Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

The Battle Against the Night

Tonight is mummy’s first night out since the birth of Bub just over eight weeks ago.  The event is a ‘hen’s meal’, arranged by one of mum’s closest friends, who is getting married in a couple of weeks.  The wedding itself will be a challenge with Toots and Bub tagging along, not least because we’ll be spending three nights in Dorset in a static caravan – a Heath Robinson experience at the best of times; surely an implausible one with a ten week old child.  No doubt it will rain constantly.

However, this evening – more importantly – marks my first night putting to bed both Toots and Bub.  It wasn’t an experience I was particularly fearing – I’ve plenty of experience with putting Toots to bed on my own, and with Bub it’s just a case of stopping the crying for long enough to lull him to bed with plenty of shushing.  And so it proved; both were asleep by 8.30pm, and now I’m tapping on the keys here.

I did have this idea that Bub would be the principal problem.  After all, he does scream very loudly and in a prolonged manner.  He can be difficult to quieten down, and even when he is quiet, he doesn’t necessarily pitch off to sleep.  Additionally, if he was to continue to be hungry, I still have that troublesome absence of breasts, and no alternative way to make milk myself, so food could have been a problem.  Mum has spent some time expressing milk today (and on other days), so when he did need feeding, I was able to come to the rescue with a bottle.  And so, despite the fears of too much crying, the need for food, and the possible reluctance to sleep, Bub has gone off reasonably well this evening.

Toots, on the other hand, likes to push it.  She’s had one of her two days a week at nursery today, and despite (probably) being very active all day, she comes home a little wired, and ready for play.  Come bedtime, she was demanding to get the bricks out, to play with her little people, to splash about in the bath and to do all of the little jobs that we do on our way to bed and sleep.  She did go to bed well, had her stories and let me leave the room to see to Bub, but she was awake still when I came into her room to see how she was getting on, and she demanded I stay with her for a while.  All this time, I could hear my sausages downstairs, crying out to be cooked…

She has the capacity to stay awake into the evenings, and she’s always had a desire to be awake and watch, do, see or play – like closing her eyes and sleeping is giving up on something exciting that’s just around the corner.  But she’s also seeking the one-on-one attention she’s used to, particularly now Bub is demanding some of that attention too.

But despite having form in this regard – being demanding, making up things to say just to be expressive, doing jobs, being helpful, being seen, using her imagination, evading sleep and eating into my quiet time – she’s a great kid, and nothing is better that watching her grow and develop, and seeing what she comes up with next.

I just hope mummy is back before Bub needs more of the good stuff…

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Weight Watching

Getting older is something we all do, yet it seems to be something that no-one does very graciously.  I haven’t yet met anyone who isn’t going to die, or someone of my age who isn’t complaining of getting older, starting to creak or of some ailment that brings them down.  Naturally, being northern and having been brought up on a diet of melancholia and squalor (as most southerners would have me believe), I have the odd whinge myself now and again.

Moving house last year meant signing up with a new doctor, and hitting 40 has made such appointments more fearful.  One of the abiding memories of my youthful past is Billy Connolly’s story of his first prostate cancer check on reaching this otherwise fine and distinguished age.  I’m still awaiting a call for this first check, and I was kind of expecting it to come up in conversation when I met my new doctor for the first time for a general check.

It didn’t, but I did find out, over the course of a couple of conversations, that my blood pressure and my cholesterol were high, possibly on account of being overweight.

There are lots of people overweight in this country, and it is a big problem, costing the health service millions each year and all because of overeating, badly labelled food, too much convenience food and the reluctance of the Government to make simple legislation to control it better amongst, I dare say, other things.  I have been around about the 15 stone mark for about ten years, and neither adding weight or taking it off, just fluctuating around a mean.  I don’t particularly look overweight either, but I had been noticing, perhaps because of the passage of time and the general movement at this age into fleshy bagginess, that I wasn’t that happy with the way I was looking in photographs.  I had begun worrying about being a trim and energetic father to Toots as well, and being able to keep up with her.

And so, after Christmas last year, with some apprehension and much encouragement from my wife, I joined the local Weight Watchers group.  And, bloody hell, it’s been magnificent!

At the first meeting, the plan was explained to me – basically every food is worth a number of points, and you chose what to eat each day within your set number of points – and I was weighed and set a target of losing 10% of my starting weight.

Five months on, having started at 15 stone 11.5lb, I have gone below my 10%, and I am looking to get to my goal of  13 stone 7, which is the upper end of my healthy BMI.  The plan has been challenging, particularly as the points drop as your weight comes off, but for me, it’s all about portion control and cutting out the snacks.  In addition, my blood pressure has also dropped to within an optimum level, and when I see my doctor next week, I expect my cholesterol to have dropped as well.  And I feel more energetic and look better in photos.  In fact, some people are worried I’ve lost too much weight and ought to stop…All in all, an excellent job.  And yes, Weight Watchers is dominated by women, but the are plenty off men there too.

