Fatherhood with Tom Whipple



They say that the brains of Vietnam veterans are permanently rewired. Forever more, when they hear the gentle rustle of leaves, it induces the fight or flight reflex. So important was it that they adjusted to the dangers of jungle warfare, that even when back in the safety of America decades later, they could not lose that instinct – just walking through an autumn forest becoming impossible.

After a tour of duty of a different sort, I have my own fight or flight sound. In this case it is the soft, barely perceptible, thud of plastic on carpet. For me that sound, which these days (improbably, given my levels of exhaustion) wakes me up, means only one thing: next door my sleeping son has dropped his dummy from the cot, and is just preparing to bellow, “Nooooo, duuuummmmmmy!”

There is a truth that fathers speak of only to their closest confidants – a whispered admission, saved for male company. It is this: breastfeeding is amazing. Not in the way the NHS thinks it is amazing, with the endless propaganda about how it makes your child cleverer, happier and healthier – while your child’s bottle-fed contemporaries, conversely, are destined only to cross paths with your offspring when serving them in fast food restaurants.

No, the amazing thing about breastfeeding is it gives men sleep. Your baby may wake up at 3am, 4am and 5am – demanding improbable amounts of food – but you don’t have to.

Alas, you tell your wife, emancipation of women can only go so far. Regretfully, there is nothing you can do. So instead, fashioning a look you believe evokes both sympathy and solidarity – but which actually looks like those mournful stares you see in posed tabloid photographs of families who have suffered an injustice at the hands of a traffic warden – you have to roll over instead. Five minutes later, you are snoring.

Perhaps it is because my wife never quite believed my mournful looks, perhaps it is because I feel guilty – or maybe it is just because I’m a lighter sleeper. But whatever the reason, dummy duty has fallen to me. Dummies I can do. So when my toddler son bellows “DUMMY!”, it is me who responds.

When son number two goes next door, already a dedicated dummy fan, I will doubtless begin my second tour of duty. And decades later, long after the war of attrition that is childcare is over, long after those long nights of breastfeeding are forgotten, I will hear that dull thud and feel the old adrenaline flow.

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