Nappy-changing practical. Fail

November 4, 2005

A new baby has left Kevin Fong exhausted and wondering if life will ever be the same

Becoming a parent is one of those things that nobody really warns you about when you're making life plans. People say "Just wait until you have kids" with a grin and a shake of their heads, as if it's just a speed bump you kind of have to get over before hitting those career high notes.

But I've recently become a dad for the first time, and it suddenly seems impossible to imagine that I will ever be able to do anything ever again; spare time has become an abstract concept, along with sleep. I'm already thinking about trying to extend my paternity leave by a decade or two.

So this year I'm organising and taking a new course - Fatherhood 101. There are a few teething problems: it's a course I've never taught before; I'm entirely unfamiliar with the syllabus material; it's a subject in which I have absolutely no qualifications; and the in-course assessments are a killer. I've already failed the Nappy Changing practical, and next week I face the notoriously impossible-to-pass First Trip in the Car module.

The educational aspects of child rearing represent slightly more familiar ground and something I thought I could perhaps get my arms around. After researching the topic (OK, if I'm being honest, after a quick web search and a couple of daytime television items), I've decided to start with classical music, which they say encourages creative and mathematical ability. But this required a little creative thought of my own because my classical music library is, shall we say, a little thin. I've got round that problem by kicking off my son's education with a little bit of Debussy ( Clair de Lune from the soundtrack to Ocean's Eleven ) and a bit of Barber (Adagio for Strings from the soundtrack to Platoon ). If he gets bored with those, I'm in a bit of trouble as the only other quasi-classical tune on the shelf is the theme tune to Star Wars .

Fatherhood, it is fair to say, has transformed the way I look at the world.

Now when I wander down the corridors at the college and I spot accomplished academics who are also parents, all I want to do is stop them and ask: "How on earth did you manage it?" I do know that one of my colleagues cycles to work with his daughter on the back of his bike, sticks her in a cot in his office and cracks on with churning out top-quality research. All very well, but when they built that family they appear to have included a lot of bionic parts; my son and I, on the other hand, are mere flesh and blood.

Desperate for helpful hints, I have begun canvassing opinion. Last week, on the edges of a conference, I ran into a helpful professor of astronomy who on discovering that I was a sleepless new father began a sentence of reassurance, telling me not to worry because "even though it's exhausting and it looks like you've got no spare time right now, things improve markedly after..." and then he tailed off, distracted by the strand of another conversation, leaving me hanging on the end of a thread.

Things improve after what? After the first few weeks? After the first few months? After they go to nursery? I had to know the answer: "Prof," I said, tugging on his jacket, imploring him to finish his advice, "when do things improve?" He turned to me and picked up where he had left off: "Oh, yes!"

he smiled. "Things usually get much better once they've left university."

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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