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?