted, it can sometimes a be a double-edged sword.
As we keep on sipping numerous espressos in Italy with our faces buried into our kindles, unwinding down from the pressures of everyday life and recovering from the tiredness of the past few months, I cannot but conclude that, guilty as I may feel, this – taking some time for the two of us – is for the better of both us. We will recharge our batteries and the baby will benefit from the renewed attention of well-rested and recuperated parents. That said, I do realize how immensely privileged we are to have this romantic getaway from responsibility and concern, and only with moderate attention to email.
Once more, I don’t have much wisdom to share. As I am repeatedly been told by the veterans of the art of parenthood, in these posts, I am, time and time again, stating in obvious – at least, I hope I do it with some gusto. But in this case, the obvious needs telling because the guilt that most parents feel when leaving behind their baby in order to get some alone time, is simply irrational. Had we brought the baby with us, none of us would find it enjoyable. And as I experience my energy levels returning back to normal, I realize how necessary it is to just hit pause for a few days. The baby won’t much notice; he is with his grandparents who are as in love with him as we are, we video-chat twice a day and call more times that I dare to admit, and we are enjoying going to galleries and sleeping in, sometimes even taking a siesta.
Here is what I have to offer then: if you have the opportunity for some days off, seize it and try to enjoy yourself; it’ll be better for everyone involved. And if you feel guilty all the time, much as I do, just get over it already and stop whining, George.
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Postscript: A few hours after I penned the last couple of paragraphs, I suddenly fell ill and hardly left our hotel room. Since then we departed from Florence, arrived in Venice, which I only saw in passing, and today we took the train back to Rome from where we are now flying to Cyprus via Athens. I cannot begin to describe how uncomfortable the past few days have been and the stress caused by all the travel. Our last few holidays have now officially been disastrous — during Sunshine’s pregnancy we booked a trip to London with prepaid opera and theater tickets that we had to cancel due to complications with the pregnancy, then our summer holidays by the sea turned to a horror of sleeplessness, and now our Italy break has found me mostly locked in a toilet. Before that we went to Japan and upon our landing I found out that I didn’t get a job I really wanted and before that to New York where a couple of days in I got a job offer in a different country, which I accepted whilst there. Generally, not what you’d call carefree holidays. I’m not a superstitious person, but if I were, this would verify my (erroneous) beliefs. That said, I still stand by what I said above. Even like this, spending some time alone with Sunshine was absolutely worth it. Now, I cannot wait to see the baby, though I will have to refrain from actually getting too close to him in order to avoid passing on whatever virus I’m carrying.