ChangingDad

Making the most of a new life


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Powerless in Yorkshire II

So the problems with the electricity were soon fixed and I re-composed myself for the rest of my weekend with the boys. We had a relaxing day on the Sunday doing nothing in particular, and then I had a good day with Sam on Monday while Jake was at school.

By Monday evening, though, I was shattered and the events of the weekend were catching up on me, and I was starting to recognise the old signs of sleep deprivation and the general crankiness that goes with it. As a result bedtime did not go well.

I was desperate for the boys to go to bed because I needed both sleep and a little time to myself before achieving that. I think that it was because of this, I probably pushed bedtime earlier than I should have, I also think that the boys spotted my desperation and saw it as an opportunity to buy some time, and get some attention as well. They were all over the place, running round the house, opening the blinds, jumping in and on each other beds, and generally creating mayhem. It was the first time that I felt that a situation with them had gone completely out of control and I had no idea how to get it back, and no backup. I felt powerless and I really did not like it.

After what seemed like an age, and after an awful lot of shouting, things finally began to settle down; but I felt really bad. Bad because I had got so angry, bad because I had felt powerless, and bad because I was too tired to feel good. I also knew that this bedtime may have set a precedent for future evening, and I really needed some sort of strategy to, what I saw at the time, wrest control back.

Now, as regular readers will know, bedtime is something of a recurring theme here (see ‘Bedtime hour’ and ‘Ok, so I was wrong’); and is an issue for most parents at one time or another, often for the reasons I have described already. So once Karen came back I was able to think more coherently about how I coped with what did become a recurring theme of boisterous bedtimes.

The answer was something that was surprising to me, and taught me something about my need to control every situation. I got the boys to the point where they were ready to get into bed and…I did nothing. I just sat on the floor of their bedroom, head bowed (I eventually did this because Sam thought it would be a great wheeze to lick my nose and it made me laugh), and I just let the storm rage around me; and after a while it blew itself out and the boys declared themselves ready for bed.

I did the same thing the following night and, starved of the oxygen of attention, the boys quickly decided that that particular game was not fun anymore and quickly settled down. I have to say that I was elated. Completely surprised, but elated.

Since then bedtimes have settled down again, and if there are any shenanigans they are met with indifference from me.

Do not ask me why this works at bedtime and not any other time of the day (when it would be far less appropriate to ignore the boys), but I am just happy that, for now, it does.


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Powerless in Yorkshire I

 

The other weekend I had the boys to myself while Karen was away. This is a situation which happens often enough as not to phase me, but not often enough as to make it unremarkable; and this time it was four days, the longest that I have had them on my own.

I was not too worried about this because I had got plenty planned out and the sun shined everyday. By the Saturday evening we had had two brilliant days and we got home in the evening tired but happy. Sam was straight into bed and asleep, and Jake wanted to watch a programme before settling down. We had only been back 15 minutes, however, when the power went off. Checking that the houses around us were still lit, I then realised that our lights were still on too (doh!) but that all the sockets were off and, when investigating further, found that I could not get them back on again.

Jake was very understanding about his programme and toddled off to bed, leaving me to wonder what to do next, and what happened next was very unexpected:

I freaked out a bit.

I started to think of things that I could do to rectify the situation, but they all involved using a phone or the internet; both of which were unavailable (and my mobile had no charge). I was freaked because I could not do this research, and I was freaked because I could not at least send Karen a text to tell her what had happened. This was stupid, annoying and irrational; but real nonetheless.

So I decided to wait until morning to sort everything out telling myself that the worst case scenario was that the food in the freezer would spoil. This did not help and after several sleepless hours I remembered that we had a phone charger in the car, so I sneaked out, switched on the ignition and charged my phone – hoping that no one would come along and seize a golden opportunity to steal both car and phone thus rendering the situation immeasurably worse.

Despite the risk I have to say that I felt a lot better with a charged phone, and was then able to look for an electrician to ring in the morning, and could send Karen that text. I started to feel in control again as if somehow the power in my phone gave me power too.

Part of me feels rather embarrassed to admit this episode, but I thought it was worth sharing because it showed me just how used I had become to having technology at my fingertips, how much it gives me the illusion of being in control, and how fragile that can be. I am sure that I would not have been so freaked out if Karen had been around too, or if I did not feel the responsibility of looking after the boys, or if I had not been so focussed on getting home and just relaxing.

