It’s September 2021 and next week my daughter will be leaving home to study at university. It’s a move that has been delayed by Covid, the years between finishing school and moving away marked by lockdowns, quarantines, and endless nights in playing cards and board games, fashioning playlists, making cocktails, and finessing recipes to while away the domestic tedium.
I enjoyed the lockdown because of it. It gave my wife and I the chance to enjoy the company of our daughter for one final year. Instead of trotting off to work every day, and spending the evenings in the clubs and bars of the town where we live, we got to see her.
Now that it is coming to an end, I feel a hole in my gut opening up, tears springing into my eyes, an impending emptiness. We’ll miss her terribly but it is a wonderful thing for her to be leaving, a time of excitement, meeting new friends, going to new places, discovering a whole new world.
Leaving home is a wrench for us, the latest in a long line of wrenches that mark parenthood and the fluctuating fears that ebb and flow over a lifetime. A few years after our daughter was born, my wife wrote about the first wrench, the sudden discovery of finding a new person coming into the world.
"She did not hesitate, but came quickly and violently, landing in the midwife’s hands, just after midnight, on a warm spring night. I had two feelings the moment she was born. First, that she was amazingly beautiful, a tiny human creature perfect in every detail. Second, that she was a stranger. She had come from my body, but I did not know her, or even recognise her. And I had expected to recognise her. It was as if someone had walked in off the street and placed this unknown infant into my arms. I knew then that she was an individual, someone totally separate from myself."
"We sat up in bed and stared at each other. Her face was blank, her eyes two dark saucers. She looked ghostly, scary almost. What was she thinking? What was she experiencing in those first hours of life? She had only just been expelled from the only world she had ever known to find herself here, in this cold, hard place. She stared at me, her eyes boring into me, as though trying to understand who I might be. Did she recognise me? Did she recognise my voice, my smell, the sound of my heartbeat? Or was she studying this strange being who was to be her carer and protector, the person she would come to know in time as her mother?"
"I wrote about thing a few years later from a more distant view: "When Isabel was born, I didn’t know what it meant to be a father. It was a huge shock to me. This was a new person. One day she wasn’t there and the next day she was. And we had to look after here. You can understand that on an intellectual level but to come home and have this being who does not have an off switch, who needs food and sleep and love, is something completely different on an emotional level."
So she was born and she became somebody. Katherine describes what she did as a mother: "From the moment she emerged from the dark warmth of my body into the harsh light, she had begun her journey towards herself. Every cell in her body was dedicated to the task. My role was to supply a safe, bounded place where she could get on with the job. Her personality was evident almost immediately: she was laid back, playful, hot-tempered, funny. Watching her grow was like watching a mystery unravel, an exotic flower come fully and spectacularly into bloom. At times she was a pendulum, screaming and kicking and red faced one minute, laughing and jumping and delirious with pleasure the next. It was at such moments that her struggle with that violent and beautiful thing called the human condition was most evident."
At first, I was always there to rescue her and protect her from danger. Eventually, she discovered that her mother cannot stop another child from being spiteful, cannot stop the scraped knee from hurting. Her mother cannot control the outside world, or the inside one for that matter. In the end she must learn to deal with these things herself.
I was with Isabel a lot as she grew up, staying at home some days while my wife worked. I made a book about it called All Quiet on the Home Front. It’s a book that emerged from the intense claustrophobia of being stuck in our 2 bedroom flat. I was home a lot, and the flat was cramped and messy, a place where Isabel would bounce off the walls, the chairs, the tables, and I would try and look after her. The house was a climbing frame, and a place where the stomping of feet and the constant playing would sap my patience, and my soul.
So to keep my sanity I took Isabel outside; to the canal to feed the ducks, to the park when she was young, then as she got older to these scrappy woods or rundown patches of land that became a playground for her imagination. She’d exhaust herself out there, and she’d exhaust me, but it was in a good way, in the fresh air with leaves and trees, and soil and bugs. And when she came home, she’d flop down on the sofa and watch TV, and I’d watch with her.
That’s what All Quiet on the Home Front is all about; childhood and the redirection of energies beyond the domestic arena. It’s about how the marginal landscapes that pass for the countryside in England gave a new direction to our energies, about how the sounds, the smells and the sights of nature can enervate the soul and a father daughter relationship.
There are snippets of text in the book that look at parenthood as something both never-ending but as something that is also marked with constant psychological conflict and loss. As Isabel found herself questioning my existence and relevance, I found myself wondering what might have been if we hadn’t had a child. You can definitely have more kinds of fun if you are not looking after a kid.
I wondered at the constant change that occurred whenever Isabel grew up, and how that change became tinged with loss. I still remember the tears on my wife’s face when Isabel became able to move her head, or crawl, or walk, or go to school.
All Quiet on the Home Front was a monument to that. It marked a time when I could go to the woods with my daughter, when I could swing on rope swings with her, or eat biscuits and drink chocolate milk on the edge of a rock face. I loved that, but she grew up and it ended. 'I thought being that father in the landscape would go on forever.
All Quiet on the Home Front ended with these words, "But Isabel grew up and so did I. Now I am waiting to become something new."
Now she’s off to university and I’ve been looking back at the book. The title now has a new meaning as the impending separation and the distance between us hits home; she will no longer be present in our lives in the way that she used to be. We will have to fill that gap, provide that energy, joy for life, and way of looking at the world that is enervating and exciting and open to different ways of thinking. We’ll either become fossilised in our habits, our music, our language, our culture or find new ways to explore the world.
I wrote something while making All Quiet on the home Front, Isabel was eight when she started doubting my existence. “What if there’s only me and you’re just in my mind?” After she said it I suddenly felt my approaching redundancy. The father I had once been would soon be irrelevant so I’d have to become something new. But the relationship I had with Isabel’s 8-year-old self is not the same as the one I had with her 12-year-old self or her 15-year-old self. It would be sad if it was.
And by the same token, as she disappears over the horizon into her new life, we’ll make a new relationship, we’ll become new people, and we’ll be better for it. That’s the way it always was and that is the way it will always be. It has to be that way. Amen!
By Colin Pantall
Colin Pantall is a writer, photographer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His photography is about childhood and the mythologies of family identity.
All Quiet on the Home Front is available here.
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