Fatherhood at 22: 'Our beautiful mistake'

Still a student, an unplanned pregnancy seemed like a calamity. Now juggling fatherhood with revising for finals, John Saunders explains why he wouldn't have it any other way
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If you had told me this time last year that in 12 months I'd have had my first child without any reservations whatsoever, I wouldn't have believed a word of it. Starting a family was the last thing on my mind. If I did think of that, it was in the context of a successful career, a secure and happy marriage and a mortgage – 30 seemed the age when all that would be in place. Right now, the closest thing I have to a career is a degree and a string of work placements; my partner Suzannah and I are secure and happy together, but not yet married. And I can't even be sure we'll be able to rent a place of our own when we move back home, let alone apply for a mortgage.

But none of that mattered when Suzannah gave birth to our little girl, Isla, four weeks ago. We were three now, where we had always been two, and it felt like that most clichéd of things – a miracle. I can't even imagine any more how it would feel to not want to start to a family now. Everything else is just incidental. But that's not how I felt last year.

Aged 22, on course for First Class Honours in Journalism, upon graduation I had every intention of going for entry-level jobs in the media – any medium, any salary, anywhere. The only other concern was whether Suzannah and I, then three-and-a-half years into our relationship, could stay together.

So, when Suzannah's period was late at the end of the summer break. And then very late. And then hard-to-think-this-is-anything-other-than-because-you're-pregnant late, we were worried. The whole future you have mapped out for yourself suddenly looks parlous and you start to think of how you'll "manage" having a baby – how it will compromise things, delay your goals, maybe even stop some of them from happening.

But I refused to countenance the possibility of us actually becoming parents. Scares and close calls in the past had always turned out to be unfounded. Why should this one be any different? When Suzannah finally took a test, there was no doubt in my mind that it was negative. There wasn't time for my utter confidence to give way to another emotion, though, when she told me. I just held her as she cried. And cried.

We knew that we wouldn't have an abortion. How could we justify not going through with it, because we might find it difficult or it might change our plans? Our own actions had led to the pregnancy, failed contraception or not, and we had to accept the consequences. We created a life, we were responsible – just not happy.

That initial reaction and the first months of the pregnancy were the hardest. You always imagine that finding out you're going to be a father will be a joyous moment. And for couples who struggle for years to conceive or pay through the nose for IVF, it's more than that – it's the end of an ordeal. For us, it was the opposite.

And then there was telling people. The tropes of pregnancy dictate that this be a celebration; we had the opposite – consolation. Most people would feel compelled to follow the routine, in some form, though. So you'd get a tentative "con... gratulations?". It got to the point where we were angry at people if they reacted with anything less than exuberance, so frustrated were we at being denied the fairytale treatment. Telling Ruari, one of my oldest and closest friends, was furthest from the ideal. I was on a lunch break whilst doing work experience in London, so it wasn't the perfect time to share the news, but I knew if I didn't it would be a while before I'd get the chance again. "I've got something to tell you," I said. "It's really big news."

"She's not pregnant, is she?" he replied wearily, as a joke.

"Uh, actually, yes. That's it – we're going to have a baby," I said. But he didn't believe me. There was only quarter of an hour left until I had to be back at the office, and for 14 minutes of that, he insisted I was lying.

Even as Suzannah started to sport an unmistakable baby bump in the following months, he would shake his head with disbelief every time we met up. But I would have done exactly the same if our positions were swapped. What changed?

Suzannah and I knew we wanted to start a family eventually and we hoped that it would be with each other. We just thought it was still quite a way off, primarily because of the financial security we thought we'd accrue over time. And maybe that would have happened – but it's not a sure thing. Given that I'm hoping to get into journalism, a notoriously difficult industry, and the record levels of graduate unemployment, the notion of a "job for life" – or even a job at all – seems a bit pie-in-the-sky.

The other reason for waiting is that it would have given us more time together as a couple. And I do feel that the kind of time together we've had, that freedom, is something we won't be able to recreate. We will always be parents now, whether we're given a reprieve by a babysitter or not. So it will be different – not worse. Rather than having less time with just the two of us, we've got more time as three.

And it's not just the the quantity of time that's improved by starting a family now – it's the quality, too. If I had a successful career, yes, we'd have financial security. But I'd be back in work already, having used up my statutory two weeks' paid paternity leave. Now, all I've got on is revision – nowhere near as time-consuming as a nine-to-five job – so I can actually be present as we become a family, rather than leaving Suzannah every day to fend for herself. And when I do (fingers crossed) find work once I graduate, it's not going to be something that I end up fretting about day and night, bringing home from the office (if it's even in an office). I'm going to be on the bottom rung of the ladder looking up – there won't be anywhere lower to fall.

Once we started to appreciate that we were going to do this, to have our baby when we were both still aged 22, we started to see all these reasons for doing it that we'd never appreciated before. My dad's situation provides a stark contrast. Eight months ago he and his partner, Miranda, had their first child, Madelaine (who's now an aunty before her first birthday). They work in senior public-service jobs, so they're left with the choice of working less in jobs they've taken years to get or finding childcare that means they don't get to look after Madelaine every day. Suzannah and I, on the other hand, have no such balance to strike – we don't have careers to compromise.

One of the few drawbacks to having a baby now, though, is that it's basically ended my relationship with my grandmother, who refuses point blank to accept or even meet Isla. "You should have waited until you were a man with a job," she said. I don't feel particularly upset about it, but I have started having dreams where I'm in physical combat with her so maybe the effects go a bit deeper than I realise.

Yet I'd never have guessed our parents' reaction to becoming grandparents this soon. They've all become the doting grandparents they didn't expect to be for years. That is, except for Suzannah's stepdad (aged 35), who isn't quite at home with the title yet (we've not yet come up with a suitable one – there isn't really an accepted nomenclature for step-grandparents).

The day Isla was born, I texted my father because he was on his way to see us. Trying to play on the fact that I didn't think he'd be comfortable being a grandparent yet, I wrote: "Drive safe, Grandad." What he texted back absolutely floored me – just two words: "Ok, Dad." It felt so odd. True, yes, but unutterably weird. Of course, becoming reconciled to becoming parents and then getting excited about it doesn't mean you're any more prepared.

But the sleep deprivation from looking after Isla has been nothing compared with that during labour. Suzannah started having contractions every five minutes on a Wednesday and didn't give birth until 6.11am on the Saturday. So, having slept less than five hours in the previous 72, getting that much in a single night felt like hibernation.

How much all of this is just adapting my emotions unconsciously to suit changing conditions, I may never know. But I do know this – it doesn't really matter. The way I feel is real, adaptation or not. Isla's real. I am a father now.

Yep, still sounds weird.

John Saunders will graduate from University of Kent's Centre for Journalism this summer. www.johnwsaunders.wordpress.com

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