“Jurassic World was good, but was it as good as two and a half hours of sleep? Was it bollocks.” The Guardian columnist Stuart Heritage talks attempted date nights and loving the unsociable nature of parenthood…
When we interviewed Stuart Heritage back in January 2016, he and his partner Robyn Wilder had just one son, Herbie. They have since welcomed baby Ned into the family. We’ll ask him for an update soon, but for now we’re heading back to 2016, when Stuart was writing Man with a Pram column for the Guardian, and battling the sleep deprivation of new parenthood…
According to my calculations your son, Herbie, turns one in February. In three words, how would you describe the first year of his life?
Exhausting. Amazing. Everything.
Before he arrived, did you have plans to write a column about fatherhood?
None at all. We had a bit of a scare early on in the pregnancy, so I ended up writing about that. Then they asked me if I’d like to do a feature on the birth itself, which turned out to be quite traumatic – like most births – and it got such a nice reaction that they asked me to write a regular column. It happened by accident, but I’m pleased it did.
What are your thoughts on writing about family with regards to privacy, also sharing on social media – are there boundaries?
It’s a tricky one, this. I want to be as honest and open as I can in the columns, because ultimately I want my son to be able to read an accurate account of his early days once he’s grown up. But it’s essentially a column about my relationship with my son, so I sometimes end up avoiding subjects if they involve other people too heavily. My wife, for example, has had brushes with post-natal depression since the birth, but that’s her story to tell. Luckily she’s a writer as well, and she’s already told it beautifully.
Will Herbie have a say about being the subject of your writing when he’s old enough to talk (and read the Guardian)?
I’ve seen Gone Girl, so I know that writing about your child too much will basically transform them into a violent sociopath who’ll one day stab Neil Patrick Harris to death. So the time will come where I’ll have to ease off. But I’m sure he’ll be a subject of my writing for a while in one form or another. Being a parent is such a weird thing to do that there’s always going to be something to say about it. Not that he’s ever going to read The Guardian, of course. He’ll hit 13 and rebel by subscribing to The Daily Mail.
Prior to becoming parents, you and your wife, Robyn, spent a day doing nothing in a ceremonial ‘waving goodbye to freedom’. If you could spend a day together now, childcare at hand if needed, where would you go; what would you do?
We’d sleep. Literally we’d just sleep. We’ve managed three evenings off together without the baby so far, and every single time we’ve ended up angry at ourselves because we hadn’t decided to be asleep instead. Jurassic World was good, but was it as good as two and a half hours of sleep? Was it bollocks.
What do you most miss about the childfree days?
Take a guess.
How do you and your wife negotiate childcare/paid work/housework?
I guarantee that she’ll answer this differently, but I’d say it was a fairly decent split. Now that her maternity leave has ended – and she’s gone freelance too – we tend to split the day more or less in half. I get up at 6am and start work, but I’m usually done by early afternoon. Then I take the baby and she works. After that, I cook dinner, she washes up, I bathe the baby and then we basically fall into a coma until the next morning. We both manage a bit of everything each day, but the ratio changes depending on whose deadline is closer.
You narrowly missed the new shared maternity/paternity leave rights – if you’d been offered this option at the time of Herbie’s birth, would you have taken more time off to look after him?
I’m freelance, so I don’t think I was due any proper paternity leave – instead, I just switched my Out Of Office on for a couple of weeks and just stopped working. If there was a chance to have taken longer paid paternity leave, I’d have tried to get about a month off. Selfishly, I quite enjoy work, so I don’t think I’d have managed much longer than that.
Dads often feel excluded initially, how did you work out what your role was in those early days?
It’s a weird thing, becoming a dad. My wife had nine months to foster this massive biological relationship with the baby before he was even born, whereas I got taken into a room a minute or two after the birth, still in deep shock from watching my wife get sliced open, for a sudden introduction. There wasn’t an instant connection with my son. It was a bit like ‘Oh, hi. What happens now?’
Luckily for me, I work from home, so I’ve never felt too excluded in the day-to-day stuff. Now that he’s on solid food I do feel a lot more included, as well. He’s not purely reliant on his mum as a food source any more, so I try to play as big a part in mealtimes as I possibly can.
Some parents (like me) secretly like staying in every night, watching shit telly and being extremely unsociable. Are you one of them, or are you desperate to reinstate a social life outside of the home?
Oh god, I hate going out. I hate it. Pre-baby, I’d estimate that about 75% of my time was spent thinking up elaborate excuses to get out of going anywhere. It was exhausting. So having a baby is the best possible outcome, because he’s an automatic excuse. People have even stopped asking me to do stuff. I’ll be a full-blown hermit soon, and the happiest man in the world.
When you’re a parent, you’re just relentlessly trying to do your best for your kid, and when you fall short – which is inevitable sometimes, and nobody’s fault – the last thing you want is to have some entitled little prick make you feel worse about it
Do you find you’re spending more time with family (parents, siblings, grandparents) now and have your views on your parents – and family in general – altered since Herbie came along?
We moved back to my hometown a month before the birth, for a whole variety of reasons, so I see my mum, dad and brother a ton now. It used to just be birthdays, Easter and Christmas, but now we’ll see each other every few days.
And now that I’m in their position, I basically spend my entire life in a fug of regret about all the shit I ever gave my parents as a kid. When you’re a parent, you’re just relentlessly trying to do your best for your kid, and when you fall short – which is inevitable sometimes, and nobody’s fault – the last thing you want is to have some entitled little prick make you feel worse about it. There’s just constant full-blown regret about everything now that I can see things from their perspective.
How much are your ideas about parenting and being a dad affected by your relationship with your own father?
It’s funny. When you’re young, you grow up determined not to turn into your parents. Then you do grow up, and you wish you were more like them. My dad is an exceptional boat-steadier. He lies dormant for huge stretches of time, but when something goes seriously wrong – which happens sometimes, even to this day – he’ll always manage to pop up and say exactly the right thing. It’s just the best talent to have, and I wish I could trade a dose of my emotional diarrhoea for more of his restraint sometimes.
Where were you raised and what was your childhood like?
I was raised about 20 minutes from where I live at the moment, in Kent. We lived in London until the very late stages of the pregnancy, but we had to move out because the place was tiny and the rent was impossible and London is a massive pain in the arse.
The move has been weird for me and my wife in different ways. Weird for me, because I’m back in exactly the same place I spent 20 years determined to escape, and weird for my wife because she lives in a backwards shithole in the middle of nowhere miles away from all her friends. But I think we’re making it work.
My childhood was depressingly normal, really. Lived in a small town, went to a rubbish comprehensive, read a lot of books. Left at the earliest opportunity. I wish there was something more exciting to report than that, but there isn’t.
If you could have any life with your family now, where would you be living and what would your day-to-day existence involve?
I quite like the set-up we’ve got at the moment, where we both manage to look after the baby and work at the same time. So that wouldn’t change. But I’d like to live somewhere really cold and remote. The Outer Hebrides is a place that keeps cropping up in conversation. Anything that stops me having to go out, I’m all for.