ChangingDad

Making the most of a new life


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Post-holiday blues or the start of something big?

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We have just come back from two weeks’ holiday and it is safe to say that we all had a great time. This was confirmed to me when the boys, and especially Jake, were acting very strangely on the way home. It took some time to find out why this was, but Jake eventually told us that he was sad that our holiday was over.

This made me both happy and sad at the same time. Happy because it showed that he had really enjoyed himself, but sad because it took me back to the great holidays I recall from my own childhood. This is because Jake’s reaction reminded me of my own, perhaps when I was a little older, response of being really upset in the car on the way back and having a little cry to myself when we got home. I had my own pang of sadness this week when I saw the familiar streets, buildings and buses around our home. It suddenly hit me that we were not away any more.

For me, and clearly Jake too, there is something very special about being away from home in an environment that is different from that we experience everyday; it somehow removes us from the stresses and strains of everyday life especially if, as I did (well most of the time), we switch of the data roaming and resist the temptation to go online. It marks a freedom from our normal daily lives.

That is perhaps why coming back home is so hard no matter how good our daily lives might be. Jake and me seem not to be alone in this as the BBC recently reported on the things we like least about coming back off holiday. We find that we somehow want to maintain the holiday spell and not see it disappear into the past.

This is perhaps particularly the case this year when the weather has been so good, and the summer has been more like those that we tend to remember from our own childhood. True I do remember sitting in a static caravan, rain pouring down the windows and playing board games to pass the time. More often, though, I remember days on the beach, swimming in the sea, walks through sunlit woods and bright promenades, melting ice cream and ‘helping’ with the harvest on my Uncle’s farm. I remember the sort of summer we had this year.

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Having time away also allows us to reflect about those things that we do and do not like about our lives. Can we make our daily lives more like those we spent on holiday, or at least carry something over from our break? Do we want to find a new job? Could we be spending more time with our families like we did over the summer? Or does that thought just fill us with dread? Did we not get a break yet really need one?

Whatever the answers to these questions, for me this is a more significant time for change and potential that in the New Year. Our children move on, whether it is to a new class, new school, on to University or into the employment market; and there is a sense of possibility and of making a new start. As parents this may mean some adjustments too, but perhaps it is also time to grasp the nettle and make more significant changes while our batteries are recharged and our resilience is higher.

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As for Jake, one week on he is already planning next year’s holiday by pouring over the map from the theme park we went to this summer, seeing what new vistas a growth spurt will open up; and he is now very excited about going back to school in Year 1. Sam too is looking forward a new year in the top class at nursery. For them change cannot come quickly enough.


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London eyes

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Ever since he was very small Jake has always liked crowds. His first word was ‘Hiya’ and he used to say it again and again as we went through a city centre, or popular tourist places such as York. Most people found very endearing, including our fellow passangers on a flight to Abu Dhabi (well for the first 15 minutes anyway).

We are lucky enough to make frequent trips to see family in Berlin. Jake loves this, and has had a real hankering to visit other big cities such as New York and London, and it was because of this I thought it would be a great idea to go to London for a couple of days. We have been there before, but he was really too young to appreciate it then, but, at nearly six, I thought he could.

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But what to do there? I contemplated all sorts of trips to museums and plans to keep him entertained for two days, but in the end I asked him what he wanted to do (an idea so obvious I am amazed that I had not thought of it before). The answer was that he wanted to ride on as many different forms of transport as he could. Well, I thought, I can cope with that.

So that is what we did. We went on buses (old and new), trains (underground, overground, driverless and express), a taxi, and cable car. We had to give the river boat a miss because of the horrendous queues to get on at every stop, but Jake was fine with that. In the process we saw most of the sights that he wanted to see: Big Ben, the London Eye, and Buckingham Palace. The highlight for both of us was the new cable car that goes high over the river from North Greenwich giving you a completely new perspective on London.

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It was great to spend a few days with him and I enjoyed his enthusiasm for everything as well as his great thirst for knowledge which seemingly knows no bounds. He is at a stage now where he not only wants to know about something, but whether it is faster, higher, longer, or more powerful than anything else. A vicarious competitiveness for inanimate objects it seems.

