Laziness is no excuse… #dadtime must go on! Wheelchair rugby awesome, Science Museum meh.

Well, the fun of being off full time finished a few months ago now (late Jun 2015), and despite being badgered to conclude this blog, I never did. But now I think that was the right decision – as I am going to start it up again. Although I should let you know my thoughts on Parental Leave.


In order to balance work, childcare costs and making the most of the fun years ahead with a rapidly developing and growing up little boy (Junior is not a baby anymore!) Mum and I are alternating Friday's off work. This means Junior gets 4 days a week at nursery, which he loves, and we get a day a fortnight on our own with him.


This started a couple of months ago as Mum used her leave to spend a last few weeks off with him before returning to work properly. I think we learnt quite a lot about how we didn't quite get the leave right, which I'll cover in another post. And we've been out and about on our days so far, as well as keeping in touch with NCT friends and Dads and Littluns in Wimbledon Park.


The two highlights so far have been the Science Museum, which I tweeted about, and last Friday the World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge, as we both enjoyed our day at the #murderball so much.


I have mixed feelings about the Science Museum. Personally, as someone with an astrophysics degree, and who is passionate about science, I just don't feel it does the subject justice. Many of the exhibits are a bit fusty, and definitely quite dusty – and even the more modern sections just don't really seem to bring science to life, they're just a bit gadgety. However, taking Junior gave me a bit more of an appreciation of what it does well, as the exploratory areas (there are 3) were brilliant for him, especially the water tank downstairs in the Sensorium, where I literally had to drag him away or he'd have ben there for the rest of his life! But still, how they can make an exhibit of planes so not interesting to a small boy whose first words were “car” and “tractor” slightly depresses me. He did love the very random tractor dioramas though, and the dimly lit space section sent him to sleep allowing me to go round the small but interesting exhibit about Churchill's wartime scientists.


The World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge is a new competition, I think the first in the world, to give wheelchair rugby a platform outside of the Paralympics. And it was brilliant. Hosting it in the Copper Box in the former Olympic Park was a great idea – having experienced “the box that rocks” for the handball in the Olympics, even with the 2-300 people there for the session of the wheelchair rugby we went to it had atmosphere. First of all we watched NZ vs RSA, the highlight being the wheelchair Haka – awesome mostly because of the way they integrated banging on their wheels into it. Then GB vs France, always a classic – and GB didn't disappoint with a close-fought but deserved win.


During the action, Junior was initially enjoying watching so he could clap when someone scored (lots of goals so he got to do this plenty) but then he discovered all the grannies and the steps there were, and he was off. He barely stopped – in this photo I think he's just getting his breath back before climbing up the steps again. And again! Thanks to the lady with the Help for Heroes teddy bear who kept him amused for a bit.

The day just reinforced my view that wheelchair rugby is a whole load of fun, that the guys (and gals) who play this properly are incrdible athletes (special shout to the South African with one arm (no other limbs) but had a hand like a crane grab), playing a sport that is an spectacle. Can't wait for next year!



Murderball Mayhem @themurderball 2015 – with added baby!

Since I arrived in London a few years ago I’ve been lucky enough to play for a rugby club that not only has a 2nd XV that plays at my sort of level, astounding facilities and a lively social life, but also has connections to a parent organisation that presents opportunities to do some pretty special things – from Hong Kong Sevens to in last week a charity wheelchair rugby tournament (aka “Murderball” from the eponymous film). 

I was a last minute fill-in. Junior had not been having the cheeriest of weeks. He’s had a bit of a cold, and appears to be doing some development. So I decided that instead of trying to contain him and entertain him, I’d just take him out and hope we both had some fun. And boy did we!

This is only the second year of the tournament, which was started last year to support Paul Barker, a guy who broke a leg playing rugby, and as a direct result developed cancer. Last year he got a day release from hospital to come. This year he was there at full strength, albeit minus a leg which was one of the prices of survival. As someone with pro rugby contacts he’d got the Leicester Tigers Wheelchair Rugby team as well as London Wheelchair Rugby Club involved. As a Gloucester fan I was slightly dismayed by all the Tigers logos, but they did it well. The day was in support on the Matt Hampson Foundation, another rugby-based charity. 

