Friday, 1 August 2014

The Hairy Dad Chronicles #3: Daddy Day Care


Apologies for the unimaginative title, but I couldn't really think of a snappier one quickly enough.

So, our attempts at minimising our gender footprint also include the big one: childcare. This is the one that literally separates the men from the children.

Over the last twenty-one months we've tried to keep things as balanced as possible. Lou had six months of maternity leave from her job and was able to go part-time for another six and I was able to get a month off as a new father, combining holiday and my own statutory leave.

After the initial chaotic three months or so, where time felt close to nothing and sleep and feelings were fuzzy cousins to our reality, we settled into a routine of each of us looking after the little wizard every other night and me doing the bulk of the after-looking when I wasn't at work, while Lou watched over him while I sweated over a hot call centre. Noone got enough sleep and we were living against the clock, but it sort of worked. And Lou's parents helped out enormously, looking after him two days a fortnight, which meant we still had precious couple time and Lou could work.

We had fears about where our dollars would be coming from in a few months' time when Lou's job would be finishing, so when the opportunity for a full-time, permanent position came up in Leeds, we agreed the time had come to leave Manchester. Relocation, relocation, relocation. The job was considerably better than paid than what she was already on, and this opened a new door for us: a door we'd talked about for quite a while.

The wage I was earning was effectively the same as what we would be paying for full-time nursery care, and it wasn't a very expensive place where Jasper was spending his couple of days a week. It was a lovely place, but we felt we had a choice. We could try to carry on as we were, dropping the little bundle off and picking him up, with Lou somehow commuting the hour or so, and so on; orrrrrrr..... I could give up my work, we could move to Leeds and I'd look after Jabber full-time. Simplicity itself.

We talked about it a bit: my job was quite frustrating, I didn't really see myself progressing through the company, and Lou was sitting on some serious career tracks. It wasn't as though I was one of the country's leading neurosurgeons or a talented baker or a particularly enthusiastic traffic warden. And more "importantly", it would be a chance to walk some walk after talkng the talk for a while: some attempt at gender balance.

So, in January this year, the job was quit and I enrolled at Parenting High full-time. We were living "The Dream", but it was a dream with some dry, curled-up edges. Having been someone who spent most of his twenties and thirties unsure whether I could look after myself, it seemed a strange career move to look after a fifteen-month old creature. And here was something that I should have realised beforehand that still only dawned on me after a few weeks: I hadn't been trained for this stuff.

I know no one is trained for parenthood, I know. But this whole gender thing still has some teeth, I think. I can't pretend this is a universal truth and that every man is similarly poorly-equipped as I am in to take care of others; on the other hand, it feels as though there is a gender element to the whole preparation for life. That girls are encouraged to think ahead, see to the details and take care of business, while boys can explore and ponder their schemes for self-fulfillment. I've become more acutely aware of how others have seen to these details for me - and how often those others have been women. I've had to somehow make myself aware of what needs doing. So, that's a steep learning curve right there, which I've been clinging to despite enormous gravitational forces and my own incompetent fingers.

I don't want this to read like an excuse. I'm fully aware that as a grown-up adult, I should've been very much aware of what needed doing every day and who should have been doing it. I'm not sure how this happens, how these jobs become so invisible, but I want to try and disrupt the signal on the cloaking device for Jasper. Even if I don't feel like I know what I'm doing, by doing it I'll hopefully give him a positive example. And I'll make sure that I'll point out to him what needs doing as he gets older, so that he doesn't have even that excuse.

I'm pleased that I'm on the learning curve, that I feel I'm following my principles (which is a weird feeling to which I am not accustomed), but I cannot tell myself that a lifetime of applause and shiny medals awaits, because people just get on with bringing up families all the time.Just because I'm finally starting to grow up, it doesn't mean I can stroll about the world expecting my hero hugs. But I'm still pompous enough to have some ideas as to why we've gone this route as a family and I'd like to share these with you now.

The reward will hopefully be that Jasper sees things differently, that he feels more responsible for the details in his own life and takes care of things and other people accordingly. Hopefully, he will think that it's perfectly normal for a Dad to look after his kid all the time, which it is - really: even if it doesn't always feel like it. Conversely, the plan is also that he will be quite happy not to be the main breadwinner or blithely assume that his career will come first, take precedence over those careers of the women in his life.

