Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dads, don’t miss out

My latest column for Colchester NCT magazine, for anybody who missed the print edition.

This autumn my eldest son started school and like many parents I’m catching my breath thinking, “Wow. How did that happen?”
It really doesn’t seem that long since we were looking at the Clearblue stick trying to work out whether it really was a positive. Can it really be almost five years since he first came into our lives?
From the moment of his birth, the milestones have fairly whizzed past. First smile, first word, walking, talking, solids, teeth, nursery, terrible twos, potty training… it never ends. And then the next one came along. Whenever I find myself wishing a certain phase was over and that we could move on to the next ‘easier’ bit, I try to remind myself that I wanted children – warts and all. Not that they have warts yet.
Children are a work in progress, which for uptight perfectionists like me, can be torture. It’s very difficult to sit back and have a moment of self-congratulation at a job well done as there’s another calling on your time. But of course, that’s the joy of parenthood. The important thing is to enjoy the journey rather than to fixate on some end point when everything will be ‘just right’.
It’s being around for these little accomplishments that makes all the hard bits of parenting worthwhile, but it’s where a lot of dads miss out due to their jobs.
Work-life balance is a naff phrase, but it’s an important concept, especially for parents. However, for many dads it is something to aspire to rather than actually achieve. Whatever the steps taken to try and create a more Scandinavian model of shared parenting in this country, the reality is that the majority of dads maintain a fairly traditional work life.
They work during the week, seeing less of their children than their partners who are closer to home, either looking after the children full-time, or combining work with childcare.
In a commuter town like Colchester it’s even tougher for many dads. Travel takes a big chunk out of the day. You might make it home in time for bedtime and stories, but given the vagaries of the railways, you may not.
I’m not saying that working dads are bad dads – far from it. Being a breadwinner is a vitally important role. But I sometimes wonder if we should periodically take stock of what’s most important.
When I was a child, my dad worked shifts in a factory. That meant that often I would hardly see him during the week as he’d either be at work or asleep during the day after working nights. Even at quite a young age I knew that he was doing something important and that although he didn’t like working such unsocial hours, he was doing it for us.
It didn’t really make it much easier though. I just wanted him to spend more time with us.
But the time that he did spend with us was all the more precious because of it, and he really went out of his way to make sure that he used it in the most fun way. I have great memories of holidays, day trips and times with family and friends. Now that he is no longer here, those memories are all the more important to me.
I work from home, something that I feel very fortunate to do. Because of this I have been able to see up close the development of both of my sons. I won’t deny that there have been times when I would rather have been at the other end of a railway line, but generally it has been a rather wonderful thing.
When J was just over a year old, my wife went back to work. We put him in nursery three days a week and I was to look after him for the other two.
In the lead up to this handover I was remarkably relaxed about what was imminent, probably because I didn’t really know how hard it was going to be. Of course I had changed nappies, I had fed J as he moved on to solid food, I played with him, but all of these activities took part with the support blanket of my wife nearby. It really was a bit of a steep learning curve when it was just him and me.
Every little task seemed to take twice or three times as long as it should have. Simply leaving the house was a logistical challenge as there was so much stuff you needed to have with you. I’d leave, get fifty yards down the road and have to go back for the nappies. Then for the spare clothes, then for something else.
I was stunned by how tough everything was – I was shattered at the end of the day with this one year old. All the time I’d been watching from the sidelines, my wife seemed to manage it effortlessly. When it came to my turn, I sort of managed to do everything that has to be done, but in the manner of the 20-stone guy who finishes a marathon in eight hours, sweating profusely and with bleeding nipples. Mission accomplished, but he’s hardly going to worry Paula Radcliffe.
What this taught me was a respect for the partner who does stay at home with the kids. Anybody who doesn’t count this as real work had obviously not spent a full day with a demanding toddler.
But it’s great too, and something more dads should try out. It’s not possible for everyone, but parents do have the option of asking their employers for more family friendly working terms. It can be easy to kid yourself that you won’t get them, or that you need the money more than time with your child. But at the end of the day, you only get to be a dad once. What do you value most?

Thursday, November 08, 2012

US elections - some observations

So it's four more years for Obama.

Viewed from this side of the pond, it's been a funny old election. For one thing it all seems to have happened a lot quicker than usual. maybe that's just a function of me getting older, and time whizzing by. Or it may be that for so long it seemed a bit of a non-contest.

