The Pram in the Hall: Fatherhood, Writing and Self

Philosopher Damon Young shares how fatherhood has changed him – as a writer, a thinker and a man. Changing nappies at three in the morning may be taxing, he says, but viewing the world afresh through a child’s eyes has made him a better philosopher and author.

I’m sitting at a cafe, laptop on the tiny faux-marble table, the dried corpse of an espresso beside me. This is my daily ritual; my confession and communion.

Every few days, a stranger stops, stoops down to my creased brow, and asks: ‘Are you a writer?’ The answer is ‘yes,’ with a half-smile that perhaps suggests I’m happy to say so, but weary of minutes stolen from my work.

I work in public not because I’m a poser (I am, of course), but because I have a three-year-old daughter at home. And on weekends, my school-aged son, too. While I can write in the study – with the noise of five stuffed toys yelling ‘Ipsy-Whipsy Spider’ and my son’s detailed deliberations on Boba Fett’s Mandalorian armour – I prefer the cafe. It is what Sartre rightly called a ‘milieu of indifference’. Aside from the odd curious soul, no one cares about my manuscript with its red crosses and editor’s quips, or my insane deadline.

I have two or three hours to myself – that is to say, two or three hours to think, write and earn a living. Then I will walk home, make lunch, take care of my daughter (a pink whirlwind), cook dinner, make tomorrow’s kindergarten and school lunches, clean the lounge – then juggle the balls known as work, marriage and leisure.

Cyril Connolly, in his Enemies of Promise, symbolised the relationship between parenthood and art with a single trope: the pram in the hall. ‘There is no more sombre enemy of art,’ wrote the English critic, ‘than the pram in the hall’.

There is some truth to this. Children certainly introduce a new conflict into the creative life: between parents, and within each psyche. Particularly for mothers – usually the primary caregivers – but also for committed fathers, kids require ongoing sacrifice: of hours and energy.

Even after a good sleep (note the ‘even’), I cannot think about the specifics of Plato’s Pythagoreanism and properly play Lego; cannot walk my son to school and dash off 800 publishable words for Fairfax; cannot wrestle with my motormouth daughter and have a conversation with my wife about William James and the psychology of character. I miss launches, festivals, panels, seminars – because I am chopping zucchini or trying to put pyjamas on a giggling, quacking sociopath. And then there is the logistical to-and-fro of marriage: many of my hours for work are purchased at the cost of my wife’s, and vice versa.

Some of this is rare, of course. Most couples take up the traditional division of labour: the man works, the woman stays at home. But even for mainstream families, the pram in the hall works its dark magic: the many minutes lost to homework, birthdays, school run; the intellectual fog of days conversing with an animated toddler, while part of the psyche longs for the asylum of quiet thought. At the very least, it pushes deeper the wedge between couples, as their daily rhythms and routines grow apart.

But Cyril Connolly was a bit soft. Children take their toll, of course. But if my career has suffered, my vocation has not. I am a better philosopher and author for my two monsters. Let me give a handful of examples.

Most obviously, I am more disciplined. I do not have the luxury of a full working day. My columns, books, radio interviews, talks – they are packed into short sessions of one to three hours. As a father of two, I now write more before lunch than I did in a day. I am more prolific, committed, judicious; less precious, dithering, vague. This is not simply because I don’t have the minutes to waste. It is also because in two hours I’ll be cutting out a cardboard Princess Leia or writing spelling lessons for my daughter, and I don’t want to have half my tiny mind still toying with Schopenhauer. I want to be genuinely there.

Fatherhood has also been rejuvenating. Not always physically: oddly, changing nappies at three in the morning can be taxing. But it has renewed my consciousness. First, by nudging me back to my own childhood: to forgotten zeal, haste, venom; to the incredible weakness of absolute dependence and its (seeming) arbitrariness. Second, to the astonishing facts of ordinary life, which are given for adults, but often irresistibly fascinating for children: insects’ zigzagging, human anatomy, the sensuality of sand. ‘The world is a bird with red, green and yellow feathers,’ wrote Nikos Kazantzakis. ‘How the child hunts this bird and tries to catch it.’ For me, children remove the bird’s camouflage.

As an author, parenthood has also been a psychological education. Someone once compared a baby to a hand grenade thrown into a marriage. But if this is so, it’s not simply because it is destructive, but also because it’s like a stun grenade: a bright flash, which suddenly (and perhaps painfully) sheds light on the psyche. It illuminates parts of oneself and others – spouse, parents, strangers – that were previously hazy or vague. It reveals tensions, impulses, biases, fantasies – and all with the intensity of higher stakes. To mix metaphors, children are floodlights into psychological architecture. Good philosophy, fiction and poetry can thrive with this confronting clarity.

These rewards are no obvious compensation when the household is sapped by quadruple influenza, or the weekend stolen by birthday parties. They’re tough to remember when the train ravings of a three-year-old have anaesthetised the mind.

But the literary virtues of parenthood are real, and I am – to get a little hip-hop for a moment – more ‘real’ for them.

Join us at the Wheeler Centre at 6.15pm tonight for What Men Really Think About … Fatherhood.

Series presenter Kim Tarrant will talk to journalist Martin Flanagan, educator and therapist Timothy O’Leary and father of five Kevin Fitzgerald. This is a free event, but bookings are recommended.

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