Lou read some interviews a few months ago with women who had been confronted with the decision between childcare and career. She told me how fortunate these women felt that their partners had given them the choice between having a career or staying at home to bring up the children. Either of these options would certainly involve some sacrifice for the young families, not least fiscally, but it was remarkable to Lou that the third option of the husband looking after the child was not considered. Once the breastfeeding stops, it could be argued, there isn't much that the father shouldn't be able to do that the mother does: it ceases to be about anatomy but the culture and politics remain. In our case, the practicalties swung the role of primary carer in my direction.

The other thing which I've noted is the length of the "working day". Jasper generally wakes up between 6.30 and 8am, usually around 7.30. (We're very lucky that he sleeps as well as he does.) My day starts with his, as a rule. Our deal is that I also look after the house - the bulk of the household chores - although Lou still cooks frequently and will normally chose the menus for the weekly shop. After his lunch, Jasper sleeps for a couple of hours and I can get some work done - I'm also doing proofreading and writing CVs to earn our spending money - and then it's housework and keeping the littlun fed and entertained until he goes to bed around 7.30pm. Then, I often have proofreading or similar work to do for a couple of hours, soemtimes quite late into the night. I could be better organised and get things done quicker, but that's the shape of things so far. A full-time job of childcare and household chores plus a part-time job. All my sparetime is now monetised: the clock is ticking and it sits in the kitchen. I've no threshold to cross to go back to work; it's always at home.

Sounds a lot, and it can be knackering and a little alienating, but this is largely because I consider a job the kind of things that more responsible folk do when they get home from work anyway. It's another case of my dodgy mindset: why is doing a load of washing work? Everyone has to do washing. It's the assumption that I'm entitled to hours sitting on my broadening backside watching TV that's causing the problem.

Anyway, I must go to bed. This blog hasn't quite covered the points I wanted, I don't think. I may well have another attempt later in the year to undo some of this clumsiness. But part of the issue with my new role is that there's always something I could be doing with my time, something less self-indulgent.

Peace out.

Your pal in daycare,

Coc x

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Hairy Dad Chronicles #2: Tongue of their Fathers - Passing on my Bad Welsh to the Next Generation

Howdy! (as they say in Rhostrehwfa)

As the last half hour or so of St David's Day/Gwyl Dewi Sant trickles down the sandhole of time for another year, I'm shoehorning in the opportunity to explain a little bit about another one of the DECISIONS that was made about bringing up our little lad: namely, that I decided to speak Welsh to him.

I should explain that I'm not fluent in Welsh and not a native speaker: my Mam is from County Clare in the West of Ireland and my Dad was from Macclesfield, not far from Manchester. It was a happy accident that we as a family ended up at a kind of cultural midpoint between the two places - on the Isle of Anglesey. It was handy for the ferry, no doubt.

It isn't even that I'm capable of any decent length strings of Welsh sentences. Or proper communication at all, really. Intermediate language skills glisten atop some distant peak far up above my poorly-equipped base camp. I must sound like a complete idiot.

I did, however, grow up in Welsh-speaking Wales. I did learn it at school and even got a GCSE in Cymraeg: Ail Iaeth (Welsh: Second Language), although at Foundation level. I did acquire a near proximity to a good accent when speaking Welsh as a result. I did leave school with better German than Welsh, despite the fact I had lived yng Nghymru for thirteen years and never once been to Germany or Austria or Switzerland or even brushed their umlaut-draped borders.

I did think Welsh was a language for chapel-goers and committees and teachers and nought that was cool for most of my school years until various Welsh-language bands like Datblygu and Llwybr Llaethog showed me where I had been going wrong. And that's the "I did" section neatly covered.

So, why did I decide to pass on someone else's culture to my son, who seems likely at the moment to spend his entire childhood living in the North of England? Dyna'r cwestiwn...

Firstly, even though I was an immigrant to Wales, I realised when I did finally travel to the former Holy Roman Empire and other mildly exotic parts of the world that I did actually identify myself with Wales and Welsh people, that I did have some knowledge of Welshness - even if as an outsider. I was maybe a bit like those colonial types who grew up in Kenya or Sri Lanka and were caught between the mother country and the locals - fish that swam comfortably in neither water. I am, as my bio suggests, living at least partly in the Wales of the mind.

Secondly, and perhaps this is related to the first answer, I feel that a language is a tremendously valuable thing to let die out. There are languages in places like Australia that are almost literally on their last pair of legs, as the final native speaker is old enough and unique enough to breath the last living words of that language any time soon. With the disappearing language goes a whole view of the world, a whole philosophy encoded in the very words themselves that is almost impossible to replace. I frequently feel the need for continuity and this is one of those times.