Straight away I’d say that wheelchair rugby is the most fun new sport I’ve tried in years. It is one of those deceptively simple games that you can add all kinds of layers and skills to. At its most basic it’s 4-a-side, with the aim to carry the ball across a try line. Wheelchair contact is allowed and encouraged, with opportunities to cheat every bit as much as real rugby. And it is REALLY hard work – the chairs aren’t that light, throwing is an art, and it is completely non-stop. Even though I know we weren’t playing at the pace actual players would!

We had something of a slow start, as although the bank had won the tournament last year, there were only two survivors of that team – the rest were newbies like me. But once we got to grips with the chairs and tactics (“get goal-side!” was the mantra of the day) we started to play some actual proper game. As evidenced by the below video which shows an excellent defensive play by yours truly (extreme left of shot) to not only block their upfield player but also win the ball back for us. 

In the end we (nominally Ireland) came third – nearly winning both pool games (comfortably beating the eventual winners England I might add, and only being denied the win against Scotland by the inspired, surprisingly rapid and unsurprisingly vocal premiership referee JP Doyle), losing to the nominal All Blacks, and then beating Australia in the playoff. 

Best of all Junior loved the whole day and was brilliantly well-behaved. He napped at the best possible times (allowing me to play 3 of the games unimpeded), and was quite happy being thrown into the arms of teammates when substitutions happened – small wobble the first time, but once he realised I was coming back he was fine. I was also lucky that the team was so happy to look after him, and did a great job keeping him happy. Some potentially great dads I think. And he was praised by loads of other people for his good nature. He even made the mass team photo. He was absolutely in his element – new things to look at, people to meet, and actually quite a lot of attention from me to make sure he didn’t crawl in the path of a couple of hundred kilos of man and machine…

I know he’s too young to appreciate the importance of this, but seeing and experiencing something that “disabled” people are clearly better, faster and more skilled at is a lesson I’ll be keen to reinforce for Junior throughout his life – and watching or playing wheelchair rugby seems like a great way to do that! 

Learning Styles in action – watching a child prove psychologists (sometimes) know what they’re talking about!

One of the real pleasures of getting to spend so much time with Junior is really getting to see him develop, and learn things. I’m lucky that this period appears to be one where he does develop an awful lot – his mobility alone has increased beyond recognition, he’s almost certainly going to start walking on my watch, and then there’s all the vocal and intellectual development that is going on as well, from making new sounds to being able to sort shapes to associating actions with words.

One of the advantages of working in the civil service is the encouragement it gives staff to develop and particularly be self aware. I’ve been fortunate to have been given the opportunity to do lots of this, and have developed an interest in it, as well as finding it really useful personally and to work with others better. There’s probably three observations based on this I’d make about Junior, two about learning style and one about personality.

The learning styles stuff is actually more academically disputed, particularly the first one I’ll mention, which is about “how” people learn. According to the theory there are three types of learners: aural, visual and kinaesthetic. Aural and visual are pretty self explanatory – people with these preferences will both respond better to input in their preferred format, and will store their memories in this way too. So for instance an visual learner will prefer to see things, and will store information in a visual form. Kinaesthetic is the same, but basically means through their body – so it’s about physical sensation. I recently discovered that this was in fact my preferred style, having thought for years it was visual. It was the memory part that made me realise – my best memories, while having visual and aural elements, are mostly about the physical feeling I had at the time. I’m still to fully come too terms with this knowledge, and how to use it. But watching Junior, it’s clear already that he has a major kinaesthetic element – I wouldn’t want to say his preferences are set already, but he really only gets things when he feels it – he doesn’t really learn through watching (although it helps), it isn’t until he’s done it and felt it that it sticks. Looking back to my childhood, I should have realised from the endless hours I put into repeating sports practice, mostly to the detriment of my father’s lovingly tended lawn…

Secondly, there is a reasonably well-founded theory by one David Kolb, adapted by Honey and Mumford to describes four basic styles, set out simply in this article. While you can be a combination of these, and may use all of them in your life/career, you generally have a preference, and you can normally figure it out quite quickly. They are:

  • Activist – Learn by doing something
  • Reflector – Learn by observing and thinking about things
  • Theorist – Learn by understanding the theory
  • Pragmatist – Need to see how to put any learning into practice

Junior is without a shadow of a doubt predominantly an Activist. While I think elements of the others show through, he already clearly prefers just trying something – he might then not like it (sand, for instance), but he’ll go full bore until he’s tried it. Which is what makes him so much fun, whilst also being quite a danger to himself – not for him the life of quiet observation…or us for that matter!

