The pang of not being a father

I don’t know what it is about long-haul flights – maybe the cramped conditions the subliminal knowledge that you are whizzing through the atmosphere at 600 mph in a tin tube – but I find my attention span is shortened. I can’t even sit through the on-board films.

On my flight home from Australia there was in the row next to me a couple with their child. He must have been about 18 months. He could walk a little, but still had that elasticity of limb that babies have. One could see his constant self-discovery, the way he was learning about his own body’s incarnation by grabbing on to his own toes and raising them to his mouth, gnawing on a dog-eared blanket, pointing to his own shadow and singing to himself.

Having engaged with him non-stop for hours, his poor parents dozed and the little chap, wanting an audience, smiled and waved at me across the aisle and played peek-a-boo. Finally I saw his eyelids grow heavy and, though he fought it, he eventually fell into a sleep, slowly relaxing more and more fully. It was far more engaging than anything on the in-flight entertainment.

In that strange world within a capsule, a capsule within a world, hurtling through the night, miles from home and high above the steppes of an unknown continent, I felt a sudden pang. I thought of it at first as something negative, as the realisation of something lost to me, namely, the experience of biological fatherhood. I had not thought much about it before. Is this, I wondered, an intimation of age?

But as I pondered I realised that what I thought was pain of loss was more complicated. The pain was love: a tenderness that can only be fully realised in relation to your own child, a love that needs to be poured out on its object to not be painful, but which could equally involve pain in being poured out.

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