Thursday, October 27, 2011

On the outside looking in ...

... or, the things I didn't say on Sunrise this morning....

“Oh, so you’re looking after the boys three days a week” was a comment I heard a fair bit 9 months ago when Sherrie and I first swapped roles.

No, I’m looking after the boys just as much as my partner did – a bit more in fact. Two days a week they’re at pre-school/childcare, which is when Sherrie used to grocery shop, clean the house and work part-time to earn some extra income. Now I do all those things. Plus a bit more, as Sherrie works longer hours in her full-time job than I did.

No-one ever suggested my partner was 'only' looking after the boys three days a week, but initially some were quite prepared to say that to me. 

I have to say that when a man takes on the role of primary carer for pre-school aged children, it’s almost like a kind of reverse sexism greets him just about everywhere he goes.

Actually, I think it’s more about being an outsider than any kind of sexism. Like a person from another culture feeling as though they don’t quite fit, because of language or religious differences with the people they are surrounded by. Or an older person feeling they quite don’t fit in an office full of twentysomethings who are out for drinks after work most nights when you just want to go home to your partner and kids, or to sleep!

Every outsider feels that way for a reason – be it age, language, culture, appearance, education. In the case of parenting, it’s sex.

Caring for children before they go to school is still a role overwhelmingly dominated by women. So when a man shows up in all the usual places that mums usually interact with other mums, it’s not the norm. Naturally, people react in different ways. 

Most professionals are delighted to see a man spending more time with their kids. I’ve had wonderful welcomes from teachers of childcare students, playgroup coordinators, even swimming instructors and doctors. 

But other mums are another matter. Most will smile, often sympathetically, and a few will say hi. But a conversation is a breakthrough, and a regular conversation each week seems out of the question.

There is one playgroup where I feel most welcome and part of the group. I guess that’s because we have come together with a mutual interest, and part of the purpose is to share experiences with each other as well as the coordinators. I feel much more welcome there, not like Exhibit A from Mars. 

But generally speaking in most other social situations, being male in the female dominated world of caring for young children is often a lonely and isolated existence where more often than not you will be tolerated rather than included. I often get the feeling that it really would be a lot simpler for everyone if I were a woman like everyone else.

Sometimes I sense that certain assumptions are being made which question either my commitment (are you just here for the morning?), my ability as a parent (can’t you control your toddler when he’s being aggressive?), or whether I'm undertaking the full range of responsibilities (are you cooking and cleaning and washing and generally running the household, or just showing up here?).

If there’s some kind of disagreement or incident involving my boys and others (fighting over a toy, pushing and shoving), mums I don't know well will generally remove their child from the scene, as if I’m not doing my part to resolve the situation. Worse still is the look which sends the thinly disguised message: ‘See, this is what happens when a bloke is left in charge of the kids’.

These things happened more 9 months ago at the start, than now. As people get to know you, they usually find answers to these questions that they like, and they become more welcoming. But not if conversations are never had, and men remain isolated. 

Women are generally more chatty than men, but usually they’re chatty with other women. I’m not a naturally chatty person but I have been making an effort to talk to more people than I usually would, as I know that as the outsider I’m the one who needs to make the extra effort. Same as if I’m the only Presbyterian in Utah. Or the only old bloke in a young office. That’s how I know a conversation one week doesn’t mean a chat the following week. I strike up a conversation, then only get a smile the next week and not even eye contact the week after.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying the job and hope that hubby is appreciating all that you have had to do over the last few years” is another interesting comment that my partner receives about our role switch. I didn’t need to quit my full-time job and take on the role of primary carer to know and appreciate all that my partner has done over the past four and a half years, but that’s how some interpret my role change. That it’s the only way I’ll understand what my partner has been through. That my partner is kind of ‘owed’ her break from being primary carer and that any particular challenges I face will be just ‘quid pro quo’ for all those presumably tougher challenges my partner has already endured. 

This “Hope hubby appreciates…” type of comment makes me feel that my performance in being judged in a way that I certainly never judged my partner. I knew it was tough, and always expressed my appreciation and tried to help as much as I could. Now with our roles reversed, these types of comments make me feel that no matter how well or badly I do looking after the kids, it will always be a lesser performance than my partner’s, as she’s already done the hard yards.

