Expectant fathers feel many anxieties – and make a huge number of promises to their unborn children. A new life pulses with incredible potential, and necessitates deep self-reflection. Which experiences from my own life do I want my child to enjoy? Which frustrations and pains should he or she be spared at all costs, and which did I learn from? High on my list: Teeth.
My nine week-old daughter doesn’t have teeth. I’m told that when they arrive, there shall be wailing and gnashing of gums. Part of the wailing may be anticipatory: I am going to be spectacularly boring about this topic every day until she leaves home – and beyond. My own problems with teeth came at university. I was too busy abusing various other parts of my body to think about my teeth. After studying, I moved to Germany, and avoided the dreaded chair in fear of using the wrong vocabulary and stumbling into a torturous procedure that my pain threshold – or graduate bank balance – could not stand. For about six years, I avoided the tooth doctor. For about six years subsequently, I invested time and money in a last-ditch attempt to reverse the damage. As I hold my daughter in my arms, marvelling at every miraculous shift in her tiny features, a cosmic force overpowers me and I travel into the future. A bald, podgy man stands at the bottom of the stairs, screaming, “YOU WILL BRUSH YOUR TEETH THIS INSTANT!” The picture fades. Our bleak destiny recedes, temporarily.
My aspirations for my daughter’s life emerged without deliberate thought. Confronting these subconscious desires was an enlightening process that taught me much more about myself than any other self-appraisal exercise I had done before (and there have been many). A new life offers a very revealing lens through which to view one’s own ambitions, anxieties and failings. I’d like her to play a musical instrument well (I am a crap saxophone player), I’d like her to have a sensible relationship with alcohol (I do not), I’d like her to speak many languages (I went to school in the UK), I’d like her to play a team sport into adulthood (I gave up football and cricket in my early twenties). She should learn to appreciate nature from an early age. She should read instead of watching TV. She should eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. She should be positive and gregarious. She should seek a career doing what she loves. She should look after her teeth.
Of course, what I wish for most of all is health and happiness: Everything else is a bonus. It’s important for parents not to thrust the burden for righting their own wrongs onto their children’s backs, and to avoid living vicariously through their child’s successes. The child should be allowed to develop and follow their own impulses and preferences, to make their own mistakes and experience their own failures. However, discussion with other parents suggests that the thought process I went through is fairly normal. I don’t believe it’s entirely unhealthy.
Reflecting on my life in this way has made me realise how many things have gone well. More importantly, it has made me realise how many things went badly – but ultimately had positive consequences. My first relationship came too early in my life, and there was much teenage heartache when it ended. My relationships from that point on were vastly healthier. My marriage is wonderful. Catching up on the experiences that slipped away from me when I was younger – exploring nature, appreciating different types of music, using my time to pursue writing – is the great pleasure of my adult life (besides gazing at my daughter with fatherly affection).
It is hard to give up my aspirations for my daughter, but confronting the anxieties and aspirations that had collected in my mind was incredibly valuable for me. It taught me about who I am, who I have been, and who I hopefully still have time to become. Aspirations for my daughter quickly became aspirations for her father: How can I make her proud? How can I set an example? How can I inspire her? How can I embarrass her in ways that she will later find unutterably cool? I suppose the first thing I should do is book an appointment with the Zahnarzt, and pick up an electric toothbrush. Maybe one day, we will sit on the couch together, listening to Chopin and reflecting on becoming the first father/daughter joint winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. “Dad, pass me the dental floss when you’re finished with it,” she’ll say. Reader: I will.