Lastly, in terms of personality. The theory here is much better grounded, and goes back to Carl Jung. My preferred model is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, which I pride myself on being pretty accurate at guessing. I won’t describe all of it, but the two traits I’d pick out already are to do with where he gets energy, and his attitude to achieving things, the first and fourth letters of the MBTI descriptor. I think the other two will require more time to determine.

He is clearly an Extravert (note, not extrOvert, this is about where people get energy from – within is intraversion, externally is extraversion – obviously there are similarities with the more usual terms, but it isn’t quite the same). Junior is never happier than when he is receiving lots of stimulation from outside, ideally around lots of people. He isn’t necessarily always demanding attention, but he really comes alive when in a high energy environment. This should help with settling into things like nursery, although it depends on quite a lot of other factors. Mostly I think it means he’ll be wired at the end of the day when we pick him up!

I also have a feeling he is more of a Percieving that Judging type. He doesn’t really seem to be that focussed on the end goal, he’s more interested in doing stuff to see where it might go, and enjoying the ride to get there. He doesn’t get particularly frustrated when things don’t work or get interrupted, instead moving on to the next thing quite happily. This isn’t to say he doesn’t get annoyed when his walking truck gets stuck in a corner, but I don’t think that he’s aiming to end up somewhere specific, he’s more interested in just keeping moving. So by my reckoning he’ll be an ExxP by MBTI type. Which is actually the same as my ENTP.

However, all of this may just be projection on my part, wanting him to be like me – and as Mum has pointed out, his current preferences are also likely to mostly be driven by his developmental ability, and the fact that for instance touch is one of his more developed senses. So check back in 17 years time and we might have a clearer answer!

The discrimination of mothers against men – @JivaHealth yoga is now the frontline of the gender debate

I’m still slightly, well, shocked by this, so this may be somewhat less measured than I’d like, but I think you’ll agree that I have some grounds on which to feel somewhat cross.

As previously mentioned I started going to a Mum and Baby yoga class at Jiva Health in Wimbledon. To recap why, a couple of years ago I developed really bad sciatica, that was stopping me do any exercise. Yoga was basically what got me last this. And I enjoy it! It is hard work but rewardingly different to the sports I play. And as parents will understand, fitting any evening class in around work and bath/bed time is hard. So the opportunity to start doing yoga once a week whilst on APL is really quite a luxury, and one that’s good for me to boot.

Although Mum didn’t understand why, before I just turned up at the class I called ahead to ask whether it would be OK for me as a Dad to come – after brief consultation with the teacher, they agreed. I did that precisely because I could see that they might object. All the staff I met in the 5 classes I attended were very supportive and welcoming of me, and another bloke even turned up at one point.

However I’ve had a (very polite) email from Jiva Health this week saying that after women had made a couple of enquiries relating to both Junior and I, they are going to enforce the “Mum and” bit of the class’ description. The complaints were two-fold:

  1. Junior now being a very capable crawler, he is apparently making a mother feel uncomfortable by encroaching on their mats. This is the one that particularly gets me. HE IS A BABY. JUST LIKE ALL THE OTHER BABIES IN THE CLASS. The class is described as being for babies up to 18 months. Most babies will be walking by that point. So any mother who is uncomfortable with a crawling child is in for a real shock when her little darling – currently lying placidly wherever she is left – starts going, well, everywhere. Would this mother be as concerned if it was Junior’s Mum who was attending? I doubt it – so why not admit the issue is with a man attending, instead of blaming my completely innocent son? Especially given there are other equally mobile babies in the class.
  2. That as there are new mothers they are uncomfortable with a man being present when feeding, or presumably talking about women’s issues. I understand this, and that is why I asked if it was OK in the first place, and why I’m not going to push to keep going. However, I do have a few comments.

