Ever feel like a phoney?

In about 6 weeks I go back to work full time.  Ouch – it’s a downer, but if I’m honest, its not too bad, because I’ve not felt like myself for a large portion of the last 5 months.  Or of the last year, maybe.

Being off work, being the only man in most rooms I’m in, drinking coffee alone, having the same conversation with dozens of mums I will never meet again, all the while trying to figure out whether I’m doing ok.  Writing a blog to help with that.  None of it really feels like me.  Going back to work will be a relief in some ways because I’ll be firmly back in my comfort zone, a safe little triangle of work, home and friends, in which all is known.

Fucking comfort zones eh?  Too tempting by half.  Its new year, there is lots of talk of resolutions  new beginnings and change, and the last 6 months have certainly given me the opportunity to learn a lot about myself and what I’m comfortable with.  About what I can change about myself.  I initially assumed that 6 months is long enough to develop some new habits, to shake off old constraints and focus on things I always wanted to do.  But it turns out some things are fixed.  My novel went nowhere.  I wrote about 4 songs but only finished one of them.  Same as it ever was.

And then there’s watching a baby grow and develop.  If ever you need a lesson in personality, just watch a baby closely for a while (preferably one you have a relationship with, I’m not talking binoculars at the playground).  So much about a baby is fixed from birth.  I didn’t believe that would be the case, but it’s undeniable.  Ours is a furious, twitchy,  curious box of endless energy who will not be tamed.  She was like that at week one and she’s like that now. She exhibits the same traits in every new environment she encounters. Its fixed.

It’s convinced me that we’ve all got our defaults, and though we can learn to mitigate them, or imitate others, our basic instincts cannot be shed. Maybe that’s why my comfort zone is so attractive, and why in many ways I have felt odd, and ill at ease at points in the last 6 months.

The life of a stay at home parent is a lovely, lazy lifestyle in many ways.  It’s nice to wander through, and interesting to watch a whole different world of daytime stuff, of prams and shoppers, umbrellas, lunchtime drunks, young truants and scared old ladies.  But its not my default to be here, doing this, writing this.  I don’t enjoy passing hours making small talk with strangers because there’s nothing else to do.   I feel fake, like I’m hiding behind a front.  My mouth is saying things like “yeah she sleeps through” and “have you tried Infacol?” but my brain is sat in the background thinking “what the fuck, John, your nicotine-tampon idea would make a way better conversation than this”.

But but but,  just once in a while, the same conversation about sleep or feeding takes an unexpected turn, and I realise that today’s random stranger is someone great, someone I’d never have met if I’d stuck to my defaults and hidden in my shell, following my instincts.

They’re a trap, sometimes.

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Is my baby a jerk?

So when do you reckon it’s ok to start attributing negative traits to someone?

Because, you know, us new parents sure take pride in our kids.  We love ascribing positive qualities to them, most of which cannot possibly actually be possessed by a little baby.  I hear it all the time – people complimenting their beautiful, placid, tranquil, curious, attentive babies, basically for sitting still and not doing much.   We’re almost expected to say nice things to people about their kids – and there is a knack to it, its just about choosing your adjectives carefully.  So long as they aren’t insults.  (I think there is a nice lesson for humanity in this btw – it’s always possible to find a good point about a person if you are compelled to look for it).

A lot of people say for certain that babies are just born with personality.  I always doubted this, I’m firmly on the side of nurture over when it comes to most things.  We’ve always spoken of our baby having certain traits but to be honest i think of this kind of speech as more of a comforting way of making sense of things rather that real descriptions of who she is.  I would prefer not to pigeonhole her – I saw the quote “every day she wakes up different” recently and I really like that idea.

But – we have always described her as wilful, determined and furious – in that everything she ever did was done with intense fury.  We thought of those as admirable qualities, but quietly, I’ve always been scared that she’ll grow up to be a jerk.  For 8 months, Ada was the only baby in our immediate group of friends and so she’s always got loads of attention. She’s now a very smiley kid who loves being in crowds, likes the attention of strangers, and is comfortable with everyone.  All that is nice, but what if she becomes a bigheaded little princess?  Cos that’s how we’ve nurtured her? If she is like that, how should we as her parents go on disguising it with polite adjectives or just admit it?

Also – today, we had 6 other babies at the house for a few hours. They played on the floor together.  She made two of them cry and was constantly snatching, clawing at them, shoving them over.  Of course, the other mums played this down – she’s just a baby she doesn’t know any better.  But what if she’s actually a dick?  A bully?  At what age does it become appropriate to say “that baby is acting totally up themselves”,  “He’s being a moody little sod” or “That baby is being a spiteful cow”?

Obviously it’s never going to be OK to say those things out loud, that would be rude – but at some point, those become appropriate descriptions for their behavior.  In management, we’re taught to judge the action, not the person, but sometimes, some people, like some elephants, are just jerks.

On freedom, parenting and prison.

The things you forget…

Here’s another thing I didn’t anticipate when I gave up work for six months.  After a while, you forget what Monday morning is like for everyone else.  You forget what weekends are for.  You forget how working for someone else, to their agenda, can grind you down.  All these things I used to know, but I’ve lost them in the gap between the rigid parental responsibilities I have, and the freedom to structure my day however I want.

