Robert Heaton

Software Engineer /
One-track lover / Down a two-way lane

We're responsible for the Christmas magic now

15 Mar 2022

Previously on parenting: (part 1) (part 2) (part 3) (part 4) (part 5) (part 6) (part 7) (part 8) (part 9) (part 10) (part 11) (part 12)

Going For A Baby Latte With Daddy

I woke up in December feeling rancid and stayed in bed for hours. Eventually Gaby came to check on me. She said “I can see that you’re ill, you don’t have to pretend to shiver.” But I wasn’t pretending, and my temperature climbed to 102. On day five I called the healthcare system and they said that someone would get back to me in a few hours. By evening no one had called and I was scared that my organs were taking serious damage so I went to the hospital.

My blood tests showed an infection, but the doctors couldn’t work out what was infected. I sat in a waiting room with a woman in her mid-twenties. I’m not much of a public talker but we were the only two people there and I needed a distraction so I said hi. She was guarded at first. I don’t have a wedding ring, and maybe she didn’t like being chatted up by ailing men while she waited to be x-rayed. But then I mentioned my wife and son and she lit up. She had a one-year old who she hadn’t planned on but loved dearly. I can’t remember any details because I was concentrating on staying upright but it was nice to connect.

She left with a box of pills and a good prognosis. I was still disintegrating and pulled out a book about being a dad that I had bought at the library for 50p. It wasn’t very good but the language was simple and the themes were simpler. The author remembered when his youngest turned seventeen and he realised that his time as an on-duty father was coming to an end. That pinched something in me. I’m only just getting used to being important. I decided to pause my plans for getting Oscar to go to sleep on his own. We still read our bedtime books every evening and lie down next to each other. After a few minutes Oscar whispers “daddy can you snuggle me?” and now I roll over and lay an arm over him. There’s only so many more nights we’ll be able to do this and he can learn to soothe himself tomorrow. He sings and wriggles and eventually falls asleep. Once he’s out I sometimes scroll through Twitter while I wait for him to be far enough gone for me to leave. Twitter never makes me happy so I try to close my eyes and think about all the things I did that day instead.

While I was ill I barely saw Oscar for a week. I missed him and watched old videos on my phone and wondered how he was changing. I assumed that he missed me too. But after I got back from the hospital and could go downstairs again he hit me and screamed “no daddy, leave, go back to bed!” A few days later he had a friend round and he started a chant: “Daddy is sick. Go away daddy. Daddy is sick. Go away daddy.”

I think that he was punishing me for being away for so long. He doesn’t understand his feelings about me being gone, or at least how to bottle them up. But he does love me, most likely. A week after my recovery I went to see a friend. “Where’s daddy?” asked Oscar. “He’s with his friend,” said Gaby. Oscar opened the shoe cupboard and pulled out his boots. “OK, we go find daddy and his friend!” Another morning he wouldn’t let me into the kitchen for breakfast and shouted “go away daddy! Go upstairs and work!” Later Gaby asked him “how are you feeling Oscar?” He said “I feel happy because I love my daddy.”

To patch things up with Oscar I’ve started taking him to a coffee shop for a “baby latte” first thing on Saturday mornings. This is a transparent cry for connection, but he doesn’t know that yet and still gets excited. When we ask him on a Friday what he’s doing tomorrow he shouts the event’s full title, “Going For A Baby Latte With Daddy!”

Going For A Baby Latte With Daddy is about the journey. It takes an hour to walk the mile to the coffee shop. We read the street signs and he remembers the route. We count the trees and kick the leaves and look both ways when we cross the road. We pass a house that has a family of pigeons living on the roof. At first I thought they were owls so I asked Oscar if he could hear the owls. Now he points at the pigeons and shouts “look Daddy, the owls.”

When we get to the coffee shop Oscar tries to order us “a Baby Latte and an Americano.” The barista can’t really hear him but if it’s someone we’ve seen before then they sometimes remember what we like. We go outside and read some books. It takes Oscar 5 minutes to drink his steamed milk and then another 10 before he loses interest in bonding with me and wants to go home.


Hobbies

We’ve found an app that teaches toddlers piano and musicality. Each note has a special hand sign and a name from The Sound of Music. Oscar can play a concert of fifteen songs on the piano if he wants to, including Ode To Joy and Jingle Bells. Yesterday on the way to A Baby Latte With Daddy he asked if we could sit on the floor and sing an F major scale and he remembered the B flat. I’m not sure if he’s remarkable or if the app is. I think probably both. I don’t know how to accept praise on his behalf when he shows off for guests. “Well he enjoys it and we spend a lot of time on it” is the best I’ve managed.

He gets frustrated when he can’t do something, or when he thinks he can’t. A few weeks ago Gaby was reading a book in the front room while Oscar amused himself. He wandered over to the piano and played “Frere Jaques” for the first time. As he played he shouted “I CAN’T DO IT. I CAN’T LEARN IT. I DON’T KNOW IT.” When he finished he smashed the keys and glared at Gaby. He hadn’t missed a note and no one had asked him to do anything.

