Making the most of a new life

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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 5. The Three Letters

There are three envelopes sitting on our mantlepiece. Inside, apparently, are three letters to Santa. I say apparently because we have no idea what is inside them. Jake brought them home from school and they have been living there for a couple of weeks now.

It could be that the contents of these letters are quite mundane, a series of pictures or collages that Jake has made for Santa; or they could separately or collectively represent a list.

Jake’s definitive Christmas list?

We have asked him about the contents but his reply is always “it’s a secret, just for Santa”, but for Santa to take on Christmas night (not when visiting him in his Grotto).  Because of this we are eager to know what is in these well-sealed envelopes, but certainly do not feel as if we should open them, not yet anyway.

We can only  open them on Christmas night as part of Father Christmas’s ‘visit’ to our house and it will be interesting whether the contents of these letters matches the contents of the parcels sitting below them. If not, we will have to see whether this will matter to Jake, after all he has been known to change his mind in the past.

As we know all too well it is not long to wait now, and I can certainly feel the suspense.

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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 4. Grotto

My wife, Karen, finds the notion of taking children to Santa’s Grotto as being something rather unusual, since it is not something that people really do in Germany. She says that it provides British people with another excuse to do some queueing, a stereotype of which I think most of we British are rightly proud.

Whether or not she is right, one thing is for sure: if you want to take your children to a grotto then you can expect to queue, and queue, and queue; with lots of other parents getting slowly more exasperated. I certainly find myself standing there thinking: “just how long does it take for a child to see him” as the snake of people progresses all to slowly, and we have certainly spent a significant part of December standing in such queues.

To what end? Meeting someone dressed in a red suit with a beard, telling our boys they had better be good, asking them what they want and usually handing out low quality toys. On the face of it it is not really worth the wait.

Except it is. Because no matter how grotty the grotto, the boys come out with a sense of wonder. On more than one occasion this time Jake has become so overawed that he as been completely tongue tied and had been unable to recall anything from his well-constructed and comprehensive Christmas list. Sam usually stands there shouting ‘papa istmas’. Both love the experience, and I have loved taking them; and let’s face it once we are in there I do not care how long it takes.

It surely is not my imagination that there has been something of a proliferation of grottos over the last few years. They are everywhere: in stores, on trains, in schools (Santa was at Jake’s school twice), in museums and, yes, even in churches. I seems an obligatory part of any Christmas scene, and we have had to steer the boys past one on more than one occasion this year. After all if we go to too many they might begin to suspect that Father Christmas is spreading himself a bit thin, and that would not do at all.

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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 3. Nativity

One of my earliest memories is being in a nativity play. I guess I was probably five or six at the time. I remember I was a shepherd, and I wore a tea towel on my head, held precariously in place with string; and my dressing gown. I remember standing on the stage at my primary school quite vividly, a memory that is augmented by a photograph of the event that appears in our family album.

So it was with a slight air of disappointment that I went to Jake’s nativity play this week, thinking that he was going to be ‘a partygoer’. Now I am not entirely sure in which Gospel we find out that the partygoers enter the stable. So, I thought, this is the role that is awarded to those children not cast elsewhere and the not often seen competitive Dad in me came to the fore; or was it that I just wanted a more ‘traditional’ role for Jake: one like I had had? One that did not require explanation.

As it turned out I need not have worried since a couple of shepherds failed to turn up to school on the day of the production, whether they were ill or had stage-fright I will never know (nothing to do with me, honest), and so it was a wonderful surprise to see Jake come out of the wings dressed in a lovely shepherd’s outfit. I was so happy.

I am sure that I would have enjoyed the play whatever part Jake had played, and it was a great production, but the sight of him as a shepherd brought back so many memories for me; and helped me understand how he might be feeling at that moment.

Oh, and yes of course there were tears.

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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 2. Pace.

Christmas means many things to many people. But to young boys and girls it mostly means Santa and presents, an increase in sweetie availability, and a break from normal routines; and our boys are no exception to this.

One thing we have learned from our limited experience of being parents at Christmas, this year is our sixth, is that it pays to spread it out a bit. I remember when I was little there was a huge expectation that built and built and built until I could hardly stand it. I used to lie in bed on Christmas Eve under heavy bed clothes shivering away (we used to go to my grandparents, who did not have central heating, in usually freezing Northern England), waiting ‘for him to come’. There was a massive opening frenzy and then, well it was all over; and I did not know what to play with first.

With the boys we have a more staged approach over a few days. This began when we merged two Christmas cultures, Karen’s German Christmas of opening presents on Christmas Eve; and mine of opening them on Christmas Day. This year it seems to be stretching out to four days with my family on the 23rd and Karen’s on the 26th. I much prefer it this way and, I think, so do the boys. They get a chance to look and play with their presents at a more leisurely pace and, well, last year then both slept until 8am on Christmas morning. Here’s hoping for the same this year, it’s a very long day that starts in the middle of the night.

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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 1. Party

Welcome to the ChangingDad twelve blogs of Christmas. I thought that, given this is the first Christmas that I have blogged, there will probably be quite a few things that I want to write about, but perhaps not at the same length as I usually do. So I intend to write 12 shorter blogs over the Christmas period not actually covering the 12 Days of Christmas, which run from 25th December to 5th January, but over the time when we celebrate.

It was the Christmas party for the children in the’ Early Years’ at Jake’s school last night, and it was a first for a number of reasons: it was Jake’s first disco, it was his first ‘social event’ without either Karen or I being with him and it was the first time he had money in his pocket to spend as he wanted.

