“Voicemail has 1 new message. Please dial 121”.
For some reason, probably lodged deep within my psyche, this innocuous text message never fails to fill me with dread. I’m usually getting on with my day quite happily and then… Someone needs to talk to me. I have no idea who it might be. They will probably want me to do something. Or at least need me to call them back. It could be urgent. Maybe it’s bad news.
In an instant my blissful, carefree world is punctured by a nagging doubt; a psychological stone in my shoe.
I avoid listening to the message for as long as a can, keeping my attention on the kids and pretending that I can get on with life for a few more hours as though nothing had changed. But I can’t help not knowing.
Inevitably I give in and listen.
“Good morning Mr X, this is Y, the health visitor. I’ve seen you’ve recently registered yourself and the children at the surgery, and if it’s alright with you I’d like to come and visit you at home to see how you are all doing. Perhaps next Wednesday? If you could give me a call back and let me know if that’s possible I would appreciate it. Thank you”.
Though hardly terrifying, it was certainly unexpected. Since taking over care of the kids in November I’d carried out my role in an off-grid way. We were registered at the GP but had never been. I’d never had the baby weighed; I didn’t even know where the local clinic was. We existed somewhere between our kitchen, the local park, and Pizza Express, and that was perfectly good for us. I hadn’t expected that at some point we would need to interact with ‘the system’.
I wondered how had she had known to call me and not my wife. I don’t think I ticked ‘stay at home dad’ on any forms. Was I being checked up on? Did they doubt my competence? I know the health visitor visits every new baby, but ours was now seven months old. Aren’t these visits usually only in the first few weeks?
With paranoia setting in I returned the call. It went to her voicemail. I did my best to sound composed and told her next Wednesday would be fine.
The day arrives
Fast-forward a week and the day arrives. With the stairgates closed, plug sockets covered, evidence of formula-feeding removed (how else would she think I fed the baby?), and children in clean clothes, I awaited my fate.
The doorbell rang. My toddler launched himself into the situation with gusto. He wanted to show her his train set. She was glad to be shown it. She suggested they play a card game together; he was appreciative of having someone new to play with.
I made us both a cup of tea. We talked potty training and language development. Toddler did a great job of showcasing some of the more impressive recent additions to his vocabulary. We talked about entertaining him, and the activities available at the local children’s centre.
We talked about the baby. About feeding (with not a hint of condescension about the formula), vaccinations, his weight and sleep and his entertainment and development.
And we talked about me. About how wonderful it was for me to have the opportunity to look after my children full-time. We talked about my mental health and general wellbeing. About the importance of sleep and keeping my batteries recharged between the rough nights. We talked about my doubts, concerns, and frustrations with parenthood.
It dawned on me afterwards that I had probably been treated in exactly the same way that any mum would have been. It wasn’t an abridged, man-friendly version of the conversation for the stereotypical hapless dads who head off to the pub at the first whiff of a dirty nappy. We covered everything; there was no topic off-limits. I was treated as a serious parent, as competent as anyone at looking after children albeit still able to learn a few tricks of the trade.
I know not everyone’s experience of the health visitor is as rosy as this. I know that some of them can be old-fashioned and sometimes judgmental. But in this case I needn’t have been worried. We parted company with her visit having done me and the boys the world of good.