Even with the economy in the karzee (American reader - 'the john'), Obama seemed a shoe in for a second term. The Republicans were in such a mess for the majority of the past couple of years - the Tea Party contingent has thrown a hand grenade into the party machine. The Democrats must have been rubbing their hands at the prospect of Sarah Palin fronting up for the GOP.

As it was, when it got down to the serious candidates, they did a great job of pulling themselves apart before they even started to challenge the president. Then Romney, once chosen, kept stuffing his size 10s (American reader - size 10.5s) in his mouth with his '47%' and 'binders full of women' blunders.

In the end, the race only came to life after Romney took Obama to the cleaners in the first debate.

Now that Obama has won, it's interesting to see how the conventions of US elections play out. For a nation so divided, it's notable the way there are certain touchstones that remain immutable, namely god and the American Dream.

Over here, overt religious devotion is something that is viewed with suspicion. Has there ever been a presidential candidate who was agnostic? It would probably be electorally unpalatable, although we would once have thought that of a black candidate. [Note to self: actually, the US is probably ahead of the UK in the status of its black leaders. It has Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Jesse Jackson, as well as BO himself. We've got Diane Abbott, Keith Vaz and Baroness Warsi].

Americans are always calling on the benign deity to bless their country, but not all Americans are religious. What is the etiquette for atheist patriots? "Nice one America", "Well done America", "Wassup America", seriously, what do you say?

The whole American Dream thing is a bit weird to me too. I get the aspirational message and the whole tired, huddled masses thing, but this is the 21st Century. I know that Obama has to give the country a bit of boost now that he's back in, but for me, the "you can make it in America" shtick is a bit disingenuous.

I'm Scottish, so genetically designed to piss on your chips and behead tall poppies on sight, but as I see it, the American Dream is a myth. It's not really for everyone. In a capitalist society not everybody can be a winner. There need to be enough losers to fuel the winners - that's how it is. Yet in the US, there seems to be a massive buy in to this belief, not least from those who probably have the most to gain from 'big government'.

Based on the anecdotal evidence from newscasts (hey, my on the ground resources were scare) opposition to 'socialistic' initiatives such as healthcare and higher taxes for the wealthy are as high among the less well off as other groups. Because, hey man, they're gonna make it one day too. Just a matter of time! Getting rich a dollar at a time!

How refreshing it would have been for Obama to come out and say that the next four years will be tough, so it's probably best that you put your Donald Trump ambitions on hold for a while, buckle in for a rocky ride, and if you are well off, prepare to dig deeper. Manage expectations.

Or you can just keep on with that old time religion. Work hard and you can make it here? Well, plenty of people work hard and are still picking up rations at food banks.

We have a name for people who believe all this guff over here - Del Boys.

Incidentally, my tip for the Republican candidate for 2016 is Jeb Bush. Based on nothing more than a Newsnight interview, he came across remarkably well - slightly humble, non-partisan, and no obvious Bushisms.

But what do I know?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hello old friend

Yesterday we were in East London for a birthday party, so decided to do that rather embarrassing thing where you revisit your old house and street.

I'm glad we did actually. It was really interesting to see how Wilton Way has changed -  the trendification continues. Our old flat was on the little row of shops that is now lauded in Time Out and the New York Times as the Williamsburg of East London. Since I was last there, a new wine shop has opened in the old post office, a hip hairdresser in the old hairdresser's, and an art book shop in a store that was closed for as long as I lived there.

It really is very impressive and a model for reinvigorating retail space that owes everything to people following their dreams and being mutually supportive, and nothing to Mary Portas. It's the sort of approach that could work in  Colchester, and I know that there are enough imaginative and creative people to make it happen. Maybe they just need to focus their efforts on a particular street to create a little hip quarter with its own vigour.

Anyway, back in East London, the thing that really made my day was bumping into my old neighbour Mr Abdul. He is an elderly Pakistani gentleman who used to run a small grocer's next door in the decidedly pre-hip days. The only thing vintage about his shop was him.

He is a delightful old gentleman and it was hard to pass him in the street without stopping to chat and then wondering where the time had gone. His younger son and I used to get completely lost in dissecting the weekend's football results.

It was a lovely surprise to spot him walking down the street, looking slightly out of place among all the fashionistas and yummy mummies that now make up the local scene. I extended  my hand to shake his, only to be embraced in a big bear hug. It was most unexpected and not a little humbling - it's nice to be missed. We had the two boys with us as well, who he always showed an interest in, and was probably surprised to see how big they have become in the past two years. We spoke about how he was (health not so good), his wife (ditto), his son and his family (still living with them, and looking after his parents - good boy! Got a good job with Deloitte, although his first love was football and he had trials with Ipswich).