This for me was a sign of how much Jake has changed over the last few months since starting school. He has become far more confident, he has in a number of ways become more independent, he has started to read and can do simple maths, and he has, for the first time, expressed what he wants to be when he grows up (a tram driver).

The look on Jake’s face when I gave him money to put in his pocket last night was an absolute picture. He realised that he had crossed a rubicon and I could tell that he felt very grown up. What is more, and I hope that his is a good sign for the future, he brought some money back. However, when I suggested that he gave the money back to me he quickly decided that it should go in his piggy bank; where he saves for going to ‘Ernie-versity’, as he likes to say.

Christmas is a time when we take stock and look back to see how things are different from previous years. Jake had a brilliant time at his party, he is certainly different from last year: perhaps more than I had realised.

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OK, so I was wrong

A few posts ago I described the difficult time that we were having getting Sam in particular to settle in the evening and go to sleep; and how it was affecting our chances of having some rare time together as a couple.

Well it is difficult to believe that that was only about six weeks ago as things have improved somewhat since then. As often seems to be the case it was time away from home that seemed to break the cycle we were in, and I do not just put that down to Sam, but Karen and me as well.

So what changed? Well to start with we took away the threat of the ‘baby bed’. What started as a good way to keep Sam in bed really backfired on us badly and ended up with Sam wanting to go in the cot again. This felt like a massive backwards step; and meant that instead of coming in to see us in the middle of the night he stood in his cot and shouted until one of us came, so we were actually getting less sleep as a result.

Next, after a 10 days away, we took away his bed frame thinking that one of the issues might have been that he was worried about sleeping higher up, we also re-arranged the room a bit and changed the direction the mattress was facing so the bedroom looked different.

This all seemed to have a positive effect, but the biggest change was the one that I was stubbornly refusing to do: sit in with the boys until they fall asleep. I really did not want to do this as it somehow felt like we had been defeated, and I also had memories of when we sat in with Jake at a similar age.

Jake was also having trouble settling and we decided to put a chair in his bedroom and sit in with him. The problem was that he would never let us leave. The slightest movement would lead him to either scream or wake up then scream until we were sat down again. We were stuck in the room for ages. We racked our brains as to how we could leave more quietly but nothing worked. Then one day I just took the chair out of the room and he never expected us to stay in there again. If only we had  known it was that simple.

So this is why I did not want to introduce this routine now. Well I have to admit that I was wrong and I’m glad that I decided to be pragmatic in the end. In fact I have rather enjoyed watching their settling routines, many of which have taken me back to when I was a boy and trying different strategies to settle myself. I have also been amazed at how quickly both boys can go from from being extremely boisterous to being asleep.

So as well as them liking one of us to be in the room with them, I have actually learned more about them and developed a further bond with them. Both Karen and I have also found that we enjoy that time of (eventual) quiet to calm down and reflect on the day too; something we often do not find time to do. What’s more the bedtime hour has become a maximum of half an hour (less and earlier if Sam does not sleep during the day), so everyone’s a winner – until the next time.

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Cabin Fever

This weekend saw a rare occurrence: we stayed in all day. What made it even rarer was that it was a fine and sunny, if rather chilli, day and none of us were ill. But for some reason we never stepped foot out of the house. We nearly always go out, even when it is pouring with rain we get the boys dressed up in their waterproofs, and they love splashing about. But on this particular day none of us felt the urge to suggest we get some fresh air.

At the time it seemed like a good idea to stay in (good ideas always seem to be just that at the time). The boys were playing nicely and Karen and I were getting things done that we did not expect to, and there was certainly an element of not wanting to upset the apple cart when things seemed to be going so well. We are also very aware that since he started school, Jake needs the weekend to slow down and recuperate a bit, and also become reacquainted with his toys. Sam too was well engrossed in doing some drawing and playing with stickers (the great time eater for young boys).

So we rode our luck. We rode our luck that this calm scene would continue as the afternoon wore on. It was stupid because it did not – it never does – and like frogs sitting in gradually heating water we did not really notice until it was too late that the family dynamic was starting to get a bit, well, interesting. I was certainly getting rather tetchy (although I am sure that I would not have admitted it at the time), as was Jake who was gradually getting more defensive of his toys whenever Sam came anywhere near them.

By now Sam was completely bored of anything that we provided for him by the way of entertainment and so went searching for alternative forms of amusement. Now Sam is at that age where he is finding out that he can actually do and reach things that he had not thought possible before; especially with the help of the plastic step that he has taken to transporting around the house. So first stop was my coffee machine. He managed to switch it on, waited patiently for it to warm up (or maybe just kept pressing the button until it had warmed up), got an espresso cup and produced a perfect espresso. Unfortunately he had put the cup under the milk nozzle, so the espresso went straight into the dregs tray. This was probably a good thing given the circumstances as a 2 year old stuck in the house all day with a double espresso inside him does not bear thinking about. Other experiments he tried included to see how many beakers of water a toilet roll would absorb (one of his many toilet roll tricks) and seeing how far the contents of a blackcurrant fruit shoot drink would travel (part of a more general recent predilection for squeezing things out of things).

Anyway I digress. The upshot was that we realised that we really should have gone out. We should have made the effort to all get our hats, coats, scarves and shoes on and gone down to the playground, or even just round the block for a walk.

The simple act of going out seems to deflate whatever builds up in the house. We all enjoy going out, we like the fresh air and we do things together rather than our own thing inside and, well basically, we all get on much better as there are not the same niggles that happen when we are limited to our own four walls.

So the next time cabin fever strikes I hope that we recognise it before it is too late to do anything about it, or even better just get out and do something. What is the worst that can happen?