As it was, as ever it will be.
The New Fatherhood is an open and honest conversation about modern fatherhood, with a bunch of dads figuring it out as we go. Here's a bit more information if you're new here. You are one of the 4,432 dads (and curious non-dads) signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, why not get your own?
They’re at it. Again. I can hear it through the walls.
It starts quietly enough. But it’ll soon get out of hand.
The kids are bickering. Arguing over some silly little thing. She’ll pick up a toy, one left untouched for weeks, and suddenly it’s all he wants. We ask her to hand it over—the injustice of it!—and she reluctantly complies, then instinctively goes for the one item that’ll make him erupt. He’ll lose his rag, she’ll respond in kind. They’re finding novel ways to wind each other up—he recently realised that if he says “caca” enough times, at a certain volume, in a certain register, she’ll see red. They’re learning how to push each others’ buttons, and we’ve got centre court, front row tickets for a non-stop emotional rally where everyone loses.
One altercation this week came down to a scarlet felt tip pen, 1 of a 28 pack, which was apparently being used with too much pressure. It almost feels like I’m writing amateur fiction here—the dark red a clunky symbol to indicate the imminent arrival of anger—yet here we are. I watch them snap at each other, thinking about this pen that can’t be worth more than 30¢, staggered at this level of retaliation to such a minor infraction, Sean Bean’s Boromir echoing in my mind of the “strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing.” A red felt pen, the nib pushed in a bit further now than it had been a minute earlier. Might I be less annoyed if it was something more substantial they were arguing over? One of their Micro scooters, or his current favourite thing in the world—his Sonic the Hedgehog t-shirt? Probably. I’ll find out soon. The die has been cast.
And the worst thing about this anger? It’s contagious. Try as you might to remain calm, centred and allow it to pass over you, the bickering gets under your skin and inside your head. On a good day you might be able to let it go. But in your weaker moments, too tired for it all, you give it right back. With bells on. You immediately feel bad, and they feel worse. A family is a living example of Einstein’s maxim that “everything is energy, and that's all there is to it.” Each family is a collection of energies, mostly bouncing off one another happily, but sometimes a small squabble can push the entire day into a black hole.
Sibling rivalry is hardest for the eldest. That comes with a huge “IMHO,” but as the eldest myself I’ll always lean that way. Padme had almost five years on her own. She was so excited to have a baby brother. She continues to love him dearly, to be incredibly caring and gentle with him, to protect him in the face of all threats. But that initial adoration has dissipated over time: once the new baby smell wore off; when he started walking, talking and having a point of view of his own; when that point of view regularly conflicted with her own, to catastrophic effect. When you’ve got kids with a 2+ year age gap, and the shit hits the fan, you’re trying to teach two distinct—but somehow overlapping—lessons at the same time. He’s only three, so his lesson is simple: share toys more, push people less. For a seven year old? Well, let’s start by talking about managing your emotions, taking a breath, count down from ten, before we get started on the fact that he’s younger than you are, so you need to be the one who de-escalates.
“YOU TWO DON’T GET IT,” she told us last weekend. Oh, my sweet girl, if there’s anyone who understands the innate unfairness of life as an older sibling, it’s your parents. We’re both the eldest. We’ve been there, done that, and paved the way for the young ones.
At her age, I was always bickering with my sisters—it was constant, relentless. There was—and I’m happy to say, continues to be—a lot of love between the three of us. We laughed a lot, but it was forged in the fire of the fistfight. They were twins—two vs. one—younger by two years, sizing up against an older brother. The need to form alliances was driven by survival instinct. Sometimes those unions worked. Other times, they did not—I remember one particular eruption, where the balance of power had clearly shifted against me, when the red mist descended and I chased them up the stairs, trying to kick one (or both) of them. I reached the landing, geared up for a helluva booting, when a bedroom door was closed, timed to perfection, directly onto my foot, which went straight through it. The sound of the door crumpling stays in my head to this day—so strong in stature, but weak in fabrication—a harbinger of chaos to come. I’ve come to learn they call these types of doors hollow core: lightweight, loosely packed with carboard, closing them reminiscent of forcing a feather through the air. The unstoppable force of my foot met the immovable object of the door, leaving me precariously balancing, one foot on the floor, the other no longer visible. Watching The Shining many years later I’d laugh, looking back on this moment as an early homage to Jack Nicholson’s frightening bathroom entrance. My sisters, taking advantage of this unique opportunity, proceeded to kick the guilty foot from inside their room.
My kids aren’t this physical. Thankfully. And I want to make sure it doesn’t get close. But how much of this squabbling can be filed away as normal sibling behaviour? I wanted some reassurance it wasn’t exclusive to my history, so I turned to the other dads in the community. I was glad I did. “Fistfights were pretty common,” one of them shared. “We would sometimes end up 100 yards away from where we started.” It was “equal parts mutual agitation and me being a jerk,” confessed another. One dad talked about his own experience with an older sibling having put him off having a second. Another shared thoughts on a relationship with a sibling than is long beyond repair: “We fought a lot as kids, and don't get on now as adults. I don't like the guy and I think the feeling is pretty mutual.”
