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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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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What’s eating me today?

This week I am getting those little things about parenthood that annoy me off my chest. I have already talked about the arrival of lighter nights, crappy toys on magazines and those who see children (and their parents) as public property. I am calling it ‘rant week’ but I hope that it is a little bit more than that since it is also highlighting how I have changed since becoming a parent, since none of these would have even been on my radar six years ago.

Today I am going to talk about something that I used to do a lot but nowadays not so much, that is eat out. Karen and I used to regularly go to restaurants before we had children, and quite frequently when Jake was very young. Over time, however, we find that we go less and less, more often than not with the children.

I have to say that eating out as a family is not something that I particularly enjoy doing. I find that the children get bored easily, even if we bring plenty of books and toys, and I do not really enjoy the restaurant experience when my food invariably goes cold for some reason or another.

However, this is not the reason for today’s rant. Rather it is so-called child-friendly restaurants that really do not seem to understand their customers. The thing that they seem to get wrong most often is when to bring the food. I have lost count of the number of times that Karen and I have found ourselves with our main course when the children’s, far more simple, meals are still being prepared in the kitchen. So there we are sitting there with a couple of hungry boys who have set their hearts on what they ordered only to be confounded by the restaurant and left with second choice offers of yucky food such as grilled sea bass or off cuts from a lamb shank with some exotic sauce (usually referred to as a ‘jus’) from Mummy’s and Daddy’s plates. Of such things are a tranquil mealtime not made.

So we have learned from experience that we need to ask that, if at all possible, the boys’ food comes first; in fact as quickly as possible since we are invariably in a restaurant these days because they are extremely hungry, and on one memorable occasion Jakes order was lost altogether – not great. I think that if we have gone somewhere claiming to be child-friendly this should be part of the service. It really is no good providing a selection of high chairs and a small packet of crayons for each child if they then get the basics wrong. For me it only adds to the stress of eating out, and does not encourage me to go again if they do not meet what I think are modest expectations.

Eating out is a good example to how life changes with children. We look for completely different things in an eatery now we have small mouths to feed. Karen and I still look for good food, but we also look for a place that it going to help us with the experience, and not heighten my already well-developed skepticism of whether we should be going there in the first place.


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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 Final Countdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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