This is part of a series of blog posts under the title Fatherhood Diaries.
“You two look the same,” Sunshine replied to my text message of a selfie photo with Johnny. She is right. The baby looks a lot like me. My mum – as mums do – has a photo of Johnny and a photo of me at his age on her coffee table. I can barely tell the two of us apart. As I observe the resemblance I wonder what else might have I passed on to him through the non-intended route of biology.
Last week I went on my first 5k run after a hiatus of two months nursing a running injury. Halfway through the run and noticing that the pain did not resurface, I started contemplating subscribing to a marathon. This is what I do. I immerse myself into things I like. Thankfully for me, they are harmless – books, running, fountain pens, solitude. But glancing at the pictures on my mum’s kitchen table, I keep on wondering whether my obsessive tendencies have already made their way to Johnny. And though they served me well, what if Johnny fancies more ‘adventurous’ pleasures?
Things are not bleak. The little fellow could do much worse than us. His mum is the smartest person I know; the one that understands concepts and retains information faster and better than others in the (any) room. And as for me, in all my many faults, I do have some attributes that justify merit. But we want the best for our children and sometimes the best for him is to be the exact opposite of us. This is what I am thinking when I see him being entertained by people he didn’t formerly known and play with children he just met. You see, both his mum and I are different variations of anti-social; she more of a private person and I more of an introvert who finds peace in solitude.
It’s not always possible to distinguish between nature and nurture. One thing is for sure — I have no interest in my son becoming a carbon copy of me. My prolonged years in academia, the decade in the UK and my 180 degrees subsequent career turn, leave few what-ifs unexplored, and surely not ones that I would care to pursue through Johnny. My curiosity is purely to do with the predispositions we might have already passed on to him.
Seeing how both biology and socialization shape characters, I then consider what of the things I do may affect him. Is the glass of wine (ok, two) that I enjoy over dinner going to have an impact on him? Should I stop reading on the tablet and smartphone and rather revert to printed books so that the little “monkey see monkey do” develops the same emotional bond that I have with the printed form? Should he know about things I tried in the past if, say, some of them may have been less than legal? Should I try to curtail my foul mouth? And, talking about language; should I make deliberate efforts to speak in Greek rather than the half-Greek, half-English sentences that both Sunshine and I use?
And then are the things that we don’t do and maybe should be doing. I don’t eat meat and seldom is meat cooked in our house. Though I am fairly confident of the health benefits of vegetarianism, I wonder whether will this stigmatize him and make him feel the odd one out (please, spare me the lectures on nutrition, will you)? Likewise, we don’t have a functioning TV in our house as we don’t watch any live programmes; will he feel like he is missing out? I also don’t like most macho things prevalent in the local society, including football, which is sort of the archetypal father-son bonding activity for Cypriots. I doubt I’ll ever become a football-going sort of person; should I instead encourage him to attend football matches with his godfather(s)?
Then again, I wonder whether maybe I should continue living my life as I do now, mindful of my influence on the baby but not obsessed with it (which is not that easy considering that he now follows me around repeating “papa, papa”. After all, messing up one’s children is what parents do, most often not through their deliberate actions. I am sure that mindful or not he will eventually, as all teens do, find reasons to resent us no matter what.
I guess what underpins these concerns is the fact that sometimes I wake up and don’t like what follows or that I see myself in the mirror and I don’t like the frowning look of the man staring back at me. Will the baby pick up on such days? Supposedly children have developed emotional awareness. Children should not, however, to the extent possible, share or even be aware of the burdens of adults. Children should have carefree, happy childhoods where they can joyfully explore the limits of the world, their bodies and the patience of their parents. I dread the idea that my behaviour may expose Johnny to the gloom of adulthood and its responsibilities.
That said, how much shelter and protection is too much? I recall classmates in my private school who came from particularly affluent backgrounds and who also attended private primary schools who, to this day, have little awareness of what is happening ‘out there’, a by-product of having grown up in a bubble. Of course, I am not sure that their sheltered lives are a problem for them; as adults, they also socialize within the same circle. They are exposed to the risk of the bubble bursting, but as we’ve seen time and time again, it’s the rest of us who pick up the tab and those who used to live a sheltered life continue to do so as we nationalize their loses.
Even now, having this discussion, I don’t know to what extend would I want Johnny to know what I think about the environment I grew up into — a middle-class kid in an environment of richness and entitlement that is private schooling in Cyprus. And yet, considering the state of public education, with the local students being amongst the last in all international literacy ranking, it’s a no-brainer that parents who have the ability and who want the best for their children, not only should, but actually ought to enrol their kids to private education (I know how horribly neoliberal this sounds but I am not ashamed for wanting the best for my child given the disarray of state education). Though this absolutism may be qualified for primary education in Cyprus, it is perfectly justified for the state of secondary education. Therefore, provided that we will have the ability, Johnny will be offered the option of a private high school. Although the situation in primary school is not considerably better, I think it would be both useful and necessary for him to attend a state school, if only to calibrate his social compass. The question then becomes — do I try my best to give him access to the best opportunities and try my best to make sure that he does not feel the odd one out or do I give him the class-awareness that helped me get the best out of that environment?
I don’t want to create him in my own image and I don’t want him to mirror my beliefs. I don’t mind if he eventually, after reflection, does, but it is neither my goal nor my desire. What I want is to act to his best interest. If only it was simple. I suppose we’ll have to give it a try and then try again, and hopefully we’ll find a balance. Of course, we may have already screwed him up with our genes, but hopefully he got the best out of the both of us.