Quiet pint and reflections on 2 weeks of Dad Time #dadtime

Sat in the Boathouse pub in Putney (good for a glass and gleaming steel structure, best river view not in Wetherspoons) watching the crews practising for the Head of the River races this weekend. This being about as close to actually sitting by the Thames it is possible to get anymore, something to thank modern embankment builders for, this seems like a fitting moment to reflect on the last 2 weeks. Two weeks which will stick in my memory forever, for all the best reasons, and the odd slightly less positive!

I knew that this wasn't going to be easy, and definitely not a holiday. What I hadn't fully thought through was how having to use a completely new feeding method was going to add difficulty. We're still nowhere near figured out how to get enough food into him, and this is having impacts on all of us (including Mum). I reckon it's added about 15% (time, complexity and effort) to doing things over Mum. Before I started I thought I could imagine what it was like to be at home with him full time when he was younger. But I'm dealing with Junior at a stage where he is able to amuse himself for at least some of the time. As a result my respect for the job done by Mum has gone up even higher. Amuse himself like now, where we're playing a game of fetch – he crawls off and I go fetch him when he goes too far…

So what are the big things I've learnt? Here they are:

Lesson the First – Sleep is your Friend. Junior is the non-sleeping type of baby (there appear to be the 2 sub-types. For reference, Junior typically naps for 1 1/2 to 2 hours a day). I knew this before I took over. But until this week I didn't fully understand why it was so important to get him his naps. On Tuesday Junior had only had about 45 minutes nap, in the morning. When Mum returned I'm not sure she could tell which one of us was more tired and distraught. I think it was me, because I can't just sit their and cry. Or at least not if Junior's got there first. Lesson learned the hard way.

Lesson the Second – Play is really fun! We've done a few things in the past fortnight that he hasn't done before – art (finger painting), mountaineering (climbing on cushions) and experienced different viewpoints and gravity (backpack carrier and stuck things to the floor and got him to pick them up). All ideas off the internet, obviously. He might not always be smiling, but the pleasure he has in trying new things is evident from the serious look of concentration on his face. We even had a hello wave going for a few hours!

Lesson the Third – Little boys really do miss their mummy. While he is more than happy with me, and doesn't mind when Mum heads out the door (except for a couple of days where he'd hold her leg for the preceding 5 minutes then be right as rain once she'd actually left) the smile on his face when Mum comes throught the door is defintely wider than the one I used to get….

Lesson the Fourth – Dads do stand out. It is definitely still unusual to be a dad at home and I don't think this stereotype will go away quickly. “Mother and baby” is used to describe everything. You get some friendly and….lets go with sympathetic looks mostly from older women.

Lesson the Fifth – Other dads aren't like Morris Minor drivers. I used to drive a Minor, and you would always wave at any other Minor you saw on the road because (a) it's always good to see another one and (b) you both understand it might all go wrong at any moment and need help. Barring the guys at Dads and Littluns, when walking past other a Dads, even if they're not full-time, I expected a bit more engagement. Rarely even a smile.

Lesson the Sixth – You really can't do things you want when you want. For instance I'm now trying to finish this post at home, before Mum gets home, as we didn't last long enough in the pub.

Here endeth the lessons. But not the fun – in summary its been amazing. In 2 weeks I feel like I've got to know Junior better than ever before – I better understand his moods, even if I'm still not sure what to do about them. I think I've seen him develop based on things I've taught or encouraged him to do. We've been lots of places and done stuff that some/many/most dads don't get to share with their kids.

Let's see what happens in the next 2 1/2 months!

 

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Toys for the Boy(s) – backpack carrier first use

One of the areas of babying that is traditionally reserved for Men is the transport of the dear infant. I’m not going to dwell on pushchairs, as frankly you spend as much as you can, new or second hand, and there is no such thing as the ideal pushchair. For reasons I don’t fully understand no pushchair excels in the three main areas of practicality, manoeuvrability and collapsibility so you have to compromise. Pick your preferred features and go.

The latest method of transportation we are trying is a backpack carrier. After an extensive 15 minutes Internet review and deciding I liked the look of it this is what I went for – a secondhand LittleLife Cross Country S2:

It has more straps than a bondage club (I’m still figuring out what they all do – found a flap that revealed a whole new set earlier), but they do all seem quite sensible and mean you can adapt both for carrier and baby – up to 20 kg of baby apparently, although not sure I’d want to carry that much wriggling Junior!

