Why Your Old Man Matters
My earliest memory of my dad is of a cocoon of light in the middle of the darkness. Specifically, the garage in my parent’s garden at night, light shining out onto the lawn. Inside, my dad was working on the model planes he flew with his friends, and occasionally wrote about for a hobby magazine. He would work on them most nights in the garage. Occasionally, he’d invite me in and I’d glue together offcuts of wood into shapes that even I could see would never resemble airplanes.
Later, when I was older but not yet a teenager, my dad hung smaller model airplanes in my room. He’d built them as a child and either wanted me to have them, or I saw them in the loft and asked for them. I can’t remember now. All I can remember is punching holes in their paper wings with a pencil tip. “Bullet holes” I explained. I don’t think he was too angry. As a teenager, we worked together on diorama boards for the model soldiers I collected in lieu of having a girlfriend. But mostly, we didn’t talk much.
Compared to 1990, when my dad became a dad, today, fatherhood is changing.
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According to the Bright Horizons Modern Family Index 2019, as of 2005, fathers now take on a third of childcare duties. But my dad worked (and still does) ridiculous hours and it was usually my mum that entertained myself and my sister. My dad, however, would help with practical and logistical things. When I was a teenager and the mornings were particularly icy, he’d sometimes drive me on my paper round in the next village, at 6.30am. Every few months he’d drive me and my friends to Manchester, Nottingham, Leeds to see whichever band was touring, and he’d sit in the car for hours or more before driving us the two hours home. Then, in the morning he’d get up to start work at 7am.
Tim Urban worked out that we spend 90 per cent of all the time we’ll ever spend with our parents before we turn 18. With his own parents in their mid-60s, Urban worked out that he’ll realistically only see them a further 300 times before they die – less time than he spent with them during any one of his first 18 years. My dad turned 60 this year. His father died aged just 63. The point – of course – is that you never really know how long you have left with your parents. But, also, you never really realise just how old these people who’ve been there to look after you your entire life are getting.
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Until last Christmas, conversations with my dad had never been very deep. Then, all of a sudden, all of this emotion I’d suppressed for years and years hit me and I became a nervous, anxious wreck. “What are you feeling anxious about?” my dad asked on the phone. He wanted to help, but there was no answer apart from “everything, all the time” and then, where would the conversation go from there?
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It wasn’t just my dad who taught me never to express emotions. Emotion was a foreign language to every man I knew growing up, in person, on cinema screens, in books. Whenever anything upsetting happened, they just got on with it. Nothing they did told me I needed to be stoic, but then nothing they did showed me that it was OK to be upset, either. When the love of Indiana Jones’ life is seemingly blown up in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he gets drunk. When Piggy falls to his death in Lord of the Flies, Ralph and the other boys don’t shed a tear. And you never saw Steve McQueen crying about missing his friends and family while locked up in The Great Escape.
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Gradually, with the help of many people, pills, and a therapist, I began to reclaim control of my head bit by bit. I spoke to my mum and dad on a weekly basis. Sometimes (often) we spoke about the minutiae of life back home. But it helped.
With my dad’s 60th birthday approaching this past March, I decided we should spend more time together. My dad doesn’t put much time in with his airplanes anymore. Motorbikes and gardening have taken over. Even so, when I tried to think of something we could do for his 60th birthday, these airplanes, and the war films we had occasionally watched together, came to mind, and we decided to set off on a battlefield tour of Belgium and Northern France.
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The next few months were spent planning the first trip we would have ever taken together. For the first time we had a project to plan together. And then the day came and we were driving through European country lanes, flanked by trees. We saw the Menin Gate. We saw battlefields and cemeteries. In the evenings we drank Leffe in the hotel bar. My dad – who has never shared an opinion that I can remember – explained why he considers himself a humanist. He talked about the pressures of continuing the ‘family line’ and how proud he was of a picture of his grandfather, his father, him, and me on the day of my Christening. He told me about how my grandma and late granddad once got locked in a park where they were ‘courting’ in the bushes. He told me about some of his own escapades as a young man, and I vowed to wipe the images from my mind. When the bar closed, we watched Alan Partridge in the room.
Then, after five days, the trip was over and we returned home. We hadn’t spoken specifically about mental health, but I thought we understood each other a little bit better then, and that, if I did have to speak to my dad about feeling down, he’d do his best to try to understand.
(Related: The truth about male anxiety disorders)
After 28 years, our relationship had changed, and I realised that a large part of the reason why we had never been especially close was because I simply hadn’t made any effort to get to know him, or see him as an actual person with his own thoughts and feelings. This, of course, was my mistake. Because while we all try to hide our feelings, every man struggles with his own hopes and fears. Especially those who seem to have everything figured out.
So, let’s start talking to each other, before it’s too late.
Video: NEIL YOUNG - OLD MAN
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