Towards Equal Parenting
On a cold evening in early 2016, my wife and I underwent the biggest change of our lives. Just before 5 pm, our son was born. We were both exhausted from the birth (her obviously more than me), but ecstatic at getting to finally hold old tiny troll. It was a feeling that’s difficult to describe: excitement and trepidation, as your nurturing and protective instincts kick in. This is something we were about to do together.
But shortly after my baby was born, I was told I had to leave the hospital without him… My wife, in desperate need of some sleep, was told she had to look after my son for the night, alone. Two and a half years later, I still face this disconnect between the kind of caring and fully responsible dad I want to be, and the dad others expect me to be. This attitude of placing all the burdens of childcare on mum and telling dad to leave doesn’t make sense, and isn’t fair on mums or dads.
I haven't met a dad who hasn't been overrun by goose-bumps and nurturing instinct when taking care of his little trolls. Over 60% of parents believe dads should have an equal role in parenting, and a majority of new dads are now saying they want more time and responsibility with their kids. On top of that, the benefits for dads, mums and kids of more equally shared parenting are backed up by a growing body of research.
It’s tougher than I thought it would be. With Little Bear starting nursery today, our time together on parental leave is just about to be over. I’ve dropped him off and of course I was there for hours trying to convince his watery eyes that it was ok to let go of Pappa, and that whilst this was the end of an era for both of us, we’ll still be together, and life will go on… No. Save about ten seconds of being clingy to Pappa, he discovered some balls to test in the corner and then promptly forgot about me. I hung around like a loser harbouring some unrequited love for about 10 minutes (9 minutes too long from his perspective), and then slowly crept out when he wasn’t looking.
There's a point, between 6 and 9 months, where all babies get a sudden urge to face danger. They look back at their little lives and think: 'Have I really seized the day? Sure, I was learning to focus and role over, but my life to this point has been wasted. I should now live every day like it's my last, and make that as likely as possible'.
How did this love of danger survive evolution? Hundreds of thousands of years ago, on the African savannah, crawling babies and toddlers that spotted a Lion clearly thought 'Oh, yay, let's play. Mummy and daddy always try and stop me so the orange fluff ball must be fun!' No baby you'll be eaten! But they don't care. And yet somehow we survived many more years.
Little Bear's been trying to give me hints about his preferences over the last few months. This involves the less subtle 'hints' (screeching and waving his arms when he wants to be picked up), and the more subtle ones, like his preference for eating natural yogurt, or his potential career choices. So thinking long term, after he's started eating solids properly, crawling and that stuff, what sort of job will he aim for?
He certainly has a musical streak to him. Not only does he love a good rendition of Wheels on the Bus, but he also loves joining in grown-up chats with a few tunes of his own. This has only gotten loader over the months. Granted, his singing talents will clearly need some nurturing by someone less tone-deaf than his dad, but he's got potential [warning: don't interrupt his singing or you may be the object of an aggressive screech, nurturing the diva side of his inner musician]
Then there's his brainy side. He always loves [to eat] a good book. Who knows where this might lead?...
Your first newborn is tough to look after. And not because of the sleepless nights, feeding troubles, and poo explosions. It's because nothing in life had ever prepared you for these things, and their constant wearing away at your normally well rested self. You're sub-consciously wondering when your weekend will come, or if the baby has an off-switch. When will you get to sleep! When will you shower! Then you clock that it's only been a week (felt like a month), and you've got the rest of the next 20 odd years to do... at least.
Fast-forward 8 months into parenting... It starts to feel like you can do this, and it's getting pretty fun. It's like you tasted your first pint of bitter (beer for non-Brits) 8 months ago and it was disgusting, but now it's turning out pretty refreshing and has become your drink of choice.
What a week that was. One tiny little germ causing so many problems. The first few weeks with a newborn are probably the toughest because it's all so different from what you've done before, and so exhausting. For similar reasons, caring for a sick baby is almost as tough. I jotted down a few notes for myself for when another terrible baby-bug inflicts my family again [Please add your own tips as comments!]:
Note 1: Don't assume that terrible smell is a broken sewage main. It will only lose you valuable time to change the smelliest nappy you have every come across in your life. People around you will start looking awkward and moving away. If your sick baby looks happy, you are likely to see a brown mark spreading across their baby-grow
Little Bear darts across the floor on his belly until he reaches my feet. Maybe he wants a hug? No. He grabs one of his balls (not from between his legs, that's for nappy changing time) One of the plastic ones that fell out of the ball-bit. It's blue. He lifts it up and drops it. It bounces. He repeats until he feels sure blue always bounces. He shuffles to a corner where he's gathered all the red and orange balls under the TV (little autistic but we'll put that to one side) and begins repeating his experiment. Yes, these colours bounce too. Does the cuddly lamb toy bounce when dropped? No (cue shocked expression on Little Bear's face). The little scientist has come up with a hypothesis, and he's testing it.
