ChangingDad

Making the most of a new life


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The Royal Baby and stories of courage

While I would not class myself as a Republican I am not really a Royalist either, but since this is not 1649 I can sit on the fence quite happily. I do, however, get really irritated by what I see as the excessive coverage of royal events, especially when they usurp other stories that affect people’s lives much more. There are other births too that, in my opinion, are much more worthy of our attention given the courage and suffering that are involved.

Let me make it clear at this point that I wish the Royal Couple no ill will, and should add that it would not swap my life for theirs in any circumstance; the pressure that comes with the media spotlight must be immense. Nor do I want to underplay the pain of childbirth that Kate will have gone through which, having watched my wife Karen go through twice, I can only imagine. Nevertheless they have had the best of possible advice and care as they become parents for the first time.

But as I sat through what I saw as the interminable coverage waiting for some other news I could not help reflecting on children born into abusive relationships, into families where addiction is rife, or where the parents for whatever reason just cannot cope. I then thought about those many people who foster children from such situations and how heroic they are in taking children who are often quite troubled. I cannot imagine, as I struggle daily with Jake and Sam, how (or why) they do it. But thank goodness they do.

I then thought about the many people for whom having children is far from straightforward. Those who are unable to for whatever reason, and those for whom having children is a desperate round of medical consultation, IVF treatment, joyous hope and, often, crushing disappointment; then repeated. For parents, like friends of ours, who knew that if the pregnancy went to term they would have at most an hour with their child before it died, and how they made the courageous decision to do just that. But also their joy of conceiving again and having a healthy boy.

I thought of single parents who often seem to be so derided by our society yet must go through unbelievable strains and pressures to bring up their children. Mums and Dads who do not have anyone to share the load, the joys and the pains with. People who I imagine often must feel very isolated as they bring up their children alone. I cannot imagine parenting on my own and would be lost without Karen.

I thought of those in other parts of the world who do not have access to the sort of great medical care that we do here in the UK, and for all its faults the National Health Service is still an amazing thing. Places where child mortality rates are far higher and how we often forget that, behind the statistics, are grieving parents. I thought of those caught up in conflicts around the world, those very conflicts that lose our attention when not reported, and of the loss parents feel when their children are senselessly killed or taken away to fight in armies for causes that were long forgotten.

I guess what I am saying is that having a child is usually a time of joy, and by all means tell us about the birth of the royal baby; I am actually interested in it to the extent of knowing its sex, weight, name; and that mother and child are healthy. But that it is. For me there are far more interesting and inspiring stories of parents, carers, and those who never get to be parents showing courage in the face of unbelievable adversity. While I do not suggest that individuals be thrust into the public eye like William and Kate, I think there are many other stories of parenthood which deserve our attention that we never get to hear about.

So while I hope Kate and William will be able to experience as many of the joys and frustrations of parenthood that their situation allow, I would like to dedicate this post to the many parents and those who cannot be parents who have gone through unimaginable pain and grief and shown amazing courage in the face of such adversity. Let us remember them too.

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Another Fine Mess

With the summer holidays approaching I have been thinking about what I did during that long break when I was young. Like most of us I seem to remember that most summers were hot and sunny, just like this year (although I can also picture playing Monopoly with my parents in a caravan in Wales, the rain pouring down the windows outside).

While I do remember getting out and about I also have memories of looking forward to the summer television schedules. They were a much more modest affair than today, with maybe a couple of hours extra programming each morning. Two highlights that come to mind from this were Laurel and Hardy, and the Banana Splits; both of which had slapstick at their heart.

I have retained a love for Laurel and Hardy in particular, since it not only reminds me of that time, but also of my Father howling with laughter at them. As I have got older I have come to appreciate that they are not only funny but very skilled and clever too, how else could they be so entertaining nearly a century after they first released their films.

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What I had not realised until very recently was how much of their act must have been based on watching how children interact, something they all but admitted with the 1930 short film Brats. There seems to me to be an older/ younger brother relationship at the heart of what they do which is at the same time frustrating, funny, violent, joyful and endearing; so pretty much like watching Jake and Sam on an average day.

