ChangingDad

Making the most of a new life


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The End of the Beginning

Change is something you have to get used to as a Father. My boys, Jake and Sam, are 5 and 3 respectively and they seem to be forever saying new things, achieving more, and developing both mentally and physically at an alarming rate.

If I am anything to go by it is the new things that tend to get noticed and celebrated. I realised the other day, though, that much of the change revolved around not doing things. This is something that did not really feature when Jake was getting to the age Sam is now. Looking back Sam started doing things as Jake stopped doing them. Now, though we are reaching a definite end to things, since Sam is always going to be our youngest.

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Since the start of the year we have stopped pushing a pram or carrying Sam in a sling and stopped changing nappies. These things alone result in a significant change in the way we live our lives. We now have to badger Sam a bit to make sure he does not need a wee before we embark on some great voyage, such as to the supermarket; but on the other hand the car boot is not packed full of pram before we even try to get the shopping in.

When you add to this the many toys, books, puzzles and especially clothes that Sam has grown out of we get the feeling not so much of the ebb and flow of the tide of evolution, but the crashing of the wave of change over us; and if you are facing away from it you do not notice it until it hits you square in the back. Suddenly you are on the other side of the wave surveying the new landscape and, in many ways, starting over again as the things that you had built up to manage situations; to encourage and cajole, and to love and protect have all gone.

What is particularly scary is that once that wave has crashed you soon lose your memory of what actually happened before it came. You forget the little mannerisms, the wrongly spoken words and sentences; the vast majority of the great joys and frustrations that parenthood brings. You try to remember, and you do recall some things, but not as deeply as you felt them at the time; and they only fade more as the new takes over and demands your attention.

This is probably why we concentrate on the new in favour of mourning the old, because the new seems so much more positive, so much more amazing: it is the challenge in front of us.

Change in unavoidable in all walks of life but with parenthood, I would suggest, it is particularly marked because you get the usual bits of the new, coupled with a growing person who is changing at a much faster rate than the prevailing one. So once the wave has crashed, you are not given much chance to restore your balance before you are taken forward with the currents that come after it.

I like change for the most part, it keeps things fresh and exciting, and I am happy to be moving forward. It is a good job because, with Jake and Sam, I do not have much choice in the matter. Now were is that wet suit?


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London eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Royal Baby and stories of courage

While I would not class myself as a Republican I am not really a Royalist either, but since this is not 1649 I can sit on the fence quite happily. I do, however, get really irritated by what I see as the excessive coverage of royal events, especially when they usurp other stories that affect people’s lives much more. There are other births too that, in my opinion, are much more worthy of our attention given the courage and suffering that are involved.

Let me make it clear at this point that I wish the Royal Couple no ill will, and should add that it would not swap my life for theirs in any circumstance; the pressure that comes with the media spotlight must be immense. Nor do I want to underplay the pain of childbirth that Kate will have gone through which, having watched my wife Karen go through twice, I can only imagine. Nevertheless they have had the best of possible advice and care as they become parents for the first time.

But as I sat through what I saw as the interminable coverage waiting for some other news I could not help reflecting on children born into abusive relationships, into families where addiction is rife, or where the parents for whatever reason just cannot cope. I then thought about those many people who foster children from such situations and how heroic they are in taking children who are often quite troubled. I cannot imagine, as I struggle daily with Jake and Sam, how (or why) they do it. But thank goodness they do.

I then thought about the many people for whom having children is far from straightforward. Those who are unable to for whatever reason, and those for whom having children is a desperate round of medical consultation, IVF treatment, joyous hope and, often, crushing disappointment; then repeated. For parents, like friends of ours, who knew that if the pregnancy went to term they would have at most an hour with their child before it died, and how they made the courageous decision to do just that. But also their joy of conceiving again and having a healthy boy.

I thought of single parents who often seem to be so derided by our society yet must go through unbelievable strains and pressures to bring up their children. Mums and Dads who do not have anyone to share the load, the joys and the pains with. People who I imagine often must feel very isolated as they bring up their children alone. I cannot imagine parenting on my own and would be lost without Karen.

