ChangingDad

Making the most of a new life


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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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Filling my shoes

For the last three Tuesday afternoons I have been going to Jake’s school to take part in a fathers and children ‘Story Sack Workshop’. This involves us sitting round on those little school chairs, the ones that you worry how you are going to get up from, and doing activities around a story you have read with your child during the previous week. The sack bit comes in because you get to take home a sack with books and activities in it and look a bit deeper into the story with your child. For instance, during the first week Jake chose Jack and the Beanstalk (currently his favourite story) and we were able to reenact the story using the puppets provided in the sack. It was a great way of telling the story together.

It is also good to meet more dads and grandads since, as I’ve written about before, men do not seem to be as sociable in parenting situations as much as women. So we get a coffee and do some crafting based on the story that we have been reading during the week. On the final week we did a lovely exercise whereby the children drew round our feet, and the dads/ grandads painted the children’s feet and made a footprint. We then cut out each others feet and stuck them, one on top of the other, on a piece of paper below the sentence “when I grow up I want to fill your shoes”. I found this to be incredibly moving, and that piece of paper is something that I will treasure for many years to come.

It did, however, get me thinking about that phrase “when I grow up I want to fill your shoes” because it struck me that it could have several meanings, which left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand it could mean Jake filling my shoes if I die or become infirm; it could be simply that one day his feet will be the same size as mine and will then be making his own way in the world; or it could be something along the lines of him fulfilling my expectations.

Each of these give me an emotional response as I think of future possibilities and outcomes, but it is the last one I would like to unpack a bit more here. Yesterday would have been my Father’s 82nd birthday, he died in 2011. For me the most marvellous thing that he bequeathed to me was something he said long before he died, and during a time of my life where I was unsure where my future lay. Hearing the words “whatever you decide to do with your life I will support you” provided me with a great release. It told me that he had the confidence to let me go and do what I wanted in the world, but also that he would also be there for me to fall back on. I felt set free.

This gave me great confidence, and is something that I am very grateful for, especially when I see others who, no matter how successful they are, continue to struggle under the burden of their fathers’ expectations, or their perceptions of those expectations. It is something that I think, as fathers, we need to continually guard against because are children may share many of our personality traits but they are their own people and deserve the freedom to explore their own way.

I hope that I can help and guide Jake and Sam in what they do and where they go, I would not be fulfilling my role as a father if I did not. But I also hope that I will have the confidence and humility to let Jake and Sam make their own way in the world, doing things that they want to do rather because they feel the need to fulfil any expectations that I might place on them. If they have happy and fulfilling lives in their own terms in this way then I will consider my shoes to be well and truly filled.


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Cage fighting

We have bought a trampoline. So our back garden, like many others in Britain now screams out to passers by “we have got kids”. And screams are indeed now what regularly come out of our garden. Not only the screams of the boys, but also of Karen and I as we try to encourage some orderly bouncing.

Most of this is, of course, in vain and as I looked out of our kitchen window, from where we get an excellent view of the carnage being wrought as the boys ‘play’ in the garden, it struck me that with its fully enclosed high sides and many health and safety related features it was how I imagine a cage fight being, albeit one involving a lot of bouncing (which I am not sure that cage fighting generally does).

It usually starts quite quietly with the boys bouncing up and down and gradually warms up as they get more confident. Then as they start moving around more wildly they inevitably start bumping into each other amidst much pushing, falling over, and hysterical laughter. They enjoy it so much as it must seem like a safe environment as the netting will catch them if they fall. At the end of each phase of rolling around on the actual springy bit they then get up again and start bouncing, like a couple of prize fighters sizing each other up, and then smack back into it again. It is 90% sheer unadulterated pleasure for them and ends up with the other 10% which is, frankly, a little bit full on.