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I have recently introduced Stan and Ollie to the boys, they spotted my 21 disc box set the other day and wanted to know what it was, and while Sam is still a bit too young (he calls it “funny box”), Jake is loving the slapstick comedy and how “silly” they are. They also find it funny when I tell them that they are just like that, although I’m not sure that they believe me.

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Think of the boys being like Laurel and Hardy somehow make me more sanguine about how they are with each other because beneath the cross words, the pushing, and the fighting over the only toy that they could both possibly want; lies an affection and a need on some level to get along, which seems to get stronger as they get older. It also means that I can find something funny that I may have before thought was a petty irritant. It also reminds me that children are more like adults than we care to admit, it’s just that they do not have the social awareness and skills to work things out through negotiation.

This makes me wonder just how much I should intervene when the boys are going at each other? Should I let them work it out for themselves? Or should I jump in straight away?

I try to leave them as long as I can but, sooner or later, I am worried that if I do not come between them I really will be left with another fine mess.


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Boredom

It seems to be one of those issues that nearly all parents that I know struggle with. How much TV do we let our children watch and, for parents of older children, how much time are children allowed to spend playing video games etc…? TV watching is certainly something that is a consistent live issue in our house, and is likely to be for many years to come; and it is not something that is new. I remember that many of my school friends were not allowed to watch commercial TV at a time when children’s programming was on for only a couple of hours a day, something that seems very tame against today’s media choices for children.

Over the years there have been many reports and (oh the irony) TV programmes about how much children should or should not stare at a screen, whether it be a TV or computer (and the differentiation is becoming less all the time); and the internet has brought what seems to be yet another layer of worry to the already fraught lives of parents.

The alternative to this often seems to be that we must entertain our children if we are not going to allow them their electronic fix, which is where I found a story on the BBC website to be of great interest. It reported on work by Dr Teresa Belton of University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning, who argues that boredom is not the negative issue that it is often made out to be because out of boredom can come our most creative moments.

I can see much sense in this argument since I have certainly found inspiration during times of inactivity, most notably when I spent six months in bed after a back operation in 1986; and in the months between my redundancy and the beginning of my coaching course last year. In both cases a complete change of direction in my life occurred and I regard them as very creative times in my life.

Now I am not suggesting that we submit our children to anything like that level of inactivity, but that we should sometimes resist the temptation to see the alternatives as being either ‘watching’ or doing something with Mummy or Daddy. Yes it may be boring: but boring can lead somewhere.

As I am thinking about this I realise that we saw something of that last Sunday afternoon. We had just come back from being outside in the freezing weather, we were all very cold, and I for one was certainly not wanting to entertain any further trips outdoors. All I wanted at that moment was to defrost with a hot drink. The boys were hankering after some TV and did not seem to be in the mood for anything else, when up popped the suggestion to get the Play-Doh (other malleable putties are available) out. An hour later the boys were still playing, occasionally involving us in their game and serving us Play-Doh food (Jake, apparently, was the Sous Chef). They played nicely together and were very creative.

Only time will tell whether reading about Belton’s research will change the way I parent, and there will always be times when it is easier to switch on the TV than any of the apparent alternatives. Nevertheless, thinking about it will make me less afraid of the ‘b’ word, and I will try to get the boys to embrace their boredom in the future who knows what they may create as a result.


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Singing Dad

 

I remember watching a TV series with Karen many years ago, I forget which, where a father taking his young son to a singing session with the parents of other toddlers was depicted as a comedy moment. Apart from our ‘hero’ there was one other father and the rest were mothers. The other father was shown as someone who was doted on by the mothers because he knew how the session worked and somehow played the game. The comedy of the scene was that the ‘hero’ did not and so was looked down upon by the teacher, the other father and the mothers. Much embarrassment ensued with hilarious consequences.

