All posts filed under “Parenthood

In praise of the three-door family car

The news of impending parenthood is shortly followed by the swift emptying of your bank account as you prepare the house to welcome junior. There is a temptation to upgrade your car, if not to a full people-carrier or Chelsea tractor, then at least to something roomy. Indeed, the three-door VW Polo we had was surrendered by its original owners as they upgraded to a Tiguan when they were expecting.

We didn’t replace our car, not because we knew better or we’re taking a principled stand, but because we couldn’t afford to. And yet, three years later, we’re really happy that purely thanks to luck and weak spending power, we are still driving that hatchback Polo, and I’d like to encourage prospective parents to stick with or even choose a three-door car.

First, hatchback boots are roomy, and having height as well as depth (something saloon cars lack) for luggage has saved us several times.

More importantly, though, is that because in three door cars the front seats fold forward and slide away from the rear, you can really get access to your baby or toddler in the back seat when loading them up or getting them out. This is probably less of an issue, at least pre-toddler, with ‘travel systems’ in which you put the baby in a self-contained seat that you separate from a fixed base and lift wholesale out of the car, but we chose not to afford this either, instead getting a non-removable seat into which we placed our baby, and in which she now sits as a toddler.

And flicking the front seat away, and having room to perch on it comfortably while facing the baby seat and carefully getting the kid secure and happy is wonderful. We didn’t even realise how how wonderful until we tried to settle our kid into a car seat in a five-door car, which involved an awkward sideways delivery, with less visibility of straps and buckles, and with a greater chance of knocking the kid on bits of the car as you manoeuvre them in. (Sorry, Ada.)

Had we had more money, we may have bought a bigger car, and bought a travel system. Had we done that, though, we’d probably have had a worse experience.

Echo @ Dundee Contemporary Arts

For every exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts, the public is invited to create its own responses to the work, in an ongoing project called Echo. Your response can take any form, and they’re exhibited, performed and so on at a special event. Recently, DCA hosted the first major European exhibition of the work of American artist Eve Fowler, and Jenny and I produced the response you see here. Below is our statement supporting it, which was read on the night.

We – a husband and wife team – wanted to reflect and further develop some of the ideas in Eve’s work, using the same vernacular in order to draw a close parallel between the original work and our response.

We both identify as feminists, something that acquired new dimensions when we had our first child, a daughter, three years ago. Watching her and listening to her talk, as she works out the world and bumps up against its limitations, and as we anticipate restrictions and opportunity throughout her life, is emotional.

In this response, we take things our daughter, Ada, says, and have Chris, her dad, transcribe and typeset them verbatim in a series of posters. The act of her voice being mediated through a literally paternalistic figure is key to the response; men have a crucial role to play in advancing the cause of feminism and equality, but in acting as the point of amplification, and even by being in control of choosing what gets amplified, we’re commenting on how deeply ingrained patriarchalism is in our society – and how even if well-meaning, it centralises power and sets tone and content.

The posters are Ada-scale and mounted at her eye level, a comment on how easy it is to overlook children and what they say, however significant. They use shiny, sparkly textures to set up a dialogue about how women’s spoken pitch and vocal fry often leads to their contributions being dismissed in cultural conversations.

The concept is Jenny’s, but after that spark of genesis her role gets deliberately sidelined; the response quotes Ada and is created by Chris. There is comment here too not just on the invisibility of women – “behind every great man…” – but also specifically on the erasing of mothers from society and its discourse.

Below are some photos of the work in situ, taken by DCA’s Helen Macdonald.

I love you, now and always

You’ve never felt your heart break quite like when your kid tells you that you don’t love them.

It’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds; at a simple level my daughter is just getting to grips with what love is, a question that has stumped even Foreigner.

She tells me I “don’t love her all the time”, and I believe that what she means is that, say, when I’m being firm with her, or roughhousing with her, or lose my temper I’m not being loving, and I think that for her, now, that single facet of love dominates any other meaning.

And okay then, fine; I just have to both help her grow the richness of her definition of love, and constantly demonstrate through word and deed that I love her more than anything else in the world. Job done.

I do, though, have some unresolved anxieties around those of my behaviours that she seems to interpret as me not loving her. She usually squeals with delight when I pick her up and snuggle her, and seems to genuinely love getting tickled, for example, but these are, I think, things that would fall into this category, and there’s a sense in there somewhere that she’s not wrong. Issues about consent and agency, and her body being hers alone – issues that would be true for a boy too but have particularly dark resonances when the power dynamic is between a male in a position of authority and a younger female in a more junior context – swirl in the mix, and need to be considered and reflected upon. This all, as her life stretches ahead of her for decades, isn’t simple.