I had assumed that children were born resilient and that fear of failure was a learned behaviour. But I think it’s unlikely that this self-shouting comes from us. We never push him, and I think that we’re faultlessly kind and supportive regardless of which notes he plays. He’s always pestering us to play piano and sing and talk about F major. Sometimes he gets frustrated when he’s having trouble learning a new tune but doesn’t yet want to give up. We intervene and teach his monkey instead. Oscar pretends to ignore us but a few minutes later plays the song himself.

Still, these outbursts do give us pause for thought about whether we should be doing anything different. Oscar gets bashful when I ask him to play Jingle Bells for visitors, which I do too often. From now on I’m going to suggest it once per visit and then drop it. I’m also going to change the way I ask. At the moment I say “Oscar, can you play Jingle Bells for Uncle Moe?” and he often says “no I can’t,” which I think he thinks means “I would rather not.” I’m going to start asking him “would you like to play Jingle Bells?” instead so he can reply “no I don’t want to” directly. I don’t know how much this wording matters but it must matter a bit and these tweaks give me a delusion of agency. I’ve stopped saying “I can’t find my keys, I’m such a moron,” just in case. He copies our speech a lot already. He issues compulsory toddler decrees in measured language: “I THINK WE SHOULD PROBABLY GO AND HAVE BREAKFAST RIGHT NOW.” “I’M PRETTY SURE I CAN KNOCK THIS TOWER DOWN.”

Toddlers can do more than you think, or at least more than I think. We went to a BMX park and it was incredible. Children younger than Oscar cruised round the track on their balance bikes, on their own, up 45-degree-banked turns and down deep ramps. After a few hours of practice Oscar could do this too. He fell over once but Gaby was bracing him and she got hurt more than he did. Oscar’s lip trembled but he just wanted to be picked up and thrown down the next ridge. It was the most exhilarating thing we’ve done as parents. I wanted to put a GoPro on Oscar’s head but then you wouldn’t be able to see that the pilot was a 2 year-old. As we walked home I tried to tell Oscar how proud I was of him. He’s not a particularly skilled or unskilled balance-biker so I guess that any toddler could have done what he did, but I was happy that he had a go and got up when he fell down. I always assumed that my parents were lying when they said that kind of thing.

We’ve been playing more chess and have been learning how to set up the pieces. Oscar usually gets it half-right. He uses the chess set as a vehicle for dorky jokes. We start by lining up the pawns, and sometimes he assembles them on the fourth or fifth rank while giggling wildly. “I’m putting the pawns on a silly row!” Yes that’s very funny son, but could you please put them in front of the rooks and show off properly for the camera?


Sophie is my best friend

Regular readers will recall that a wonderful nanny called Francesca has been looking after Oscar and his best friend Sophie for two days a week. Francesca has gone back to her home country for a few months, and while she’s away we’re splitting her days with Sophie’s parents. We met Sophie and her parents a year ago at a parent meetup that Gaby organised in the depths of lockdown when we felt sad and cold and alone, and we’ve since become great friends.

Sophie likes me, so when she arrives at our house I take off her boots and get a firm cuddle. At first Oscar didn’t like it when Sophie hugged me or Gaby. Now he’s learning to share us, but he still often starts the day by announcing “I’m not going to share any of my toys.” When Sophie tries to pick up a train or read a book he barrels across the room to smack it out of her hand. Some days I don’t want to leave them alone in case he pushes her over.

But Oscar also likes Sophie and loves having her around. He struggles with the tension between love and animosity for the same person. Sometimes he gets really angry and malfunctions and collapses in a heap on the floor. Despite this, one evening he announced to me “I’m a duck, you’re a goose, Sophie is my best friend.” Another day we went to the BMX track and when we got there Oscar said “I feel sad. Because Sophie isn’t here.” When the red rage lifts Oscar is good at asking Sophie if she would consent to a hug. Sophie is good at saying no, and Oscar is good at respecting her wishes. “Oh OK! Daddy, Sophie said no!”

Sometimes they do play beautifully together, and I hope that the difficult bits aren’t too distressing for Sophie. For now I think it’s all normal toddler behaviour, but it’s still hard to watch. I think Oscar is a beautiful person, but when he gets vicious I lose some respect for him for a few hours, which can’t be a helpful way to feel about your two year-old. Gaby says she feels the same, which surprised me.

I’ve had a lot of practice mediating arguments between Oscar and Sophie, but I don’t know how to intervene with other children. I’m not sure what lessons I’m trying to teach my own toddler. It seems reckless to try to teach them to someone else’s. I’m also not sure how much responsibility I should take on for the children of new parent friends. We went on a first playdate to the BMX track with one of Oscar’s pre-school classmates and his older brother. At one point the other kid’s parents were occupied with their 8 year-old. Oscar’s friend dragged his scooter to the lip of the steep drop at the start of the track. “Want to ride!” he said. He looked like he was prepared to go it alone if necessary. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was, but decided to grip his handlebars and take him on a lap myself.


