It was the summer of 1978, or perhaps 1979, I don’t quite remember as I was only one or two years -old. My white mother pushed my pram along a high street in rural Oldham just North of Manchester, when an elderly lady smiled as she looked at us both and said, “Is that your child?”
Full of pride and love for her son she replied, “Yes, yes he is,” and with that, the woman spat back, “F*****g n***r lover!”
It’s 2012, I remember as I was 35. I’m pushing my two-year-old daughter down a high street in Liverpool when an elderly lady smiled as she looked at us both and said, “Is that your daughter?”
Full of pride and love for her, I replied, “Yes, yes she is,” and with that, the woman exclaimed, “That’s so refreshing to see.”
Now I should have been happy that over three decades progress had made great strides, but I couldn’t help the little voice in my head thinking ‘Was she just unintentionally racist and sexist?!’
I and my daughter’s mother decided that it was best if I was a stay at home dad, I was still recovering from cancer treatment in 2010, worked sporadically at night as a DJ/comedian and she had the greater earning potential in her job. I had no problem with taking on a perceived female role as my mother had taken on both roles with my father often being… absent.
That’s why I took umbrage with that lady’s comment. Either I felt patronised that the implication was that men don’t really look after their kids or, that black fathers don’t usually hang around when their kids are born. I know I shouldn’t be so negative and paranoid, but three hours sleep a night and the constant pressure to live up to other parents’ expectations is exhausting.
I have the upmost respect for any parent who looks after their kid full time as it is essentially a cross between an apprenticeship and a zero hours contract job. You don’t get paid; people don’t see the value of what you do, and you have to work around what the boss (your kids) want. I was lucky, my other half was the bread winner. My mum did it all as a single parent and never really complained and that’s where I learnt my parenting skills from, especially after having our second child.
Up between 7.30 and 8.00 a.m., make breakfast, get kids ready for school, drive partner to work. At 9 a.m., take kids to school/nursery, spend three hours tidying/cleaning/shopping/writing or whatever else would be more difficult to do when the three-year-old came home at noon. Serve lunch, then an hour cursing the fact that the boy is not like his sister, doesn’t do naps and wants to run everywhere screaming. Girls are better than boys.
If it didn’t take an hour of cajoling for food to be eaten and spills to be cleaned up and if we gave up on trying for a nap after 15 minutes, we’d go to the park so I could be judged by other parents. What level is he reading at? Can he count to 20 yet? How fast can they run the 100m? It was like a toddler arms race.
If he hadn’t lost a leg (scraped his knee) in this time, we’d leg it back home to drop off the Mary Poppins bag of wipes, water, nappies, toys and survival gear. Three o’clock was school pick up time so obviously five minutes before that my son would proceed to poop everywhere. I am now able to change a nappy like an F1 team changes a tire but covered in urine.
Pick up daughter, listen to all the problems at school that day, healthy snacks to put off cries for food, do crafts, play in back garden, leave kids in back garden so can prep dinner, tidy crafts so table is clear, separate kids from fighting, change nappy again. Wrangle kids into car to pick up partner, stop kids from arguing in the back of the car, pick up partner, hear about all the problems in work that day.
Cook dinner, try and convince kids that chicken breast is the same as the chicken in chicken nuggets and that broccoli are like mini trees and the kids are dinosaurs. Tidy table and plates, scrape uneaten chicken in bin, try and wind down kids for bedtime, explain that due to non-eating of chicken there is nothing else to eat.
Bedtime plus an hour of telling them to go to sleep. An hour of TV unless I’m in work which means out until roughly 2.00 a.m. (post-work drinks included as it helps me sleep, honest) or at home trying to get the writing work done I feel I should have fitted in during the day.
Between 3.00 a.m. and 4 a.m. make kids and partner/s lunches and make sure they haven’t woken up through the night. Go to bed for that lovely three to four-hour nap.
Rinse, repeat, pray for the youngest to reach four and go to school. I never really wished the children’s lives away but the problem with kids is it’s a job you can’t complain about otherwise you’re a bad parent. It’s so repetitive and as a man, there’s no real infrastructure or support. We don’t have real groups to unload problems and pressures, we have pubs, and you’re not allowed feelings in pubs. It’s the law! So, we talk about sports. It’s the only adult conversation not about kids you tend to get.
You get looked at like an anomaly by mothers for what could be a plethora of reasons which intensifies your anxiety and paranoia from the lack of sleep (have I mentioned the lack of sleep, oh god the lack of sleep!) and you can’t mention it as you’re supposed to ‘man up’, so you self-medicate with alcohol as men aren’t supposed to get counselling or take pills.
At one point for several months I couldn’t stop visualising how my kids might die, more than the usual constant fear of their deaths, sort of semi-hallucinations. So obviously due to a lack of mental health support and not wanting to seem weak you try and repeat routines and get on with it, up at 8, lunch at 12 etc. Your memory is all over the place, you’re agitated and cranky but try to keep it bottled up. It will all get easier once the youngest goes to school, I can sleep again.
Holidays just seem like looking after them in a different location with more threats. After almost eight years of rearing children I could barely verbalise my mental exhaustion and physical numbness, but it’s what I expected and long term it would be worth it when the youngest went to school, we could relax, they’d be grown up enough to make trips easier, we could go on holiday and have real fun as a family.
But just before he turned four, she asked me to leave.
To be continued…
Che Burnley is a DJ/comedian who hails from Manchester and is a committed father of two. Che is also an advocate for mental health wellness for males.