We went for a lovely stroll up a sunny Wimbledon Common as a test run today – and it worked really well. It isn’t as complicated as some of its feature-endowed competitors, but I like this. I’m used to the one from the late ’70s that my parents used that was a metal frame and some probably highly flammable material, so although this is more comfortable than that, I don’t think I need the integrated stand, water pack and endless pockets of the others. I do need to play with some of the straps as it wasn’t sitting quite right. When I figure out which ones.

Our plan is to start using it on a regular basis as a substitute for the pushchair – it is more manoeuvrable, and for things like tran journeys where there will be car seats and not too-excessive walking at the other end, it is much more practical.

Importantly Junior seemed to like it – he didn’t go to sleep like he probably would’ve in the pushchair, but he was definitely happy – and fascinated by the ducks (and the pigeon that interloped – like an Englishman at a party, I thought!).

 

 

Not-just-for-mums Mother and Baby Yoga @jivahealth

A couple of years before Junior arrived I started to struggle with a really bad back – so bad that I thought I was going to have to give up playing rugby. Then I started going to yoga. And it was a revelation as far as my back and fitness was concerned. I even found a style (Iyengar) that suits someone like me with absolutely no natural aptitude for yoga at all. Despite having all the flexibility commonly associated with a plank of wood, I was able to get into (some of) the poses.

I've decided to use Junior as an excuse to start going again (time is much more precious with him around, and l haven't been able to find a class that fits our schedule) yet my trepidation at attending a “Mother and Baby” yoga class was less to do with it being “mothers” (rooms full of women are baby-standard) it was more how I'd combine trying to make my body do things in many cases I firmly believe it wasn't designed to do with managing a mobile infant.

Fortunately, Jiva Health were very accommodating and friendly – never mind Dads, apparently mobile infants aren't really the norm, as mothers get worried about them being too disruptive from the crawling stage. I was told this as we were about to go into the class, so wasn't sure quite what to make of it…

The yoga itself was good (teacher was calm and helpful) if understandably simple, and interspersed with songs for the little ones. Junior was the only independently mobile child, yet actually stayed away from the other babies. Mostly! However he hasn't had quite such a good week this week as last, and was quite grumpy and clingy for the second half – unfortunate as this was the set of poses I can actually do…and relaxation involved me and him playing with the blinds as opposed to contemplating our inner peace. In fairness to him, we had done Gymboree earlier in the morning and it wasn't the usual level of stimulation or attention he prefers.

However I felt it was worth it – everyone was a bit surprised to see a Dad, but were very welcoming, and I'll defintely be going back. If only so I can try to remember the theoretical feeling of relaxation, if not the actual feeling!

 

Great Playtime for Dads – at Wimbledon Dads and Littluns

Week 2 of APL started today and as Junior hasn’t left home in protest yet, we went along to the local Dads playgroup – the brilliant Dads and Littluns which has a group in Wimbledon Park.

I guess I was a little unsure what to expect – my fears were either that this would be some seriously Organised Fun, or it would just be me and the priest of the church in whose hall the meeting was held. Fortunately it was exactly what I hoped a Dads playgroup would be – a room full of toys, and some welcoming fellow full-time Dads. Josh and Andrew seem to be the leaders of the group, and were very pleased to see Junior and I – both either had a child there, or had before they went to school, and quickly made us feel at home.

For Junior there were a lot (I mean a lot) of toys, of all shapes and sizes, which kept him amused until he got “New Toy Overload Syndrome”, a self-explanatory condition that last affected him on Xmas Day… For me there was the chance to meet some guys in the same situation as me (as well as one lady who is obviously a regular) with no-one thinking it’s in any way an unusual situation. As I said in my reasons for taking Additinonal Parental Leave, society as a whole hasn’t quite got its head round stay-at-home Dads yet, but it should.

The group meets twice a week, 10-12 Monday and Friday – Josh said they keep going through the holidays as well, which is good, and also means they often see their alumni. Those attending were drawn quite widely across SW London, indicating how rare this type of group is if nothing else. There were other dads in exactly the same boat as me, being a week further in to APL than me. I will definitely be going back next week, as it was just, well, nice!

Special shout must go out to the little lad who is expecting a little sibling to arrive later in the year, who took a real shine to Junior, and gave him some very sweet hugs and kisses, as he wants to practice playing nicely with little babies. Awwww!

To balance out this rather blokey beginning to the week, I’m going to try some Mother and Baby Yoga tomorrow. Assuming Junior/they’ll let me!

Additional Parental Leave: What, How and Why on Earth am I doing it?!