But for now, tomorrow, I take the least complicated, purest step. “I love you, Ada. Now and always.”

Zig-zag butterfly

I finally realised a while back why parents’ anecdotes about things their kids say and do struck me as so banal before I became one myself: it’s because you have no calibration for what’s remarkable.

Anyway, tonight as I read my two year-old daughter The Cat in the Hat at bedtime, when we got to the line “And look! With my tail! / I can hold a red fan!” she said, with some effort, “Daddy, the fan is like a butterfly! A zig-zag butterfly! Like [the butterfly in the garden she named] Dotty!” And I am undone.

An illustration from The Cat in the Hat; the cat is holding a red fan in its tail which has a white zig-zag pattern on it

‘Safe’

I went to bed last night as Twitter was just starting to twitch with news of something happening around London Bridge, assuming that when I woke it would either have been jumbled mis-reporting or the latest in the capital’s history of terror attacks.

This morning, as we read and listened and reflected, my daughter was playing on some foam climbing blocks when she slightly overreached her balance and toppled slowly off, crying – mostly from surprise – when she hit the floor.

It is a trite point, but, curiously, a legitimate and profound one too, that ‘being safe’ doesn’t – rather, shouldn’t – mean that one must never come to physical or emotional harm; it means an environment wherein you are confident in exploring and playing and expressing yourself, knowing that if you overreach and come to harm, there is kindness, support and comfort.

‘Never coming to harm’ is a dangerous fiction, one that legitimises and excuses authoritarian behaviour and policies that actively damage those for whose lives you are responsible.

Don’t wake the monster!

I’m only part joking when I say I bet the dramatic trope of creeping past a slumbering monster must have been originally written by parents who have tried not to wake a sleeping baby.

Had to pop stuff into Ada’s room tonight; crept stealthily in, but she stirred and sat up in bed. I immediately dropped down behind the solid end of the cot, out of sight. She seemed to resettle, but I couldn’t be sure, so I had to risk a peek. If she was awake and watching, catastrophe! But she was asleep! Creep, creep, set down qui-et-ly, creep, creep, pull door to at a tectonic rate – breathe sigh of relief. Properly cinematic.

Frankly, I’d take a rabid dragon or slavering Cerberus to sneak past any day; consequences are less dire.

Playing with Lego

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved playing with Lego. The love hasn’t dimmed as I’ve gotten older; Lego’s role in my life has just changed. Where once it was about the stuff of play – about discovering how objects interact and about how I could at the same time give shape to and spark my imagination – as an adult I would occasionally turn to the calm, methodical accretion of a set’s blocks as a way of quieting stress and anxiety.

Our daughter got some Duplo for Christmas, and it’s been wonderful to play with her. Of course we play with her all the time, but it is usually asymmetrical. The pleasure my wife and I got from the play was meta-level; we enjoyed seeing Ada develop and become curious and then work to sate that curiosity, and of course we enjoyed the simple fact of the time together, but there wasn’t much enjoyment to be wrung for us from the activities and games themselves.

This is different, because while all that meta-pleasure is just as present, we’re both surprised by how much delight and fun we’re getting from the Duplo itself.

And it’s exactly because of that curiously cyclical sparking and feeding of imagination. Sometimes I’ll set out to reify an object that’s in my head, but more often than not I’m just noodling about with bricks – these big, coarse voxels in unexpectedly beautiful renderings of simple colours – and either end up creating pleasingly nonsense objects, or I’ll turn over what I have in my hands to find that it suddenly looks like a whale, or a truck, or an oddly stooping old lady. It’s something akin to pareidolia, or what the creator of those Lego ads was tapping into – another take on “the pictures are better on radio”.

It’s silly, I guess, to find this quiet joy surprising, since I can’t remember a time without Lego, but it is. It turns out I had simply forgotten that this was a thing Lego could be; not only a tool by which to construct a given object, whether realistic or fantastic, but also something that one almost has a dialogue with, something that you grip and manipulate and query and listen to as you play without direction – like a child does. And as I am rediscovering how to, thanks to my own.

Ada wearing a knitted hat with bear ears

Year one

Our daughter turns one today. I have learned some things about babies, parenting, myself, my marriage, and my ability to form coherent blog posts in the 364 days since she was born, and so allow me to glug some of my brains out into this post.

