When you first become a parent, it's pretty scary. The responsibility is awesome, the potential for disaster vast and variegated. There are so many things that can go wrong and when they do, it'll all be on you. It's hard to think of anything more terrifying than being responsible for a child.
Of course, you quickly get used to it, even enjoy it, and although it remains a little frightening, having kids turns out to be pretty great most of the time. And eventually there comes a time when you discover that there is definitely something more terrifying than being responsible for a child: being responsible for someone else's child.
I love my kids. They are brilliant. I wish they didn't have to go to school, because I'd rather they stay with me, just hanging out. But I get on so well with my kids because they are, in fact, my kids. I am not one of those mysterious beings who is "good with children" – I'm good with my own, and that's where my powers reach their limit. But that's not enough, because as your kids get older, they make friends, and those friends come over to your house, and to the parties your kids throw, and they're on the sports teams your kids join.
It's the sports that are killing me. Last year I allowed myself to be drafted, against my better judgment, as coach of my son's cricket team – a sport which, though hopeless at it, I at least understand pretty well – and this year I've somehow ended up coaching my daughter's basketball team – a sport for which I barely know the rules. And if being a father is nerve-wracking, it's got nothing on being a coach.
All these children. You have to keep them under control. You have to try to impart good values. You have to get them to listen to you. You have to hopefully not scar them for life, physically or emotionally. And you have to do all this while painfully cognisant of the fact that they're not your kids and if you make a mistake, a furious parent will come down upon you like a wolf on the fold. My own parenting failures I can keep private: if I do the wrong thing with these kids I'm in for a public mauling.
And what makes it fiendishly difficult is, I don't even know what the wrong thing is. Every parent has different standards. How far am I allowed to discipline someone else's child before they go running to mummy and mummy comes gunning for me? I would be horrified if some stranger punished my child over-harshly, which is totally reasonable because obviously my parenting settings are calibrated to utter perfection. Unfortunately, every other parent thinks the same thing, and I don't know whether my telling some rowdy little bugger to sit down and shut up will result in their mum and dad telling me not to be so soft on the boy, or calling the cops on me.
But it's not just fear of my fellow parents' wrath that leaves me fearing every party, play date or training session like I used to fear year 8 art class (they made us cut lino – wtf?). It's the kids themselves. Ever since I was a little kid, I've been intimidated by kids. They made fun of me then, and I have a dark, desperate dread that they're still making fun of me now. I face down a group of seven-year-olds, and though I know I'm the one in charge, I'm the one giving the orders … I can't help thinking they don't like me, and the seven-year-old who's still inside me breaks down and cries. You'd think the inferiority complex that plagued you in primary school would dissipate by the time you had children of your own: turns out it can actually intensify. Feeling inferior to third-graders is vaguely acceptable when you're a third-grader yourself: when you're 37 it's just pathetic.
And they can tell. I know they can. They know I'm pathetic. Kids have a sixth sense for this. In fact it's more like their first sense – I think it develops before the ears. I remember being a kid. I remember knowing instinctively which are the cool adults, and which are the lame ones. And my friends, I am not one of the cool ones. I'd probably make jokes behind my own back if I could.
So it's kind of a perfect storm of fear, insecurity and stress headaches. Trying to nurture the next generation while worrying that their parents will tear you to pieces for damaging their precious babies, making whatever feebly transparent attempts you can to get them to like you while knowing that they never will, and somehow also teaching them how to perform a successful lay-up – it's exhausting. I'm not sure anyone this neurotic should even be allowed to be in charge of children, though I tell myself probably all the other parents feel the same way. Don't they? Please say yes. I need this.
I guess what it comes down to is the curse that falls upon the head of every parent: caring. Once you start reproducing, you can't help yourself: you start to care about things, and you just can't stop. That this caring could extend to mites with whom I don't even share any DNA is unexpected and kind of sad, but it is a burden I will continue to carry, because when you see the joy in their little faces, it all becomes … well, not "worth it", exactly, but it's nice. It's really nice.