Thursday, 1 May 2014

Happiness

Dear Henry,

You are a little young for this letter right now, but I hope in time it will become more meaningful to you.  I originally wrote a letter very similar to this one for Naomi's naming day as a present, but as I was writing it I realised how much I wanted you to understand the lessons within it.  

I hope that by the time you read this you understand a little more about your dad and what I do for a living.  I am a psychologist so I am interested, simply, in how people think and feel and behave.  I also believe these three things influence each other.  This is important and I will come back to it.

What I am not, is a particularly practical man - you will have realised this by now as every time something goes wrong we call Steve, Jamie or Granddad!  When Steve and Sarah asked for something personal for Naomi the best that I could come up with was ...happiness.

I need you to pay special attention now.  Are you listening?  Sitting comfortably?  No other distractions?  Good.  Then I will carry on.

Happiness is not something that just happens.  We are not passive recipients of some floating cloud that rains good emotion down upon us.  The Dalai Lama (very cool guy, look him up) has said that:
"Happiness is not something ready made.  It comes from your own actions." 
We need to work at it and we need to use it.  If you do not it withers away and becomes harder to find.  If this happens you are less likely to feel good about life.  So my gift to Naomi, and now to you, is a collection of pointers on how you can ensure your own happiness as you grow and move through life.

I have another couple of important points that I need you to understand before I get to what I consider to be the practical bits.

Firstly, happiness is not about stuff.  It is not about possessions.  The positive emotion that can be found in things is, generally, fleeting and unsatisfying.  Secondly, happiness is made better by making other people happy.  If you do good, you will feel good.  This is something your parents do very well, although I am never entirely sure if they realise, or give themselves credit for, how good they are at it.  Watch them and learn from them.  Make people feel special and you become special and feel special.  Simple sounding, isn't it?

So this is what I would like you to do, to help you stay happy and healthy in life.

  • Do things for people, connect with them, pay them attention.  If you value others, you will in turn be valued.  Remember how important people are and respect them for their own humanity, not because of what they can do for you. Something you can do for yourself is to...
  • Exercise.  This may be a cliché, but it really is the most powerful way to feel good about yourself.  And while I am on the subject of feeling good about yourself...
  • Accept who you are.  Do not chase others' ideas of who they think you should be.  It is your skin and you need to live in it, so accept it and be happy with it.  You will not be getting another one! So don't worry about it and...
  • Try whenever possible to live in the moment.  Appreciate the things around you, the sounds, the sights, the smells, the touch, the taste.  Life is about experiences, a person is the sum of what they have seen and done, so appreciate them.  Strive to make those experiences positive and fulfilling.  To do this you will need to...
  • Keep learning.  We never stop growing as people.  If you allow yourself to stop, you stagnate.  Keep yourself occupied and trying new things and never be afraid to say "I don't understand". To do this you will need to...
  • Stay positive.  Optimism is one of the most powerful pieces of psychological armour you can possess.  You will experience setbacks, downs and lows.  But remember that is all they are and it is within your power to change things.  So much of life is based on how we interpret it.  Choose to interpret it positively and this will help to...
  • Ensure your life has meaning.  Look to involve yourself in something bigger than your own small world.  We are tiny specks in the sea of human experience, but enough of those specks together can move worlds and change lives.

I hope by now you have realised how important I believe attitude and the things that we choose to do are in helping us to live happy lives.  What I cannot do in this letter is tell you all the ways you can do this. If I am honest, I hope you don't need this letter as I plan on being around long enough to teach you these lessons myself, but you never know do you?  And at least if it is here, I know something will be passed on to you.  Something that I continue to need to remind myself is to treasure the good times.  This can be difficult when you are tired, and stressed, and in need of space - but it is those times when it matters the most.  If you find yourself slipping, stop.  Look around.  There are some many beautiful sights to behold if we just take the time to look.