These little creatures come out struggling with the idea of how black and white are different, and in 8 months, they've started running their own experiments. For us that's surely like going from working out the tip at a restaurant to understanding quantum physics in the space of a few weeks.
Public transport in a big city is essential for a good day out. For wheelchair and pushchair users alike, the big must is of course step-free access. As far as cities go, London is a pretty mixed bag. Where they've really tried (and where it was easy), it can be accessible for parents with pushchairs. But it's still a way away from being the baby-friendly city it aspires to be.
For London's underground and overground managers, I have a simple message: put yourself in a wheelchair and try to get around the city in the same way a walking commuter can. Let's not be unfair, several stations are a push-in-the-park for parents, but a lot of them aren't...
Despite the name 'stay-at-home-parent', staying at home too long doesn't really work with an active baby. Little Bear loves his play-mat and ball-bit, but most days he (and Pappa) get a little bored and need to break free.
But lets not kid ourselves, we don't just grab keys and wallet and run for the next bus like we did pre-baby... No.
We grab milk, nappies, dummies, blanket, keys, pushchair, toys, and baby. Then we look for our shoes whilst baby wriggles out of the pushchair. We clip baby in properly following a lot of protest about the shoulder straps, then get ready to get out the front door, before a loud noise comes from the baby's nappy... We unclip baby from pushchair, missing the second bus you'd planned to get, run upstairs to change his nappy. Finish changing the baby, chuck the baby-carrier (almost forgot) under the pushchair and the baby in the pushchair. On the way to the bus, realise you forgot your wallet, etc, etc.
But despite the stress, it's worth it. Little Bear loves a good day trip. Whether it's visiting other babies and their mums (only met 1 other dad so far!), swimming, or trying something a little more adventurous like a baby-concert, another city or a museum, it's great for parent and baby to get out. But the tough stuff in a day trip doesn't stop when you finally get out the door (with your wallet).
Having learnt a few lessons the hard way, I was wondering what a parent needs to think about before they head out with the baby for a day trip. So here would be 7 tips I wish I could have given myself before I started parental leave:
After cleaning around 200 ml of baby vomit out of the taxi, Little Bear, his aunty and I took the plane. Of course, if it were possible I'd also suggest you avoid being in a plane, probably somewhere over Denmark, when you're baby might decide to do the biggest poo he's done in weeks. I carried him for the second time in 5 minutes to baby-changing room at the other end of the plane getting some sympathetic looks on the way. Then the stewardess asked me whether I 'wanted any help'... Odd I thought: why would anyone need help changing their baby? Then I realised the poo hadn't been limited to his nappy, or his own clothes...
The Daddy Tag Challenge
1 - Are you a Stay at Home Daddy or a Working Daddy?
I don't stay at home much as I try to take Little Bear out most days, and the two of us are currently visiting family in Sweden for the month! But I guess while I'm on Parental Leave, I'm a 'stay-at-home' dad. I was a working dad whilst my wife was on Parental Leave, which was great, but I'm enjoying my turn as 'stay-at-home' parent more than working!
Whilst I was dancing beside the baby-viewing cinema screen last week (trying to get Little Bear to sleep in the middle of teething and tiredness induced hysteria) I counted the parents. There were just over 100 watching the film. Out of them, there was 1 other dad on his own. I was actually surprised to see any other dads at all. Normally there are none. I've been to about half a dozen baby activities, and have yet to talk to another dad alone with their baby.
I'm certainly not complaining about there not being enough blokes to talk to. I really enjoy spending time with the mums and their little monsters. But where are all the dads on shared parental leave? Shared Parental Leave ('SPL') could just need more time to take-off, but there might be deeper problems.
Looking for some real numbers on how many new dads are taking shared parental leave is difficult, but the best estimate puts it between at 2 and 4% (Compared to 9 out of 10 dads in Sweden, Norway and Iceland)...
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots