ChangingDad

Making the most of a new life


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Like Son, like Father

It has been a bit of a strange start to the summer holiday period. This was always going to be the case to a certain extent since this was the first time that Jake would be home for several weeks since he first went to nursery when he was nine months old. We have also had friends staying, and so have had five children in the house; and to add to this Sam has been poorly. In fact he has been so poorly that he has been asking to go to bed without any prompting from us.

This has meant that we have sometimes been putting the boys to bed at different times, rather that the usual seemingly chaotic procedure of getting them down together, and the combination of these different factors meant that when I took Sam to bed last night it was a very calm time which I enjoyed very much.

Sam was quite restless, it was also a rather humid evening, but he sang a few songs to me that he had learned at nursery, and for the first time we had a chat. By this I mean a proper little talk in which we were both contributing ideas, a chat that had some sort of point to it and a definite beginning and ending.

This on its own would have been quite enough for me to class it as quality time well spent with him, but half way through our conversation it struck me that the situation that we were in seemed strangely familiar. It took me a while to understand what was going on for me, and I originally thought maybe it was a repeat of a similar time that I had had with Jake. But no, I realised that this first proper chat with Sam reminded me of my last proper chat with my Father.

As you can image this was quite a revelation for me, and one that I had to think through. It was certainly the case that in the half light of the bedroom Sam certainly bore more than a passing resemblance to my Father, but it was also the nature of the conversation which solidified the comparison for me.

My last real conversation with my Father took place in hospital about four days before he died. I had always found it difficult to talk to him when I visited since the distractions of a busy ward together with his increasing deafness and the aphasia that has come about as the result of a stroke made communication very difficult. For some reason, however, he had been put in a single room and we were able to focus on each other more, and I was able to spend time deciphering what he wanted to say to me. It was a lovely afternoon that I shall always treasure.

This is where this particular bedtime with Sam I think was similar. There was not the usual distractions of him and Jake egging each other on, or of him trying every trick he knows to put off the ‘awful’ moment of lying down quietly, so we were able to focus on each other much more. Added to this was the issue of me trying to discern what he wanted to say to me. His vocabulary is increasing at an amazing rate but he is still trying to work out how to say many words and, like my Father, got a bit frustrated when I could not understand what he wanted to say.

This was a really lovely and very positive moment for me and, for a change, I did not want to get out of the bedroom as soon as possible to begin my ‘child-free‘ evening. From this I learned that that sometimes it is important to slow down and take more notice of what it going on around me. I have no idea whether I will be able to heed this advice in future, but I really hope so.

Somehow the generational baton was passed on.

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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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Fading Memories I

Something happened this week that momentarily gave me quite a jolt, knocking me off balance for just a split second. This occurred while talking to Jake at the breakfast table. In between my exhortations to “please eat your breakfast otherwise we will be late for school” we somehow got talking about something, I cannot even remember what it was now, that required me to think of what I did at his age. My memory failed me at that moment and I could not recall that particular time in my own life at all.

I think that I have already forgotten about what we talked about because, like a bolt from the blue, I realised that if I cannot remember something about my childhood then, as an only child with both my parents now deceased, there is a good chance that that memory is now lost forever; unless the one cousin with whom I am still in touch can remember. As you can imagine the realisation of this was quite a revelation to me, and for a moment it made me feel quite alone. Not alone in my present, but alone in my past.

I have written before about the importance of such as photographs in helping us with our memories (and re-reading that particular post reminded me that I originally intended to have more photographs on this blog), and that this probably equates to around ten per year of me in our family albums. Not something that I can re-construct a whole childhood from. Not something that is reliable because there has been an editing process in taking and choosing those pictures.

So while I can remember my first unaided bike ride, my memories are passed through all sorts of filters and I have no way of corroborating whether my memories match what happened. In this particular instance maybe it does not matter how accurate those memories are since when I have them I get a warm feeling of my own achievement and sharing a moment with my father; a moment that I only now begin to understand from his perspective (but in the last couple of weeks I would have loved to know what his perspective was).

Perhaps it does not matter in this case, but I think that the source of my anxiety at that moment was that there are going to be plenty of times in the future when the boys experience something that I am going to have no idea whether and/ or how I went through a particular episode or rite of passage. It makes me sad that I will not be able to remember, and it makes me sad that I will not be able to share my own past with them as fully as I would have liked.

So circumstances, the fact that we moved around quite a bit when I was young and issues with more distant family members, mean that I will probably have to ride this out until I get to my teenage years (I still have good friends from those times onwards). I will have to rely largely on my own memories, and hope that things come back to me as I have similar experiences with the boys in the knowledge that I have no one to corroborate them.

This, coupled with the recent sudden death of a friend I had largely lost touch with, again reminds me of the need to maintain a good circle of people not only for the present, but for the past as well.

Postscript:

While I was writing this piece Sam came into my office and started looking at the photographs of the family I have around the place. Two things happened that seemed relevant to what I was writing. First he looked at pictures of Jake when he was younger and took some convincing that they were not him, and second he took umbrage that he was not in one particular picture of Karen, Jake and me. I tried to explain that he was not then born but he did not understand that there was a time when he was not part of the family. I thought that both instances were examples of how easily photographs can be taken out of context and given new meanings. The problem of fading memories.


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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 7. Bendy Bus Memories

It is Christmas Eve and, along with our policy of spreading Christmas out, we gave the boys a present each to open up this morning. They both got identical plastic bendy buses. They were something that we had been looking for for ages, and finally found them about a week ago, hence they were a little something extra.

