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Article excerpt

Byline: by Phil Robinson

THIS morning, I watched my 11-year-old son, Oscar, tie a half-Windsor knot, swig from a mug of tea and button his smart school blazer.

The bright boxes of toys that once cluttered the living room are gone, and I suppose his childhood must now go the same way.

He's supposed to be taking the bus to his new secondary school in Hertfordshire on his own for the first time and is bubbling with excitement, but I don't feel quite able to let go.

So I insist on driving him the 25-minute journey from North London, while he munches toast and listens to Radio 4, shooting me questions about the news. I can barely believe that my tiny, roundheaded baby is now this handsome young man.

Oscar may be becoming adult. But, in truth, it's me that has done the most growing up since his birth -- I'm far removed from the self-gratifying, self-pitying man I used to be.

According to recent research, this may be because fatherhood mellows men. Becoming a dad, scientists say, gives us empathy and a new level of comfort in our own skin. It seems testosterone, the loutish hormone that can promote aggression (and foster the urge to drive suped-up Vauxhall Corsas like Sebastian Vettel) subsides by as much as a third when we become dads. In simple terms, we become kinder and calmer.

When I was a boy, men showed their devotion by working every hour to provide for their families. Child-rearing and nurturing was left to the women. But within a generation, it feels as if attitudes have softened and broadened. These days, men attend the birth of their babies, happily share the childcare from day one and boast publicly about the extent of their paternal love.

Former wild child DJ Chris Evans, Prime Minister David Cameron and even Prince William have all shared their unbridled joy at how fatherhood has enriched and transformed their lives. That said, parenting did not come so easily to me. In fact, it took becoming a dad for the third time for me to fully man up to my new responsibilities.

I remember the day when my wife, Anna, now 42, and also a writer, asked if I wanted to try for a baby. I looked up from my copy of What Hi-Fi? magazine and ho-hummed. Two months later, she was pregnant and we had made an offer on a three-bedroom house in suburbia.

People with children delighted in asking if I was ready for it. At 28, I had been married for four years -- after Anna and I met on a work trip to the U.S. -- but the anarchic energy that first enchanted her was beginning to wear thin.

MY 20s were a Groundhog Day decade spent asking 'What do I want from life?' while lolling around on the sofa after yet another beery weekend.

I thought the world revolved around me. I gave no money to charity, smoked 40 a day and frittered away cash on stereos, poker, and gadgets like air-zookas (don't ask). I ate junk food and spent all night watching action movies between penning the odd piece as a freelance writer.

Change began slowly on the morning of Oscar's birth in 2002. The umbilical cord was wrapped around our unborn baby's neck and Anna had to be rushed into surgery. In those few never-ending minutes of gut-wrenching terror I understood I might lose everything -- that the stakes were coldly real. I also realised that I had no clue about what it meant to be a father.

An hour later, standing in the delivery theatre, I cradled my son, Oscar, in my arms while my wife smiled dazedly at the ceiling. As I gazed at this tiny child, my heart ached and softened -- the physical sensation of falling in love.

But while I loved my new son, like many stubborn men I clung to my old life for as long as possible. Yes, I'd felt my world expand but I still had a narrow view of what came first. As Oscar turned one, I was still spending [pounds sterling]200 on a shirt, and treating myself to [pounds sterling]60 haircuts.

In truth, I found the first year of fatherhood lonely. …