Our trip was helped by the fact that, in my last job, I travelled to London on a regular basis, so we could find our way around relatively easily. What was really amazing, though, was how I got to see the familiar through Jake’s eyes and got to see London in a completely new light. For him it was like a big transport playground where he soaked up every little feature: wires in the middle of the track, cables on bridges, buttons on trains, and many many more. Yet another new perspective for me.

What I also realised was how much I had changed from the crazy London commuter always in a rush from one meeting to the next trying to save every vital second by catching that tube, even though there was another one in two minutes. Jake was not going to be rushed, and that suited me just fine: he thought the idea of people running up and down escalators was when they moved anyway was hilarious; and when you think about it…

So our two days in London was a very different experience for me, and in some ways quite a salutary one as well. They provided a benchmark for how different, and for me better, my life has become since I took redundancy; and they also provided a concentrated dose of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. I enjoyed the view!


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Camping

 

We took the boys camping for the first time last weekend. All in all it was a very easy first dipping of our toes in the camping waters since we went with five other families, most of whom are seasoned campers and so have all the equipment and know how to set up a camp. We also boosted our own confidence early on by pitching our tent in a howling wind with relatively little drama.

Our tent, as taken by Jake

Our tent, as taken by Jake

One thing that really struck me about going camping was how differently Karen and I viewed the weekend when compared with the boys. We had some anxieties about it: What happens if it rains all weekend? Will the boys be warm enough and be able to sleep? How will we manage an unfamiliar environment? I could go on. The boys, on the other hand, just went “Great! Camping!” and that was pretty much it. That certainly told me that we can worry too much about what might happen rather than just getting on with things. Of course we have the extra responsibility as parents, but maybe we should also trust that we can all adapt to situations more easily; but also wonder what it is that makes us less flexible as we get older?

The evening light gave us a lovely backdrop

The evening light gave us a lovely backdrop

It seems that one of the things that is somewhat traditional in camping is that the first evening is particularly chaotic. Adults are busy getting set up, and children are whipping themselves up in a frenzy of excitement as they get used to their new surroundings. I think that there is an absence of boundaries which encourages this and gives them a great feeling of space and freedom. Maybe it all gets a bit too much after a while as I saw children all over the campsite being very very excited until late into the evening, Jake and Sam were certainly difficult to settle even two hours after their usual bedtime and, at that moment, I really wondered whether we had done the right thing.

This feeling was enhanced further when we woke the next morning to a campsite full of very bitey midges. I need not have worried, and soon the sun came out and a breeze got up and I had what I think was one of my best ever days with the boys. We played games, went down to the river to fish and paddle, Jake and I climbed the huge hill above the camp site, and we enjoyed the company of other families. It was good because it all felt very spontaneous probably because we had nowhere else to be and nothing else to do; which is rarely the case when we are at home.

We had great fun fishing and wading in the river

We had great fun fishing and wading in the river

I think that it is good to get away for that reason alone, and it reminded me how fixed to our routines and behaviours we can be when we are at home and I think we all enjoyed the relative freedom that this brought.

Jake and I had great views of our camp as we climbed

Jake and I had great views of our camp as we climbed

We had a great weekend and we all want to do it again. It was interesting too how our experiences rippled into the next week, not least from catching up on sleep and getting back into the very routines that we had so enjoyed being away from. Routines that somehow seem necessary for everyday living. After all if we did not have them we would not be able to enjoy escaping from them.


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A change is as good as a rest

Well the Easter break is now over and we already seem to have dropped back into our routines again as if it never happened. It was a good break and Jake, in particular, had a much needed rest.

I do not remember school being so tiring when I was a child, but I guess that it must have been; I certainly do not think that I was awake for hours in the evening and I am pretty sure that I was always in bed and asleep well before 8. But it has certainly been clear to me that Jake finds school to be tiring, and was really struggling during the last week of last term as the weeks of learning built up. Even in reception class there is a great emphasis on children improving and developing their reading, writing and maths; and Jake has certainly learned an awful lot since he started in September. But this does take its toll on one so young.

