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Ben Crane: ‘I struggle with the magnitude of being a father.’ Photograph: The Guardian

Learning to be a father: ‘I​ could connect with another species but not my own son’

Unable to bond with his young boy, Ben Crane fled the family home – but his work with birds helped him become the father he wanted to be

WT24 Desk

In the delivery room, at the end of a gruelling 90-hour labour, Ben Crane was handed his newborn son – but something was wrong. The only thing Crane felt was a rising sense of dread and panic. As he looked down at his baby, he realised he didn’t feel the ecstatic love that so many men say they feel when they hold their child for the first time, according to The Guardian.

“I cut his umbilical cord, and I didn’t feel anything,” he tells me, six years later. “It was just a blank void. I was holding this bag of information that I had created.”

And things got worse: born with jaundice, his son was whipped away by medical staff. Before long, the ward was swamped with visitors, Crane on the outside looking in, his son marooned in an incubator. He was failing to connect with his child, but couldn’t tell anyone because he was crippled by shame. “I just felt a total failure as a human being, and I didn’t know why.”

Crane left his new partner and returned to the isolated Shropshire cottage where he had lived when his son was born. There, he left everything behind, including falconry, a craft he had become fascinated with in his 20s and which had seen him travel the world.

Jobless and estranged from his son in the Shropshire countryside, he lived simply, foraging for food, claiming jobseeker’s allowance and watching the seasons change. Slowly, Crane recovered. The solitude and space, along with counselling, helped him understand what had gone wrong in his life, and that living closer to nature was the key to his survival.

Perhaps most importantly, he received a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome in his 40s. Things started to make sense.***

Two years passed. Then one day his ex-partner – “An incredible woman, who had the emotional intelligence I lacked at that time” – got in touch to say that their son, now aged five, wanted to know him. Crane had not planned to see him until he was 11 or so, thinking he would be more ready at that age, but the boy’s mother persuaded him.

“She knew he needed a dad. She said: ‘He’s asking to see you, he’s a really nice kid, Ben. He’s amazing, he’s so beautiful, and intelligent. Come and see him.”

Crane found himself wondering, “How come I can be so connected to hawks, another species altogether, but I can’t love my son?” He decided seeing his son was the right thing to do. They had kept in touch over the two years they were apart, with Crane sending photos and funny cartoons, so they weren’t total strangers. But nothing could prepare him for the shock of meeting his boy again.

When the car pulled in, “I didn’t recognise him. I saw him bouncing around in the back, he was so excited. I was nervous, because I hadn’t seen his mother for years. But she was amazing.”

The boy ran and jumped into his arms with full force, and smothered him in jammy kisses.

“I wasn’t anything other than his dad. It was everything I needed,” Crane says. “There was a moment he was running ahead of us, hitting nettles with a stick, with the dogs running behind him. We were just like a whole family, together, just normal. It was a relief, because I was expecting the worst.”

Still, he was startled at the boy’s instant, unconditional attachment – and uneasy when he called him “Daddy”. But as the day went on, he felt the dawning of the love he hadn’t experienced when the boy was born. That night, after they parted, he says he missed his child more than he had ever missed another human being.

As the years have passed, Crane has built a close and loving relationship with his son, and often visits him in London, where he lives with his mother. Crane says he still finds parenting a challenge – perhaps a greater challenge than winning the trust of a wild raptor. “I struggle with the magnitude of being a father and reacting in a way that society deems appropriate,” he says. “Thankfully, my son thinks I’m brilliant. But outside our little bubble, I know I’m a bit different. He accepts me for who I am, and I love him for that.”

He says his experience with falcons has influenced his approach to parenting. “You can’t bully a bird of prey, or force it to behave. Well, you can, but you end up with a bird that resents you. Swap ‘bird’ for ‘son’, or ‘human being’. They teach you a lot.”

“There are moments where that hawk is attacking me, and I’m thinking, ‘What have I done wrong?’ Because I’ve got a two-pound goshawk attached to my head. Who’s teaching who, here? Do you know what I mean?”

I think back to my own little boy’s last tantrum – caused, if I’m honest, by my own impatience – and I do.

“We all get on so well now. There’s this enormous pressure in the world to be a certain kind of family, but we’ve got our version, and it works,” Crane says. He helps his boy escape his iPad with fishing trips, and the boy has even learned to fly his own hawk. “We just bimble along happily together.”

As he has got to know him, Crane sees a lot of himself in his son. “We came back from a beach trip to Kent a little while back, and it was so rubbish – totally bleak. There was loads of traffic, bad weather, dead birds, litter, crowds. Eight-quid car parks. The worst day possible. We tried to have fun, but it was crap, really.

“And as we drove back, he said to me, ‘Well, that was a total disappointment!’ and I laughed, because it was. It’s exactly what I would have said if I hadn’t been playing this role, pretending every day has to be fantastic, when it doesn’t. I thought, ‘Christ, he is my son.’ I thought I was being a shit dad, and him saying that, it blindsided me. I looked and him and thought, ‘I love you so, so much.’ We’re all right. It’s going to be all right.”

As Crane talks, he’s getting antsy in his chair, drifting away from questions; the noisy, bright Trafalgar Square cafe where we have met is rattling his hyperacute senses. I can tell he needs to get home and wind down, like a hawk digesting in peace on its perch after a kill. We head out into the roar of central London, pigeons fussing around fountains.

“A lot of fathers should absolve themselves of the responsibility of thinking they know stuff, of being dominant,” he says. “It doesn’t work. My son taught me to be a father – and he’ll continue doing that until the day I die.”

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