A mate of mine is about to become a father for the first time. He’s terrified, which is sad because he’s genuinely the stuff dream dads are made of. I’ve been a parent for nine years now and have a fairly good sense of when someone’s got that pure paternal X factor. And boy does he have it. He’s calm, kind, playful and an extremely patient soul. He wouldn’t hurt a fly, even if the fly was talking trash about him on a neighbourhood WhatsApp group.
The problem is that his work colleagues are messing him up. They pour poison into his ear all day long: “Life as you know it is done.” “You’re nothing but a poo-encrusted slave from here on in.” “Your sex life is over.” “You’ll be a fat loser slob this time next year.” “It’ll be a miracle if you bond with your child.”
It’s dark and it’s sadistic and, weirdly, it’s dads telling him this stuff. This is not an uncommon phenomenon, though – it happened to me pre-kids and part of me still does it when I meet dads-to-be. It’s destructive and weirdly underdiscussed. I call it “dad hazing”.
It may sound like an odd word to use, given that hazing is synonymous with institutions. But trust me, becoming a dad is truly like joining the most gigantic organisation in the world, with outposts everywhere, representatives on every corner, and many of them still congregating on the high street where Maplins used to be and laying an occasional wreath made of cable ties. It’s not always bad to be institutionalised, I should say – fatherhood is a really good leveller, and a way of connecting with men beyond your background or social circle. The only problem is that the institution of fatherhood is almost too unstructured for its own good sometimes, meaning anyone can speak for the group, even those jerks who like to act as hilarious wind-up merchants and “razz” people about the hardships of parenting for nothing more than attention.
Ordinarily, you’d dismiss someone crass enough to bring up your partner’s postpartum body shape in a second. Yet because he’s an actual proven breeder, his catastrophising around your future sleep patterns and libido somehow carry weight. Cannily, these disruptive swine know you’re in a deep state of confusion too.
The absence of a clear purpose or role for dads-to-be can often mess with your head as parenthood approaches. In the later stages of pregnancy, an unknown hormonal trigger creates what’s known as a “nesting impulse” in a mother. It prompts them to seek to create a warm, comfortable and safe home environment in which to protect their child once it’s born. Men, for all their best intentions, don’t get the same hormonal kick up the butt as a baby approaches. In fact, the gap in responsibility between a man and a woman at this stage is laughably stark. One is embryonically giving life to a developing foetus via an extraordinarily complex series of veins and cords. The other is assembling flat-pack baby furniture with one of those tiny Ikea allen keys.
Men who are really trying to be good partners find themselves deeply in their own heads at this time. On the one hand, it’s impossible to pretend to relate to your partner and what they’re going through. On the other, bringing up your own BS can seem very petty in comparison. It’s maybe not a great look to have to be emotionally consoled every 15 minutes by a heavily pregnant woman. You want to help, and society increasingly expects you to help, but anticipation of something massive coming with nothing much to do creates an eerie void and a woozy uncertainty – which is why dad hazing really makes an impact. Because a bit like the extremes of toxic masculinity – from Andrew Tate to incelism – bad thoughts thrive when there is an emptiness, or at least the perception of one. It’s a fertile space for terrible dad banter at work, in podcasts or in the pub to screw with your head.
Nobody likes a smug, gleaming dad role model. There’s a strain of said smuggos, for example, who will wang on about “skin-to-skin” (aka bonding with your child by hugging it topless in the first few minutes of its life) as if it were as important as the MMR jab. It’s lovely, it makes for a good photo, but it’s not a hack for automatically being a good parent the way some men describe it.
More importantly, nobody likes a liar either. I don’t think for one second that anyone should sugarcoat the impending rigours of parenthood. But there’s a negativity and almost macabre darkness to the way men talk about parenting that is worrying, especially when seen through the prism of a new dad. Part of it is just because modern culture loves irreverence over any hint of earnestness, which is fine except that you’d much rather hear a gross yet empty “poonami” anecdote over my actually useful advice that reusable nappies are a doddle, wouldn’t you?
That same irreverence bleeds into so much parent chat: such as when we call our kids “little s****”, when we “amusingly” tell people about the relentless awfulness of parenting and when we display how grudgefully underappreciated we feel by trashing the whole decision to have kids in the first place, albeit in semi-jokey banterish terms.
But it’s especially hard on men trying desperately to turn their own family narrative around. Men who – to be blunt – are striving to not be as much of a s***bag as their own dad, which is way too many men still. Negative thoughts can really get under the skin of a young dad trying to not make the same mistakes he saw his parents make. Men don’t need to have baby showers or buy each other candles to help out here. But they do need to stop and think about the impact of what they say to someone embarking on the journey from lad to dad.