Robert Heaton

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

I wouldn't call my friends strong male role models but they'll have to do

07 Dec 2021

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)

Chess

Oscar and I have started playing chess. He saw the handsome wooden set my parents got me for my 18th birthday and wanted to know what it was. The rules of chess so far are that one person plays white and the other plays black. When it’s your turn you pick up one of your pieces and place it on an unoccupied square anywhere on the board. The game ends when the two-year old gets bored.

I was good at chess when I was younger. When I need to explain how good I was I say that I came 30th in the European Junior Championship in 2005. I am proud of this achievement but it’s a little misleading since each country only gets to send two people and I imagine I’d have struggled against even the thirtieth-best teenager in Poland or Lithuania. Even so, I was good and if Oscar wants to play seriously then he’ll be at least 12 before he takes a game off me.

My dad taught me chess when I was 5 after I found an old book at the back of a shelf. He beat me in our first game and I locked myself in the toilet to cry. He’s a decent player in his own right. His proudest moment was when one of my friends beat him in a tournament but pronounced him “pretty good for a dad”.

My grandad was a keen player too, and my dad says that he would have loved to take me to tournaments. My dad has volunteered to traipse around the country with Oscar when he’s older, like he did with me. “If he wants to play?” “Yes yes, of course only if he wants to play.” I gladly agreed when Oscar was younger. It sounded boring and I wanted some time back. Now I can see how going on the road together might be fun, even though - or perhaps because - the drives are long and there’s nothing to do. My dad was the manager of several of my national title-winning teams and got on well with the other parents, even those of my nemeses.

Preschool

Oscar has started preschool two days a week. It’s a forest school, which means that it’s outdoors almost all day, no matter the weather. I don’t know how Oscar feels about this but it makes me and Gaby feel hale and hearty.

We thought it would help Oscar settle in if he knew the faces of the staff before his first day. On the “Team” section of the preschool’s website they have smiling pictures of everyone who works there. Gaby printed out two copies. She cut out the faces from one sheet, put velcro on the other, and then Oscar had to match the faces to the full photos. When Gaby finished laminating the final disembodied head and looked at her creation she realised that this was the creepiest thing she had ever done. We still played the game, and Oscar did think that the heads were his best friends before he had even met them.

The first day Oscar toddled off into the forest with no fuss or tears. When he came home he talked about his new friends Preston and Craig. When we asked the staff they told us that there’s no one at the preschool called either Preston or Craig. We aren’t sure where they came from or where they’ve gone. It’s strange not knowing what Oscar does all day anymore.

After his first week Oscar realised that dropoff meant that he wouldn’t see us for eight hours. He screamed “mummy and daddy will come back” when we reached the forest and the staff had to prise him off my shirt. They told me he would be fine in a few weeks, which I knew was true, but I still felt horrible. Happily he’s levelled out now and has to be reminded to give me a goodbye hug before tottering off. A week ago Oscar’s favourite teacher wrote us a note about how he was settling in. She was very impressed that when his friends are upset he tells them to “breathe in with your nose, breathe out with your mouth.” He told her that his mummy says this to him. It’s actually Francesca (his nanny on the days he doesn’t go to preschool) but we kept the credit.

Forest school is outdoors all the time in a public common, so one day we went to spy on Oscar. We didn’t want him to see us, and since I hate getting into trouble I especially didn’t want the staff to see us. We couldn’t get close enough to see what he was doing without exposing our location, plus it was raining, so we went home.

Another day the children made cardboard computers and pretended to work on them “like the mummys and daddys”. This feels like an indictment of something (probably capitalism), but I don’t think it should. The mummys and daddys probably do valuable and satisfying work on their real computers.