And then we went our way. It's possible I'll never see him again, which is a very sad thought.

Elsewhere in my old manor there were lots of other changes, not least the arrival of Boris Bikes. In the past I've called for them to be in East London and now you can hardly move for them, certainly in the strip from the West End to the Olympic Stadium.

We also lunched at Hackney City Farm, still a haven for young families and still a big it with the kids. Nice to be back, if only for a day.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The screaming begins when the bell rings*

Last week we had J's first assessment from his school. It was all very heartening: he's settled in well; he's making friends; his literacy and numeracy are both good (they probably wanted to say he was top of the class but couldn't because of some PC 'all will have prizes' rule. Tsk!)

Which was great. But what I really wanted to know about was his temperament in class. Because out of it, it's atrocious.

It's almost as if he holds it all together so much when he's in school that there needs to be a small nuclear explosion by the time he gets home. This makes for a very long day, as school kicks out at just after 3pm. The journey home is usually benign enough: we discuss today's school dinner; what he's done in class; who he played with, and so on.

But as soon as he gets in the house it's as if he undergoes a personality change, and not a nice one. Requests to change out of his school uniform are answered as if we'd asked him to commit some appalling act. Declining requests for sweets can also be met with him going ape.

Goodness knows what the neighbours make of his stomping and shouting. I'd like to say that I'm a model of calm when confronted by tantrum boy, but this would be misleading. If truth be told, I'm often driven to screaming back, which rapidly turns into a vocal arms race. I know it's wrong and there's nothing to be gained from trying to shout down a five year old, but sometimes it's all I've got left in my armoury - I don't feel good about it.

From speaking to other parents, I'm slightly relieved to hear that it is not just us that has a demon child. Other mums tell a similar tale. As long as we're within the bell curve I can live with it.

Luckily (I think) it's half term next week. Maybe there will be a week of sweet natured fun and games all round. Or maybe the bad behaviour will simply fill the whole day.

* Actually they don't have a school bell at J's school. I guess they've gone the way of free milk and rickets.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On our bikes

With number one son getting ready to start school, I decided that I didn't want to drive him there every day. His school is around 1.5 miles away, which is a little too far for his little legs, even with his Micro scooter, on which he is a whizz.

Having researched a few options, I decide that the best was a bike trailer. His younger brother will start nursery soon, so we bought one that can accommodate them both. We actually bought this before we had bought the bikes needed to tow it. These eventually came from a great little charity in Colchester called Re-Cycle.

It collects old bikes and does them up before sending them off to Third World counties. They also recondition bikes that you can buy here, to cover their costs. Not only is it a great charity, but you can also pick up some fantastic bargains. The bikes go through a 20-30 point check and can be practically like new.

We picked up two bikes - a Raleigh mountain bike/hybrid type for me, and a sit up and beg style ladies bike for my wife. Together they cost less than the trailer itself. Both seem to have new or almost new tyres, came with a three month guarantee, and that all important accessory, a bell.

Although I have cycled off and on since I was a kid, this is actually the first bike I have owned since I was about 17.`1

The school run has turned out to be a great little trip to kick start the day. The school road gets fairly congested with traffic and you often have to park a few streets away, but with my vehicle I can navigate right to the school gates, or even inside.

I was a bit nervous about towing the trailer in traffic. A friend told me that they knew somebody who had given it up after having an unspecified accident. The roads to school are fairly major town roads with a few slightly hairy junctions and other obstacles to negotiate - narrowing of the road, traffic lights, crossings and so on. I took the bike out a few times before term started to get used to it, but there was no way to really prepare for the big day and rush hour traffic.

As it happens, I've been pleasantly surprised by the respect I'm given by drivers. I thought that my contraption would be viewed as a huge annoyance by psycho drivers, anxious to get by me. It's early days yet, but I haven't had any of that, and no road rage of any sort yet - thank you patient drivers of Colchester.

It's not stopping with me though. It was J's fifth birthday yesterday and his main gift from us was a bike. I can still remember the first bike I received, and it's heartening to report that he was as excited about his bicycle as I was with mine. Now we just need to get those stabilisers off and we can let the good times roll.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My muso days are over

Like many music obsessed parents, I always thought I’d pass on my ‘good taste’ in music to my children. I’ve always envisaged them sitting rapt at my feet as I tutored them in the subtleties of classic seventies progressive rock, the energy of punk and the earnest commentary of singer songwriters that adorn my record collection.