I would like to leave you some lifework.  Start to write down the things that make you feel grateful, proud or happy.  Don't be afraid to think big (I live in a safe democracy) or small (I had an awesome meal today!), but do think and do record them.  This act alone will go a long way to keeping you happy.

I hope you come to enjoy, understand and appreciate this gift.  But, more than that, I hope that with or without this letter you lead a happy and fulfilled life my son.

With all my love, my precious boy

Dad

Friday, 18 April 2014

Henry - this isn't space, everybody can hear you scream

We are going through quite a special stage with Henry.  High pitched, ear piercing, glass shattering screaming.  Seemingly out of the blue, without warning Henry will let rip with a banshee cry.

Why?!

I have no idea what purpose it serves, I have not found a strategy to prevent him from doing it, a stern word sometimes stops it being instantly repeated but not always.  We cannot work out what it's about, or what to do about it.

Other parents have told us their children went through this stage, but I can honestly say I have never heard a child like him in the past.  Generally, he is noisty and loud and the sound is one of excited, happy amazement.  This feels like it has evolved simply to push our buttons.  And, perhaps, therein lies the solution?  Yet, ignoring it does not make it go away

This may sound relatively minor but that is only because you are reading this and not hearing that.  It has got to a point, recently, where Emily would not come to dinner in a hotel because people seemed to move away from us.  Now, I am fairly robust as a person and parent, but that really does make you wish you were not there when people move away!

This seems just an opportunity to offload - unless anybody has a suggestion?  All would be gratefully received!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Two years and counting

It's been nearly a year since I last wrote here, which is a shame given the shear amount of development that has gone in Henry's life.  I have finally succumbed to marital pressure to put finger to keyboard again and update the blog.

Henry turned two last week.  The notion of a child turning two brings with it fears of tantrums, which we have avoided, in the main, so far.  He is definitely attempting to exert a personality, and we can see frustration from wanting to communicate more than he feels able but mostly, we have all survived.

He is a running, stomping, jumping cheekly little boy now - a devilish grin appears to get him out of most tricky situations.  What has been noticeable in the last few months, and again I would say it is a result of his cognitive development moving at pace, is the development of fears.  He is having a major water wobble and clings to us if he is in out of his depth - but absolutely loves the water if it is shallow enough.  He has also been a little fearful of our tortoises, but as he gets used to them again (they only recently came out of hibernation) this seems to be easing.

What is hardest is knowing how to deal with it.  Do we soldier on, exposing him to these risks and hoping that desensitises him?  Or should we be child led, letting him dictate the pace but running the risk of ingraining these anxieties?  As in most things I imagine the answer is somewhere in the middle but these are the challenges that make parenting such an exhausting, difficult and frustrating calling.  However, the smiles, the giggles and the reminder that the world is a fascinating and wonderful place continues to make it all worthwhile.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Dear diary

Dear Diary,

What a busy day I've had!  Would you like to hear more about it?  Well, you haven't got a choice.

6:50am. I woke up.  The mummy one wasn't there. Nor was the daddy one. So I shouted and the mummy one soon came.  She picked me up like I asked and gave me a cuddle.  I like cuddles, provided they don't last too long.  Then she gave me some water and put me back to bed.  I was lost for words. I just lay there for a good ten minutes wondering if it was some elaborate joke - mummy one and daddy one do love to play peek-a-boo, and they're very good at it.  But it got to a point that nobody was jumping out and nobody had fed me.  So I shouted again.  Mummy one came back straight away.

7:30.  Shreddies for breakfast today.  I love Shreddies.  I played a great joke on daddy one yesterday and dropped my bowl on the floor!  Mummy one was too quick today, so I just ended up eating lots.  I love Shreddies.

8am. Shreddies finished and it was time for my hot towel treatment.  I'm happy with how the training of mummy one and daddy one is coming on.  They both know now that I like a hot damp towel after meals so that I can suck some of the water out to wash down my meal.  Occasionally they insist on rubbing my face with it, but a good sharp scream normally puts a stop to that.