Thirdly, I like Welsh - the way it sounds in my half-stopped ears and feels in my clumsy mouth. There are some great words and ideas, and I love the fact that knowing there is more than one language early in life means you understand that much more quickly that a chair isn't a "chair", it's something some people call a "chair". If that makes sense.

The secret fourth reason (a secret reason only dimly perceptible to myself) is that it feels a clever thing to do and all the more so for my complete inability to perform the task. I like the sense of difference, of awareness of alternatives that it can lend. But like I say, that's a dark path of thought I chose not to follow in public...

As I say, my Welsh is appalling: a combination of ineptly-taught and poorly-received GCSE Welsh, some song lyrics, some internet resources and watching S4C every now and then with straining ears. I cannot hold a conversation, cannot add clauses to a sentence convincingly and can barely remember how to use past and future tenses.

My friends and family-in-law that speak Welsh mostly live in England and rarely speak it - except in phone calls to their own families. It's always a slight annoyance to me that the census doesn't even recognise the fact that they exist as Welsh speakers with the relevant section omitted from the forms outside of Wales. The fact they don't speak Welsh to their children is sad but completely understandable as the kids are very unlikely to use it. My best friend effectively learnt English at primary school and his Pennsylvanian mother learnt the language on arriving in Wales, and yet he rarely has a Welsh thought pass through his head these days after over twenty years living in England.

And yet, I think to myself that if I say enough words often enough, then at least the perception of another language is there. Even if it's a non-Welsh Welsh-like Daddy Language rather than the real thing. I try and speak some to him every day - mostly "Are you OK?"/"Come here."/"Do you want some milk?"; simple questions and instructions. Sometimes a random (and no doubt grammatically disastrous) sentence will pop in my head and I'll let it drop out of my mouth. I tell myself that if he at least tunes his ears into it, he will able to pick it up more easily and pronounce it more convincingly if he ever takes an interest in future.

My Mam had her entire schooling in Irish (as was the received political wisdom at the time) despite the fact her parents claimed they had no Irish and none was spoken at home*. She loved it and has often told me she felt as a student there were some things she could express in Irish that were impossible in English. By the time I was old enough to notice, all that was left were a few welcoming phrases, toasts and descriptive words: the rest had been swept away. She wasn't even able to really read it very confidently as the spelling and the script had been changed since she was at school. Another linguistic dead end: there are loads of them around when I stop to look.

So far, there has been one minor triumph for the project: Jasper says "dooo" for water, which I choose to interpret as being like "dwr", the Welsh word for the same. He's not really using words yet, so you could argue it's a stretch in logic, but it's a stretch I'm happy to make.

I've no idea how much he might pick up. His cousin has English and Japanese spoken at home and all his schooling (still at pre-school, but all the same) is in Welsh, as they live on the Lleyn Pensinsula. I'm fascinated to see how that will develop. My brother says he has recently become aware of the different languages and which word belongs where, so it'll be interesting to see what choices he makes.

What I can describe more easily is the way that I use the language with him even in a one-way verbal exchange, which in itself is really interesting. When he was very little, most of the use was when we went out together - sometimes whole trips to the swimming baths would be in mumbled, inept Welsh. Now that I'm spending most of my time with him at home while Lou works (another post in the offing for that one) my use of Welsh acts as a very reliable barometer of how much pressure I am feeling: the more Cymric vocabulary that spills out, the more on top of things I feel. This makes me even more determined to speak in Welsh in order to convince myself how very well I'm doing as a parent.

So we'll see how I get on: it's been sixteen months of Welsh every day so far with a proto-word in response. I am nourished by the (probably apocryphal) story of the architect of the Hebrew revival in Israel in the 1940s and beyond, who was so convinced that a language based on the Hebrew sacred texts was the future that he refused to speak anything else to his family the moment his foot stepped on the boat to the Holy Land. And now there are millions of speakers, where there was once a dessicated religious language as dead and restricted to scholars and priests as Latin. He must have been impossible to live with, but you have to take your inspiration from where you find it.

And as I type this, his raw gums are kicking in and parental duties call again. Best be off!

Hwyl fawr!

Eich cyfaill,

Coc x

* I did see a copy of a County Kerry census not so long ago that dated from 1901 and said that my infant grandfather did have Irish, so there is a story to be told there one day.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Hairy Dad Chronicles #1: Naming the first born

So another mouth bleeds unimportant business into the blogosphere. This on top of the already unimportant stuff that I bleated about albums a couple of years back. Sheesh!

But I never learnt to knit or draw or sculpt or paint or network to the point of it becoming a science: all I know is words, spoken ones and written ones. And so begins my piece...