Of course the kids had other ideas. “Boring!” they’d shout as soon as one of my CDs was inserted into the stereo or car entertainment system. They much preferred a host of children’s favourites by the likes of Danny Kaye and others which have been slowly but surely driving me round the twist.

Recently we came upon a happy middle ground in the shape of Eighties zany pop duo They Might Be Giant. They’re best remembered for the annoying Birdhouse in Your Soul song, a tune that has always grated on me. However my wife loves them and chanced upon a video of the band’s song E Eats Everything on YouTube. This is a sort of Sesame Street animated ode to the letter E and other letters in the form of a description of their favourite foods.

Our two boys found it absolutely hilarious and insisted that it went on repeat. Its funky guitar riff was so naggingly insistent that even musically pretentious dad could appreciate it.

I then discovered that the band have actually recorded two albums worth of child friendly songs devoted to the alphabet and numbers (Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s). As well as being sneakily educational, they are funny and enjoyable to both adults and children with some corking tunes spanning a gamut of styles including country, pop, Eighties electro and prog rock.

Car journeys are now a delight as we can sing along en famille to ditties such as Who Put the Alphabet in Alphabetical Order, I Can’t Remember What D is For, and the ever hilarious 7 song.

For now it’s a great half way house between my musical preciousness and their desire to belt out nonsense lyrics. And at four and two, there’s still plenty of time to introduce them to the delights of Yes, the Ramones and Nick Drake. I haven’t given up.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fast entry

I'm wondering if I can come up with anything interesting to say in the 10 minutes before I got to pick up J from school.

It's the final week of a less than full day. He gets picked up at 2pm. Today I had to leave him at the door of the school for the first time after a few weeks of taking him right into the classroom. It seemed to go okay -  no floods of tears, but he wasn't that pleased.

From next week he'll be doing a full day, until 3.15, which will help me and the wife out. He arrives home so early that it's tough to know what to do with him at the moment. Half the day is still available and he has no shortage of energy. I don't know what I'll do with him toady as I'm on duty while Mrs Holiday does some work. The park maybe. Not craft please - AKA making a massive mess in the house and then leaving me to clear it up. No TV - save that for when real desperation kicks in.

So, no, nothing interesting!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Starting school

I can remember my first day at school very clearly. Decked out in a tweedy jacket and shorts combo getting my picture taken on the doorstep with my best pal John.

Taxi: the school chariot
The thing I remember most about the day though was the reaction of another young boy, William, who was so freaked out that he ran away as we lined up in twos to enter the class. Well, we were only four years old, and the lining up was being done by a stern, uniformed janitor who everybody was still terrified of years later.

Dropping J off for his first day was an odd occasion. He's a confident and very sociable child, so I wasn't really expecting any problems, even though several of his nursery friends were off to a different school. He's doesn't really have a problem making friends, but I had underestimated how little he likes change.

As we arrived at the school to take him in, one of the classroom assistants was handing out name stickers. He usually only has one volume - booming - but this dropped to barely a whisper when she asked his name. I hadn't really got the requisite lump in my throat until then. Not when he reluctantly appeared for the first time in his full school uniform (complete with hastily shortened trousers - one leg each from me and Mrs HH), and not when we packed him and his brother into the bike trailer that is now his school taxi.

But the hoarse whisper really got to me and I was quite upset on the way out, especially as he had been unusually clingy that morning. I'm sure I wasn't alone. The first day of school is one of the classic growing up milestones. Lots of parents looked more anxious than their children on that day. I don't know why we were all fretting so... they were only in class for about two hours.

That was almost two weeks ago now, and it's safe to say that the school is still bedding them in fairly gently. This week he's staying for dinner and finishes at 2pm. It will be another week and a half before he's staying for a full day. I suppose it makes sense. Some of the children there are tiny and there are a few who still seem fairly upset by it all. Luckily for us J seems to be getting on okay, especially now that dinners are on the cards.

And that's another change from when I was at school. I never looked forward to my school meals. Lumpy tatties and gristly mince. Yuk!

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Loving the 'Lympics

Suddenly everyone loves the Olympics. I think Tony Parsons summed it up best when he said: "Sneering at the Olympics is like sneering at Christmas... Time to stop synchronised moaning."

