On a sunny Saturday afternoon last week, my wife, son and I had a picnic in our local park. A younger, childless couple walked past. They smiled, giggled with the baby and walked on. Then suddenly, it hit me: they think we're having fun.
We all make assumptions about the lives of parents. Almost universally, these are completely wrong. Now that I'm a dad, I know the truth: nothing is ever quite as it seems.
There is no question that the picnic was a blast. The fresh air, the winter sun, the tasty baguettes. The sound of my son as he wavered between happy, perplexed and distressed. On paper, this is parental nirvana. Except that it was a complete and utter façade.
We were in the park because we were trying to keep him awake. This new technique of sleep deprivation, as advocated by parentcraft nurses, is an attempt to regulate his cycles. So far, it has predominantly led to a prolongation of the screamfest that precedes each nap. We have found a new level of pain, and we're sticking with it.
It also means we need to find ways to stop him falling asleep. Our tiny mundane house turns quickly soporific, so we distract him by changing his environment. On this particular afternoon, that meant a trip to the park.
To the couple observing the picnic, it all looked planned. Here was the ideal baby, smiling at a dog. Here are his parents, lounging around enjoying the atmosphere. But here is the reality: we haven't slept in five and half months.
That couple may have walked away thinking it was possible to have a child who doesn't interfere with your life. They may even think a baby makes everything more pleasant. By sitting in the park, we perpetuated the greatest myth of all: that not all babies are tiny, chubby wrecking balls.
I can recall thinking the same before he was born. I remember seeing a couple in a restaurant with a baby and assuming that would happen to us, too. For some reason, it never struck me that I never seemed to see any other placid infants out and about after six in the evening.
There probably are exceptions. I am definitely aware of some babies who will tolerate anything. Some sleep on cue, and others can adapt to any situation. But there are swathes out there who can't, and this is rarely understood by those going into parenthood.
So when our little guy came along, all plans fell to dust. His lovingly assembled cot lay untouched for months. The soft, new mattress may as well have been covered in spikes. His immediate and sustained reaction to prostration was that of sheer terror.
We killed off our pre-baby fantasies one by one. No more restaurants. No leaving him with a babysitter while we relaxed. No evening glasses of wine together to celebrate the success of our parenting.
Instead, having a baby has been about survival; more ours than his. Every day has been simply about trying to get to the next. Even now that he's settling into the world, we don't really have time for ourselves. The brief periods in which he sleeps are taken up by the ever-growing list of residual chores.
After almost six months, I have come to terms with this balance. I know that it will improve, or, at least, change its form. Parenting is probably an ever-evolving obstacle course with each level more challenging than the last.
But, like anything difficult, we have grown in the process. As individuals we have tested our limits and as a couple we have discovered our strengths. Our son has dared us to push the boundaries of sanity. Through love for him, we have learnt there is no end.
So maybe that couple will go off and start talking about kids. Maybe they will decide that it doesn't look so bad after all, that maybe they should do it too. Their life as they know it won't be destroyed. Not by their child, surely?
And maybe they will be mistaken, like we were, like so many others were before us. To them I would say this: go for it. I've never been so happy to be wrong in my life.