We had been looking for them for so long because Jake has had one of these for ages and had played so much with it that the tyres had disintegrated on it and he really missed playing with it. It was special too because my late Father bought it for him and he always played with it when we went up to visit. We would get to a certain place on the motorway on the way up to Grandpa’s and Jake would talk about playing with the bendy bus when we got there: he just loved it.

So there was much joy when these presents were opened this morning, and when Jake and Sam started playing with them we heard what turned out to be quite an emotive sound from the bendy bus that reminded me of visits to my Father, that fake engine sound when they pushed them and the wheels turned. I think this was the same for Jake who went quiet for a while until he started playing again.

This for me was a timely reminder of who would not be around this Christmas, reinforced by our visiting the rest of my family yesterday. We have now lost a whole two generations of family since the Christmases of my childhood, and my Step-Sister and I are now the eldest. Our parents and grandparents have all passed away, and it has always been a sadness for me that my Mother never got to see her grandchildren.

This is the second Christmas without my Father and I shall miss his jolly presence. When my nieces were younger he always dresses up as Father Christmas for special surprise presents on the 26th; he was in charge of the black plastic bag which collected up the packaging and wrapping paper, and did in such a way that made us laugh; and he made ridiculous guesses as to what his presents might be. Most of all he always made us very welcome and made sure everyone had the Christmas they wanted. It was never a stressful experience going home for Christmas; quite the opposite.

In this sense Christmases will never be the same again but, like our parents and grandparents before us we have to move on; and this year we are back up to three generations again as one of my nieces had a baby during the year and it is so brilliant to have children around at Christmas. This does not mean that we forget those who are not with us, it is a great time to remember them fondly. But who would have thought a noisy plastic bendy bus would have helped us to do just that this year.


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Road Trip

I’ve been away this week, hence the absence of blog posts (no internet connection – I know how did I cope?). I’ve been with the family up at my late Father’s house sorting furniture for our own house move next month (and more on this at a later date). This required that I hire a van to bring the stuff back.

I love driving vans, there’s something about being higher up than most other road users that I find quite compelling: you can see more of the world around you, and you get a better view of the traffic. This was not the case on the way there, however, as I drove through a huge thunderstorm coming over the Pennine Hills, but I was certainly glad to have the van as most car drivers had to stop, so fierce was the weather.

The journey back was a much more sedate affair and I really enjoyed driving along with Jake in the cab beside me. He was very excited to be there and on the way we had a few chats about a drawing of a pirate ship that I’d done for him earlier in the day (I needed to add a plank), and about what he was going to do when he got home (get his kite out), before he drifted off to sleep.

As my mind wandered a little I began to think about the reason I enjoy these road trips so much. When I was a boy my Dad had a job as a lorry driver, delivering oil and petrol around the North West of England and North Wales. Every now and again during the school holidays he would take me out in the lorry delivering to great places such as airports, factories, hospitals and hotels. These places also seemed huge and endlessly fascinating to an eight year old, especially as I got to see the parts of them that most people didn’t get to see: the boiler rooms, loading bays, and control towers. I thought that my Dad had the best job in the world.

But it was not the destinations that stayed in my mind the most, nor the great views over the hedgerows, not even the brilliant lorries that he used to drive (and I can close my eyes and still see the inside of many of the cabs). Rather it was the little adventures and encounters we had on the way, at transport cafes, with employees at the places he delivered to, and when we occasionally broke down – we once brought an entire town to a standstill. It was a glimpse into a completely different world, my Dad’s world, a grown up world, a world that seemed so alien and far away.

So I completely understood why Jake was so excited to come into the van with me today, and I hope that (before he went to sleep) he has taken some memories that will stay with him for many years to come. Let’s hope that there are many more trips that he and Sam will take with us that will leave their indelible mark on them, and help them to get to know more about the world around them.


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Father’s Day #1: My Father

Father’s Day was something of a bittersweet occasion for me this year since my own Father passed away in November last year (2011). At the time I posted on my Facebook timeline that he was “the best Father that anyone could have hoped for”. He was always around and very committed to his family and, after my Mother died (in 1988), to my Stepmother and her family. I know that it was something of frustration to him that I spent most of my late twenties and early thirties as a student (for about ten years by the time I’d finished), but his support for me was always steadfast, once saying to me: “Whatever you want to do with your life I will support you”. He did not mean financial support but a moral and loving support which, to me, was priceless. I’m sure that this was not an easy thing for him to say, but it was an extraordinarily liberating thing for me to hear; giving me a real sense of freedom and ultimately helping me take risks which, in the long run, paid off.

Having children of my own has brought me many things, but perhaps the most important has been coming to realise what it means to be a parent, and in turn to appreciate what my parents went through: what they gave up and the extent of that unconditional love that only parents can have. Sadly I was never able to fully appreciate this before my mother died, but it means a lot to me that I was able to say ‘thank you’ to my Father. And I said a quiet thank you to him again this Father’s Day.

I still miss Dad. I miss ringing him up and telling him what the boys have been up to, and sharing a joke on the latest frustration of modern life (he loved stories about administrative ineptitude); and there is rarely a day goes by that I don’t think of him. It was important to me that he was part of this blog since he was so influential in many of the things that I have to say. That is why his memory is enshrined in the picture on the masthead, which is taken from the spot where we scattered his ashes on Derwentwater in the Lake District, Northern England earlier this year.

As you can see it really is a beautiful spot and I hope that it gives him the freedom that he so selflessly gave me.