I think it is fair to say that I am not the sort of person who usually worries unduly about things, and tend to be quite sanguine about change; but this incident somehow disturbed my equilibrium in a way that many more potentially impactful things would not. I guess I was caught off guard and although balance was restored when the power fully was the next day it still troubles me that such things can happen so easily.

I am sure that everyone has these bizarre irrational moments when we lose perspective and, as in my case with charging the mobile, make potentially bad decisions by taking unnecessary risks. These can be quickly rectified, or they can persist and get worse, even multiply sending us further off balance. I was fortunate that I had the personal resources to regain my equilibrium quite quickly, but can remember times in my life when that would not have been the case and it is striking for me that it was the lack of communication that caused me to freak the most.

So for me the key lesson is the importance of sharing issues and concerns and work through issues with others whether they be friends, family, or professionals such as coaches. It helps us to understand our situation more, and with that awareness comes a greater ability to not only solve problems, but find the sort of balance in our lives that we want.


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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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Other people’s children

Jake has now reached the age where he is starting to have friends round. This is nothing new, what is new is that these friends are now dropped off by their parents. So while I guess you could call them play dates, they are very different sorts of things than before.

Unlike previously where the parents would come round and have a coffee and a chat, and the offspring would largely play by themselves, interspersed with the odd bit of combat as the focus of both children alighted on one particular toy or book. Now Jake and his friends play very nicely together and, by and large, require very little supervision.

So while this does tend to be an altogether different experience, especially for us parents in that we can get on with something else, there is the small matter of being responsible for someone with whom you are not familiar, unlike your own child of whom you have come to know pretty much every foible, and in many ways rather take this for granted.

As well as ‘play dates’ I have also found myself taking Jake and a friend out to such as soft play centres. It provides them with a good opportunity to bond, and me with a good opportunity to do things like write this blog. But I am also aware that I do not know how these friends will react when they fall over and hurt themselves, or what they do and do not like. What are they usually allowed in terms of food and drink? Do I really want to set some sort of precedent for their own parents to follow? “Well Jake’s Daddy lets us have three ice creams”. That would make me very popular.

So you are responsible for this complete stranger who, from my experience so far, is far more polite and amenable than your own child, and who seems to play nicely without much problem at all, and tends to eat all his tea. I do not say this to denigrate the boys, because I expect that when they go elsewhere to play at their friends’, their parents have a similar experience with them.

This is probably because the friends’ parents are strangers as well, not people which whom you have spent the last few years pushing boundaries and finding out where you stand. So parents of friends are people to be a bit wary of, but on the other hand they are looking after you. So what happens if something goes wrong? Will they look after you?

Because of this we expect our children to exhibit a certain amount of trust in those strangers that are their friends’ parents, as we do ourselves as parents. We expect a certain minimum standard of care for our children and I am sure that there is some sort of vetting procedure going on, however (un)conscious, when we consider who will be looking after our children.

In the end I think that I have to trust that the boys will be fine when they go out with friends and their parents. It is the next stage of letting go, a process which, like it or not, will continue apace for years to come.

I might as well get used to it, but I cannot say it is comfortable.


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No going back

 

We had visitors staying with us during the Easter break, a family with two children including a six months old baby. I thought that the baby was very cute and I very much enjoyed interacting with her, and was surprised how relatively easy she was compared with our boys (I mean how they are now not how they were then). She slept a lot and did not really have many needs apart from feeding, being changed, and being taken out for a walk now and again. I often forgot she was there as she rolled around on the carpet, or gurgled quietly in the pram, ‘forget’ being something that you most definitely cannot do with the boys.

But, and I think that you probably knew there was a ‘but’ coming, it did not really make me pine for having another baby. I am not sure whether this is a gender thing but the thought of going through the whole first years again is not something I particularly crave for.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy our boys’ early years. Certainly with Jake, because everything was new and exciting, and I did not know what was coming next. It was also a great challenge because I was learning and changing all the time, surprising myself at what I could do; and was generally amazed by the whole concept of fatherhood. With Sam it was a mixture of fresh challenge, two was definitely more than one plus one; but I also found myself wishing Sam’s early years away as we went through those different phases: crawling, teething, weaning, walking, talking, sleeping through etc… It was special in its own way, and Sam was, and is, very different to Jake in many ways. But do I want to do it again. Er no not really.