Stadium arcadium: Olympics happen here
As a fairly recent ex-resident of the Olympic borough of Hackney, and having the council tax Olympic surcharges to prove it, I have to say that I was always up for it. And not just for the regenerative powers of the Games. I think the jury is still out on that anyway, and I never really bought that idea that the stretch of the River Lea that is now Olympic Park needed saving. Yes, it was a bit wild, but it was a fascinating, and unique urban wilderness, which many people loved. I can understand why they were opposed to seeing it going. Hopefully the new Queen Elizabeth Park will be something equally unique, although very different of course.

No, the real reason I was up for the Olympics is pure, unadulterated excitement about the Games. Nothing this big has ever arrived on my doorstep before. Who wouldn't be excited? Well, Iain Sinclair obviously, although he's had plenty of column inches, a new book and ongoing art projects out of it. He can't be anything but excited, if only at the negative potential of the whole enterprise... if that makes sense.

Anyway, seven years after London won the bid, more than a year after applying for tickets, and a few days after Danny Boyle's jaw-dropping opening ceremony, it was our turn to head to the Olympic Park for a morning session of ladies basketball. To be honest, it could have been a crack of dawn liaison with the Outer Mongolian shove halfpenny B team, I didn't care - we were in!
Go Team GB: no.1 fan

Luckily we went on a beautifully sunny day when even crappy old Stratford couldn't help but look gorgeous. We turned up suitably early, aware of all the stories of security-induced queuing hell. As it happened, entry to the park was slick and painless.

Smiling volunteers with large pink foam hands pointed the way from Stratford station to the park, and a one way system ensured an easy crowd flow. Everyone looked so happy that I was on the verge of tears. The Olympic volunteers will probably be the stars of the show. They were so keen and eager to please that they created a great impression. There was obviously a lot of pride on their part in being involved.

Troops were on the airport style security gates and got everybody through without fuss and with a smile and a joke. Job done!

Once inside you are hit by the size of the place. Everything is on a vast scale, with walks between venues taking up to half an hour, according to signs. The McDonald's is the biggest in the world*, and the stadia are huge. At the same time, the gardens have been planted with lots of lovely wild flowers that don't require gallons of water - ironic given the summer we've had.

Hoop dreams: the basketball arena
I knew little about basketball but the event itself was great entertainment. Expecting a fairly serious and sterile event, I was surprised to be given the full NBA experience with a garrulous American MC explaining what was going on, interviewing fans and generally geeing everybody up. There were practically no empty seats apart from the regulation Olympic family benches, where about a tenth were occupied.

We took out four year old, who seemed to enjoy himself. It was a gamble, and I'm not sure how much he'll remember in years to come, but at least I won't have to answer for his absence when he asks about it - unlike his two year old brother who we left with Nana. He made it through one and a half games of basketball, which is pretty good I think, even if he probably found the tipping seats more fun than anything. By the end of the day he was exhausted and slept all the way home on the train (cheap tickets to encourage people to leave the car at home - they've thought of everything).

Mascots meet: Wenlock, or is it Mandeville?
The next day we went to archery at Lords without a child in tow. It was another great day, and left me wishing I'd got more tickets. Still I guess we're lucky to have got something as lots of people missed out completely. Luckily the TV coverage is excellent, but if any corporate sponsors need a body to fill a seat, I'm very available... athletics, cycling, gymnastics, handball, synchronised swimming. Anything accepted.

Verdict on London 2012: don't believe the cynics... if you can find any.

* A word on McDonald's. There's plenty to dislike about them, and I know it's controversial to have a fast food outfit associating itself with elite performance, but logistically it's hard to see who else could have handled it - Jimmy's Farm? All of the smaller food and drink stands were out of their main selling point (no pretzels at Pretzels R Us; ditto Churros and Coffee, Waffle stand, and anything cakey - this was at elevenses, before the lunch time rush started. Glad we took sandwiches.) The Golden Arches was rammed at lunch time, but it had a system in place that was serving the masses pretty damn quickly and the prices were on a par with what you'd pay in the high street. Also, it had its crack four-star staff serving, and not the work experiencers of some of the other stands. We even got a seat. When you're wrangling a rapidly tiring four-year old, sometimes it's the only thing that will do.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Post nappy

It's been a long time coming and I think it has almost snuck up on us, but I think we may be through with nappies.