The key issue for me seems to be when to intervene. If I go too early I spoil their obvious pleasure, too late and there is an increased risk that one of them will get hurt. So why let them go on at all? Well I think it is a pretty safe environment in there, even though the weighty tome that is the instruction book seems to have been written with the sole purpose of the manufacturers avoiding any lawsuits from irate parents who, shockingly, think that it is ok to let more than one child on at a time. Actually if you followed the instructions to the letter you would never use the thing, so you can only accept the risks and get on with it.

This issue of intervention is one that I think increasingly about. The trampoline is not the only place where strife breaks out between the boys and whenever it does part of me wants to wade in straight away, and part of me wants to let them sort it out for themselves. The experience of the trampoline so far is that they manage to sort it out more than half the time, and continue as if nothing happened; but there are occasions where things do escalate. Learning the art of compromise and negotiation cannot be a bad thing, can it?

So I guess, as with many things to do with children, it is all about finding boundaries; not just for the boys by for me as well and I am conscious that I have different sense of risk than they do. When it comes to what they want they try and get it without, in that moment, worrying too much about the consequences. But while that my mean that they have realised that a certain action may result in something negative, the other side of that coin is that the can enjoy themselves without worrying too much either.

So when it comes to the trampoline I certainly do not want to stop them having the pure unadulterated pleasure that it brings. But I will still be keeping an eye on them.


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Balls!

In my last post I warned against the temptation of talking bollocks to keep inquisitive children at bay. Today, however, I am going to talk bollocks: my bollocks.

Now this might seem like a radical departure for this blog, but please bear with me because what I want to talk about today is yet another thing that never gets mentioned by other Dads when they are telling you about the joys and tribulations of fatherhood. That is that as a father, certainly of boys, I have found myself to be regularly in agony from a stray foot, knee, elbow and a variety of inanimate objects hitting my testicles. This is at least a weekly event, often enough for me to say to Karen “every single &%$^*^$ time” when it does happen.

I am sure that the boys do not do this on purpose and, as I have said in the past, I do like a bit of roughhousing. In fact I am positive that they do not since they clearly do not yet have any conception of how much it hurts to be hit there, as evidenced by their much repeated surprise when I scream and my eyes well up with tears. But surely a clue also lies in that last sentence, that these things are the source of their life, they were key to their conception: surely there must be some sort of biological/ evolutionary predisposition that means they would avoid that area. But no. I keep on getting it there again and again. How ungrateful!

The last straw, which finally drove me to write this, was when a slipper flew across the room last week and hit me squarely where it hurts most (as we men like to say). Jake was not aiming for there but it was a ‘lucky shot’ and that, by itself, would not be so bad. However it was one of so many ‘lucky shots’ over the last 5 years and, really, it is getting rather too much.

I also have to say that I do not get a great deal of sympathy for my suffering. Comments such as “well it’s clearly a design fault”, “have you thought about a codpiece” or “you should try childbirth” may, on one level or another, be fair comment but they hardly pour balm on my aches and pains. So I guess I either have to do something drastic, stop playing so much with the boys, or just man up and get on with it; and I guess that the latter is most likely – but not before getting it off my chest, so to say.

That we all have to make sacrifices when we become parents is clear, and something I understand and accept. Nevertheless there are a few things that seem to be above and beyond the call of duty. But I guess that is just it. Being a parent tends to move that bar higher: the bar that measures where you think the call of duty might be. And as that bar moves up you can be sure that, sooner or later, it will hit you squarely between the legs.

I think I need to go and lie down now.


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So embarrassing!

Jake opened up a new front in the parent/ child relationship this week: he got embarrassed! He was talking about the Headmistress at his school and got her name wrong, but would not believe me when I told him he had. “Right”, I said, “The next time that Mrs Buxton is standing at the school gates we’ll ask her shall we?” The silence that ensued, followed by a strong “Nooooooo!” told me that, while Jake was not prepared to admit he was wrong, he also did not want me to ask Mrs Buxom (as he calls her) what her name actually is. But at this stage I had not realised that this was down to his embarrassment.

