My daughter is learning to drive and I’m giving her practice in my son’s car.
“Don’t crash it,” he says as she flips the keys from the hook by the front door.
She ignores him while I think how incredibly unhelpful his comment is to a nervous driver, especially one who is about to take his daughter out for some practice.
In the car, I sit back in my seat with my feet pressed into the floor, ready to step on the invisible brake should it be required.
My father, when he was teaching me to drive, used to put his hand on the dashboard as if he was permanently about to prevent himself from careering through the windscreen as a result of some catastrophic mistake I’d made.
My daughter seems perfectly comfortable and in control.
“I don’t have long so we’ll just do half an hour,” I tell her.
“OK, do you have a client?”
“No, I have my writing group,”
She pulls out past a row of parked cars and I see a van coming in the other direction.
“Careful, do you think you should just..”
“It’s fine dad, there’s plenty of room.”
Then she says,
“Are there men in your writing group?”
“No, I think I’m the only one.”
She pauses, smoothly moving the car through the gears while I stare intently at a dog on the pavement convinced he’s about to slip his lead and run under the car.
“Well, I expect you fit in OK because you’re quite feminine,” she says.
“That’s the second time you’ve questioned my masculinity in the past month or so,” I tell her.
She laughs. “It’s not a criticism.”
It feels a little like one. I have never found it easy to get that balance between being a man but expressing emotion too.
“Was grandad like you?”
“There were different expectations on men then,” I tell her, “I couldn’t have imagined him at the birth of his children for example.”
My daughter raises her eyes and, pulling up at a junction, looks at me, “Really?”
“Keep your eyes on the road. Yes, it wasn’t expected that men would be involved so much with children. Take the next left.”
We drive in silence for a few moments,
“You know when Tom was born even my mother and sister were surprised I changed his nappies.”
“Do you think grandad changed mum’s nappies?’ She laughs
“I don’t think grandad even changes his own socks,” I reply “Although, in fairness, he just slips his feet into his shoes.”
“Yeah, but his feet are terrible because he is a diabetic who only drinks cider,” she points out.
I think about my children’s two grandfathers. One, so unemotional I can’t remember any example of vulnerability in all the thirty-plus years I’ve known him. The other, so vulnerable and soft that it was hard to find anything to respect, however hard I tried.
As we pull up back at home I say to my daughter, “You’re really improving. I can see your confidence growing.”
She smiles, gets out of the car and I think about how much she looks like her mother, and how lucky children are to have mothers that are still so good at filling in the gaps left by their fathers.