Little brother started showing an interest in using a potty fairly recently, so we decided to take a deep breath and give it a go. It wasn't something I was particularly looking forward to. Not that I have horrific memories of potty training his older brother. In fact he was surprisingly easy. It only took about a week and he was dry in the night as well.

The youngest one drinks a lot more so I thought it would be more problematic with lots of late night missions to change sodden bed sheets. That may yet happen, as we are still putting him to sleep with a nappy. However they've been dry every morning since he 'got it'. There may be a few one off accidents once he goes commando, but I don't think he'll do too badly.

Daytime was the initial challenge. You've got to watch them like a hawk for any giveaway signs that they're in need of relief. I haven't always been quick enough. On a recent visit to a church play group he managed to flood the play floor twice in the space of about five minutes - no idea where that lot came from.

But the last couple of days have been accident free, which is great. I'm very proud of him. It was odd watching him running freely around our local library this morning without the telltale toddler big bum. He looked more streamlined, and like a little boy.

So, another milestone almost passed. I won't miss the pong of the nappy bucket, or carrying around all the changing kit (although there's always something else to lug about - like the potty!)

There's only one problem. What do we do with the last mega pack of Pampers?

Friday, July 06, 2012

Torch relay in Colchester

True Brits: Colchester braves the rain for the torch relay
The countdown continues.

Today the Olympic torch rolled into town on day 49 of its journey to Stratford. As luck would have it, the weather was truly appalling which was a real shame as yesterday was gorgeous. Maybe it was just as well that it was so bad as the number of people in town to watch was huge. Crowds were several deep all along the high street.

It was an early start for us even though we are only a few minutes from town. Usually we're awake at the crack of dawn but I almost overslept after a fitful night due to younger son being ill in the night. He was also being kept awake by his ride-on fire engine wailing constantly in the garden throughout the night, so I had to shuffle out in the downpour at about 3.00am to deal with that.

So we were all a bit slow out of the blocks and by the time we made it to town it was packed. I perched J on my shoulders to give him the best view I could and was reliant on him telling me when the action was bout to happen. He was probably more excited by the Police outriders than the torch runner who passed us in a flash. Oh well, at least I can say we were there, although my best shot from my camera phone was pretty rubbish. Mind you I was trying to hold on to a wriggly child at the time. Luckily the local paper is uploading a few better effort.

Little did I know I could have watched the whole thing live online.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

An Essex castle

To the beach on a gloriously sunny Sunday. Half of our part of Essex seemed to have the same idea, but luckily the expansive plage at Frinton had room for all. And, as we arrived at low tide hours of beach time stretched before us.

It's always a bit of a toss up between Frinton and neighbouring Walton on the Naze. Frinton's reputation precedes it as a more sedate and refined option. You can get a pint and fish and chips there nowadays, but you have to be prepared for a walk to get them. The cliffs are higher than at Walton too (well, there aren't any in WOTN), so if you're pushing a buggy laden with all your bits for the day, it can be a bit awkward.

Walton is a bit more 'Kiss me Quick' fun, with its pier, handy high street selling beach goods, and nearby cafes. However the clincher on Sunday was that you can park for free in Frinton. It's six quid in WOTN! Cheapness won the day, especially as I'd raided the fridge for a scratch picnic of leftovers.

Once on the beach we quickly commenced the traditional British sport of competitive sandcastling. It's quite a serious activity in these parts of the world. I remembered to bring our buckets and spades this time - the spindly plastic sort that cost about 50p. Others arrive with heavy duty earth moving gear, just sort of a JCB. There's something about a vast expanse of virgin sand that encourages the digging of the 'Essex hole'. As its name suggests, this is a vast tank trap of a cavity that serves no other point than to provoke envy and awe in other beach goers (well, the male ones).

We had to satisfy ourselves with a more modest affair. For once it was a team effort as the two boys managed to resist knocking down the castles as soon as they were constructed. I'm sure you'll agree that their restraint was worthwhile.

Can they build it?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

First poo in a potty*

* Please note that this entry has visual evidence at the end. Please scroll carefully if you are easily upset by the sight of poo in a poe

There are many important milestones in a child's life: the first smile, first word, first tooth, first step...

As the title of this post suggests, there is another one that is quite important. Our two year old toddler has a habit of plonking himself on the house potty and grinning, before looking between his legs to see if there has been any issue. Recently this performance was more considered when he sat down with a look of concentration, and not a little effort, and proceeded to huff and puff in the usual fashion.