  • There is a point somewhere on the continuum between ‘it is hard’ and ‘we found it hard’ that is objectively true; a fulcrum whose position would tell me the extent to which we particularly just made heavy weather of the experience of the first few days, weeks, months, and to what extent it’s just a spectacularly challenging gig. But I’m jiggered if I know where it is.
  • You forget what made it hard. You can call up impressionistic washes of anxiety and pettiness and novelty and failure (and happiness and delight), but you can’t remember the specifics. This is good, as it’s the only way our species doesn’t dwindle in a kind of reverse Fibonacci; you need people to forget so they voluntarily have more than one child to balance out eventually losing the two who made that first one.
  • There will be a neat mathematical model too to describe the toughness of the challenge – some inverse square shit that I should be able to call to mind in a more specific way. Basically: it doesn’t get easier in a linear way. At least till now it’s gotten easier on some sort of accelerating curve. The first six weeks were black and the subsequent six months horribly difficult, but the last three months have brought increasing contentment and joy amidst the wrangling. The stage we’re only arriving at now is the one which I naively thought parenting-from-day-one was like: requires huge commitment, patience, hard work and attentiveness, but there’s a lovely, sweet, kind, curious little kid with a deliciously absurdist sense of humour and a killer chuckle in the middle of it all too. In the early days the sheer unremitting terror of being solely responsible for this new life was, for us at least, suffocatingly hard; you’re caring for a little thing that does not work like anything you’ve interacted with before, and it couldn’t matter more that, at best, you get this wrong only in small ways.
  • Once you’ve worked out that mathematical model, you can apply it verbatim to your perception of time. I remember completely clearly, once we were discharged from maternity care, knowing that our next allotted chance to talk to a doctor was at our daughter’s 6-week checkup and thinking that was an insupportably, unimaginably long time to hold out. A day was lifetime, a week an aeon, a month an eternity, and if you’d asked me up even into the spring of this year to imagine her first birthday I wouldn’t have been able to in any but the most abstract terms. “Take each day at a time” isn’t glib, facetious advice; it’s a survival technique. Duties and time seemed to yawn relentlessly, chillingly out in front of us, but I am not intimidated by the idea of another year now; I’m excited.
  • Caring for your child and watching them change and grow and learn every single day is a godsdamned privilege. I keep saying it; it keeps being true. This trusting, loving (grizzling, shitting) little thing has no agenda, no plan. It just is. It just be’s. And you’re there right alongside it, helping, yes, and guiding, supporting, sure, but most of all watching as before your eyes a person is building itself, by the accretion of a thousand tiny moments, interactions and decisions. Everyone else gets to see my daughter; I get to see how she figured out how to be herself.
  • Parenthood strips you down. It forces you to confront often unsuspected truths about yourself, some of which you can draw great pride from, and some which are deeply shameful. I am ashamed of my temper and my pettiness, but I am proud that no matter how deep I’ve dug to just keep pushing forward, there has so far always been a deeper reserve I can scrape down to when something harder comes along.
  • I keep discovering new ways in which to find my wife remarkable. I wouldn’t, couldn’t do this with a lesser woman.
  • And here’s the most important thing I’ve discovered in the first year of my daughter’s life: she’s wonderful. She is full of wonders. That kazoo-like chuckle, deep and cheeky, that makes everyone else laugh too. The fact that she started proffering her toys and food to us to share without us even thinking to teach it, and being pleased when we enjoy them. The new tricks that astonish and delight us by their very unexpectedness: yesterday, plucking a tissue from a box, holding it to her nose and blowing a raspberry in mocking imitation of me with a cold – then looking at us all Fozzy Bear to see if we agreed that what she did was funny. The little curls at the back of her head. The perfect handprint on her face that persists for hours from where she slept with her head resting on overlapped hands, like a painting entitled The Sweet Purity of Youth. The tiny, tiny snores. Her saggy baby bum. And a hundred, a thousand more.

Friends, family, even total strangers who follow either of us on social media will know that we found being parents to a newborn gruelling, mystifying and disenfranchising. But it’s done now; check! Time – long overdue, you might say – to formally flick the switch and disable crisis mode. Time to realise that our life is not dazzlingly, incomprehensibly different to how it was before, it is now merely different to how it was before, and for the best of all possible reasons. Time, in other words, to start enjoying being parents. I love you so much, Jenny; I love you so much, Ada.

Congratulohno!

I found out today that a friend and his wife are pregnant. Indeed, very pregnant. I congratulated him, of course, since there’s a better than average chance that at our stage in life, this is welcome, longed-for news.

But I wanted also to commiserate. Which is hard. In part it’s hard because no soon-to-be parent wants to have any more apprehension and fear heaped on them, in part because I was totally blindsided by how hard I found the first few weeks and months, and, crucially, in part because it’s not as simple as “it’s awful” – or even “but it has its rewards”.