8:30.  The daddy one comes downstairs and he has warm mess for dinner.  I let him know I want some by pointing, but don't really like it so throw it on the floor.  Maybe I'll eat it later.  Instead I let the daddy one know that I have finished and indicate that it is time for him to lift me to the floor so I can get on with the highly important business of seeing how far I can throw some balls, and loading the tumble dryer with as much as I can fit in.  When that's done I like to round my morning off by posting some of the mummy and daddy ones' things out of the cat flap.  It's good to keep reminding them who is in charge.

9:15. We arrive for my swimming lesson.  I love these normally.  Today the daddy one was in with me.  He carried me around the pool, occasionally letting me show off my own swimming acumen, but it is important that he learns how to safely pull me through the water so I largely just leave him to get on with it.  The water is lovely and warm and it helps me to unwind.

10am. Out of the water and it is time for the mummy one to do my hair and dress me for my day.  Once she has finished I get the daddy one to take me down to shout at the chickens.  I do love nature, but arrogant birds really wind me up so I put them in their place whenever I have the opportunity.  That done and it's off for a trip with the grandma one.  The grandma one can be relied upon for a biscuit and a good game.

11am.  I have been in and out of the car a couple of times and frankly it's beginning to irritate me.  Luckily, the mummy one had brought some of my favourite foods so I decide not to shout too loudly at her.  We have a look at a lot of people's car boots but the mummy and daddy ones were a bit disappointed and were unable to find me a suitable offering so came home empty handed.  I was going to let them know how disappointing I found this, but the daddy one pulled a surprise out of the bag later.

12pm.  It has been a busy morning, so the mummy one gives me a cup of my favourite drink and carries me to my bed for a nap.

2pm. Again, I wake up and nobody is here instantly.  A quick shout and the mummy one soon comes running.  Lunchtime I say!  The daddy one had left some of his warm breakfast mess, so I decide to finish that off.  I live by the mantra if you snooze, you lose!  He wasn't about at this point, but I soon found out where he had gone.

2:45pm.  The daddy one has a big stupid grin on his face, which normally bodes well for me.  And he delivers!  He's been out and got me a slide!  I spend five minutes inspecting it, to make sure it is of a sufficiently high standard then demand to be placed at the top.  So much fun!  I make the daddy one put me at the top another ten or so times until I begin to grow a bit bored and remind them both it is time to take me to nanny's.  We set off.  I get easily bored on journeys and need to keep reminding the mummy one to keep passing me snacks.  Why she doesn't just leave me the snacks with me, I don't know.  Honestly, you drop one container of blueberries and they treat you like a moron.

4pm.  We arrive at nanny's - uncle 3 is there so I make him play with the ball with me.  He's getting better, but his training is at an early stage still.  He will learn soon enough.  Uncle 1 comes in as well, so I make him join in with us.  Then those arrogant bloody cats come in.  Doesn't matter how much I shout at them, they still wander around like they own the place.  Lucky for them the mummy and daddy ones stop me from getting them, I'd knock their bloody patronising whiskers off if I could.  It's like they don't realise how important I am.  Nanny comes in with uncle 2 which takes my mind off the cats.  Nanny is very well trained and plays very well with a ball.

6pm.  The daddy one finally gives me some dinner.  This is late, I am going to have to write a comment in his personnel file.  To punish them, and check they have kept up with the training I choke myself on some pappadum.  The mummy one responds quickly - she has earned a gold star.  The daddy one just sits there looking frightened.  Pillock.  If he doesn't buck his ideas up I may need to look for a new daddy one.