I used to work in the Probation Service, and one of the functions of that organisation is to make people who have been convicted of a crime serve punishments in the community – community service work, or education classes, drug treatment courses, anger management courses, electronic tags etc.  Prison is the obvious alternative to this community-based punishment and there is a perennial argument about the relative merits of community based punishments versus incarceration.

One of the most seductive ideas I heard in relation to this was the fact that prison is easy to cope with, because it is a total paradigm shift.  Once you are over the initial shock of being locked up and deprived of your freedoms, you (as a highly adaptable animal) will cope.  The old stresses and routines of your outside life are completely removed, replaced with highly regimented routines into which you settle. Prison replaces your life totally.

But contrast this with a community-based punishment, which interrupts your life consistently, but does not replace it totally.  You have your daily life to lead, but with extra responsibilities – you have to spend 300 hours doing community work on your weekends, you have night-courses to attend, you might have to wear an electronic tag and be at certain places at certain times.  This is hard.  Its is a restriction of freedom which requires some resilience to cope with, whereas prison removes the concept of freedom from your life so totally that you don’t even need to worry about it.

Being a full time, stay at home parent is like being in prison in that the paradigm shift is total.  Being the working parent is like being given a community punishment – you have to fit in the child-rearing stuff around your normal life.

introducing a child in to the world also has an effect on your personal freedom. Now I’m in “prison” I’ve forgotten how hard it can feel to fit in the extra child-caring commitments in to a regular day.  My wife gets up and goes to work, and in just 8 weeks I’ve forgotten what that does to you.  Adjusting to being a full time parent is not without it’s challenges, but once your kid is past 3 months, the days aren’t hard at all.

Some reflections on being a stay at home Dad…one month in

Right – I’ve been off work just over a month – the settling in period has passed, so how are we doing?

Its gone fast. I’ve not really been bored. I’ve had some really great days, and achieved some of the things I set out to do.  But there have been days where I’ve had no momentum at all and felt shit, and slow, unproductive and a bit fed up.  I blame various things for this – a baby meltdown (link),  a bad nights sleep, a weekend away – stuff that disrupts the routine and gets me out of the swing of things.  But ultimately its just me finding excuses for being lazy and unproductive.

But overall, its been a breeze – a doss, at times (I might write another post later on whether this parenting lark is as hard as women have been telling me it is…).  My first few week were all to-do lists and good intentions – coping mechanisms I kidded myself in to believing were necessary to get through the day.  But (flash of inspiration here:) I have come to the conclusion that time passes even if you don’t have a list of some kind, and having realised this, it turns out its easy to just jump up and get on – have coffee, meet friends (hi!), talk to strangers, silently judge the comparative attractiveness of other babies etc.

But coasting through a day like that is a bad thing – I hate coasting.  A day with a baby will always be full of lovely moments and surprises but it’s not good for achieving things you want to do. I have enough time to do anything I like – it’s using time sensibly that’s the hard part.   It’s final proof that I’m essentially lazy and incapable of focusing my efforts towards a bigger goal.  (I knew this already but thought these 6 months might give me an opportunity to change that about myself.)  I could try harder to make that change, but you know what, I’m happy, so fuck it.

I have done some of the things I set out to do – I’ve written more,  I’ve made up stories, I’ve booked some piano lessons and made some things with my hands.  I have played Ada a lot of music, dressed her up, taken her out on the bike a lot, and she has come on so much.  She can crawl now, and eat real food, and produce solid shits (although by the time I get to them, they’re usually in paste-form, all over her back).   She has volition.  Course, she would have learned all this at nursery without me but I’m counting her innate natural developmental steps firmly as my own achievements – something I intend to keep doing until her 16th birthday, at which point she can start taking credit for stuff.

I’m still stuck on the question of whether this 6 months off is worth it though.  Is it justifiable that the taxpayer is basically funding me to try (but mostly fail) to achieve things I’ve always wanted to do on the pretext that I’m here helping my daughter grow up?  Is it?  Really?

But. But but but.  Ada! I love her now in a way that I never even knew existed before I took this time off.

So yeah, its selfish, indulgent, pointless.  But it is worth it just for that (thanks, taxpayers..!)

The basics

S said i can be whatever i want to in the next six months.  “A philandering nympho?” I asked.  

“I’d like to see you find the time”

So. it’s four more days of work left for me.  I  just arrived home from a week in an amazing French Villa with all my friends and I’m starting to think about the reality of the next 6 months.  This post will become some kind of to-do list (or shameful list of things i never do) – i expect i’ll refer back to it a lot.

S has been taking me through the basics – the weekly shopping list and the meals we eat.  Nap times, and eating routines.  I hope she’s taking the piss, because I know all this stuff already, but it helps me prepare anyway.

I’ve been thinking about how I want to spend my time.  The point of taking 6 months off work is obviously to make sure the baby gets taken care of but i have always seen it as more than that.  I originally had big ideas – write the novel, start my own business etc – all those things you never get chance to do while hammering the 9-5. But I know my time will not be my own and  reality has set in.

So my plans are:

1) Do something creative with the baby every day – tell a story, paint a picture – and record it.

2) Play her an album a day

3) Keep shit tidy

4) Play a lot of guitar (this new toy will help…)

5) Make costumes for the baby (I do this a lot already)

6) Learn the piano (ok, ok…)

7) Write this blog…