It’s so fucking complicated.

It used to be that when someone told me they were expecting, I would of course congratulate them, but it would mostly – and don’t worry, I hate myself for this – it would mostly be a learned reaction. I didn’t feel bad for them; I felt little for them. It was, to me, a remote and irrelevant thing.

Then, we decided to try for a child – a decision that boiled down basically to “you’re never ready” and “I’m months away from being categorised as a geriatric mother” (which happens at 35, incidentally) – and when we had trouble conceiving and started the process of exploring our options, news of a friend’s pregnancy gained another unpleasant dimension. I knew that telling my wife would knock her back, would once again start thoughts about our situation and why getting pregnant wasn’t as easy as we’d been warned in sex-ed classes.

Now, news of a friend’s pregnancy boils up a visceral knot of reactions. Delight, of course, and excitement on their behalf about the adventure they’re about to embark on, but also a gut-punch reminder of how disorientating and disenfranchising and alien the first few weeks is. Or at least, was for us.

They might be fine! They might not have our medical challenges, our neuroses, our hang-ups, our problems. They might, in short, be more natural parents than we are, and find the process at worst tiring.

Perhaps the most challenging thing about my reaction to the news, though, is that I never really know now what my reaction is going to be, because my own situation, with my soon-to-be-six-month-old daughter, is such a shifting and ill-defined one. It’s not resolved. It’s in turn magical and difficult and fun and tortuous, and I need the hindsight of 25 years to know what I think about it. And that helps nobody, now.

It gets easier

I’m writing this in part to reassure friends with babies younger than Ada (which includes BABIES AS YET UNBORN, WOOOOOOOO!) who may find or might be finding things tough going – and who might still be haunted by our ashen faces and shakily-recounted tales of bafflement and exhaustion – and in part just for the exercise of marking this time and exorcising this stuff from my brain. (I actually started writing it a month ago; it just took a while to find space and time to complete.) Here, then, is why things have gotten easier.

The first few weeks of Ada’s life were dazzlingly, bruisingly tough for lots of the usual reasons that everyone will experience – the stakes being so high – and for some more special reasons all of our own. Now, with her a little over four months old (as she was when I started writing at the start of December), we’re beginning to catch our breath. Indeed, we’re beginning to enjoy Ada – and girl, if you’re reading this is twenty years’ time on a holoscreen, please don’t read that as us resenting or disliking you hitherto. It was just vast, exhausting work, and newborns don’t give anything back. Like, they’re not required to – “they didn’t ask to be born” – but it means you’re under heavy physical and emotional stress for hours, days, weeks, and the thing that’s at the centre of the maelstrom your life has become could not give one shit. (Except, you know, in the visceral sense.) I am not saying I’m a good person for finding that challenging, but I am saying I did. Which brings me to the first reason it gets easier.

Start the day with a smile

When I go to get Ada from her cot first thing in the morning, she looks at me, a moment passes and then her face splits into the biggest, cheekiest grin I’ve ever seen, she kicks her legs, she stuffs her fist in her mouth in her transports of delight. “Oh my god, this guy‽” she says, correctly identifying an opportunity to use an interrobang even in body language because she is my daughter; “I bloody love this guy!” And thus, whatever challenges and arguments and perplexities had figured so oppressively in the day before dissolve away in a heartbeat, and we begin afresh. But it took many weeks to get to this stage.

Practice makes piss-easy

The first time you sterilise anything, the first time you put on a nappy, the first time you run a bath, hell, the first time you pick up your baby, you won’t really know what you’re doing and so you’ll spend hours, cumulatively, reading manuals and guides, fussing with holds and fits, and ultimately not believing for a second you have done it right at the end of the process. Give it a couple of months, though, and you’ll do this kind of dull logistical stuff without a second thought, and that not only means you’re spending less time on them but you’re also not filling up your mind with fretting about what are ultimately quite minor things. Don’t get me wrong: we still worry about plenty of shit now, but through the mundane act of doing some things many dozens of time we don’t also worry about them at a bald mechanical level.

Tool up

We read books, we stocked up, we thought we were well-equipped. And we were, but only, it turned out, for a small set of scenarios. For example, because reasons, we decided at about week three to feed Ada expressed milk topped up with formula, which meant bottles. Because this wasn’t really a scenario we’d envisioned (because of the conspiracy of fucking silence about how difficult breastfeeding is, for one thing), we had a bit of a mish-mash of bottles we’d just kinda accreted. Once we actually bought good bottles that Ada liked and figured out the correct flow of teats, and then once we’d actually bought enough of them so that we could have the next full day’s worth sterilised and ready before I went to bed rather than frantically washing and sterilising two or three in a rolling dance of clusterfuck, we were golden.

