Here is the news: I didn’t have a dad either
Celebrity scandal came from an unlikely source this week. BBC journalist and news presenter Justin Webb admitted that he was the son of a former BBC news reader, Peter Woods, born after Woods had an affair with Webb’s mother in the early 60s. Okay, so it’s not right up there with Jordan and Alex, but the finer detail caught my attention.
Webb revealed he felt he had spent his formative years without a “proper” father. He knew who his father was, saw him on television, but at the same time was starkly aware that this man from whom he had inherited 50% of his chromosomes had a life and a family elsewhere. Apart from one brief encounter during infancy, father and son never met face to face.
While Justin Webb’s mother eventually married (and Justin took his stepfather’s surname), Webb claims to have missed something. He feels it has informed his own attitudes to fatherhood, and his revelations (coming now that his parents are dead) have been prompted by his own children asking about his past.
All this chimes very loudly with me.
I was the product of an affair too. My mother was unmarried, my father (a friend of the family) married to someone else. The difference between my story and Webb’s is that my mother never married after I was born. She brought me up with the help and support of HER mum. This was about ten years after Justin Webb was born and attitudes had not become much more enlightened (although Webb’s mother was dismissed from her job for becoming pregnant).
My father tried to deny my existence and fought shy of supporting my mum financially. She took him to court and won.
My battle was in my head, and in the playground. As a child I felt… different. Around other children and their families, at school concerts, parents evenings, sports days, I was the one with just my mum there.
It felt awkward when school work turned to the subject of what our dads did for a job. Children, being children, noticed my situation, of course. And children, being children, would ask, with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball, “why haven’t you got a dad?”
“Because I haven’t,” was the usual, somewhat feeble reply.
I remember my mother giving me the same answer. I remember only one occasion asking her who my father was. When she told me I didn’t believe her.
As time went by and I got older I felt the awkwardness easing a bit. Perhaps growing older was putting some distance between me and the circumstances of my birth, diluting the essence of it. At the same time I felt mature enough to confront the gaps in my history and ask some questions.
When I was 18, I met my father for the only time I can remember. He had moved back to Canada but was over in Britain to see his sons by his marriage. He was staying with a mutual friend of my mum and we all arranged to meet in a local pub.
When we arrived, he had one of his sons in tow. His kids didn’t know about me and it was abundantly clear they weren’t about to find out. My dad barely acknowledged me all evening. Had I wanted I could have pulled the pin and blown the lid off, but I didn’t. It was all I needed to know. It closed a chapter.
Now I’m a father I wonder if my lack of a paternal influence has affected my own parenting. To be honest I think it made me a paternal blank slate. No point of reference nor embedded skills. I don’t know what works, so I work it out myself (with, of course, everything I learned from my mum).
My own boys noticed early on the lack of symmetry in the grandparenting numbers. Where was Nana’s husband? they asked. The answers have evolved, from merely, “he died,” (true, many years ago now) to, “he didn’t live with us”.
Unlike Justin Webb I don’t feel the need to explain for their benefit about the grandfather they never had. To do so would seem akin to breathing life back into him. I have no desire to do that. One point Webb made did resonate though.
He said his father was a presence in his life and a lack of presence all in one. Even though my absentee dad was not a television personality, I know what he means.