One dad, also the eldest, professed to being “guilty of being a wind-up merchant a lot of the time.” I was reliably informed (by the parents of multiple teenagers) that the eldest child will often develop a superhuman ability to enrage younger siblings, antagonising them without only a look, imperceptible to almost any parent, like those anti-loitering devices that can only be heard by those under a certain age.
Could these stories be used to triangulate the problem? Maybe I could uncover a pattern that could offer hope: is it related to developmental stages? Down to age gaps? Is it a gender thing? It seems to be escalating as we head into summer—maybe it’s connected to the seasons, or is it Mercury in retrograde once more? (It always seems to be Mercury, the problem child of the solar system.) As much as I dug through there was no correlation to be found. Sisters and brothers argue as much as just brothers on their own—although sister-only siblings tend to argue less. Age doesn’t make a difference, but the fighting seems to drop off as they make their way through adolescence. Most of the biggest break-ups are repaired as we get older. But some, sadly, are not.
How we experience conflict in our family unit becomes the foundation for how we navigate it through our adult lives. You repeat the patterns you grew up with—and if they don’t work, it’s only through doing the conscious work that you can break the cycle. If you subscribe to the idea that the toughest moments in life are the greatest opportunities for growth, then the obstacle becomes the way: how might parents use these squabbles to teach their kids how to deal with disagreements throughout their life? How can they learn to navigate conflict today—in a safe space, with siblings, friends and parents—to help them with the children they are, and the adults they will become?
I don’t have the answers. I’m trying to figure it out myself.
But these feel like the right questions to ask.
3 things to read this week
“Does My Son Know You?” by Jonathan Tjarks in The Ringer. A heartbreaking essay from a father, battling cancer, reflecting on his son’s life once he’s gone. “I was 12 [when my father died]. That’s the age when your parents go from authority figures to actual people. That never happened for me and my dad. We never got to know each other. What did he like doing? What were his experiences growing up? What were his goals in life? […] I had to figure it all out on my own. Now it looks like my son might have to do the same. It was the one thing that I never wanted for him.”
“A Kid’s Show Juggernaut That Leaves Nothing to Chance” by David Segal in The New York Times. A peek behind the curtain at Moonbug Entertainment, the London-based powerhouse behind CoComelon, Little Baby Bum, Blippi, and a whole host of other devious offerings that keep toddlers quiet for just enough time to allow us grown-ups to actually get something done. The Cocomelon YouTube channel was watched for 33 billion minutes last year, and the amount of research that goes into keeping toddlers glued to these garish delights is equally terrifying and impressive. “Ninety-nine percent of kids,” [the head of research] said, “if they’re having issues when they get here, once that ‘CoComelon’ song comes on, they’re like, ‘Ah, life is OK. All is good with the world.’”
“Veteran DJ Annie Mac’s new clubbing venture hits the spot” by Alexandra Topping in The Guardian. This one’s for the ravers. Annie Mac hosted her first Before Midnight event in London last month—a full-on club experience, running from 7pm-12am, enabling parents to be back in bed and have a good few hours before they’re inevitably woken up by excited kids at sunrise. More like this, please!
One thing to watch with the kids this week
Did you know there is a world record for the longest “human domino” chain? This video has 1,200 people getting hit by a mattress, and only stood for three months before being beaten by in China by 2,016 people with more spare time than sense (and those dominos were packed tighter, meaning a lot of full-on hits to the face.)
Previously on The New Fatherhood
“A friend of mine was battling brain cancer, and I didn't know how to deal with it, or talk with her about it. She eventually passed away, and I was still avoiding it, I didn't go to her funeral. And I regret it very much. I miss her to this day, and think of her often. She has taught me so much. As I reflect on this particular regret, I hear her words to me. So she continues to teach me, show me love and grace.” Kendall
“Becoming father by myself in the last year and experiencing all the thoughts and challenges that comes with it, I recognized that I wasn't really there for two of my best friends when they became fathers few years back.” Eric
“Happy to wear the hippy cape and say it’s a necessary teacher. In terms of personal growth, We never really learn until we fuck it up a few times. Be that relationships, friendships, work, personal decisions. I know that’s certainly the case for me.” Pete
We also had a general check-in after last week’s news. As always, thanks for taking part, and for looking out for each other. The open thread will be taking a week off, as I’ll be wandering around Primavera Sound on Friday, and hoping the sun stays out. See you next week!
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
Branding by Selman Design. Thanks to the dads in the community for sharing their sibling stories for this week’s essay. Subscribe to join, jump in, and ask a few questions of your own. Money should never be a barrier to becoming a better parent, so if you want a subscription, but truly can't afford it, reply to this email and I will give you one, no questions asked. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.