This is not to say that he does not enjoy it, and he was so keen to go back on Monday morning that we were waiting for the gates to open at school. But because he finds it so tiring we are really mindful of how he can spend his time out of school, and try to find a balance between different sorts of activities. So while we do listen to him read, and help him to write and count; we also encourage him to play both inside and outside and we are quite happy to let him watch TV in, what we think, is moderation.

I would go further than that and say that allowing him to watch some TV is important because he clearly does find it relaxing and, provided it is the right sort of TV (BBC Cbeebies and good quality films), we also find that he learns while he watches too; he has certainly improved his vocabulary watching the likes of Ice Age, Madagascar and other films. This does not stop us having the discussion (argument) about him watching more as he always, of course, tries to push the boundaries of how much he can watch especially during the holidays when he has more potential watching time.

This is why we also try to get out and explore the area around us, either by going down to the local playgrounds/ parks, or visiting museums and places of interest. Of all these though the one that I most enjoyed during this break was taking the boys up into the Peak District National Park, which we are very fortunate to live close to. We had a great time exploring the woods, tramping through what was left of the snow (Sam even found a submerged stream and ended up to his waist in snow), and playing pooh sticks.

All in all it was a busy time with lots to do and see, but Jake looked great on it and I hope that he will remember his trips out with the sort of fondness that I do. It is great to get out, and I am looking forward to a summer of exploring new places and introducing the boys to the joys of being outside.

When we got to the car park at Longshaw Estate, where we were visiting, Jake asked me “where’s the playground Daddy?”. I thought for a moment and nearly said “there isn’t one”, then looking round it struck me and said “it’s here Jake, it’s all around you”. I was pleased that I thought to say that, and even more pleased that the boys embraced the concept, and now want to think of more ways to help make it just that for them.

There are plenty more holidays coming up so suggestions gratefully received.


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Sticks and stones

While we were on holiday last week I left Karen and the boys on the playground for twenty minutes while I went to get a coffee and download my daily ‘paper’ onto my tablet. When I came back there was a full scale search underway, since Jake had lost his special pebble that he had picked up at the playground at school. He was inconsolable since no one could find ‘the’ pebble amongst all the other pebbles on the playground.

At this point I tried very hard to be supportive, asking him what it looked like (round, brown and shiny) and whether another pebble could be picked up from the playground to replace it (I could not). It struck me at this moment how the boys so quickly place such special meaning onto such things, in this case the pebble, but more usually sticks that they find on walks. Those sticks have to be clung on to throughout the walk, and then reverentially put in the car boot, before being put in a special place in the garage rarely to be thought of again.

I find it very easy for me to satirise this behaviour. It seems somehow funny that they should place so much store on something that they have seemingly picked up at random, and there seemed to be something quite comic about our searching from a pile of stones for one particular stone. But Jake’s demeanour was far from comic. He really felt the loss of the stone that he had developed an affection for and which, at that moment, felt like real grief.

So while the episode was quickly forgotten (with the purchase of an ice cream on the way back to our accommodation) it did leave me wondering what was behind such behaviour (and I do not mean that pejoratively).

As we know all too well, from the many fights between the boys over toys, they are quite possessive of different things, and like to develop rituals which I think help them to make sense of the world and establish their own place in it. One good example of this being breakfast time when each boy has his own bowl, mug, and two specific spoons (one to eat their cereal with and one to stir their drink). At home any variation from this is met with incredulity, how could we suggest they use the spoon with the squares rather than the stars (yet on holiday it was strangely never an issue).

So does the stick or the stone provide them with something tangible to hold onto when they are out in an environment where they have no possessions of their own with them? Does it provide them with a sense of safely and familiarity, like their bowl, mug etc… obviously do and, perhaps most importantly, are they really any different from adults in this? After all we all have our own favourite mugs etc… (well I certainly do), but we have more of a control of when we have them and when they are available. The boys are more dependent on us for these things, and so have to be more insistent about having them. As a result they appear to be over possessive of things. But are they really?