I am (quite clearly) a father as I am looking after my son, and hopefully a supportive one at that. My girlfriend gave birth to said son, I was present, and have seen and talked to her about any and all of the issues that are likely to come up in a public yoga class. She breastfeeds, as do a number of the other NCT girls. As a guy breastfeeding is slightly awkward when it’s not your partner, but I hope we are all grown up enough to realise that all women have breasts, and that I’m not using it as an excuse to take a sneaky-peek or anything. Obviously others’ feelings are difficult to anticipate and I can sympathise that a strange man could feel intrusive, especially in the early days when a mother is still trying to build confidence in breastfeeding – it took my girlfriend a couple of months to become fully comfortable with feeding in public (and now thinks nothing of sticking Junior on the booby with only the smallest concessions to “modesty” – which I utterly applaud and am very proud of). Hence why I’m not going to demand a place or do anything drastic.

However, I’m still left feeling disappointed that although equality is still talked about, it isn’t accepted by everyone, on both sides of the gender divide. How can men be expected to consider themselves equals in childcare while there is still the veil of “women’s issues” to hide behind? While I’m not for mandating discussion of gynaecological complaints in public, as for any other medical issue – but is it so hard to believe that men can at least listen and empathise, if not truly understand? How many women see a male doctor at some point in their pregnancy? Won’t men’s understanding only increase when they’re part of the conversation?

I’m also disappointed with Jiva Health. I understand their reason that it is described as a “Mum and Baby” class, and they want to keep it that way, not least as the custom of 2 young mothers is likely to continue long after my 3 months is up.

A Solution?

However, Jiva Health have just started another “Mum and Baby” class every week. My solution would be to call that “Parent and Baby”? This would make clear that men might attend, leaving a women-only class for those that are really uncomfortable with men’s presence, whilst allowing those small number of yoga-practicing, full-time Dads the chance to continue their practice? But that isn’t what’s happened. Sure, there may be many months when there are no men in the class – but at least give us a chance?

While I’m disheartened, this is but one unanticipated stop on the ride that is looking after Junior – hopefully we can find another yoga place, and we’ll try again!


The art of better marketing – or – What’s the difference between Additional and Shared Parental Leave?

As reflected in the name of this small blogging effort, I am taking Additional Parental Leave (APL) to look after my now 10 month old son for 3 months. However this scheme is no more. As of 5 April 2015 it has been replaced by Shared Parental Leave (SPL).

“So this is a significant shake up that has completely reformed the way it works to ensure that everyone gets a better deal?” I hear a reader cry (probably into their beer at my grammar). Well, I’m not so sure. In fact, I know it hasn’t as the purpose was never to significantly change the scheme.

In essence SPL is simply a more flexible form of APL. It doesn’t assume that the mother will be the primary cater for the first 20 weeks as APPL does, and allows you to take leave in more than one block. In essence it really says that you get up to 12 months parental leave between you, and you can divide it anyway you like. Including to overlap it, so you could both take the first 6 months after birth as leave together. 

Do I think these changes are significant? In a word, no. Yes, they are more flexible, but aren’t going to make a real difference to most families choices. Until the other parent (mostly a man) gets paid equally to maternity leave (i.e. employers pony up for at least 3 months full pay), it won’t increase take up rates on its own as so many men still earn more. Chatting to the ladies in the NCT group it is clear that none of them could realistically have done it without significant sacrifice, had they even wanted to.

(I would also note that the increased flexibility is likely to most benefit nurseries, as it will mean mothers will return to work and require childcare services sooner.)

What it does do is provide an opportunity to market the concept better than they did first time round. Almost everyone I’ve told about taking APL (who has heard of it) asked “oh so that’s the new system then?”, to which I’ve politely always replied “no it came in in 2011” to general surprise. This included enlightened parents who might have taken advantage of the scheme in the past 4 years! So the additional publicity SPL has had is welcome, and will hopefully encourage more people to take advantage of the #dadtime on offer. ‘Cos it’s brilliant. 

A busy little bee – Auntie then Granny then Grandad Time!

I'm basically making excuses now for not blogging enough – but we've had a pretty busy couple of weeks, with lots of visits and visitors.