And their chocolate bars are delicious.

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Government announces free NCT classes for the bourgeoise

And so with much bluster, David Cameron set out his vision for a revived society in the form of £100 vouchers towards parenting classes. Apparently, the riots of last year were, to some extent, caused by poor parenting, and this is something to redress the balance. This at least provides some marginally better odds that the riots of last year won’t be repeated in 15 or so years.

But if only it were that simple. There are lots of reasons to despise this Government, not least my imposed redundancy when the perfectly efficient quango I worked for up to early 2011 was abolished in a totally inefficient and underhand way with Jeremy Hunt leading the charge. My wife’s quango will disappear this year. No, there are lots of other reasons, less subjective than this. The lack of any apparent strategy, the triumph of politics over Government, the taxing of the elderly, the tax relief for the rich, the cuts to public services which affect the less well off, the shipping out of London residents to provincial outposts, the rising job insecurity, rising unemployment, cuts to the organisations tasked with supporting the unemployed and those seeking skills and training, the lack of support for savers, the failure to crack down on financial gambling and the dismantling of the planning system.  There might be others that slip my mind.

In this context, the announcement of the £100 vouchers for parenting is small beer, but it’s typical of this government to say, ‘here’s the money, do it yourself’. The likely outcome of this initiative is the uptake of the support from the NCT bothering middle classes who are perfectly capable of finding support elsewhere, through their cappuccino supping friends and their still married parents (a category I fall into) and are likely to be missed from those people in most need of support, both practical and financial, in less fortunate positions.

Worse still, when our first child came into the world three years ago, we received a Government publication, Birth to Five, which my wife considered to be invaluable, impartial and containing different viewpoints of the issues facing parents bringing up children through the early stages right to school age. By the time our second was born earlier this year, the stocks of this book were used up, and the Government has not reissued it.

My wife has written letters of comment and enquiry about this book, and has received three letters from the House of Commons (our own MP, a communications centre and the office of the Secretary of State for Health) all acknowledging both the popularity and the demand for the publication but explaining that no decision has been made on how best to issue this advice to new parents.

Now, it seems to me that if you have a publication that is well regarded, objective, offering different viewpoints and experiences, in demand and in an accessible and universal format, which can add value to parents over the first five years of a child’s life, you keep on providing it. That doesn’t seem to be a very difficult decision to make.

In the meantime, there is a growing gap where this publication is unavailable to everyone, and this voucher system appears, on the face of it to be inequitable, dependent on the quality of the provider and their own perspectives of bringing up children and inadequately targeted at the right people. As ever with this Government, it is time for a rethink, but a rethink is unlikely to come.

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The speed of escalator handrails

There are little things that niggle in London. With the pushchair, I’ve negotiated many an escalator, especially in the underworld of the London Underground, a charming place to be with a pushchair at the best of times – but I’m sure I’ll comeback to that in the fullness of time.

However, in negotiating these escalators, whilst gripping onto the pushchair, making sure the wheels don’t catch against the side, and making sure the pushchair is suitably balanced before the stairs start to rise, or fall, I grab the moving handrail and hope that nothing slips, dislodges, passes or unbalances itself all the way to the end of the flight. But how many times – how many times – have I noticed that the handrail travels faster – or slower – than the travelling staircase? How many times!

This fact has not yet made me trip, or fall, or become unbalanced, but it is making me question my sanity, and increasingly I am being twisted into all sorts of hunched up and stretched out poses as half my body travels upwards or downwards faster than the other. It’s quite exasperating.

So, we can put men on the moon, connect via huge invisible networks of quarks and blutons and vote for talented dogs at the touch of a button, but we can’t get escalator handrails and footplates to travel at the same speed up and down. I think we need answers.

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The Worry List

Now I’m not going out to an office to work, I am less in need of the radio clock alarm waking me in the morning. However, one morning recently, I was awoken to a song I’d not heard before which caught my attention. The song was called, ‘The Worry List’, and it was by an American band called Blue October. The song itself was heartfelt, and the lyrics drew me in:
“I know that God exists. I held her in my arms.
I never knew I was able to ever feel this strong.
Take me off your worry list, it’ll be better that way”.

I bought the song and, on the strength of that, bought the album. It transpires that the whole album is about the lead singer’s divorce and the battle for the custody of his very young daughter, who has provided some of the artwork for the album. ‘Any Man In America’ refers to the legal system over there which, in the singers view, keeps fathers away from the children in the wake of such cases.

I have no idea whether this is true or not, and I have no idea how culpable and honest the singer is in trying to put over his case and express his side of the story, a story which, I guess, wasn’t too successful in ensuring that he maintains a relationship with her in years to come.  I also don’t know anything about his wife.