Lou, my wife, and I have been trying to do this whole marriage and family life deal with as even a couple of pairs of hands as we can manage. We got married in August 2011 - the ceremony was as DIY as possible on the Irish Sea coast in extreme Anglesey, which was only possible because of the generous donation of time, talents and energy of our friends and families. We did all we could to keep things as balanced in terms of gender as we could, because it was the way that made sense to us.

We were both given away by parents, rather than Lou being handed over to me. We both kept our names, rather than any double-barrelled business or sublimation of one name into the other: we both liked** our names as they were, we identified ourselves by them, and didn't feel the need to change them. We both spoke at the wedding feast and we both had Best People, even sharing one: this made for a lot of speeches, but we felt we had a lot to say. (We almost always do have a lot to say...) It all felt like we were making the decisions, that we were arranging our marriage and our futures the way that we wanted.

Then, a few months later, Lou was pregnant, which is what we'd dearly hoped would happen - although we were a little surprised it happened so quickly. We gradually realised that there were a few issues to be resolved for the next generation if we wanted to do everything we could to preserve the gender balance. First up, names: we didn't know if they were a boy or a girl, so we looked into possible names for either result.

The name Jasper came to us out of the ether and I don't think either of us is still sure how it arrived*. It sounded cheerful - it's actually quite hard to say Jasper in a grumpy way, although I personally have had a great deal of practice since he arrived - and it was a little unusual without being obscure. After all, this is what every aspirational middle class parent wants, isn't it? A uniquely branded kid, tagged with a name that oozes elegant originality. (Sheesh!) It was also the name of a lot of family pets and a range of Marks & Spencer tables, but you can't plan for this stuff. (You can.)

The girl's name though was more of a poser: we couldn't agree on one for ages. One of the main issues was the vast number of names that meant "beautiful" or "princess" or were simply a feminisation of a male name: however hidden the original meaning, that kind of etymological shit sends a message, and we wanted it as unDisney as possible. We searched various languages, hovering around Welsh for a long time for reasons that will become clearer in any future blogs - but all the girls' names I read aloud were quashed by Lou for sounding too weird, for want of a better word on my part. Angharad probably doesn't have the same ring to it if you weren't raised within the sound of Menai Bridge: a bit of a duff and rusty ring, perhaps.

Eventually, we found Mabli - the Welsh version of Mabel, which comes from the Latin for "loved". Still perhaps a bit passive, but without doubt along the right lines. It sounded a bit stranger, a bit more foreign than Jasper - but was still as cheerful. And it wasn't a name I'd come across growing up in north Wales either, which appealed to us both.

So, we were sorted for first names. But the thornier issue lay ahead - the family name. We were pretty sure that we weren't going to go down the route of calling them either Harvey (after Lou) or Egan (after my family), as it would be choosing one parent's line over the other. Again, this is not a criticism or a judgment against how anyone else has named their kid. There are a lot of good arguments for the whole family having the same surname; it just didn't make sense to us to choose one of ours. We take names very seriously, as many people do, and we didn't want the identification tag to sit on either the father or mother.

We couldn't settle on a double-barrelled name. It felt like we were just putting the decision off to the next generation. And we didn't really like the sound of either Harvey-Egan or Egan-Harvey. (Incidentally, we have some friends called Wright and Mighty who got married recently; in their case it would seem a travesty for them not to go by the name Mighty-Wright.) The idea of fusing them together into a new surname like Harvigan seemed a little outside our comfort zone. We talked about it with many of our friends and privately banged our heads against subtle brick walls about how we could resolve this.

Welsh culture came to the rescue again. Many of the people I knew at school and a friend of Lou's from the Lleyn Peninsula went by different surnames than their siblings, often a second first name, rather than the Jones or Williams that was generally their official surname. For example, a Dafydd Thomas could be known as Dafydd Wyn  - or perhaps Dafydd Mon if they were from Anglesey (Ynys Mon in Welsh). So we set about trying to think of a suitable surname for our firstborn.

We lived at the time (and still do for the moment) on Henley Avenue and so Jasper Henley became a possibility, recognising their Traffordian roots and the fact that we were so happy in our family home on that road. But Mabli Henley didn't really tick our boxes, so we put Henley to one side and thought on.

After some months, we suddenly thought of using the name Firswood - the small suburb of Trafford where Henley Avenue lies - and it felt as though something clicked. Jasper Firswood sounded like a woodcutter; Mabli Firswood sounded like a mysterious, witchy kid - both sounded good to us. It was also a very normal sounding name: Firswood. We'd found what we after!