The boys have both reached ages that are really interesting. Jake is taking all sorts of new interesting concepts on board, and it is fascinating to see him develop. Sam is developing too, now in a very different way and, most importantly is really developing his communication skills and I am loving being invited into his fantasy world; something that he is much more open with than Jake was.

So I guess for me the bottom line is that while I am sure another child would be rewarding in their own particular way the first two years would not be as exciting again, until he or she were to reach ‘the age of communication’, I am not sure that I would get as much out of the experience as before. I may, of course, be wrong but I am not sure that I want to try. If nothing else I am not sure that I could take it, I am tired enough at the end of each and everyday as it is.

So hats off to those with more than two. I really do not know how you do it.


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Why I never want to be a celebrity

 

It is day three of rant week on ChangingDad. I have found seven things that rather annoy me since becoming a parent and have decided to spent the week getting them off my chest.

Today’s theme is something that first came to my attention just before Jake was born. Karen and I went on holiday for a week knowing that it would be the last opportunity to do so, at least just the two of us, for a number of years to come (and so it has proved). Given that I was about to become a father I was suddenly awoken to the fact that there were actually rather a lot of toddlers and babies around the place. What I had not realised is that many people treat little ones as if they are public property to be prodded, stroked and commented on. I remember one instance on that particular trip as clear as day when a woman reached into a pram of a baby she did not know and proceeded to do all the “coochie coo” stuff. I was outraged by this behaviour but took from the mother’s reaction that this was far from an isolated incident.

When I told Karen about this she was also unsurprised and told me of instances when people had regarded our in utero baby as being public property too, believing it to be quite ok to give Karen’s tummy a rub: a pre-natal celebrity. Why is this deemed acceptable by some people, most of whom, I am sure do not mean anything by it but who are also completely oblivious to the line that it crosses or the offence that it can cause.

Since the boys were born I have lost count of the number of times that their actions have been commented on as if they were X-Factor contestants, ripe for public comment. I half expect to see Jake or Sam on the front page of a tabloid paper under the headline “My cafe hell: parents made me EAT green things”, or some such. As already mentioned it also seems to have been deemed ok for some complete stranger to give a baby or toddler some sort of pat, often from people who have heavy colds and/ or coughs. Well thanks, it is nice to share but I am quite happy if you keep some things to yourself: your hands for instance.

But it is not only the children that are often regarded as public property, we parents, by association, also seem to be in the spotlight. So our valiant efforts at getting through the day without any major mishap, meltdown or embarrassment can be brought to nought by some stranger who chooses to take the child’s side and that vital moment when it seems that I have reached a delicate consensus with the boys. It really is not against the UN Convention on Human Rights to restrict the number of sweets our children eat in a public place, but by the way some people react you would think I was selling them into slavery.

What is more if you do make any protestation about such activities you are met by a reaction which questions how you could be so sensitive, how could you possibly complain about your children receiving such complimentary attention.

So far so clear you may think. Well indeed, but here is the rub. I am also proud of my boys most of the time. They are boisterous, tend to fight with each other quite a bit, and are often rather loud. But they are also sweet, cute, kind and thoughtful; and I rather like it when people notice that with a rye smile or a knowing look; and I am aware that I sometimes do that with other parents.

So am I being unfair to criticise people who take a more intense interest in the boys? I do not think so and think that there are lines that should not be crossed; for me there is a chasm between interference and acknowledgement.

I have not invited any celebrity by becoming a parent, and I am not comfortable to be in such a position; if I was I would be on some reality TV show like a shot.

I await the first series of ‘I’m a parent get me out of here’.


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In the beginning

One of the responses to my post on being on my own in soft play centres was from someone writing his first ‘Dad-blog’. It was a post that outlined how it was for him finding out that he was going to be a Dad for the first time. This got me thinking that part of me wishes that I had started to writing this blog at that moment, but also took my mind back to the time when I found out that Karen was pregnant with Jake. It also provided me with a further link to my last post in that it is my experience that Dads do not tend to talk about such things, including birth stories, as much as Mums do; and this perhaps skews the literature on such matters. In many ways this is quite understandable since the woman has a far more intimate experience of the pregnancy and birth.

