Nursery is a bit of a blind spot for parents. We spend every day following these tiny people around, monitoring their every nap, meal and nappy change, and getting enrolled into each tower building session and every repeat of the Hungry Caterpillar. Then, suddenly, we delegate this all to someone else. It’s like going into heart surgery. You’re suddenly trusting someone else to look after something that’s really quite important to you, and you’re not able to watch what’s going on when you’re doing it. I want to know what’s going on during this blind-spot.
You’ll have to excuse the optimism, but there’s no time of year and day quite like a spring morning. An early start, the air is crisp and sweet, the sky is blue, the shadows long.
Living in London, a faint glimmer of sunshine means our local playground is packed during the day: queues to the swings, chaos on the slides, carnage on the roundabouts and a highly stressed guy at the ice-cream stand trying to keep up with the constant flow of grumpy, happy or hyperactive children. Trying to get Little Bear on a swing can involve a five minutes wait, which doesn’t make sense in a toddler’s world-view so involves 5 minutes of stopping him from throwing himself at the other children on the swings. A trip up the ladder to the slide is equally tough, with inevitable disaster when he tries to climb back up the slide when he gets to the bottom. ‘No baby! No! ‘t ‘genst rules baby! Stop!’ shouts the 3-year-old who can’t understand why Little Bear doesn’t know the ways of the playground yet. Then,like soft-play only with concrete floors, comes the inevitable head kicks from older kids and the toddler tumbles.
Why do dads need to justify being the responsible parent?
Settling Little Bear into nursery I was asked to fill in the emergency contact details in case they needed to get hold of us during the day. Naturally, I put mine down first. My first instinct (as for many blokes) is to try to explain why I put my name first rather than his mum’s, and I have to explain it in terms of why my wife couldn’t be the first point of call. I want to explain that: ‘my wife is really busy during the week’ or ‘my work is closer than my wife’s to the nursery’ or ‘she’s often abroad so it’s easier to get hold of me’. I struggled to stop myself giving these justifications to the nursery staff for me accepting a pretty basic parental responsibility. I was of course treated to a ‘are you sure you want to put your name there?’ from the nursery staff ‘you realise it means we’ll contact you first, before mummy?’ [yes, this is what ‘first point of contact’ normally means]
When I say softer parent, I’m not thinking about round the waist. At the moment I’m leading that one. The question is: out of mum and dad, who is more willing to break when the baby’s siren starts up?
The stereotype is that mums give the cuddles, and dads dish out the discipline. Alternatively, dads leave all the strict stuff and coddling to the mums, and occasionally peer over their newspapers to tickle the little ones. I’m guessing that in most modern families, the picture is no longer so clear.
Little Bear is starting to talk. No, he’s not forming sentences yet, or even pointing at things and calling out their names, but the baby babbles are starting to sound like words we just said, and he’s starting to understand noises he makes relate to things. What does this mean for our plan for bringing him up bilingual?
A year ago last week, Little Bear and I went into shared parental leave together. 7 months, 2 new back-pains and a toddler later, I emerged from full-time care of my little troll. Going back to work was a culture shock. It’s like you’ve been on a fast and slightly dangerous roller-coaster, before stepping off and walking along the mundane pavement feeling giddy. For the first week at least, you feel a little shell shocked. Every few minutes or unusual noise in the office, you look around for your little guy in panic because you can’t see him, only to remember that it’s because he’s several kilometres away at nursery.
There’s an obsession with milestones. From the moment they’re out, we’re waiting to see our little ones focus, smile and laugh, then role, grab and crawl, cruise, clap, wave, dance, eat, build, sort, waddle and speak. Should parents be so keen? Why don't we hear about the downsides?
We might be keen on seeing the milestones because we’re building little people, so we like to see when the next brick is firmly in place; or we’re being competitive with other parents because our kid is obviously the best. Dads are generally allowed to be more open about this, although I’ve seen a few mums beam when their baby roles over and 4 months and the 5 month old next to them is struggling to lift its head.
Little Bear has family and friends in Sweden, Germany, the Philippines and even more exotic places like ‘the north of England’. Having such a far flung crew, he’s no stranger to flying. Flying with any little bear can be as easy as a cool breeze or as turbulent and stressful as being caught in a hurricane. Getting ready for the ninth flight with Little Bear, we feel we might almost have it down. The first time we took him with us on a big trip was to the Black Forest when he was 3 months old. It was so easy, we decided that he was a great traveller, and would always just fall asleep in Pappa’s arms the whole flight and get excited about travelling on the train… Turns out, not the case as we found out on the way to Sweden. Here are some things we’ve learnt about travelling with a baby the hard way. Hope you find some of them useful, and please feel free to add yours as comments:
Something every big city parent will be familiar with is the steady stream of baby activities to attend. From play groups and breakfast clubs to tot swims, story times, rhyme times, baby-cinema, baby sensory, soft play and bop baby singalongs. London is especially great for these things. Having a little one here quickly opens another city for you, as you say goodby to London’s great pubs and fine restaurants (remembering those from the distant past), you find a new layer of baby-activities for you and your little people to join in.
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?...
Little Bear is pretty amazing, but most dads will say that about their babies. Most dads look at their little ones and know they want to be there for them every step of the way. It’s a deep instinct that goes beyond just wanting to earn to feed them or elbow dangers aside. Some dads may not feel it from day one (probably due to exhaustion from the birth) but they see the feeling grown on them the more they look at the little round eyes in the unstable, wobbling head, and start to see the first smiles. Others may start to feel it, tears and all, the moment they hear the rapid thump of the heart beat coming from the tiny shrimp shaped blob on the screen of the first scan.
But it’s a feeling and an instinct dads will know. An instinct to protect, nurture and care for this tiny human. It's a want to see them grow, and play a part in building this particular little person. An interest in someone else’s happiness they’ve never felt so strongly before.
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.
Out of the three basic baby needs: nappies, naps and nourishment, it's gotta be sleeping that feels the least predictable and the most fraught. Get it right, and your baby will be bubbling. Get it wrong, and either your baby will become an angry little troll when you want to play with them, or they'll want to play with you in the middle of the night, when you feel like the angry troll.
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots