Category Archives: parenting

Fatherhood is a Recurring Confrontation with Mortality

In childhood you are only aware of death in the immediate relationship between harm and pain. In adolescences the nature of the world imposes itself on you in the development of sexual maturity – the great social and physical sorting demanded by the fundamental reproductive urge. In these layered experiences awareness of death is already present. Unless life is particularly free of distraction or genuine succor, you learn to ignore these signs of mortality and even direct, conscious awareness of death.

For me, sometime in my thirties, it became a recurring thought that nothing more remarkable than an excess of kinetic energy would be enough to replace my own rich experience of existence with a resounding and permanent nothingness, but in an Epicurean way this was a calming background knowledge. Whatever vicissitudes life might throw at me I could be assured that at some point in the future they would be at the very least moot.

Being a father has changed this pleasant detente with mortality. The identification I feel with my child is so powerful that my own comfortable relationship with the possibility of death has been disrupted. Not only does the possibility of my own death and its effect on the life of my child put the sting back into imagining death for myself, but I now must imagine all the various ways death might manifest for him.

But its not just that. Fatherhood is a great harrowing of the body and the mind. You lose sleep and you exhaust yourself physically. My son likes to be thrown into the air and to hold on to my hands and climb up to stand on my shoulders. My muscles and joints ache with fatherhood. Fatherhood hurts in the most mundane ways. The body rises up out of the ignorable background noise of being to make itself known in its falling apart.

My partner and I decided to have kids in some sense out of a vote of confidence for life. Despite the cruelty, insanity and unknowability of the world we had the sense that the experience of life was worth not just having, but continuing. I didn’t fully anticipate that the act of bringing a child into the world would back-react in such a concrete way on my own experience of being mortal.


The baby was fussy all morning, and when he finally went to sleep, in the crook of his mother’s arm, after nursing we were scared to leave him alone in case the silence woke him up. I made carbonara downstairs, ate, and then went to lie beside him reading while Shelley took her portion.

As I re-positioned my leg, my knee popped loudly, startling the baby. He stretched his arms above his head and pawed at his face with the backs of his hands. These gestures were familiar to me from my own body. I had seen, too, him sneeze or yawn. I imagined for a moment, that I had given these things to him, but that transposition made a deeper truth clear.

My cat, who slept above us, on a table over the bed we had arranged on the floor, stretched and yawned. He sneezes. When we turn the lights on at night to change Felix’s diaper, he sprawls onto his stomach and covers his eyes with his paws, sulkily. These gestures, taught to us by no one, inherent in us, which you could have observed in my child minutes after he was born, belong to an unimaginably ancient process of which we are merely brief manifestations.

Human beings tie themselves into knots or grind themselves to featureless lumps, struggling to connect with something vast and ancient. We don’t stop to think that each time we yawn we are in contact with something profound and atavistic, something older than history, bigger than the merely human.