The only material point I'm aiming to make through keeping this blog (apart from proving to Mum that I haven't been dragging Junior round golf courses the whole time) is that spending time as a Dad on Paternity Leave is a good idea, fun and rewarding. The latter point will take some time, as the proof may only emerge when Junior is grown up as a normal and fully contributing member of society!

So leaving side any comments on the outcomes (i.e. my fun and his well-being), what is additional parental leave, how does it work, and why is it a good idea?

Additional Parental Leave (APL) was introduced in 2011 by the Coalition Government in the UK. The basic idea is to increase the flexibility of maternity leave to allow parents to collectively agree the best way to take care of their child, and give fathers more of an opportunity to be more involved in the early stages of their child's development. I believe it came from the Lib-Dem side if you care about the politics.

APL works quite simply. In the normal way the mother informs her employer when she wants to go back to work (must be at least 20 weeks after birth), and the father informs his employer that he wishes to take APL starting from the date the mother goes back to work. The father can take up to 26 weeks APL I think. I'm only taking 12. HMRC kindly provide a very simple form that allows you to tell your employer this. It doesn't, however, change the financial position – one of us is unpaid for three months. As financially it actually makes little difference which one of us is unpaid we are very lucky.

Why is a much harder question. To me there are three levels on which it is a good idea.

At a really macro-societal level, it could start to readdres the imbalance between men and women in the workplace – while it isn't the only factor, that a majority of women of women take a “career break” to have children is part of the reason why they get paid less and don't rise as high as men.

On top of this the evidence for improved child development when the father takes an active role is also pretty overwhelming, so this should lead to Junior being a much more inquisitive, confident and socially engaged child and adult. Being my offspring means he frankly needs all the help he can get. Don't believe me? Check out all the evidence quoted in this article summarising literally dozens of studies that set out the benefits to a child's development, from social to emotional to cognitive (it also has a lot of studies about absence, which I'm not so much a fan of and can be considered a bit judgemental – I'm just lucky that I get to do more), and read this more journalistic description of the benefits.

I'd reflect already that it is clear that Mum and I have slightly (not very though) different styles when it comes to how we spend our time with Junior – mine appears to involve slightly more risk (a la the Bin Incident) – but this isn't a bad thing. Assuming he survives… This means he is getting to see choice and different approaches already.

And really that's the third, best and most important reason. He's my son. I want to get to know him, and share in his upbringing as much as I can – and am being supported by an amazing woman to do more than most Dad's get the opportunity to – even if they want to. I can't really think of a good reason not to – and there were times in the run up I wondered if it was a good idea.

But a week in, and I'm so glad I've got this opportunity. It's amazing!!

 

Changes in Parenthood 1: Gymboree

Gymboree. A word that to most non-parents means nothing. And to those parents that aren't near one it still might not – but the concept will be familiar. A soft-play room, some toys, and a musically talented teacher. What more can a child need?

A year ago it would have sounded like my idea of hell. A room full of babies and parents (almost entirely mums, obviously), being cajoled into singing, clapping and venerating a large stuffed mannequin (Gymbo, a slightly cuddlier version of Ronald McDonald, below) who is used by said teacher to demonstrate.

Yet the look on Junior's face when Gymbo comes out, coupled with his obvious delight in banging the various instruments and watching the other babies is a joy to see.

My conclusion is that Gymboree is alright. It is a bit cringey (obviously there's a “Gymboree School” somewhere that teaches the acceptable way to sing as the North American drawl to some of the songs is unmistakable) but is surprisingly good fun. The pricing structure is a more to their benefit than yours, but not the most you spend on your child. It is so popular in Wimbledon that they actually have 2 venues.

And the singing is liberating, especially when yours is as bad as mine. Because you're clearly only doing it for your child no-one can complain…

 

Reflections on a first day’s solo flight

Well, that was alright. Not sure what Junior would say – I reckon I got good marks on the home entertainment/living climbing frame front, less good on the feeding and sleeping. And terrible on the toy provision while out. My two big lessons for the day were:

  • We both need to get better at figuring out when he's tired and when he's hungry. Mum assures me there is a difference, but I didn't get it today! This lead to a number of attempts at both napping and feeding that left him confused, me covered in food, and a fair amount of wasted milk – mostly the formula, thankfully.
  • Check the nappy bag before leaving the house! Junior had managed to extract a couple of key items (wet wipes!) and ensure there were no toys in it so when we stopped in the hostelry I was defending their menus from being throughly gummed because he had nothing else to play with. No doubt a cunning ploy to eat paper, his favourite food-group.

Tomorrow should be different again – earlyish Gymboree that will hopefully be sandwiched by some serious napping. A statement that with Junior is always accompanied by some of these…