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Confidence

We have just come back from a week’s holiday. We deliberately chose a place where there would be lots to do inside should the weather not be so good. As it turned out it was unseasonably good weather for Northern England in February, but that did not stop us from taking the boys to the swimming pool every day.

We bought them arm bands, got them changed and headed for the water. I am not sure what I expected with this, but I was certainly surprised by what happened. This is perhaps because, since Sam was born, on the rare occasions we have taken the boys swimming we have tended to hold on to them and rather lead the activities.

This time, probably because it was a daily event for a whole week, we witnessed something of a transformation for both of the boys. Sam began by treating the whole thing with some trepidation, he was very wary of the water and, even with arm bands on, was reluctant to leave one or both of us even when in very shallow areas. Jake was a little more adventurous, but only wanted to go down the slides with one of us, and would not consider doing anything that was remotely out of his depth.

Switch to the end of the week and Sam was happy playing in the toddler pool by himself for ages; pretending to surf around on a float and having enormous fun going down the slide again and again and again and again. Jake was even more of a revelation and, by the end of the week, was swimming across the pool by himself and whizzing down the big slides on his own into the splash pool.

These things did not happy suddenly but over a week-long period, but the transformation from start to finish was remarkable, and it was an amazing thing to see their confidence build from day to day as time went on.

But I do not think that it was just their confidence that increased, but Karen and my confidence grew too. We were increasingly willing to let them go and let them get on with their own thing. We were less concerned with being directional, and that really paid off for us allowing one of us at a time to go off and do our own swimming programme; and spend more time in the hot tub (which was fantastically relaxing).

So it struck me, in the increasingly long time that I had to think for myself that week, that this week of swimming was probably something of a blue print for the future: how we can help the boys increase in their confidence to do things, and how their becoming more confident is inextricably linked to our capacity to let go. We need to help them, but we also need to give them space to develop and learn.

This is yet another balance that we need to find; this time between suffocating them and giving them space, between supporting them and letting them have their own independence, and in trusting them to the right degree. Last week we got that just about right and that was a lesson learned. But I have a feeling that it is a lesson that we will need to learn over and over again.


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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 11. Pause

As I have been writing these daily blog posts about Christmas I cannot help but think that the issues that I have been writing about may see somewhat trivial to many people. My aim has been, like the blog more generally, to reflect our lives and concerns as a family, and chronicle the changes that I experience as a father of two young boys. The blog helps me to say that I do not find being a father easy, but also says that when I do put the effort in then the rewards are often great.

It is very natural for us to be concerned about our own situations and see the challenges that lie therein. Parenthood is difficult and Christmas is no different in that respect. In many ways those difficulties are magnified at this time of year as relationships and lives come under the microscope.

So I did want to take a moment, amidst my own issues, to remember those for whom Christmas is a far from happy time for whatever reason; be it bereavement, poverty, family crisis, conflict or environmental disaster. People for whom having a ‘normal Sunday‘ on Christmas Day would be something to dream about.

Concern for those who are less fortunate at Christmas for me is personified by my Auntie Enid, who lost her husband at an early age and who for the first few years after he died used to sit by his grave in the rain and freezing cold on Christmas Day. She refused all offers from family and friends to be with them at Christmas, saying she preferred being with her husband whose death had obviously devastated her.

Then she heard about Crisis at Christmas, a charity who provide homeless people in London with shelter, fresh clothes and food over the Christmas period. Her Christmases were transformed as she spent a week every year sleeping on concrete floors, and serving and washing the feet of some of London’s most disadvantaged people. She also used to collect clothes for the charity during the year and sent at least a large lorry load down to London every year.

Out of her own grief Auntie Enid, who sadly died last year, made such a huge difference to so many people at Christmas time; and she got a huge amount of pleasure from what she did but did not want to accept any praise for it since is was also her way of coping with this time of year.

I am always very humbled when I think of Auntie Enid and the people she cared for. It reminds me that Christmas is not such a joyous time for every one, and I am very lucky to have what I have. This helps me to realise this and, while it does not take away the real concerns and challenges that my own situation brings, it helps me put them in perspective.