I was there when my first child was born – a daughter, Caitlin, on 6 March 1964. Well, almost there. My dear wife Margaret [Margaret Forster, the novelist and biographer] was a long time in labour, most of a night and morning, by which time I was fed up hanging around.
I had a sudden desire for a meat pie and went into Hampstead in search of one. When I came back, Caitlin had been born. And I had missed it. I was never forgiven – not for not witnessing the birth, but for my selfish desire for something as mundane and crass as a pie at such a crucial time in our family history.
I had been to fathers’ classes at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead for several weeks beforehand. It was quite an innovation at the time and I jumped at the chance – not really thinking that I would be able to help at the birth but, fab, I can get a 1,000-word article out of this. Which I did.
When our son Jake was born, two years later, Margaret gave birth at home, and my expertise (ha-ha) did come in handy. He arrived early, before the midwife could get here, with the cord round his neck, and I helped untie it and cut it. Our third child, Flora, was born in 1972, eight years after Caitlin.
The gap, for decades, seemed enormous, at least to Flora, the baby of the family, left behind while her big sister was out having good times. Oh, the evenings I spent with her, playing Scrabble by the fire.
Margaret refused to play such games with the children. She was the creative one, helping them draw, paint, make clothes. I was the fun figure, always doing silly things. When things got out of hand and they would start misbehaving, I would say to them, “Wait till your mother comes home.” A joke really, as she was just upstairs in her room writing away, or preparing something delicious in the kitchen.
Flora, aged eight, would often be on the verge of tears moaning about the unfairness of being only eight, not being allowed out to do what 16-year-old Caitlin was doing, such as having a Saturday job, going to the pub, or having a boyfriend.
“Don’t worry, pet, your time will come,” I reassured her. “You’ll be 16 soon.” “I WANT TO BE 16 NOW!” she yelled.
Caitlin was a paragon of all the virtues until she was 16. She wore what Mummy laid out for her, stood quietly to have her long, beautiful, black hair brushed, and was an excellent pupil at school. It was at 16 that she started breaking out.
During sixth form she left home and moved into a squat with an awful boyfriend. Flora was not quite as bad, but she too had some boyfriends we despaired of. Oh, God. What happens to so many girls when they become teenagers?
It’s easy to blame hormones, but it’s also a revolt against their background – especially if it is middle class, as ours had become, much as we tried to deny it, both proudly coming from working-class homes.
I suppose they like the excitement, the challenge of reforming some boy who seems to break the normal social rules – or an idle idiot and complete chancer, as I preferred to see them. Margaret and I used to lie awake at night, waiting for them to come home, blaming each other for not having put our foot down.
All you can do is keep loving them. Always welcome them home, don’t criticise them or slag off their boyfriends. That will only make things worse. Just cling on, pray and hope they will revert to their real and true lovely selves, that their upbringing, home life and family values will not have been a waste of time. Which is what happened.
They did meet nice people and are happy with their own daughters (Caitlin has one, Flora has two). They are lovely, decent, hard-working members of society. I am so proud of them.
They have each, along with my son, been a wonderful support to me these past 18 months since Margaret died. Especially when they become the food fairies. I come home, open the fridge and think, “Oh God, what am I going to have?”, and something delicious has appeared as if by magic, left by one of them for my supper.
All three of them live nearby, which is an extra blessing. Caitlin is a writer, the only one of our three, and has had ten books published. Margaret and I always found it easy to follow her working life, to understand her problems. With Flora, a fabric and home decor designer, I have no idea how she does her designs – being colour blind doesn’t help – while Jake is a barrister, a world I know nothing about.
Are daughters closer to their dads – and do they look after them in their old age better, compared with their sons? The old cliché is that when a son gets married, you lose him, he now belongs to someone else, whereas daughters stay close, often ending up being lumbered with their parents when they need care.
I feel close to each of them, but I am determined not to lumber myself upon any of them. I am staying in my house, looking after myself, for ever. I have got in a large stock of beaujolais, and when the time comes and I feel the end is nigh, I will work through as many bottles as quickly as I can. And go quietly. Probably singing.
Dads and Daughters is on Sunday 4.30pm Radio 4