So off we went to school the next morning, and there was Mrs Buxton standing outside the school (a habit that I fully approve of having known so many head teachers who hardly emerge from their offices), so I offer to Jake that we go and settle our disagreement with her. Again the trademark silence followed by “no Daddy, it’s embarrassing”.

What a marvellous moment that was since it not only tells me that Jake is developing as a person, but it opens up a whole new aspect of how we interact. Clearly I was never going to ask “Mrs Buxom” about her name, but Jake did not know that because where would the embarrassment have lain then?

Embarrassment is something that parents have, consciously and unconsciously, been using with their children since time immemorial and I have to admit that part of me has been looking forward to this moment since Jake was born. After all it is part of the parental job description isn’t it? We can use it to build our relationships with our children, and also motivate them: one of my favourite ways to get Jake going is to threaten to start singing if he does not get a move on (I have a habit of narrating what is happening in song: Jake does not like this, especially in public). I had not put it down to his embarrassment before, but now that I have I might well be singing a lot more often.

Clearly there are limits to how we embarrass our children since it could also be cruel and manipulative if used in the wrong way. Used in the right way, though, it can be part of that continuing experience of bonding with our children. We know things about them that no one else does, and we care about and notice their little foibles like no one else does. It is hardly surprising, then, that we will want to share (or offer to share) this information with others and, as the boys get older, the level of embarrassment is surely only going to increase.

As a parent you can be embarrassing to your children simply by being who you are, by wearing what you wear, and through knowing what you know. It seems to be something natural and comes so easily that it would seem rude not to use it.

I wonder what Mrs Buxom thinks?


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Fading Memories II

In the previous post I wrote about my sadness that I now have no one to help me remember things that happened in my childhood and I commented on how those memories that I do remember might not be that accurate either. I think childhood memories can be particularly unreliable because everything happens and changes so quickly, things can change quite dramatically from one day to the next.

I recently realised that this does not only happen when we remember our own childhoods, but also those of our children. This came about because Sam has suddenly started to say, with considerable frequency, “Wha’ dat noise?”, whenever he hears something that he cannot explain. This reminded me that Jake used to say exactly the same thing in much the same way over a period of many months when he was a similar age.

It surprised me that I had so easily forgotten that Jake did this along with many of the other things that the boys used to do and/ or say when they were younger. It makes me wish that I had been more pro-active writing them down, but pleased that I now record such things in this blog.

When I talk to parents of older children they often say that they can hardly remember what it is like to have children the same age as our boys. This has always been something that I have found hard to understand in the past, since the time that I spend with the children is so vivid; like it is in really glorious ‘Technicolor’. Yet I am beginning to understand this because those past memories of the boys becomes more like sepia the more distant they are. I can now hardly remember what it was like to change a really small baby, and while the more memorable moments like when Jake first walked* or my first full day on my own with Sam are still quite intense, much of the ‘everyday stuff’ seems to have been erased from my mind.

I think that these memories fade so quickly because they are replaced with these brightly coloured ones on a regular and frequent basis. The best way that I can describe this is that there is so much wonder, so much emotion, so much awe, so much love, so much authenticity and so much energy attached to the experiences that we have with our children that they use up so much more of our ‘bandwidth’ than many other memories and experiences. The wonder of the new displaces that which beforehand also seemed so wonderful. So we have to live in the moment with our children, because that takes up so much of what we are.

As you might have guessed I have been writing this as I am realising it, so I hope it makes sense. Basically for me it is great to remember our children’s (his)stories: it reminds us of who they are. But it is inevitable that we cannot hold all those memories of how they were while at the same time being with them in the present. If my recent experience is anything to go by, I think that the boys will want Karen and me to help them remember how they were when they were young (although perhaps not when it gets embarrassing in front of their friends), especially if they have children of their own.

-oOo-

 * It was at this point that I realised that I could remember much more about the first things that Jake did, than when Sam did them for the first time. I think I was so full of wonder the first time round, but by the second time have become really used to that particular amazing feat being performed, even though Sam walked at 11 months and Jake not until 21 months. This in itself says something about how I store my memories.


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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.