We’re trying to be affable and presentable in order to make a good impression with the teachers and the other parents. Gaby changes out of her worst-stained clothes before she picks Oscar up, unless it’s a dark stain on a dark background, and has made several friends. I don’t think that she’s any more likeable than me, but she is American. She chases people to their car to say hi if she thinks that they might have come from the same pre-school as us. The expats appreciate it; the Brits don’t know what to do and just want her to leave them alone. Gaby says that she likes meeting new people but also just wants to gather more clues about Oscar’s secret world.

One of Gaby’s new friends asked her if she had any hobbies. Gaby said no not at the moment, I have a job and a baby. How about you? The woman said that she liked to go for walks and do yoga. Gaby does those too but didn’t realise that they counted, she thought she meant woodworking or five-a-side football. Gaby’s actual main hobby at the moment is going for long bike rides to pick up second-hand books and puzzles from Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace. Her best recent haul was fifty French children’s books for twenty pounds. Gaby asked the woman why she was hawking them; the woman said that her husband had just left her for a woman nineteen years younger and so she was either selling or burning everything. Her neighbour came out and the three of them chatted about how lousy her husband had always been.

Gaby and Oscar got talking to another woman and her toddler at the playground. They exchanged numbers and the woman seemed very keen to meet up again. Gaby was suspicious. The woman was charming and beautiful and wasn’t new to the area. She must have already had enough friends for a credible garden party. Why did she want to be friends with Gaby? I’m starting to wonder if we might just be fun people.

My friends

Most of my best friends are still the boys I sat next to in science when I was eleven. This is a testament to either the durability of friendship or the difficulty of making new mates. Mumsnet says that your friends disappear after you have children, but this hasn’t been my experience yet. We survived a post-university slump when we were all a bit sad and didn’t have anything to do except play Boggle until 2am in my parents’ dining room. If inertia has kept us together this long then I doubt that babies will prise us apart.

One night at dinner Oscar started shouting “Uncle Moe’s name is Pancake! Uncle Moe’s name is Pancake!” We don’t know where this came from since Uncle Moe’s name is not Pancake, although strictly speaking neither is it Moe, it’s just that when we were thirteen we decided that he looked a bit like Moe from The Simpsons. Now Oscar calls him Uncle Pancake.

I like watching Oscar spend time with my friends. I wouldn’t call any of them strong male role models but they’ll have to do. Getting Oscar to talk about them by name is a good way to launder baby videos into our group chats, but I try to be subtle about it. The other day we were debating the pros and cons of having children. As the only one present with a kid already I didn’t want to hog the floor so I stayed quiet. At the end I said “well if it helps, I like having a baby.” “Yes, we know,” several people sighed. Not so subtle apparently.

Francesca

Francesca (Oscar’s nanny, see episode 10 in this series) has finished her degree and now she’s going back to her career as a theatre designer. Fortunately her work is freelance and at night, so she still looks after Oscar 2 days a week. She plans to leave the UK in a year and we’re not sure if she’s more likely to stay longer if we support or sabotage her career. Francesca has started taking care of both Oscar and his friend Sophie at the same time. Oscar and Sophie get socialisation, Francesca gets paid more, and it costs us less. It’s all very mutually beneficial. In our most recent monthly checkin Francesca said “I love my job, so thank you” and on balance I’m inclined to believe her.

Francesca shows Oscar and Sophie how to have a friend and how to treat them well. She teaches them about sharing and consent. In one video that she took the kids are painting and Oscar wants to hold Sophie’s hand. Oscar grabs Sophie, so Francesca gently prises him off and explains that whilst it’s nice to hold our friends’ hands, we have to ask them first. Oscar eventually mumbles “Sophie please can I hold your hand?” Francesca turns to Sophie and says “Sophie, Oscar has asked if he can hold your hand, you can say yes or no” and Sophie screams “YES!” Oscar jumps up and down shouting “Sophie said yes! Sophie said yes!” They hold hands and continue painting.

Francesca is even able to put both kids down for a nap at the same time in the same bed. One afternoon she asked them both to close their eyes and think about all the colours. Sophie closed her eyes and kept them closed for two hours. Oscar yanked his eyelids open with his fingers and said “I’m not going to close my eyes, I’m going to do a poo.” In the end he compromised and did both.