This had a big impact on me at the time and I remember saying to Karen something along the lines of: “if you think I’m ever going to do that sort of thing you have got another thing coming”. And this has very much been the case until a few weeks ago when I started to take Sam to a sing and sign session at a local soft play centre.

So was it anything like it was depicted on TV? Well yes and no. In the four times that I have now been with Sam I have been the only male over the age of five on one occasion, and one of two on the other three. What it has not been is a case study in ritual humiliation. So from that point of view I am happy to go because Sam really enjoys it, and it is a great way for us to spend our Mondays; especially when it is cold and rainy.

However, like many things to do with early years child care, I find the soft play centre to be a very female environment. Those working there tend to be female, and it is overwhelmingly mothers and female carers who take their children there. So should this matter? Well in someways it should not, but I would say that it is a much more social occasion for the mothers who come along; as I recently posted on Facebook “the soft play centre: where mothers have friends and fathers have iPads”. One of the responses I got to this was that men would rather stare at a screen than try and connect with other Dads (or Mums) and I suspect that there is more than a scintilla of truth to this; but I think that it is also the case that, in general, Dads tend to go to these places on their own rather than in groups.

So what is my point here? Well what I think is interesting is that despite the recent increase in interest in Dad-related issues, and the number of blogs like this is going up all the time, little seems to have changed in the fifteen years or so since that TV programme was made, from my recent experiences at least.

I wonder why that is? Is there an expectation that such things are still the Mother’s domain? Or do Dads feel uncomfortable about going to singing sessions and the like? Maybe is it simply that Dads are out at work?

I am not sure I know the answer to these questions, but what is certain is that I have written this sitting on my own in a soft play centre while the Mothers around me are being far more sociable.


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The Final Countdown

So that’s Halloween over with, Guy Fawkes Night out of the way, so it’s the final countdown to Christmas. That’s how Jake sees it anyway.

Of course there is nothing in the shops that would make him think any differently. The witches and fireworks hanging from the ceiling of our local supermarket have been replaced by santas and reindeer; and the Christmas goods, present since the beginning of September, have now been moved into even more prominent positions. The excitement is palpable as Jake pours over toy catalogues and makes snowman collages; and everything that he ‘wants’ has been put on an (ever-changing) mental list. It is only a matter of time until the big day now, and the fact that we are due to have snow in December is likely to only ramp the excitement up even further.

I do not want to blame Jake for this. Although he does not watch anything but the BBC, he is still prey to the tentacles of the advertiser on billboards, the sides of buses and trams; as well as in shops and, yes, through school and various community events. I do not blame him because he is actually usually very satisfied with a haul of Christmas/ birthday presents which seem modest in comparison with many of his peers. He is also very good at receiving presents: “just what I always wanted” he will genuinely say.

It would be easy to turn this into a riff on how kids do not know how lucky they are, and how I did not have this, that and the other in my day. But actually I do not want to say this, nor do I want to say it to the boys because in many respects childhood is no different then as it is now, and while I would like to think that I did not anticipate Christmas until the week before, I know that this is not true and I know that a part of me looked forward to Christmas months and months before (and part of me also mourned its passing for another year once it was over).

I think it is often very easy to judge things through our adult eyes and conveniently forget how we were when we were young, probably because we put such things out of our minds when we were teenagers: how embarrassing to have fallen for the “Santa trick”.

So I do not begrudge the boys their Christmas build-up because such events are milestones in our own histories, milestones that are good to remember. I remember many childhood Christmases vividly. I look forward to taking them to see Santa, and I look forward to seeing the look on their faces when they see their stockings magically filled with toys. I know it is not what Christmas is all about but it is certainly part of it

Jake loves the build up to Christmas, oh and he has also been asking about when he can have his chocolate eggs for Easter.


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Angry

As I write this I am angry. I have been angry for quite some time now and think that it is about time that I expressed that I am angry through this blog. I am not angry with the boys, or Karen (the usual subjects I write about), but angry about the Jimmy Savile case.