What does come through on the record, however, is the intensity with which he cares for his daughter, the love he feels for her, and the pain he suffers in not being with her. There are a number of photos on the artwork for the record of them together, and they seem at ease and happy together. As a creative person, he has perhaps struggled to make a living and find his way, and perhaps regrets not being able to put his time and effort into his relationship with her.  But this must be a common story with many dads, particularly in a society which perpetuates the idea that men should work and women should raise the kids, despite the momentum of feminism that I’ve referred to in previous posts, and the general feeling I have that lots of people don’t actually agree with this system.  His particular choice of music as a career must be hard on all concerned, especially if he’s travelling around America and other parts of the world trying to be successful.

I’m sure he has gripes about being cast out of a relationship with his daughter by the system we have, and perhaps adopting a stance in the west that the maternal parent is the better one for raising a child is the outcome we have to have.

I’m a little uneasy about this, however, not least because the maternal parent won’t always be in the best place to look after the children of failed relationships.  What underlies this, it seems, is the apparent conviction that society has that we have to maximise our working lives, maximise the opportunity we have and maximise lives family lives.  It’s great to have choice and opportunity, but something has to give in all this maximisation – and be seen to be maximising it.  Analogous with the rise of credit and the following debt, we can’t expect to keep taking.  In the end, someone will have to pay with something.  It seems in the case of my singer, his ambition to travel and be successful with his band is the price he pays for a failed relationship and estrangement from his child.

Check out the album, though. It’s a belter.

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Wheelie Bins are evil

My hackles were raised on the street this week as the Council delivered wheelie bins to the us. Much of the borough has had them for some time, but our street, for whatever reason, has been a little oasis still using black bags. There’s no doubt that black bags have their problems, including attack by foxes, and that the operatives only clear the bags, and not anything else which has been dropped or discarded outside of the bags, but they seem to suit our street, for all the downsides.

Wheelie bins, on the other hand, are hideous, ugly and cumbersome. Our street is terraced for the full length, and we have no rear access because we back onto a railway, so everyone has to have the bins in the front garden. The front gardens are about 3 metres deep. Each household has three bins, which means where houses have been split into two or three flats, there are six or nine bins in the front garden. The street is relative attractive – not a conservation area, but Edwardian, consistent and, because of the small front gardens, we’re not cursed with gardens being passed over to paved parking places, like some nearby streets which are in conservation areas.

There has been chatter on the street between neighbours, and the chatter has been largely negative, but resigned to being stuck with them.  For me the worst thing is the look of the place with these bland, chunky and unsightly boxes around us, and the inability to hide them down a side alley or in our back gardens.  But there’s also the practicalities involved in them – how can it be more effective for binmen to wheel these things to and from the vans; why can’t households share bins rather than have three each; why does the food bin have the same capacity as the refuse and recycling bins; why aren’t people given a smaller bin by default, and not the bigger ones?

And we haven’t even begun to contemplate bins being left out on narrow pavements, obstructing those with shopping, or pushchairs or disabilities; the prospect of bins being overloaded and causing similar environmental problems to the bags and the difficulty of moving the bins for some people, perhaps including the elderly.  And is the Council going to collect the plethora of bins and boxes they’s already provided through the previous regime?  I suspect not.

It seems that Councils all over the country are intent on saying that wheelie bins work elsewhere, so why not here – but it avoids the issue of wrecking the look of every street in the country and treats everyone exactly the same.  I’ll be chasing my Council for a financial justification.

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Masculism is the new feminism

I was with a friend yesterday who was visiting London from Canada. We worked together a few years ago, and she was here on a short stop before heading off to Dublin for a wedding. Toots came with me, and the three of us shared lunch at an excellent curry house on Drummond Street, before having a coffee in Starbucks.

My Canadian friend is single, but still hopes to settle down and have children herself, and she’s quite creative about the ways that this can be achieved. She is lucky that she has plenty of time before the opportunity to have children passes her by, but we discussed some of my female friends who seem to have missed the chance now, and others who have taken the chance but perhaps in relationships that don’t suit them.

I feel there is a real difference between men and women when it comes to jobs and children. Women, it seems, have to balance their lifes between the desire to be successful in both. The momentum of the feminist movement has meant that women have the expectation that they will succeed in both as well, even when the practicality of doing this is almost impossible and to the ultimate detriment of both. Their colleagues and friends (of both sexes) have to go along with this in the name of sexual equality.

I find that the problem with this is that, in some regards, there is no sexual equality. Men are not under the same pressures to balance work and home life, delivering the demands that children bring with the demands that work brings. Men are much more focused on work, are freer to work longer hours and tend to remain the main breadwinners. Many of my male friends never see their children in the week owing to these factors and a long communte in and out of London. Many of them know that, in the long term, they’ll have regrets about it, but have no choice but to continue to earn a wage.

