You’d be forgiven for assuming from the breezy cover that Love, Dad is a freewheeling guide to fathering perfect for any dad-to-be. That’s partly true if you wanted to give prospective parents an eyes-wide-open look at what it means to have children and juggle an artistic career, as Steed confronts the mental health impacts of keeping both those balls in the air.
Not that there isn’t humour here. Steed has a turn of vernacular and a take on modern parenting that hitches up a reader’s smile, but his humour is one of a number of ways he deals with the arrival of his sons just as his literary career is taking its first tentative steps. Steed aims to be ‘a present, tired and committed parent’ but finds himself wondering ‘how anyone does anything other than being a mum or a dad, such are the demands and responsibilities of the role’. It is a statement familiar to any parent who has thought that if parenting were an advertised job, they’d never apply for it.
Steed takes a drudge job that gives him the ‘drizzling s**s’ and finds himself growing unhappier, putting on weight and showing signs his anxiety is overtaking him. The breadwinner role feels like the default from fathers of previous generations that Steed has to grind through. It is writing that saves him – even when he’s taking an unpaid gig at a lifestyle festival (just upstairs from a room full or crystals and head massagers) he still enjoys talking about his craft. Like many artists he patches together a career in between parenting and caring for his own father who is in declining health.
While he owns his privilege including of gender (‘Being a dad is undoubtedly easier than being a mum,’ he acknowledges), Steed is searching for a masculinity that can get him through parenting. The passing on of the baton from his own father is interrupted by illness just as Steed needs his father most at the birth of his first son, so he searches out a broader community of support. He finds it sometimes in other writers, including a translated exchange with a Bulgarian writer, which leaves both men in tears as they share their feelings of inadequacy. It seems the isolation of being a father is compounded by the garret life of a writer. Family both intrude and give Steed the connection he needs but may not always want – breaking the peace of the office may be good for connection, but bad for his manuscript.
At times Love, Dad feels episodic, perhaps reflecting that pieces were originally written as stand-alone essays. Or was the writing done in stolen moments between parenting duties when the short chapters were the easiest to create? It gives the book a readable tempo, pulling you from one piece to the next. Steed is not offering up a how-to masterplan, but more the empathy of watching an apprenticeship as he develops two crafts. He draws it together with the last chapter ‘Accepting’, a present tense solution for his own worries, not the smugness of the past or an easy optimism for the future. Rather, he gives us a candid account of how he is making the contradictions of parenting and art making work.
Love, Dad: Confessions of an Anxious Father, Laurie Steed
Publisher: Freemantle Press
Release Date: 1 August 2023