So anyway so vivid were the the memories I was having that I thought it would be good to recount how it felt for me to find out I was a Dad for the first time not only because I would enjoy thinking about this again, but also to provide a Father’s perspective.

Karen and I were actually on our honeymoon when we found out. We had got married the previous year and decided to go on a round the world trip, ironically completely missing our first anniversary on a flight from San Francisco to Auckland since going over the dateline entailed missing out that very day. We were staying with friends in New Zealand and on a trip out on the first day Karen had disappeared into a chemist, as it turns out to pick up a pregnancy kit.

When we got back to our friends’ house I can picture the scene as if it was just yesterday. She went off to the bathroom and came back with a very nondescript look on her face before announcing that it was positive. Now if you had asked me beforehand how I would have reacted to this news I really could not have told you, and I certainly would not have expected the explosion of joy that came from inside me as I gave Karen a huge hug, something that I can see as clear a day when I close my eyes.

We were so excited that we ignored normal conventions of waiting and told the friends we were staying with straight away, and then had a glorious three and a half weeks in New Zealand and Hong Kong to get used to the idea, before getting back to our jobs; and Jake is always rather confused when I tell him that he has already been around the world.

I have many memories from my life and, as regular readers know, memories are something I think about quite a bit; but none are quite as explicit as that moment when I became a Dad-to-be. I would also like to say at that moment that everything changed but actually for me very little changed at that moment. Rather the changes were all ahead of me, something which I think (because I cannot say for sure) I viewed with a mixture of excitement and sheer trepidation.

It was a first step into the unknown. An unknown that I now know to be a joy, a huge responsibility, and a challenge.

-oOo-

Note: As I was writing this in my favourite cafe two women came and sat down on the table next to me, one of whom was pregnant. The other proceeded to unpack a large bag of baby clothes and they talked at length about motherhood, birth and pregnancy. I found it to be a very moving moment especially in the context of what I was writing. But I wondered whether two men would be having the same conversation about births and pregnancy that they were having. Of course I did not join in, particularly as I do not really have experience of such significant changes to my pelvic floor.


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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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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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Cuddles

One of the themes that seems to have developed in this blog is my experience of things that parents of older children did not warn me about such as continuing disturbed sleep. I have, on balance, seemed to regard these as negative. However, one aspect of fatherhood that I have been surprised about is the cuddle. I had expected to be able to hold my new born and give them a cuddle, but I did not expect it to be the gift that just went on giving quite so much.

It is not just the act of cuddling that I really enjoy, it is also what it represents. It tells me that the boys trust me and enjoy, and find comfort in, a cuddle. This came to me last night when I was sitting in with Sam as he settled in bed. As you may know we now sit in with the boys until they go to sleep. Last night Jake was so tired that he voluntarily went to bed early, and Sam went on his own later. Every five minutes as I sat there Sam would get out of bed, come and sit on my lap and give me a quick cuddle and them go back into bed. It seemed to calm him down, and give him some reassurance that he could safely go to sleep.

The day nearly always starts with a cuddle too. No matter how undisturbed the night is, Jake always likes to come in and have a cuddle before he fully wakes up (Sam likes to do the same with Karen), and when either of them are not feeling well they like to come and sit with us and curl up. It is never nice to see the boys getting poorly, but at least we can do something for them by giving them comfort as they often seem so helpless when they are ill, and as a result we as parents can feel helpless too.

Then there is the three or four times a day that one or other of the boys falls over, walks into something, bites their tongue, pokes themselves in the eye, is tired, or one of them is suffering as a result of some fracas with the other. These are all situations where a cuddle is required, and again it is great to feel that I can do something for them at these times.

I feel privileged to be able to play this role for the boys, and sometimes I feel a little guilty that I am enjoying this perk when they are probably feeling vulnerable and wanting to get better as quickly as possible but, really, a good cuddle does help the healing process along, and helps them to forget their pain quite quickly.

I am under no illusion that eventually the cuddles will get fewer and farther between as the boys get older, and probably rightly so, but at the moment they are prevalent and I consider it one of the top perks of being a parent. Long live the cuddle.