I am angry because people knew what was going on and did nothing about it, and many of those who lionised him are now trying to pin the blame on others or say that they knew all along.

I am angry because he preyed on many people who were the most vulnerable and most trusting in our society. People who he purported to support through his charitable work, which now seem to be a front for him to be able to abuse them.

I am angry because every case of abuse is a life scarred, and there are a lot of lives involved here.

I am angry because he died before he could be brought to justice for what he did and was given that sickening funeral procession around Leeds, including his ‘lying in state’ at the Queen’s Hotel.

I am angry because individuals will now try and introduce spurious stories, taking away some of the focus from the genuine victims who deserve our collective support.

I am angry because it will mark more erosion of parental confidence in allowing our children freedom, not knowing who we can trust. So, while I want to allow my children as much freedom to roam and find out about themselves, I will now have to think twice about it. The fact that he ‘hid in plain sight’ also chills me.

I am angry because he has, on more than one occasion, been in the same room as Jake (at a park cafe we used to frequent): a cafe that was always full of children where he used to hold court. I am so relieved that I always found him too creepy to approach.

Of lesser importance I am also angry because part of my childhood has been taken away. A person who I thought, at the time, was being nice to people like me turned out to be a monster, along with Gary Glitter, whose records I bought when I was between 9 and 12 (makes me shudder just thinking about it). Although it gradually became clear to me, and many of my friends, that Savile was someone who was rather creepy: especially having seen him around Leeds on occasion.

I am angry because it makes me think twice about my trust in human nature. Not only that someone can act in such a depraved, systematic and calculating way; but that he also abused other people’s trust in him and it makes me wonder how I would have reacted if I had had something to do with him. Would I have be similarly starstruck, and have been taken in by his charisma? I would like to think not, but the doubt is enough to again make me shudder.

I feel that as a society we have taken quite a jolt with the conversion of Savile from charismatic and ceaseless charity worker to serial abuser of the very vulnerable people he was supposed to be supporting; using the power he gained as a prolific fundraiser to ‘blackmail’ institutions into giving him access to those who they were supposed to be protecting. It is somehow more understandable when, as is more usual, a monster emerges who has ‘kept themselves to themselves’, but for such a public figure to get away with it for so long is something I find very difficult to comprehend. Just as shocking it looks like investigations are spreading out to involve other celebrities, further undermining our trust in those we put on a pedestal.

As a parent, then, this whole affair has hit me very hard. I am not normally an angry person but I can hardly think of what I would do if I found out that something had happened to one of the boys. It is a scenario that I do not really want to think about, and should not need to, but having this at the very centre of our society forces me to, and that really scares me.

I hope that something positive can come out of this whole affair. That perhaps children (and adults) will feel more able to report cases of abuse and it will lead to a more open revulsion in such things in such a way that will not allow people to hide in plain sight in the future. I do wonder though whether this will be a less free society, and then we must ask whether this is a price worth paying.

The unmasking of this monster will lead to change at many levels. It will make us re-assess risk in relation to our children since it creates paranoia. It may change our relationship with the idea of celebrity (which, in itself, may not be a bad thing). It will make us more aware of the possibility of abuse, and I hope that this will lead institutions such as hospitals, children’s homes, prisons and broadcasters to make sure that they are never in the same position to allow this to happen ever again. Above all I hope that it does create the environment for genuine victims of abuse to come forward and receive the trust, support and closure that they need.

Finally, I hope that our children do not suffer as a result of this greater perception of risk and no doubt things will calm down. But at the moment it is a scary situation that makes me very angry and very wary, and I feel changed by it in ways that I am yet to fully comprehend.


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Reflections on the Olympics

I have just got back from London after a wonderful day down at the Olympics. The city seemed somehow transformed for the games and the atmosphere in Central London and around the venues was amazing; and I’m very glad that I made the effort to go.

