Sunday, March 13, 2011

About a Boy

After the last entry's exercise in navel gazing, normalish service is resumed.

We've just got back from a visit to that London to see a lovely production based on Oliver Jeffers Boy books.

Bandits at 11 o'clock
It was the first time that we'd taken J to see anything like this and I wasn't sure that his patience would last the course, even though he's a fan of the books.

How wrong could I be. He, and his friends, were rapt. As were the three babies, who are all under a year. Well done Big Wooden Horse.

Afterwards we had a mostly pleasant lunch at a nearby Italian, where J had a meltdown which I didn't handle especially well. However, all was well that ended well, after ice cream all round. Then we headed for a local adventure playground, which seemed like a lawsuit waiting to happen. It's not a good idea for two guys, slightly the better of a good Italian lunch to try and shepherd three full of beans kids around a splinter infested deathtrap. Still, we didn't lose too many fingers.

Then it was home again, home again, on the not very fast InterCity service and straight to bed for two very tired, but hopefully happy kids.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Being a dad

I was recently asked to contribute to a feature on what it's like to be a dad in these modern times.  The feature itself isn't due to be printed for several months, and as a journalist myself, I doubt they'll use much of what I provided. Hardly surprising as I got a bit over-excited and came up with a screed of self righteous copy about what a great father I am. It was particularly ironic as the day after submitting it I proved my fathering skills by letting our three year old tip over on his scooter on to his face resulting in a fat lip, grazed nose and lots of blood.

Anyway, I was asked to comment on a few areas, and on the basis that I don't necessarily practice what I preach, this is what I said.


Luckily for me I didn't experience anything that I would call depression, although I know somebody who did.
I think it is something that many dads are not even aware of. We're all primed to look out for symptoms in our wives and partners, but don't really consider it among ourselves.
Becoming a parent is harder than many of us imagine. Nothing you are told can really prepare you for the lack of sleep, worry about doing things properly, and frustration when things don't go right (the baby won't feed, won't sleep, won't stop crying). The first few weeks in particular are like baby boot camp.
It's a real eye opener and the wonder is that more men don't crack up. You're trying to be the strong, capable male role model you've read about and seen on TV, and often combining this with work. It's like having two jobs at once.
I got through it the first time by just getting on with it. I expected it to be a challenge and it definitely was, but it does get better eventually. And because it's all new, there is a sense of discovery and joy as the child develops which overcomes the bad times. The slightest thing, like a smile, can turn a really crappy morning around.
Funnily enough I found the birth of our second son tougher, because I underestimated how hard it would be with two kids. I thought that having done it once before, it would be a walk in the park, which is definitely wasn't.
Kid A was a worse sleeper than his brother, and suffered really bad colic when he was very young. Both my wife and I had this rose tinted idea that as our first son had been such a bad sleeper, we would be blessed with a sleeping scond son, and it was almost like a slap in the face when it didn't work out like that. There was almost a sense, of "Here we go again!" this time round. You've also got the other child demanding your attention, so it's a real plate spinning challenge.
I've definitely been less stoical this time round, and more grumpy at times. It probably made it a bit harder to bond with A  if I'm honest, although that has passed and I love him to bits now. It does strain your relationship unless you talk about it. Both parties inevitably think that they are getting the rougher end of the deal and that neither understands the other. Just being open about how you feel is a great release, as is humour. There are times when it gets so bad that it's hard not to laugh - perhaps a bit hysterically.


I always assumed that I'd have a central role in bringing up our children. As much as things break down along gender lines to a certain extent, we try and have equal roles. Obviously I can't breast feed and my wife can't assemble flat pack furniture, but we try and do the same things for the boys, whether it's cooking, playing, reading bedtime stories or bathing them (although this is something that I've found that I do, mainly because my wife was nervous about doing it when they were young).
I've never been a man that thinks it's beneath him to change a nappy. As far as I'm concerned, if you want a full role in your child's upbringing, then you need the full range of skills.
And they are skills. Very little we do with our children is completely innate. You have to pick stuff up by trial and error. You need to be able to soothe your child when they are upset and not just think that mummy will do it. She's not always there!
My dad died when I was 13, but my memories of him are of a family man, and that's what I wanted to be.
So, right from the start I've thrown myself in and got involved. In the early days I would even wake up in the night when my wife was breastfeeding as I felt I should be doing something. It seems like madness now, but at the time I think I felt I was being supportive by not getting any sleep as well - duh!
I don't think I've ever felt excluded, even when the boys have preferred to go to mum. It's understandable that they have a closer relationship with her in the early days, and I've never felt threatened by that. They quickly become individuals and you realise that even quite early on you will have your own relationship with them. As they get older (ours are 3 and 11 months at the moment), I'm probably the go to guy for boisterous play, which I absolutely adore.
My relationship with my wife has changed because we have less time for each other. We can both be irritable with each other because of tiredness and perceived lack of empathy from the other person. It can get like the Monty Python four Yorkshiremen sketch in the "I'm more tired than you" stakes. But at the same time we're closer than ever because of what we have in common. I don't think either of us truly wishes for our pre-children lives back. (Although a bit more time for personal interests would be lovely).
I didn't join any dad's groups as there wasn't one where I used to live in East London. However I did spend about 18 months working part time and looking after our first son, when my wife went back to work. During that time I gravitated to a number of dads that were doing the same thing. As much as the mums I met were lovely, I think there is something about the dad experience that makes you want to share it with other blokes. It was fun to hang out with them. Dads groups definitely have a role though. I'm quite confident about my role as a dad and wouldn't have a problem going to a class or group where I was the only man there. But I know that some men don't feel that and value an exclusively male group. It probably makes it easier to ask some of the many dumb questions that occur to us all. We're probably less worried about feeling silly in front of other men. And how can you feel intimidated by a hulking bloke who is carrying round a pink dolly and pastel shades changing bag.


I'm a freelancer, so I didn't have any paternity rights. At the same time, I have more flexible time, so I knew I would be able to spend as much time as required or desired at home.
Having said that, the nature of my work is feast or famine, and some work came up about a week after J's birth that I felt I had to take. It was just beginning to sink in how hard it was all going to be, so at the time I was a bit guilty about leaving the house knowing I was making my escape from the crying fury that was our baby. Then I'd come back to a wife in floods of tears who would thrust him into my arms and disappear upstairs for a break. Tough times.
I'm used to being around, so I think I would have found it hard to be content with just a couple of weeks paid paternity leave. My temptation would have been to set aside some money and sound out my employer about the possibility of taking a sabbatical from work to spend more time with the child. The benefits are obvious: you're a help at home, you can bond with your child, and it gives you a bit of perspective on your career - what are you working for in the first place?
Would I like to see better paternity rights? Probably I would, although I can appreciate the concerns of small companies especially who worry about all the new fathers suddenly wanting six months to spend with their child. Not everybody wants this, but I think the option should be there.
In a wider sense I hope that Sure Start doesn't get broken up. Both my wife and I found the Sure Start groups in our area a great resource and a great way of meeting other parents. It would be a real shame if they suddenly became unavailable to a few parents. 

As I said, it's pretty self righteous stuff, but it's a snapshot of how I feel that in a few years time may be a handy reminder.

More light-hearted posts to follow.