The next stage was discussing it with our respective in-laws - after all, it was as much a decision to spurn their names as it was ours. The issue came up of identification - the idea that the child would be confused if they didn't have the same name as either Mam or Dad. It seems quite common for a kid not to share a name with at least one parent, but then that doesn't mean it cannot be used as a bully stick for beating them. The other objection was that it simply wasn't the way things are done.

We don't mind so much not doing things the done way - and this issue of identification seems important enough to stick our neck out for. Although we are aware that it isn't just our neck we will be sticking out. Perhaps a few other people have come to the same conclusion and it might become a more normal thing during the child's school career anyway. (That's what is known as wishful thinking, but if you can't start a kid's life with some hope, when can you be hopeful?) We decided that any other children we had would also be Firswoods, so that they could identify and be identified with each other. We also designate ourselves as the Family Firswood, even though Lou and I won't be changing our names to Firswood either.

If the worst came to the worst, we could change Jasper or Mabli's surname when they get old enough to want to anyway. A decision had been made.

So come October 2012, a little lad arrived - almost a month earlier than expected but big enough and beautiful enough to look after himself already. He arrived by C-section and as he was passed over to Lou and myself, his final name took shape - Dominic Jasper Bertie Firswood.

You might have noticed something. That first name that has somehow slipped into pole position: Dominic. See, the gender battle lines still had another kink to keep us on our toes. It was possibly the most pernicious and divisive issue that we had to work out, skulking about in the shadows the whole time.

The third name - and we always wanted two middle names - was the name of our friend, who was a student midwife at Manchester and was there to receive Jasper into the world. The fact it was a woman's name and also a bit gender-playful was also good for our purposes. However, that was the easy bit, the sideshow to the main attraction.

My first name is Dominic. So was my Dad's. And his Dad's. His Dad was also Dominic and it seems likely his Dad before. Despite the idea of a patronymic being pretty much the completely opposite attitude to all the other gender-based positions we'd adopted, I didn't want to be the one that dropped the name ball. (A suitably daft sporting metaphor for what is arguable a daft masculine thing to cling to.) His given name was always going to be Jasper, but Lou and I discussed the Dominic issue over and over again, never really resolving the conversations one way or the other, the mood occasionally being punctuated by a hurt silence or weary sigh. It was a choice between letting down my dead forebears or my egalitarian-minded principles: it shouldn't have been any choice at all. But the nagging feeling wouldn't leave me alone...

When that noon in October arrived, however, bringing a long, reddish pink Jasper with it, I confessed to Lou as we cuddled our first of many tens of thousands of cuddles with our new Firswood that I wished my Dad was there. He had died in 1997, so long ago that the vast majority of my friends (Lou included) had never met him. I felt acutely that I wanted him there, to let me know that this whole Dad business was going to be alright - in the way only a Dad could. Lou agreed that Jasper could be DJB Firswood*** and (barring a wobble at the registry office a coupe of weeks later) that was the decision made official.

It still sticks in Lou's ears, nose and throat a little, I think, when "Dominic Firswood" is called at the doctor's, but his everyday name is Jasper (or Jibber, or Jibber Jabber, or Jaspergers, or Jasperilla, etc.) Firswood - and he seems happy enough with it fifteen months later.

We managed up to a point to sell the name Firswood to our folks with the idea of it being a very old way to name a child - "Jasper of Firswood", and they seem sold on the reality of the name, at least, if not the idea behind it. My Mum still sends letters to Mr & Mrs Egan anyway, so she's unlikely to catch up completely, but she doesn't complain about it when she does remember I've kept the Egan name virus to myself.

One other happy coincidence of the whole thing is that common as it sounds, we haven't been able to find anyone with the name Firswood on the internet or local 'phone books. It seems we've accidentally stumbled on a surname that sounds as English as oak and chips, but is virtually unique. So, lucky auld Jibber there, eh?

Anyway, this post has been considerably longer than I intended - and I need to go and wake him from his post-prandial snooze. But I will strike again! Next time, perhaps, the topic will be my abysmal attempts to pass on my abysmal Welsh to him.

Am y tro nesf!

Your pal, Coc


* There was a possible link to Jasper Tudor, uncle of Henry VII and a descendent of the powerful Tudur family that came from Anglesey themselves.

** I apologise for the lazy and liberal use of "we" in this post. We don't think in unison like some Stepford unit, no matter how similar many of our ideas are. There is much discussion behind each joint decision: discussion far too tedious and protracted to share, even on here.

*** This is also the way his name appears on the cricket scorecards and literary masterpieces of our imagined futures for him. (Triple sheesh!)