Suddenly he stood up and turned to point at the poe. And there 'it' was. A shiny nugget of purest poo. It was not the biggest turd, but it was perfectly formed and brought us both great joy. He knew he had done a good thing, probably because I was so excited. I don't think I made such a fuss when he took his first steps.

Partly I think this is because I was imagining that this act would mean that toilet training would be a doddle. We were very lucky with his brother. By the time we started his induction, he got it straight away and had very few accidents, even during the night.

I have since learned from other parents that this is not always the case, so I'm not expecting it to be so easy the second time around, especially as our toddler drinks a lot more milk before going to bed than his brother ever did.

My hopes of pain free toilet training were given a further jolt a few days ago when I came downstairs to discover that he had removed his nappy and pooed in the small cupboard under the stairs. This had become smeared all over a sports bag of mine and another bag which have since been binned. Oh well, maybe he's not ready yet.
Evidence: the nugget

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Preparing to be a dad - a retrospective

This is a column that I've written for the esteemed organ that is the Colchester NCT and District magazine, on the subject of preparing to be a dad. For those who don't subscribe, here it is, by the power of cut and paste.

Dads! We’re everywhere these days. At ante-natal classes, in the birthing room, holding up our end at stay and play, and waiting in line for the nappy change. You can’t get away from us.
Research by bodies like the Fatherhood Institute has shown that men are increasingly looking to play a bigger role in the lives of their children. There is also evidence that active dads have a profoundly beneficial effect on the lives of their children across a range of measures, including happiness, academic achievement, and staying on the straight and narrow.
I always thought I would be a dad. It just seemed the natural state of affairs that I would look to start a family at some point.
However, looking back on that time when my wife and I discovered we were expecting our first child, I don’t think I really knew what we were letting ourselves in for. Like many dads to be, my feelings were a mixture of excitement, apprehension and anticipation. There was also a sense of the whole process being slightly unreal, especially for me. My wife, Charlotte had the benefit of morning sickness to remind her that, yes, this really was happening.
For me, the clincher was the first scan. At that stage there was little outward sign of what was happening to Charlotte’s body. The visual evidence from the scan suddenly brought home the fact that things were developing very fast. I remember particularly being amazed that the identifiably human shape displayed on the monitor at 12 weeks. Suddenly everything seemed very real indeed.
A big concern at this stage is wondering what sort of dad you will be. My own dad passed away when I was 13 so I was never able to ask him what it was like. However, I had strong and happy memories of him which are probably the basis of everything I try to be as father.
I wanted to be as involved as possible in the pregnancy, to understand what was going on, so I attended midwife appointments as well as scans and ante-natal classes with Charlotte. Maternity services are becoming more dad friendly so there is no reason why you shouldn’t be present. Being involved in as many aspects of the pregnancy as you can really does prepare you for what’s ahead. It also makes you a bit more able to make choices about the sort of pregnancy and birth you would like.
One of the great things about pregnancy is that it covers quite a long time – certainly long enough to consider the many and varied implications of the new life for your future and relationship. The first few months when practically nobody else knows are a lovely time of planning, dreaming and scheming, before you let the world into your secret.
Pregnancy is also a worrying time. In the early stages of the pregnancy I don’t think either of us wanted to get too excited about things in case anything went wrong. Like many first time parents to be, we were probably over nervous, and our second pregnancy was more carefree in this respect.
One thing that surprised me about my own feelings was how quickly I developed a sense of protection towards both my wife and my unborn child. It was almost a primal thing and I did start to feel a bit of a caveman which was something I wasn’t expecting. This was accompanied by the realisation that I was about to become the main breadwinner, which provoked more of a nervous gulp than Neanderthal roar.
If I could offer any advice to first time dads, it would be this:
·         Try not to worry and enjoy the pregnancy. It’s very different to being a parent. Not better, or worse, but different, and it’s just the start of a long and exciting journey.
·         Your partner is your closest ally in the unfolding adventure. Take care of each other.
·         Enjoy your last moments of being child-free. From now on everything is going to be very different.

There’s a great quote by screenwriter William Goldman in his book Adventures in the Screentrade. He says “Nobody knows anything.”
Goldman is saying that there is no replicable formula for creating a hit film. What works for one blockbuster will be box office poison the next time round.
There is a similar logic to fatherhood. You can learn valuable lessons from other people, but ultimately it’s a journey of discovery and there is no one route to becoming a great dad.