7pm.  Time to go home.  I am getting tired so tell the daddy one to warm the car up.  Everybody insists on giving me a kiss, it can get tiresome but when in a position of power you do have a certain responsibility to the servants.  The daddy one redeems himself somewhat with some excellent fetching of the ball.  However, I do decide to give him a final warning by leaving him a particularly ripe present in my underwear to clean up.  Once he has finished he is dismissed with a wave and then one last drink before the mummy one carries me to my bed.  The end of a good day, but I don't know what those two would do if they didn't have me to tell them what to do.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

One small step for Henry

Henry is now upwardly mobile!  And my word the transition from a few faltering steps to crossing the room to fall into the arms of a parent happens quickly.  It has amazed me how quickly this skill gathers momentum.  And with it, it is time for another attack of parental paranoia:

Pack away the ornaments! (we haven't)
Rubberise sharp corners! (errr...haven't done that either)
Get everything off the floor! (ummm...nope)
Protect the eyeline!  (oh dear, this is beginning to get embarrassing)

Friends have warned us that walking changes things.  But friends also warned us that crawling changed things.  And I am sure talking will change things.  As with all of parenting, in my opinion, the most important thing you can do is listen and then apply what makes sense to you.  All people have ideas about how things should be done, and some of those ideas are great.  However, you know you and your child better than they do, so not all the ideas will work.  The trick is to sieve out the ones that will and use them.  The joys of each stage of development have always outweighed the challenges.  I am sure the same will be true of walking.  Already one of my deepest pleasures in life is his hand reaching for a finger to clasp as he explores his world.

I will be honest, we have always had a fairly laissez-faire attitude to parenting Henry.  He has been allowed a fair amount of independent exploration which has brought him into contact with a fair amount of non-toys.  In fact, until recently, he had very few toys and was generally entertained by a box of cardboard tubes, empty bottles and the odd pan and utensil.  What has become really noticeable for me is the joy he experiences in the simple things of life.  There is nothing like a baby (do I need to stop calling him a baby now?  Is he officially a toddler?  I appear to have lost that chapter from my baby manual) to remind you of what is important.  Happiness is a bird in the sky, a ball, a game of chase between mummy and daddy, a bath, bubbles, drinking from a cup, holding a hand, singing a song and walking around the garden.

It is not doing the dishes, putting away clothes, tidying up.  I very often get caught up in things that I perceive as needing to be done and forget that they will wait but my baby boy is disappearing while I am not looking.  With all things there is a balance to be struck, but Emily and Henry are helping to pull me back from missing out on him.

Now I need some rest as in the morning there will be birds to scream at and pots to bang.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

My war story

Some research has been recently published exploring the experience of fathers present at traumatic births.  Broadly, it found that while things are undoubtedly tough for mothers, it's not all plain sailing for fathers either.

Unsurprisingly, some areas of the popular media have sensationalised the issue, while The Independent and The Guardian published excellent opinion pieces.  I was approached by the Mumsnet blogger network to offer my views, so allow me to start by telling you about my experience.

Henry's birth was easier than some, harder than others, in the simple terms of physical complications.  It was a natural delivery with the help of an episiotomy and forceps.  No coneheaded ventouse delivery, no emergency Caeserian, no blood transfusions; a conscious mother, a healthy baby, a normal delivery team.  So far, so good.

This is where I find Ally Fogg's Guardian piece overly simplistic.  I did find the birth of Henry to be one of the more traumatic experiences of my life.  I haven't been haunted by flashbacks and I'm not after sympathy.  But there is something very harrowing about helplessly being beside your partner who is going through considerable pain, while a medical team slice, stretch, inject and, generally, violate an area that is particularly dear to your heart.  The one focus of all of this attention is to deliver your child, a miracle that has been made possible by the magical work of the mother's body, and a tiny bit of goo you provided nine months ago.  You are, in effect, helpless at a time when you want to protect your family the most and the only thing you can do is support, in whatever way is required.  For me, this was hours of rubbing a back, followed by hand-holding and, finally, inspecting the needlework of the obstetrician.  That, if I am honest, is an image I try not to revisit.