Writing this on the day of the closing ceremony I wanted to reflect on what seems to have been a very special couple of weeks, not only for London but the whole country. When the games were first announced on 6th July 2005 there was a great deal of excitement, yet this was cruelly cut short by the bombs that went off in London the following day. Subsequently the build up to the games seemed to be dominated by negative stories about lack of delivery, lack of legacy and overspending.

As such I must admit that I didn’t really get excited about the Olympics again until I went to watch the torch relay in Bradford. It was only then that it began to dawn on me that the people behind the games actually knew what they were doing and that what was being planned was going to be something special.

This was confirmed for me at the Opening Ceremony which began a process that has continued throughout these games by helping us to update how we as Britons see ourselves. The transformation of the Olympic Stadium from a rural idyll into an industrial landscape told me that we are no longer ostensibly a country of warm beer and cricket on the village green (that still happens, but not for the majority of us); and that we need to catch up with the change that it happening around us. It also told me that we have a lot to be proud of in terms of our history and culture, and that this doesn’t have to rely on looking back to the days of Empire as some sort of golden age either.

Then came the games themselves, and I was rather surprised by what came next. I really got into them! I found myself watching all sorts of sports that I had not previously watched: judo, rowing, diving and gymnastics to name but a few. Of course, I watched most of these because there was British interest, but what I found most compelling were the athletes’ biographies. For the most part they were not well paid professionals who were making a good living from their sport, but extremely dedicated people from all sorts of different backgrounds who have often put four years of their lives into performing at the games. People who have often been through hardship, and sometimes personal tragedy, on the way. Indeed, I’ve regularly found myself in tears watching people achieve their dreams, and how much it means to them.

What has also amazed me is how much the Olympics have affected the country more generally. Of course it is too soon to say whether the games will provide a lasting legacy, but the potential is certainly there. While there have been some fantastic performances by the athletes, the games would not have been as successful as they have been without the crowds at the venues, and the volunteers who have helped make the Olympics so special. I was struck in London yesterday by the huge amount of goodwill that people have invested into the games, and how much this has paid dividends in making London a hugely friendly and welcoming place. There seemed to be a volunteer on every street corner, someone who was only too happy to offer help and engage with people who were going off to support their team.

I have tried to think of a single word that might encapsulate what I am trying to say here, and the nearest I can get is ‘positivity’. This was the atmosphere around London yesterday. The feeling that people were happy to be there. For once the dominant reporting in the media was positive as the good news stories poured out of the Olympic venues. But also it seemed like there was a takeover by those who live out of the limelight. It was not the ‘greedy bankers’, ‘benefit scroungers’, and rioters that came to our attention. It was those who are less newsworthy in their daily lives, the vast majority who really make Britain what it is, who are for the most part tolerant, helpful and selfless (certainly on the evidence of the last couple of weeks).

Through all this I feel that the Olympics have helped me reconnect with being British, and being proud to be so. I think that this is because they have provided us with this opportunity to rediscover this pride for ourselves, not in any jingoistic sort of way but in a positive way that plays to our strengths. That we can be a tolerant and multicultural nation that has the capacity to excel, not only at sport but in putting on a huge event like the Olympics. I have heard it said on a few occasions over the last couple of weeks that the success of the games can help halt a decline that Britain feels it has undergone over the last 60 years or so. I think it can because it has provided new foundations on which we can build.

The organisers, then, deserve an enormous amount of credit for enabling this to happen and for overseeing games that, despite the amount of corporate sponsorship required to be made them less costly, have been hugely enjoyable for the vast majority of people (and credit should also go to the BBC for making them so accessible). It has been a great ride over the last couple of weeks and I cannot speak highly enough of those whose vision has been so successfully realised.

In short, then, I have been greatly inspired by the London 2012 Olympics in ways that I never imagined I would be; and I guess that it is now up to me to turn that inspiration into something real. This blog is about change and I certainly think I’ve witnessed a change in myself and in what it means to me to be British. Only time will tell whether the games will have a lasting positive legacy for the boys’ generation and beyond that matches the atmosphere that has been created over the last few weeks, I certainly hope that this will happen and I for one would like to have a go.