Other stuff that has helped immensely (most of which were discovered as a result of Jenny’s research):

  • Nuk dispensers for formula. Measure the correct number of scoops into these at the end of every day, then the next day when things can be frantic just dump straight into the bottle. (Also, if using powdered formula, buy a Perfect Prep machine or similar. Just do. Ain’t no parent got the brainspace to be boiling kettles half an hour before feeds are required.)
  • Also, Nuk bottle cleanser. ‘Light’, not as foamy as usual washing-up liquid, and has an enzyme that specifically targets and breaks down milk. You can see it happen. Great stuff.
  • Look, I’m going to tell you we bought one of these baby chairs and I’m going to feel the need to justify the price, but we just love it. It’s somewhere to put Ada down while we’re doing other things (which might be simply ’massaging one’s sacrum while staring into the middle distance’), and she loves it too. It will last her for years, and the only bad thing is that it’s a pain to move around. Oh, and the crippling working class guilt about the price.
  • When you buy a sleeping bag or a babygro or whatever, buy the next size up as well at the same time; you’ll need it more quickly than you expect, and having it right there on the day when suddenly nothing fits is a magical gift from past-you.

Anyway, the point is: I suspect nobody has the stuff they need before a baby is born, so don’t even really try. Get the basics (books will tell you what these are) and then just be prepared to make many spur-of-the-moment trips to Boots, and late-night Amazon orders.

We are learning how to parent; Ada is learning how to baby

Newborns are like nothing you’ve ever encountered before, or more precisely caring for one is like nothing you’ve ever encountered before. You’ve literally spent a lifetime learning how to interact with people, and you’ll likely even – as a girlfriend, as a co-worker, as someone with an elderly parent – have spent some time caring for people at some level. Newborns aren’t people. I mean, obviously, they are, but they do not operate like people. This isn’t about babies not being able to articulate “Ah, father; I think the purple dungarees today – I’m feeling vivacious!” or “No, mother, don’t you remember? I took a dislike to Baby Snuggle Book last Wednesday and I simply cannot countenance the woolly sheep today”. No; we know ahead of time that babies can’t talk and that we will have to interpret their needs in other ways. But what actually happens is that they don’t even have the same basic concepts of needs or responses or drivers that adults, children, even toddlers have, and so it’s not even like you can work out what the different cues are and deal with them.

As the weeks ticked by, however, we would more and more often comment “Aw, she’s starting to be a proper little person”, and it was only later I realised that a side-effect of this is that she started being easier to interpret, simply because we’ve had a lifetime of interpreting people. And still this isn’t about knowing specifically what Ada wants; she’s too young, clearly, to form words, and we haven’t properly started with signing. It’s about me doing something funny and her chuckling; it’s about Jenny cuddling her after we’ve given her saline drops to help clear her nose when she had a cold and Ada understanding that a cuddle is comforting; it’s about – oh my days is it – Ada understanding what sleep is.

At the same time as Ada is learning how to be a baby, we’re learning how to be parents. In part we’re just better at mechanics of it, but we’re also just better at knowing how to support each other, how to structure days, how to adapt to the ever-changing process of parenting. We fuck up often, in big and little ways, and there hasn’t been a week where either I or Jenny or both haven’t cried, but we’re now able to at least identify those areas where we need to research more or just sack up more for, rather than just finding literally every aspect of the situation intimidatingly alien.

We are, too, now, the world’s foremost authorities on Ada Margaret Gray Phin. Nobody knows her better than we do, so when well-intentioned advice is offered, we feel confident in listening politely and then quietly, privately ascribing it little relevance to Ada if we believe it’s not applicable. Clearly, we’re not going to dismiss it out of hand, and this doesn’t apply to medical advice or advice from professionals, but equally we’re now experienced enough to know that no, she’s not windy just now; no, that thing she does when feeding doesn’t mean she isn’t hungry; no, there’s no point in trying to get her back to sleep after only a half-hour nap; half-hour naps are what she takes.

What’s more, while in the first two, three, four months we’d live pretty much half-hour to half-hour not knowing what was coming next, she’s settling into routines now, we’re learning her cries (and she’s learning to make different sounds for different things), and we’re using an app to track feeds, sleeps, medication and more so that we can start to see patterns and work out whether behaviours are out of the ordinary.

So: it gets easier. Not easy – presumably never easy – but easier. Everyone told us it would in the first few weeks and months, but we had to live through it to believe it. We have. It does.

Ada sitting up