And it’s not the kind of job where you get marks for performance. Just being there day in day out is challenge enough. I knew before it was a tough job, and we were in it together. I know now in a different kind of way that it is a tough job, and I still hope that we’re in it together. 

That’s because I was already a very involved dad who did at least my share of household duties, and changed jobs several times to ensure I didn’t have to frequently travel overnight or overseas for work and could be home early from work to help Sherrie care for our boys. I know blokes who've missed more than six months of their kids’ pre-school years through frequent interstate and overseas travel. I read about others who’ve missed even more. I know it must be tough for them. But “hope hubby appreciates…” type of comments cut pretty deep if you’re someone who has already adjusted your work and social priorities and your outlook on life to maximise time with your partner and kids.

So if you’re a bloke planning to be the primary carer of your pre-school aged children, be prepared for the occasional insensitive comment and a generally cool response to your presence from many mums. 

Like every outsider, you’ve got to work really hard to be accepted. And even then you still feel you’ll never really be part of the in-crowd. That role is reserved for mums, and perhaps rightly so. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not quite what I imagined.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Of mud and goop


We manage to negotiate Play Session this week without The Big Fella cutting off this toe with a shovel in the mud pit. He's the only child who refuses to wear the safety boots provided for mud play.

“I don’t want boots,” he declares, stepping out of the boots I have just struggled to put on him. To reinforce his point, he slams the shovel into the ground, narrowly missing his toes and making a strong pro-boot case.

Luckily the student who is running the mud pit is prepared to turn a blind eye to this OH&S breach.

I decide to distract him by suggesting we instead play at the nearby water table, where his bare feet will be a bonus. It works, and off we march to get his clothes wet and keep his toes intact.


Next stop is the goop table. Goop is terrific stuff, especially if someone else makes it for you and cleans up afterwards. 

Goop is slime made from cornflour, water and food colouring (green of course!). As you sink your hands in, it almost feels firm enough to pick up - until you try and it turns to liquid and runs through your fingers. A bit like life, really.

Goop is a big hit with both boys. The Big Fella wins the in-house competition for the person who can get the most goop on his clothes. 

His clothes are so crusty he can barely move. Goop is crusting on top of mud from the mud pit. The mud is coated with sand from the sandpit.

Speaking as the person who washes our clothes and who only yesterday cleaned our car inside and out, this is not terrific news.

But the boys had fun, which is the main thing.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Kids are eating ... barbequed sausages

The kids like sausages. I like cooking sausages on the barbeque while drinking a beer. It's a win-win situation.

It also makes a weekday feel like a weekend, until I turn around to chat to Sherrie and she's not there. Sigh.

Eating sausages is also a handy way of getting more nitrites into the kids diet. Oh, I’m supposed to be limiting nitrites? 

Of course! That’s why we consume sausages in moderation and in tandem with vegetables high in antioxidants. Mainly carrots and peas, which are the only vegetables the boys will eat a present. 

At least, I hope carrots and peas are high in antioxidants. I'm not going to look it up, as I'm sure someone will.

I never really understood why little kids didn’t like steak, until I saw them trying to chew on a t-bone. 

That’s why we invented sausages – a meat-based product that kids can chew and their dads can barbeque while drinking beer.

Kids are reading ... Wake Up Bear

A hibernating bear has trouble waking up, so a whole bunch of other wild animals try to help. Wake Up Bear is by Lynley Dodd.

She's better known for her Hairy Maclary series about a small dog’s adventures in a small New Zealand town. 

If you haven’t read Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, do so immediately. It’s good for reading to littlies, with clear pictures and rhymes they love.

Hairy Maclary and Hercules Morse (dogs) and Scarface Claw and Slinki Malinki (cats) are now household names in our household.

I'm reading ... Last Night in Twisted River

First I had to finish Freedom. Thankfully the last 100 pages are more compelling than the previous 400 or so. There are definitely echoes of John Irving in Freedom's complex web of relationships and intersecting lives, only the characters and their situations are not as moving and Jonathan Franzen is nowhere near as funny (although he tries to be).

For a sprawling family epic that is truly moving and laugh out loud funny and outrageous in places, you’re better off reading John Irving’s latest, Last Night in Twisted River.

It's a truly remarkable and poignant novel about fathers and sons, and male friendships. It deals with tough topics, like a father’s fear of losing his son. It's laced with compassion and humour, and tragedy.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gaily spinning the trolley in circles to Kenny Rogers

I find I shop better when angry. There's no messing around. 