Monkey business

I see Oscar becoming a little boy. His emotions are starting to resemble reasonable concerns that we can take seriously and engage with. He tells us how he feels, which is good, but then he uses our own principles against us. When we brush his teeth he screams “I feel frustrated, please don’t do that, it’s not kind!” His teeth need brushing, but if he really doesn’t want to go to the park then maybe we should sometimes consider staying in. If he doesn’t want to be cuddled and kissed then we should leave him alone. Maybe he genuinely doesn’t want to wear the red shirt and the green shirt is clean and just as warm and there’s no harm in letting him win this round.

I have less tolerance for monkey business than Gaby. I’m more likely to snatch things from Oscar when he won’t give them back or to haul him upstairs when he won’t go to bed. Gaby has been chiding me to only use force when there’s an immediate danger or if all reason has failed. I’m grateful that she does this because I think she’s right and it must be hard work to keep reminding me in tense situations. It’s normal and not my fault that Oscar snatches from Sophie, but it’s still good hygiene for us to model ourselves the behaviour that we’d like from him.

Spending all day debating with a toddler is exhausting. How do we judge when negotiations have irretrievably broken down? What should we do if he’s ripping a leaf off a house plant? What if he’s got a loose grip on a poorly-sealed, large bag of walnuts? What if we’re late for pre-school, but they don’t mind and we don’t have any early meetings to get back for? What if he has a phone? What if he has a phone and is standing next to a toilet? I’m not trying to treat Oscar how I would an adult, but where possible I would like to treat him how I would an eight-year old. I don’t think it’s good for him to feel too powerful, but it’s also not good for him to feel powerless. Sometimes you have to be willing to let the walnuts spill, even if you saw it coming and could have prevented it. I find this a difficult habit to change because I just want us to execute our plans as efficiently as we used to.

Some of my child-curious friends worry whether they’d be able to unconditionally love a child if they didn’t get on together. I didn’t think about this before we had Oscar, and now that we have him I worry that my affection might be contingent on him being so easy to love, for now. Calm down man! Take the love and run! On the first business day of 2022 I went for a walk and saw a ten-year old in school uniform clinging to his front door and screaming “daddy I hate it, please don’t make me go daddy.” What would I do? I wondered. The time for daddy to listen and understand was yesterday or tonight. Daddy wasn’t shouting back but he was in a suit and tie and probably had a big presentation in an hour.

Division of labour

Gaby looks after Oscar more than I do because I have dreams and health problems. She says that her Oscar bucket is nearly infinite. Mine only comfortably holds half a day, sometimes less, sometimes more.

But I know all our routines, I know where everything is, I have phone numbers for all our childcare. If Gaby went out for the day then I could execute a fun and stimulating day on my own. If she went away for a week then I’d be tired but fine. If she went away for a quarter for some reason then things might start to fall apart.

Gaby does the vast majority of our planning and research. She found out when we needed to start brushing Oscar’s teeth; she noticed when his teeth were stained where we hadn’t brushed enough; she thinks about hobbies that he might enjoy; she looks into strategies to help regulate his aggression towards his friends; she found out when he starts school and when we should start looking into how it works.

She realised that we’re responsible for the Christmas magic now. 2020 was our first Christmas in our own home and it was dismal. We had just moved in, COVID restrictions were grim, and we didn’t try. We got a small tree that did its best and not much else. This upset Gaby more than she expected. She felt that we owed Oscar festivities, and that by default the job of making a fuss always fell to her. I saw what she meant. In 2021 we got a bigger tree, some baubles, some knick-knacks, and two strings of lights.

We’ve talked openly about these disparities. I think that the nuts and bolts of parenthood are important but I find them incredibly boring. This isn’t a defence; Gaby doesn’t find them interesting either, other than in their relation to her son. She feels an all-consuming responsibility for Oscar in a way that I don’t seem to. There’s something societal in that, I think.

She says that our split is good enough the way it is, but she would still appreciate it if I took on more core duties. She thinks that Oscar will age into me and my interests, which is true but not the point. I’m reading about educational theory for my work on teaching computer programming, and I’m sure that I’ll be able to apply many of the techniques to Oscar when he’s older. But reading stimulating books that you wanted to read anyway won’t help with hanging up party ribbons or booking swimming lessons. It’s easy and visible to change nappies and do bedtimes. I find it much harder to develop full, shared situational awareness.

I just re-read the above section and I think that I’m judging myself too harshly and adhering too closely to the modern mark scheme. I do wonder how long it will be until my parenting is seen as affectionate and well-meaning but a product of my time. But last weekend Oscar was puttering around in the front room. He said “I’m pretending to be a daddy.” Gaby asked him what a daddy does. “He cooks and cleans and helps people eat and brushes their teeth.” Daddy’s alright.

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