So why tell you all this?  As I said, I do not want sympathy - my emotional experience pales into insignificance next to my wife's physical pain, that lasted far longer than those hours of labour and delivery.  I have asked in the safety of my own family whether or not the experience is emotionally more traumatic for men, whilst physically more traumatic for women.  I was not derided or divorced, so perhaps there is something in that.  Whatver, the case may be  I am writing about this because, and at this point I find myself in favour of Ally's article, it is important that fathers are there for many reasons.

Firstly, your child is coming into the world.  No feeling can replace it.  I was the first person to see that Henry was a boy (thank goodness, it's a rubbish name for a girl).  I wept for the pain my wife was in, but also for the magic of seeing and meeting my son for the first time.

Secondly, I had to be my wife's rock during this time.  Until you have seen what women must go through you cannot possibly begin to understand childbirth - much like you have no idea what parenthood is like until you become one.  She needed me there, despite any hardship that I may have faced as a result of being there I would never change it.  I cannot imagine her having to go through that without me, even if all I did was rub and ensure the gas-and-air remained firmly clamped to her mouth.  Heaven help you if the tube falls off the mouthpiece.

Thirdly, you will respect and appreciate your partner in ways you did not realise were possible.  She is terrified of anything creepy or crawly, squeamish around meat, frightened of birds, does not like to be last up the stairs in the dark, and will complain incessantly if she has a bruise.  But never will I feel comfortable calling her a wuss again.

And, finally, because I agree with Mike Higgins in The Independent. There is still an expectation that fathers do not get affected by situations like this.  We do.  It is emotionally tough and it is important that this is recognised.  I have not met another father who thinks differently, but nor have I met one who was not looked after by the delivery team.  By talking about it we can be better prepared because I am sure that everybody wants to do whatever it is that is required of them to help their child enter the world.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Ten months on

Henry is now over ten months old - the big one is on the horizon.

I have spoken in the past of parental paranoia and I have recently discovered a new manifestation of it.  Henry has been going through a rough patch of sleeping.  Personally, I never knew I could do my job on so little rest.  We have put this period down to teething (I have spoken in the past of my thoughts with regards to these stone circles of misery).  Henry is not a lad that appears to teethe well and we feel for him.

The paranoia has come as a result of our desire to make things better for him.  We have considered a number of factors beyond the teething that might be to blame for the poor nights and attempted to change or affect as many of them as possible.  For example, he will frequently wake or cry in the middle of the night, then let rip with some powerful gaseous excretions.  So we have considered:

  1. a wheat allergy
  2. eating too late
  3. eating too early
  4. eating too much
  5. yoghurt is to blame
  6. yoghurt makes things better
  7. drinking bath water
  8. not moving around enough after dinner
  9. being fed too quickly
We have come to the realisation that none of these are likely - it is simply a by-product of the teeth-growing process.  And, o' my, there are some by-products.  Flushed, temperature, off his food, wind, crabbiness, discomfort, buckets of saliva, runny bottom, constipation...the list is potentially endless.

But this is the difficulty with babies.  They cannot communicate with you, and even experienced trained paediatricians make little more than well-informed guesses that appear to be frequently based on parental intuition.  I know there is far more to it than that (I am certainly not denigrating them in any way - I hold the medical profession in a very high regard) but to speak plainly, at Henry's age they just do not know.  So many of that list could be standard growing pains.  But we are now putting it down to teething.

What we have learnt is that there are simply some things that you cannot change, avoid or do for your baby.  We cannot get these teeth out any quicker than he is prepared to grow them.  We cannot stop him feeling the side effects (although we are considering buying shares in Calpol with the amount that we attempt to ameliorate it for him with this wonder-fluid).  We cannot predict what the next side effect may be.  We can only do what we can with the available information and make him as comfortable as possible, or distract when needed.  It is a distressing time for him, and is equally distressing for us because we cannot stop it.  But what we are now trying hard to do is accept the reality rather than chasing phantoms because it is out of our control and we want it to be something we can control.