The unspoken truth – a obvious and undeniable fact – is that women and men are not biologically equal. As far as I’m aware, I will not be growing any breasts in the near future to feed Bub (it didn’t happen with Toots either, and even if it did, there’s no escaping the fact that the breasts would no doubt be abused). Neither do I have the physical ability to nurture a baby and eject it from my body. The woman’s desire to mother the baby (in the non-gender specific way) will always be greater than the mans, and must be at the heart of much of this inequitable situation we find ourselves in.

But surely this situation is wrong. Surely men should be encouraged to share the opportunities brought about by bringing children into the family. Men should have the opportunity to have longer periods away from work, and to be employed in a more flexible way. Men should have access to financial benefits that women can access to support their role as a parent. As a man working three days a week to ensure I have four days with my children, I am also bombarded on each of those days with mother and baby groups, rooms, mornings, events and the like which appear to explicitly exclude men from them (though the reality is usually different).

So, feminism is fantastic, equality between the sexes is marvellous, but feminism is too focused on women. We need balance – this country needs its men to take a greater role in the family and they should be allowed and supported in doing this as women are. That includes in their work.

Masculism already exists as a movement. How about we push our society towards equality for men in bringing up their children?

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Your life is over

A very good friend and I were talking in a pub a couple of years ago.  He’s a chap I’ve known for many years, having been at university with him in the early 90s.  He’s very bright, funny and good to be with.  He told me, having just had his second child, that one child changes your life; two, and your life is over.

Clearly, I hadn’t let this cheery thought prevent me from having a second child myself, and five weeks into life with a second child, the jury is still out on whether it is true in my case – I still suspect a lot of it is down to attitude.  However, my wife and I took up the offer from the grandparents this weekend to take the eldest off to stay with them for a night, and we were temporarily down to one again.

At first, it didn’t seem like much of an offer.  Before, whenever Toots was away from us, it meant a return to the life we had before – it was a toss up between the cinema, the pub, the restaurant or something altogether wilder (perhaps even the panacea of afternoon sex).  With Toots away this weekend, we were still left with a bawling, hungry and largely demanding ball of five week old skin.  There would be no going out, no freedom, no restful night sleep and certainly no relaxing.  It wasn’t looking like much of a treat.

So, it’s come as a great surprise to me that it has been a more relaxing weekend than it might have been.  When Bub has been asleep – which has admittedly been fleeting – we have been able to relax a little, listen to the radio, browse a book or two.  We have not been awoken by Toots at an ungodly hour (not like her unfortunate grandparents, who got the wake up call at 7), and we have not had to entertain a demanding three-year old with hide and seek, jigsaws, books, teddy bears, play kitchen, toy trains and whatever else takes her fancy during a packed minute by minute toddler frenzy.  It’s been jolly nice.  Albeit, not much like the life of a childless couple.  Only twenty odd years before we taste that one again.

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I told you I was ill

Bub is a month old today.  And the lack of sleep is catching up on me.  I remember with Toots that the first four weeks were the hardest – the fourth week was the worst, and gradually from there, things settled down. 

I’ve been feeling a little under the weather as it is.  I’ve had a sore throat for a little while – not a regular rasping sore throat that can be eased or soothed with blackcurrant Tunes (do they still sell those?), but an uncomfortable feeling, like a really close fitting polo neck jumper.  There are no other symptoms – or so I think – but it’s starting to drag me down a bit.  And last night, I felt dizzy.  I nearly fell over on the stairs, and I had a light headedness.  I’m overtired, like my boy.  And I only had  about three hours last night, with the rain crashing on the windowsill and the things I need to achieve in my business ringing my senses in the night.

With not physically going out to work at the moment, I am being drawn more into the caring for Bub, something that didn’t happen with Toots, when I was working five days a week in central London.  That forced me out of the house and made me focus on maintaining my sanity for that; it made it easy to sleep in the spare room, and I maintained some control in my working life, even though the first baby is more of a worry. But this time, I’m in the room with Bub, and in bed with my wife.  We both wake twice or more in the night, we both do the changing if it’s needed and we both wait tensely after a feed as he growls and squawks before falling asleep again.

And I’m knackered.  I have my work to do Wednesday to Friday; I’m looking after Toots full-time because my wife has Bub, and I’m also looking to do other work in the other days.  I’ll probably be castrated by the women who read this, but biology must, logically, look after women who are feeding – after all, biology has naturally fostered an embryo through nine months and instinctively forced the mature baby out through the right passages and in to the open – there must be something in the chemistry of a women that allows some better control of the sleepless nights and the trials that a newborn baby brings.  There must be.

But for men?  Maybe were all saps, but it some ways – whisper it – it’s harder for those of us who continue to make a living and try to maintain the housework and engage fully in fatherhood.  Well, that’s how I see it.

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