Solo expedition

Parenthood is a pilgrimage. You can buy the maps, listen to directions, get a compass, consult manuals, but really you can’t prepare for it. The terrain of your day will be forever changed, and it will keep changing.

A new child is a wonderful, adorable, blissful punch in the face. The honest parents out there will tell you that yes, it’s a hard road, but it’s worth it. I agree, but there are times when the hard bits rise up like a dictator and overthrow the “worth it” part, imprisoning it in a labyrinth. Other parents make out that it’s all just a yacht cruise with a favourable wind. It isn’t.

Obviously, as a team (two grown-ups) you have a better chance of surviving the parenting gauntlet. But often there’s only one of you at the helm at any given time. Since I work full time, usually that’s not me.

We have an 11-month-old son, Neko. I’ve hung out with him for a few hours at a time before, but never for a full day. Until recently. My partner Victoria needed a day to catch up with jobs from the last 11 months, so it was time for my first full-day solo expedition with Neko: a true test of my fatherly mettle.

I packed supplies of food, breast milk, nappies, and bibs, then strode out confidently with Neko nestled in a front pack. It turns out that a heavy supply pack slung over one shoulder, an 11 kg child strapped to your front, and a whole day of walking is quite the ask for a feeble spinal column such as mine.

I felt pretty confident as I sat watching pigeons and feeding Neko a mandarin. Juice flowed over his face, my hands, and my jacket. You stop caring about stains when you have a little spiller. I frequently use baby stuff as an excuse for work clothes that are dirty or not ironed. Crumpled up shirt? Yeah, no time, baby, you see. Stain on top? Baby vomit. Mark on pants? Baby food spill. Looking tired, dishevelled? Baby. Thanks for covering me, Neko.

I ended up spending most of the day at the Wellington library. Neko was keen for his lunch, so it started well. Eventually he went quiet and didn’t want any more—the calm before the poo storm. Moments later we were hit hard by a poonami. I fled to the changing room, holding him as upright as possible. What followed was a fight to wrest control of legs and hands, and quarantine them from the poomergency below. I barely survived.

Later, the little guy was happy to prowl the aisles of books, speed crawling or walking drunkenly. Neko’s a sociable chap who will race up to anyone to be picked up. This is where my parental hesitation is always at its most acute: balancing the dual roles of protector and facilitator of socialisation. I scooped him up when he wrapped himself around the legs of a young teenage girl on a computer, only to see in her eyes that he wasn’t bothering her, and she had wanted a hold. The parentometer in my head registered negative points for a missed nonparent interaction—I’m going to raise a social outcast.

When a volatile kid approaches at a trajectory deemed too unpredictable, you may have to step in front with a curt “That’s close enough thank you”.

At times I felt more like security detail for some member of local royalty. When the kids are playing calmly, you melt into the background. But when a volatile kid approaches at a trajectory deemed too unpredictable, you may have to step in front with a curt “That’s close enough thank you”.

No one wants to be the hover parent though. In the beginning, everyone hovers. Even as a relative newcomer to the parenting adventure, I can spot the rookies; they stand over their little ones, hobbling along with them, trying to maintain a force field which repels corners, edges, random objects, and other children.

The new cool is a relaxed, understated mode of parenting. An unspoken competition exists among hip parents to see who can be the least concerned when a child is in possible danger. The winner is the one who doesn’t budge even when their child leaves the building. I’m no daddycopter but I haven’t yet attained that level of parenting calm.

After I left the library with Neko in the front pack, it was tricky to find convenient places to sit or use the bathroom. I was in a café toilet and I couldn’t put him down because it was filthy, but I also couldn’t see what I was doing below the front pack... My belt strayed into the stream and it went everywhere, like a sprinkler. Later I stopped in at a friend’s place and got the little man out of his nappy; he peed all over my crotch, my friend’s couch, and his shoes. Fortunately this marked the end of the day.

My partner looks after Neko every day, and I’ve always had a healthy appreciation of how tough this is. But going solo out on the town really reminded me that looking after a child is a perpetual circus act—one moment you’re juggling (chainsaws), next you’re spinning the wheel for the knife thrower, next you’re a lion tamer, next you’re the cleaner who has to hose down the place.

My expedition was filled with a desire to always do what was best, although I seldom knew what that was. I tended to worry over tiny blips in what was otherwise an enjoyable day, forgetting that every little experience in a child’s life is just one of hundreds of thousands. What I guess you’re really aiming for as a parent, like a cricket batsman, is a good average.

Looking after Neko for the day had its challenges, but in the end most of the difficulties came from my own ineptitude. Like every good adventurer, I will use what I’ve learned for next time—I’ll take a pushchair, set my parental relaxation dial to “maximum calm”, and pack myself a change of pants.