Oscar can be grabby and bellicose towards Sophie. We’re collectively trying to figure out what to do when this happens. It’s normal toddler behaviour and doesn’t warrant a fuss, especially since it must be hard being in your own home and sharing your toys all day long. But it still seems wise for us to have a consistent response. My instinct when he grabs something from another child is to give it back, unwind the injustice, and restore the world to its previous state. That way he doesn’t win and the other parents know that I recognised the transgression. But this often involves grabbing the object back from Oscar, which likely reinforces the behaviour, and it means that Oscar gets all the attention, which was probably his real goal all along. We’re experimenting with letting Oscar have the toy and fussing over Sophie and saying that we’re sorry that Oscar grabbed the toy from her. I’m sure there are thousands of other strategies and that he’ll grow up reasonably-adjusted whatever we do, but I like having a plan.

French club

Francesca, Oscar, and Sophie still speak French all day. Oscar listens to the French but replies in English. “Tu veux faire de la peinture ou le casse-tête?” “Want to do a puzzle!” When Francesca leaves Oscar will lose his best source of French, but Gaby is determined to keep it up and has found a French-speaking playgroup. The playgroup requires that both the toddler and the adult speak French. Gaby lied a little and told them that her husband is French but can’t come on Saturdays. She has a 75-day streak on Duolingo and her toddler is as fluent as you can expect a toddler to be, so would it be OK if she came instead? The organisers said yes and Oscar loves it, but now I can’t ever go since they might find out that I’m not really from Lyon.

Gaby understands everything at French club but doesn’t say very much. She talks to an English woman whose husband really is French and really doesn’t want to go to the playgroup himself. Gaby likes her but doesn’t want them to get too identified together in case the organisers get fed up with the Anglos and kick them all out. We think that French club isn’t on this week because it’s the school holidays, but even after running the email through Google Translate twice we’re not certain.

One afternoon Gaby couldn’t stop singing one of the songs from French club so she told Oscar “I have a song from French club stuck in my head!” Oscar said “I can help.” He pretended to grab something from her hair and threw it. “There, I gave it back to French club.”

Gaby

“Mummy can you play with me and Daddy can you please go to your office and do some writing?” Oscar asked at 5am.

When all three of us are together it can feel like Oscar and Gaby are driving and I’m tramping after them. We try to share responsibility for helping Oscar eat, play, and calm down, but Oscar still looks to Gaby by default, and since he’s only 2 I don’t think this is anyone’s fault yet. I tend to be more laissez-faire than Gaby. I might have noted that Oscar is bored with his puzzle but decide to wait and see if he gets interested again. Gaby sometimes disagrees with my strategies and so I get grumpy and don’t bother showing as much initiative, but it’s more complicated than that and this isn’t the point I’m trying to make.

Our risk tolerances are different. I’m less worried than Gaby about significant but well-understood risks like using a child seat on our bikes, but more worried about staining the carpet and chaining together seemingly benign activities in unpredictable ways. Gaby asks me “what are you concerned about here?” when I take an object away from Oscar or hover near the climbing frame. I often don’t have a specific threat model, I just think it’s good practice to not let him play with the butter knives. After a few arguments I’ve learned that I’m not as good at conflict resolution as I thought. I know that you’re meant to talk about the effect that the other person’s actions have on you and then assertively but kindly ask for the change you would like, but when I try to do this I garble and go quiet and it looks like I’m angry but I just feel awkward.

The three of us went into our big clothes cupboard to get some pyjamas for Oscar. He pulled the door shut and the light turned off. Gaby turned on her phone flashlight and we squished up on the floor. Gaby and I talked and Oscar played with toys that we thought we had lost. Being trapped was unexpectedly calming. We stayed there for half an hour and Oscar was late to bed.