So after dropping off my screaming not-quite-three-year-old at child care this morning, I storm off to do the grocery shopping.

The beauty of shopping mad is that you make no unnecessary product comparisons, weighing up the unit price versus brand reputation. 

There's no aimless wandering down needless aisles. No gaily spinning the trolley in circles to 'The Gambler' by Kenny Rogers. 
Just hardcore shopping. 

Pensioners look alarmed as I approach. Shelf stackers eye me suspiciously. 

Mums with toddlers on leashes pull them nearer, lest I run over them. (TIP: Never put your child on a leash. Just think about it.)

Baby carriers

Just as I was calming down a little, my trolley rattling with this week’s bargain of 10 little tins of tuna in olive oil for $10, who should I almost bump into at the end of an aisle? A dad bounding around the supermarket with a newborn happily bobbing about on his chest in one of those baby carriers. 

This annoys me on a number of levels. Most superficially, those baby carriers smack of showing off. ‘Look at my new baby. And look at me. I’m a modern dad bonding with my child.’ Plus he wasn’t pushing a trolley. 'I’m just popping out for a couple of items, honey!' And to put on a show.

On a practical level, chest mounted baby carriers are not suited for the long haul. I’d be surprised if this dad was still bouncing on the balls of his feet in half an hour's time. More likely holding his aching back as he hobbles towards the doctor's surgery. 

Nor are these carriers any good if you have a big baby. Anything over 10 pounds on the old scale and after two trips to the shops, he’ll have that baby carrier posted for sale online quicker than he can say 'skinny decaf soy latte please'.

I’m probably being a bit harsh on the poor sod. In a few months’ time he’ll be shattered from no sleep. 

And in a few years’ time, he’ll be shattered from three years of no sleep on top of dealing with toddler tantrums, toilet training and the latest medical advice that anything more than two standard drinks a day is dangerous to your health. 

Being woken up at 4.30am every day by your screaming not-quite-three-year-old is dangerous to your health, but I don’t see any public health campaigns about that.

As you can see, I was already pissed off at The Big Fella for waking at 4.30am for the 7th consecutive day. This morning I tried patting him for a while, lying slumped at the foot of his bed, in the forlorn hope he might fall back asleep.

After much twisting and turning, several monologues about what scared him (“spiders, bats, tomatoes”) and questions about “what are we doing tomorrow?” (he means today), by 5am I decided we may as well get up and face the day. 

At least standing up I can make coffee and leave a message on my chiropractor's answering machine for an emergency appointment.

As we attempt to leave the house for child care, he cries about putting on sunscreen (yeah, old news). He cries about getting in the car. He cries about putting on his seatbelt. He cries about being in the car. He cries about getting out of the car. And he cries about going inside the childcare centre. 

By the time he was crying about me leaving, well I just had to leave and not look back. Hence the angry shopping trip. 

And hence me taking the piss out of the bloke with the newborn baby carrier. It really is a wonderful time, buddy. Enjoy it while you can.

TIP: Don’t buy a new baby carrier. Just borrow a friend’s, as it will be barely used. In fact, avoid buying new pretty much everything your toddler needs, except maybe food. They really don’t know the difference. Invest the savings in their university fund, or buy a new widescreen TV.

I’m loving…

The Complicated One marching around the house singing the national anthem. He and The Big Fella learnt the words at childcare. He usually asks Sherrie and I to join in, so the four of us march around the house singing “Australians all let us rejoice…” Heaven knows what the neighbours think.

Not so loving….

Thinking less-than-flattering thoughts about the new dad with the baby carrier. I must be more tolerant. Poor sod.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A mystical world of soy mochas and clean balls

Adjourning to the nearest pub for a cold beverage after a hard day’s work - it used to be there was nothing better. Now I know the truth: there’s nothing quite like a big air conditioned indoor play centre that serves decent coffee and plays decent music and has clean balls. We adjourned to this mystical place on Tuesday afternoon, as an antidote to this week’s swimming dramas.

Swimming dramas

We arrive at our local aquatic leisure centre, formerly known as a pool, about five minutes early. Quite an achievement for a 9am lesson, as it involves leaving home at the tail end of peak hour traffic, and timing our run to arrive neither late nor too early. 

