Raising life

"Was your child asleep?" I ask the slightly drawn figure beside me in the pub. "Oh, no," he smiles, "I slipped away before all that started." Neighbouring heads nod in conspiratorial agreement. Fed and bathed, yes, but not yet in cot. That's how we have left our babies for this dads' night out.

Not that we neglect them. But 7.30pm on a Sunday is a great time for a drink. You feel entitled, having been up since dawn to catch Teletubbies. There's time to enjoy a guilt-free evening and still be tucked up well before the first cry of the night. Bottles of Chimay all round, at pounds 3 a slug. Why not? If you don't do this often, you deserve the best that Belgian monks can brew.

We're recalling when we last met up. "Summer," I say. "No, no, April," says another. April. Hmmm. Some of our partners, particularly those not back at work, meet weekly, chatting in front rooms, trying to stop the children sticking their fingers in electric sockets. So we know a little, albeit secondhand, about each other's children - illnesses, whether they can walk, which nursery they attend. But there hasn't been much chance, apart from first birthday parties, for the men to get to know one another personally. When we're at home, at night or at weekends, the nuclear family tends to close in on itself.

So we're thirsting to talk, eager to check out the commonality of our experiences. Pre-parenthood, we might have discussed work, football, music, women. Not now. There is only one subject. Whose baby is doing what. Who has checked out schools: state and private. It's partly competitive, partly reassuring. It seems sad we can't praise each other's kids in the way the mothers do. We don't know the children well enough.

"So how often do you go out together as a couple?" someone asks tentatively. "Once a fortnight," comes a confident reply. Several looks of stoical resignation. We continue chatting. "You mean you've hardly ever been out together, on your own, in over a year?" queries one father. Embarrassed silence. Sympathetic murmurings. We move on.

I'm recalling the first time the five of us met. We were standing on all fours in a living-room, attending a pre-birth class. "Imagine you have a pencil in your anus," declared a woman towering above us. "You're writing your name with it." We did it willingly, to understand what our partners faced. We so wanted to do the right thing.

And now, we seem just as willing, but still green about what comes next. "Let's meet again soon," we agree, as we peel off into the night. "April?" "No, let's make it March."

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