I thought of those in other parts of the world who do not have access to the sort of great medical care that we do here in the UK, and for all its faults the National Health Service is still an amazing thing. Places where child mortality rates are far higher and how we often forget that, behind the statistics, are grieving parents. I thought of those caught up in conflicts around the world, those very conflicts that lose our attention when not reported, and of the loss parents feel when their children are senselessly killed or taken away to fight in armies for causes that were long forgotten.

I guess what I am saying is that having a child is usually a time of joy, and by all means tell us about the birth of the royal baby; I am actually interested in it to the extent of knowing its sex, weight, name; and that mother and child are healthy. But that it is. For me there are far more interesting and inspiring stories of parents, carers, and those who never get to be parents showing courage in the face of unbelievable adversity. While I do not suggest that individuals be thrust into the public eye like William and Kate, I think there are many other stories of parenthood which deserve our attention that we never get to hear about.

So while I hope Kate and William will be able to experience as many of the joys and frustrations of parenthood that their situation allow, I would like to dedicate this post to the many parents and those who cannot be parents who have gone through unimaginable pain and grief and shown amazing courage in the face of such adversity. Let us remember them too.


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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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‘Sharenting’

I have, for some time now, been thinking about doing a post on whether it is fair on my children to blog. When I have discussed this with others the general consensus seems to be that in the long run they will appreciate it, although there may be a period where they find it utterly embarrassing.

Having, in previous posts, talked about how I now have nobody to ask about my childhood and how I must rely on my own memories and a handful of photographs, I see what I write as being something that the boys can draw on in years to come should they want to know more about me and how I saw their early lives. I would also hope that I write the blog in such a way as to not criticise the boys, but rather reflect on the challenges and joys of being a parent.

In doing this, and posting pictures to ‘Friends Only’ on Facebook, apparently makes me a ‘sharent’. This was a term that I had not come across before reading an article in The Guardian at the weekend. The term has apparently been around for about a year and, as you may guess, refers to those parents who blog, post, and otherwise share details of their children online.

Putting aside the fact that ‘sharenting’ is, per se, the sort of neologism that I really dislike (I wince every time I read or write it) the article itself encouraged me to think more about what I am doing here, giving examples of parent blogging which I certainly would not countenance and could quite see that could potentially lead to problems in parent/ child relationships and, more seriously, real issues for the children talked about in such blogs.

Those on the other side of the argument say that parent blogging can be a good way of sharing our joys and concerns in today’s fragmented society; and that it is inevitable that our children, as ‘digital natives’, will naturally develop an online profile anyway, and that ‘sharenting’ will merely be part of a bigger picture. Basically the world has changed and we should get over it.

As is often the case with such things, what was more instructive were the comments left on The Guardian website below the article. Here a number of ‘correspondents’ piled in to complain about how their Facebook feeds were awash with pictures of babies and endless comments on those babies’ every movement (in many senses of the word); and how weird they found it that people should chose to do such things. I was both sympathetic and concerned. Sympathetic in that I can understand how one person’s bundle of joy means relatively little to another person, but also concerned that I was stepping over some sort of boundary: both with my friends and, more particularly, with my children.

So where does this leave us, apart from disappearing in some sort of postmodern puff of self-reflection? Well I think that the sharing element is important here. Blogging helps me to be a better parent as it helps me to understand myself, and I am not sure that I would get the same feeling, or keep the same discipline, if I wrote these posts just for myself. It is somehow important to me that others read it. Saying something that no one can hear may be very Zen-like, but is it therapeutic?

In the final analysis I think that if I continue to be mindful of what I am writing then my blog will do more good than harm, and while the boys have no say in what I write about them it is my responsibility to introduce them to it at the right time in the right way.

As I have said before I think that Dads are less likely to share their ideas and talk about their issues than women. This blog helps me to do this, but I have also found that the coaching that I have done to be a good way to share in a more private manner. This is one of the reasons I am setting up the ChangingDad coaching business, to help Dads express themselves and become the best Dads they can be. There are many ways of sharing, but do we really have to be called ‘sharents’?


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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.