"Never interrupt a man who is counting out spoons of Apatmil!"

William Sitwell / 06 May 2019

Writer and TV presenter William Sitwell’s response to approaching his half-century was to become a father – again. What's it like second time around?



The number 50 is no longer a distant ship on the horizon. It’s now a tsunami about to hit the shoreline, from which there is no escape. So what has my plan been? How should I deal with things in my 50th year? As grey hairs fight for dominance on top, as limbs are like brittle twigs in the morning, as hangovers are more painful and longer-lasting, as I can no longer eat beef at night if I want to sleep and avoid a bubbling volcano of acid in my throat, as I fuss more about ends meeting and the making thereof and as I realise that paradise is a double bill of The Chase, what do I do? Well, I’ll tell you. I had a baby. Well, OK, we had a baby. Emily and I, married now for a year and a half, agreed the consignment of, then oversaw the delivery of (well, I oversaw and she personally actioned) Walter.

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And so here he is. Born on 15 October 2018 to a beautiful mother and a father who really, really knows exactly what he’s doing. That’s right; a diversionary tactic from the reality of being plunged head-first into middle age. ‘Good luck with the baby,’ friends said. And some of them wished that luck with a double meaning. I could sense it. I might be something of the order of 50 years of age but I’m not completely gaga, yet. It was a straightforward wish to Emily that all would go well with the birth, but to me it was more ‘Good luck with that you madman, having a baby at your age and time in life.’ Some friends were even that specific. ‘You’re having a baby? You must be mad!’

Daddy deja vu

They did not need to remind me of what happens. I had after all been there before, some 17 and 14 years previously. I thought back to the time when the nappy bin and the steriliser had left the house. Thank God that’s out the way, I had thought to myself and doubtless said to anyone within earshot.

But here I was, years later, welcoming in another era of nappies and Sudocrem and baby monitors and bottle- washing and spooning out seven measures of Aptamil without losing count. (Was that seven? Or six or eight? I always did struggle with maths – once again new domestic laws must be imposed: NEVER INTERRUPT A MAN WHO IS COUNTING OUT SPOONS OF APTAMIL!) And sleepless nights.

Yet, while this was new territory for Emily, I had ridden over this ground. Twice. I’ve been there. I have T-shirts and badges and medals. Make way. I can command this land, I know its people. I speak the language.

To those raising eyebrows at my prospect of renewed fatherhood, I dismissed them; flicked them away like some annoying fly. Rest assured, I explained to Emily, be calm. Trust me. I know how this goes. From folding prams, to harnessing papooses, from assembling travel cots to installing car seats… been there. Not a problem.

As I pondered these details in the time leading up to and surrounding Walter’s birth, I must admit that two other fundamentals seemed to slip off the radar. Warmth and stability. Radiators and income are two things that many new mothers might quite reasonably wish for.

For some time I had felt that the heating system needed renewing. Our home is old and often cold. The big old rads barely worked: their insides silted no doubt, their valves clearly rusted and leaky.

So over the summer of 2018 I engaged heating engineers and plumbers and, in readiness of their starting work in September, disengaged the oil tanks and got in a man to scrap them. That all went well until the plumber informed me that work would start in January. Which meant no heating, all winter.

As for stability, well, I only went and got flippant with a vegan. She got cross with me after I issued what seemed to me at the time to be a perfectly reasonable death threat to her and her ilk. She told the press about it, all hell broke loose and ten days after Walter was born I lost my job. So much for hot rads and a monthly pay packet.

So we decamped to Somerset, to the warmth of Emily’s mother’s home from where I would, at least, be able to demonstrate my baby-managing prowess. After all, I’d quit my job so had plenty of time on my hands now to show what a master of the nursery I was.

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By the book

First, I did what any normal loving husband and father of a newborn would do. I ordered a copy of Gina Ford’s Contented Little Baby Book. Want to know how babies work? It’s all in there. Armed with her copy Emily would then be up to speed with Walter and I’d be able to sit down and watch The Chase. And other daytime telly. My, how the afternoons have improved since I entered the 9-5 job market some 30 years ago. Back then it was basically three channels and Bergerac. Now you can still watch Bergerac, but there are old episodes of Morse and Poirot and films and Judge Rinder. The problem is that while there’s plenty of Poirot in the afternoon there’s also something called Amazon. You try working out whodunnit with endless interruptions of packages arriving. And, my, did they arrive. Boxes and boxes of nappies and creams and ointments and baby baths and nappy-bin refills and bottles and on and on.

There’s not much worse inconvenience in this life than watching Judge Rinder deliver his mighty wisdom and being interrupted by an Eastern European brandishing an enormous box that won’t fit through the front door.

This wasn’t working, I needed to get a little more hands-on. After all, as a member of the very slightly older dad club, I wasn’t alone. I’d seen Daniel Craig papped with a papoose. Hadn’t Jeff Goldblum posted a picture of his baby with him in the bath? Robert De Niro had a child at the age of 68 and Hugh Grant didn’t start his flurry of offspring until he hit 50.

And we had that book, right? We just need to follow the timetables here and once he’s in a routine it’ll be a breeze, I told Emily. For the first few weeks of Walter’s life we both walked around clutching the Gina Ford tome like lost tourists.

We went down to Cornwall for a few days of fresh sea air. Not before packing the car. And not before working out how to fold the pram. Not having the patience to read instructions, I ended up looking like a man who’d been attacked by a deckchair.

YouTube to the rescue

Emily suggested YouTube. Genius. There’s a man there pressing buttons and showing how it’s done. Unfortunately, there isn’t a video that shows a middle-aged man how to pack a fairly large car with pram, bouncy chair, steriliser, travel cot, towels and muslins, nappies, babygros, baby clothes for four days and our own small cases. I packed the car and looked down at Cyrus, our now-forlorn Labrador. ‘I’m sorry,’ I told him. No holiday for you. There was barely room for me in the driving seat.

As all parents realise, babies like nothing more than sleeping in cars. We drove in peace towards our little holiday, with me thinking of all these renewed possibilities. Unfolding the pram and putting on that papoose sling, for example (if I hadn’t thrown away the instructions; there wouldn’t have been room to pack them anyway). Let’s hope there’s WiFi for YouTube down there…

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