After Uncle came Auntie, with my sister making a flying visit to check in on the little man. We had a fairly quiet time, although we did make it to the British Museum (cue lots of “Mummy Issue” jokes in the Egyptian exhibition), which was ok for a pushchair, but not great. The biggest disappointment was that the children's area, including the bottle feeding facilities, was actually inaccessible by pushchair as the lift to the way in was broken. Junior then had fun crawling around on the lawn in front of the museum, chasing some more pigeons. I'm still not sure how he'd react if he actually caught one…

My favourite moment of the whole trip however was going into the disabled/baby change toilet (when we eventually found an open one) and finding this wonderful contraption! How life changes – very different to the types of vending machines I used to find amusing – “Herbal Viagra” anyone?

Then last week saw Granny (my Mum) come down – this was both pleasure for her and help for me, as I was in court (as a magistrate, I hasten to add), and we needed some childcare – which this being the first time my Granny has looked after Junior all day on her own, and the first time I was the one doing the leaving behind, as Mummy went to work as normal, was slightly nervous for all involved. But it all went swimmingly!

The day before we had been to visit the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park. This is a small but pretty oasis in the middle of the parkland that is turned over to the types of tropical plants that you get in ornamental gardens and at Augusta golf course in the Masters. And this is the right time of year to go, with some very pretty blossoms out, with the whole plantation obviously fairly recently having had some development, as there was a lot of relatively new paths and signage. Junior wasn't the only small child there by any stretch (at least one nursery class was on a visit!), but he did get to look at some more ducks and geese. I'm not quite sure what he makes of them, but they do seem to hold some interest.

Then this weekend we made a flying visit to my parents house, which allowed Grandad to catch up with Junior, and for him to visit another National Trust garden, this time belonging to Croome Court. Grandad is a National Trust volunteer at the nearby Snowshill Manor, which Junior will love in a few years time, as it is full of interesting things, including plenty of toys, and hopefully in a couple of years time will have a model village and railway (if Grandad gets his way – he's trying to replace the train set we had in the loft as children…).

However Croome is quite a new NT property, apparently having been bought by a developer who wanted to turn it into palatial apartments, but rightly had his plans blocked by the local community with the NT getting involved to take over management. The house is open but apparently has nothing in it, as it is very structurally unsound – so in an innovative way what they've done is turn the huge amount of scaffolding around the house into a visitor attraction of its own, by putting a cafe on top with views out across the grounds and Malverns. As you can see, there is a LOT of scaffolding!

But the gardens are an early example of “Capability” Brown's work, and are quite pretty even now, and have the potential to be really quite something. However, as Grandad observed, it also has the potential to be a complete moneypit…but worth a visit if you're passing!



Swimming with the Fishes – one of the gifts I hope to give Junior

As I've previously written about, we are keen to give Junior the opportunity to learn to swim. So we've started taking him to swimming lessons on a Saturday, and we've also taken him a couple of times outside that.

While neither Mum or I are particularly confident in the water, Mum is at least a competent swimmer, while I'm definitely in the “get me on a life raft or I die” category – it is clearly a myth that humans naturally float!

The swimming lessons, at Dolphin Swim School in Mitcham, are fairly typical child fare to a certain extent – lots of singing of nursery rhymes and remaining very close to Dad/Mum (although the majority of those in my class at least are Dads – I guess because it's the weekend). However the thing that surprised me most was the emphasis on submersions – literally completely dunking Junior in the water. There are a number of varieties of this, the most basic being facing each other. The idea is to get them used to firstly holding their breath – they do this automatically when younger, but lose the instinct over time, and secondly to rise to the surface. The remainder of the lessons are more about then being able to swim to the nearest solid thing and hold on, although this will take longer.

Junior appears to take more after me when it comes to water, unfortunately. Not a natural. He doesn't really like his ears being underwater, which combined with his general aversion to lying on his back is making backstroke seem like a distant prospect! However the tactic is clearly to keep exposing him to the water, so I'm now going to try taking him during the week at least semi-regularly. And to my surprise, lying him back during his bath seems to be making quite an improvement.

We'll also try a number of pools, as SW London is well served by council leisure centres (mostly provided by the Better not-for-profitish organisation). Thus far we've only been to Putney Leisure Centre, which is quite good with a splash pool for small people – kept slightly warmer than the main pool, with a family oriented “Changing Village” that allows you to stay together as a family. And doesn't require you to have correct change for the lockers, but you do have to remember a padlock!