Research

I like to think of myself as a scientific person who follows the research. But the research is often mixed and provisional, and understanding it properly is boring. Does it count as following the research if you read it in a 200-word article in The Guardian? Is everything we do now for Oscar irrelevant or the foundation upon which he will build everything else? I’m broadly sceptical of social science research, or rather, I’m sceptical of my ability to use it effectively. I think the best that an unmotivated civilian can hope for is making uncertain but pragmatic bets on things that are cheap, plausible, and easy.

For example, Gaby read some research suggesting that jigsaw puzzles are particularly good for a child’s development, especially if you talk about the shapes and colours together. She even found the original academic paper and read the abstract. But we don’t need to interrogate this claim any further because it’s almost certainly true on some level, and if it’s not then who cares? Puzzles are fun, and if you buy them second-hand then they’re cheap too. And as well as maybe developing brains, I think they build resilience too. In a 20-piece puzzle you get 19 moments of success (placing the first piece doesn’t count) but countless moments of failure if your primary strategy is brute-force with only a dab of pattern matching. We clap and cheer when Oscar finishes a puzzle. Once I clapped when he placed a piece but Oscar told me off: “no daddy you can only clap when I finish.”

Music

Between us we play Oscar a lot of different types of music. I thought it would be funny to play him some of the more aggressive music from my youth, and he’s taken to it more than I expected. When I’m making breakfast at 6am he tugs at my leg and says “Daddy, want to do fire engine puzzle and listen to Bangarang by Skrillex.” When Bangarang by Skrillex has finished he asks for Bangarang by Skrillex again. He calls the buildup “the bubbles” and shouts “it’s the drop” when it hits. When he’s clubbed out we follow Bangarang with Beethoven. He says “want Beethoven eight four” or “five one”, but he always means seven three (which I recently learned means seventh symphony, third movement).

He loves playing the piano. We’re trying him on piano lessons, which might sound ridiculous but he started playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with two hands shortly after his second birthday and now has a repertoire of ten songs and we felt like we should do something. Oscar’s teacher’s name is Martina. Gaby didn’t want to tell her that she went to Juilliard and her dad went to Berklee because she might think she was being pushy. But now Martina says that she’s never seen another kid like him and that one of his ancestors somewhere must have been a musician. Gaby thinks it’s probably too late to say anything.

Gaby said “I don’t think it’s important or not for him to learn music, it’s just the thing in the world I know the most about and I so it’s easy for me to share it with him.” It’s OK if you hate or are just bad at the piano Oscar, don’t worry.

Hopes

When writing about Oscar I sometimes lie or exaggerate or downplay things that he’s done, but Gaby crosses these bits out. She says that these posts are going to be the most extensive record of Oscar’s childhood, so I owe it to him to get them right.

I’m conscious that he’ll read these words one day, so I’m hesitant to talk about my hopes for his future. When I daydream about it we’re playing Mario and piano and programming computers together and we’re very good at these things. But his interests might be in things I think are boring. He might not be very good at them. He might have a difficult childhood and not like anything. I don’t know how to write about big ambitions while making it clear that they don’t make any difference to how much I love him. I don’t know how to describe a combination of optimistic dreams with a total acceptance for however things turn out.

I suppose I should work out how to do this for myself first. I don’t have a theory of the good life beyond just trying to succeed. And if it’s good to succeed then surely that means it’s bad to fail, unless you have some sophisticated doctrine that excuses you from this dichotomy. I can regurgitate the platitudes too, I’m not asking for advice, thanks.

How do you wish things for your child while also making it clear that whatever happens is OK with you? Even “is OK with you” doesn’t have the right tone. Maybe simply “is OK” would be better? Even “I just want you to be happy” sounds scary. What if he’s not happy? That doesn’t mean he’s failed. You have to be really nice with your words when dealing with your kid and the meaning of life. Maybe even just letting on that you’ve thought about the meaning of your child’s life is enough to send them spinning. Maybe you just say I love you, here are some things I like, I thought you might like them too.

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