The Complicated One can’t wait and wants to jump in the water. I remember the warning that came with our lessons: do not let your child swim before his or her class, as they will be too tired. 

I figure a five minute dip in the same pool as the lessons is not going to overly tire him out, and will lead to a quicker start to the lesson as the boys will already be in the water. How wrong can you be?

The Complicated One is fine, of course, as per our new form guide where black is white. 

The Big Fella is a different matter. He's in the water, but do you think that’s going to make him any more inclined to take part in a swimming lesson?

I strip off and wade in after him. Employing all my best positive parenting and distraction techniques, I’m still left with a crying not-quite-three-year-old. 

As we glide in beside the instructor, I ask “Any ideas?” “Well you could start by not letting him swim before the lesson” is the tart response. 

I bite my tongue and mutter “We’ve only been in the water for less than five minutes”. Then I fire up a bit, adding “We don’t normally do it anyway, so let’s not think for a minute that not swimming before the lesson is the solution to the problem we’ve been having for the past few weeks”. 

An experienced instructor knows an agitated parent when she sees one, so she smiles and moves on. I sit down, dripping, to watch. Remarkably, The Big Fella comes good and pretty much does the whole lesson with no tears.

Clean balls

Much relieved after swimming, I make a semi-impromptu decision to visit a new indoor play centre. The Big Fella will hopefully sleep in the car on the way, so we’ll both get a much-needed rest. Shame I have to keep my eyes open while driving. 

When we arrive it’s a great relief to discover that this new play centre is perfect. Good coffee. Good music. Great variety of climbing frames and slippery dips. A jumping castle and ball pit (with a sign boasting about how clean their balls are).

There’s a separate area for trikes and cars, two little cubbyhouses and couches and magazines for parents. There’s even a free carousel teapot ride.

My only mistake is forgetting my book. But we’re outside our residential area, so the free weekly newspapers have not one but two homebuyer guides full of houses I can fantasise over.

I sip a soy mocha, admire the new homes and dream of a perfect life with a lap pool, media room with projector TV, snooker table and table tennis table.

And clean balls.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reading aloud to kids

It's great to be reminded just how important reading aloud is to your child's development.

Listen to Mem Fox talk about how to make the most of the time you invest in reading books with your kids.

Read her top 10 tips for reading aloud to children.

Mem Fox is probably Australia's best-known and most successful author of children's book. Her first book, Possum Magic, is Australia's best-selling children's book. And Where's the Green Sheep? was a nightly favourite for The Complicated One and The Big Fella at around 3 years old. So she must be a pretty good writer!

Ten minutes each night is all it takes. It's also an important part of the pre-bed routine.

As Giggle and Hoot say in 5 Steps to Bedtime ... "Step 3- time for a story or a sleepy-time song".

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

‘It’s like a little bath, see?’

The Big Fella is peering between his legs at this little fella as he says this.

Last week he was fascinated by the power of his wee to make bubbles in the toilet bowl. Quite sensibly, he likened it to a bubble bath.

This week he sounds like he wants to jump in. “It’s like a little bath, see?” he says as he points his willie further down, so the stream of wee goes straight into the bowl and creates even more bubbles.

He is now very methodical in the bathroom...
Wee or wee/poo
Wipe bottom and/or willie
Climb down using little stool
Shut toilet lid
Climb up on lid and flush toilet
Open lid to check that everything is OK
Nod appreciatively that it is
Lift up right foot so I can slip on undies. Lift up left foot
Ditto for shorts
Stand on slightly higher stool to wash hands at basin
I turn tap on. He rubs hands together for one millisecond
Step backwards without looking. Give dad heart palpitations
Hold up hands to be dried for two milliseconds
Run out of bathroom on urgent mission.

He hasn’t had an accident in his pants for a fortnight. His daily logbook at childcare has stated ‘toilet trained’ for the past month. 

This is cause for celebration. I feel a dinner of sausages and beer coming on!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Brendan Gleeson is terrific in The Guard

The Guard is a terrific movie – echoes of Ken Bruen crime on Ireland’s west coast with a Quentin Tarantino-like soundtrack and homage direction.

Brendan Gleeson is perfectly cast as an irascible, maverick small town cop who operates at the edge of the law but at the heart of humanity.

Violent but involving, it's terribly sad and laugh out loud funny. If you miss it at the cinema, don’t miss it on dvd (or even one of those fancy blue whale thingies).