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Reflections on a year of fatherhood

“Well, there’s now a risk of foetal demise.”

I think that was the moment when everything we’d thought about the birth of our son changed. Perhaps it was also the moment that we realised that parenting is never going to be how you expect it to be.

You see, a few minutes before, at around 9pm on October 4th 2013, Angie had come out of our downstairs toilet and said ‘My waters have broken!’

We were ridiculously excited. Angie had really enjoyed pregnancy – it had suited her, and she’d blossomed as she’d increased in size. This was the culmination, and the beginning. It was the moment when we needed to kick into action and get things ready for the relaxed home birth that we’d planned.

Instead, as Angie was yet to have any contractions, my very first phone call to the hospital stopped me in my tracks. We had to go to the hospital immediately (where we sat in a waiting room for five hours on hard chairs before being taken to a room, waiting for an hour, and eventually being released around 2am). Our baby was now deemed to be at risk. We were advised that it was too dangerous to have a home birth.

It was completely unexpected, and terrifying.

Writing it all down
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At some point last year I thought I’d write a blog about Lucas’ birth, but I kept putting it off. When I actually thought about why I was procrastinating over it, I realised that it was still very, very uncomfortable to think about those few days that we spent back and forth from the hospital. Even now, writing just a bit of it down, brings back waves of emotion. I know it’s a weird thing to say – the birth of your child should be one of the best days of your life – but it was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had.

If you think about it, that’s not actually too weird. I spent two and half days watching the woman I love go through immeasurable pain, had to fight the hospital at every turn to get a birth anywhere near what we wanted, and then a few hours after Lucas was born, I had to leave Angie and Lucas alone in the hospital as they weren’t allowed to leave due to the risk of infection.

One year later
So, here we are, a year on, and Lucas, our beautiful boy, is one year old. We can’t quite believe we’ve got here. And being a Dad in this first year is, in all honestly, nothing like I thought it would be. It’s been the most emotional, difficult, sapping year of my life, with extreme highs and lows.

I suppose this blog is a little off topic for Live Simple, especially as I’m going to write some difficult and negative things, but hopefully by the end you’ll see why I’m so grateful for the year we’ve had with our boy.

Planning this blog and writing it all down has really helped me process all of my thoughts and emotions. I’m hoping that some other Dads may be able to empathise with some of it, and perhaps gain strength from the fact that we’ve learnt so much and come out the other side. So, here’s some (rather long) thoughts about my year of being a Dad:

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done
I might as well start with the obvious. You see, life has been good to me. I’m married to a wonderful woman. We have a close knit family, and I have friends who make me smile, support me, and who I can rely on at all times. I’ve also been successful (in the traditional sense) when it comes to my education and my career – I always tend to land on my feet (although I’d argue that’s because I plan exactly where I want my feet to land and make it happen!).

But this was different. I had no idea how it would feel to adjust to being a parent, especially with a baby who doesn’t sleep. Sleep is a core part of our approach to healthy living, and if you’d have told me that we wouldn’t have a full night’s sleep for a year, I’m not sure I could have even fathomed how that would affect me. Short answer? It affects absolutely everything.

When Lucas was crying or screaming at night, one of us would be there with him, trying our best to work out what’s wrong (which is almost impossible) while the other would lie in bed helpless, listening to the screams and tears. In the early days, during the moments when he was actually asleep, we wouldn’t be able to sleep because we’d be thinking ‘is he breathing?!’

Over time, the sleep depravation affected our moods. Me and Angie would be much snappier with each other than we used to. Angie would take jokes that I made the wrong way, and I would find my temper rising at things that would never normally have bothered me.

It affected my ability to concentrate, and massively affected my ability to train. I had to bring things right back on my lifting, as I just wasn’t getting the recovery to be able to lift heavy.

I would also say it affected our friendships. Not that we’ve lost any friends or anything, but for the past year I would say that we’ve been significantly less fun to be around. Being tired and grumpy doesn’t make for sparkling conversation or entertaining evenings, so I might as well say now – if you’re one of our close friends, THANK YOU for sticking by us, and I promise we’re on our way to being fun again!

It seems like it’s not okay to say that it isn’t fun to be a new Dad
One thing I’ve definitely noticed over the year is that you’re not really allowed to say that parenting, especially in this first year, sucks. And to be honest (I’m much more in touch with my emotions now, as you’ll find out), a lot of it does.

I remember meeting up with family friends in Suffolk for a walk along the beach when Lucas was about five months old. We’d just spent most of the night awake, Angie had been crying and in pain, Lucas had been awake and distressed, and then he’d screamed for most of the way to the coast. When we got there, we got him out of the car and he brightened up slightly. We passed him to the family friend for a hug. Here’s how it went:

“So how is it all going?”

“It’s really, really hard. Last night wasn’t a lot of fun.”

*Lucas smiles*

“Ahhhhh, but when he smiles it must make it all worthwhile.”

“Not really.”

“Ahhhhh, yes it does.”

“Nope. It really doesn’t.”

Honestly, it doesn’t. One smile doesn’t make up for 15 hours of screaming, feeling helpless, not sleeping, and trying to comfort my wife.

Look on Facebook at pictures of families’ with babies, and you only see the happy snapshot of the reality. We’re just as guilty of it – there’s no pictures of us both crying while Lucas screams in his cot. But it also gives an unrealistic view of what it is really like, which makes it even more of a shock when you’re in it. You don’t get an insight into the tough parts when your perception of parenting is based on Facebook’s curated content.

I’ve become more emotional than ever
In August 2013, my Grandad died. He was awesome, and seeing him get sicker and sicker was awful. The experience seemed to flick my emotional switch, which meant that I was extremely emotional during Lucas’ birth, and haven’t really stopped since! I’ll listen to the radio and a song we love will put tears in my eyes. I’ll hear someone’s good news and instantly well up. I even had to make Angie stop watching Titanic in the early weeks of Lucas’ life as I just didn’t want to handle the inevitable tears!

I think this is a good thing – my emotions are really in touching distance at all times now, and it’s made me think much more about the effect of my actions and how I respond to different situations.

Watching Lucas develop has been magical
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Continuing with the emotional point, when Lucas took his first steps, complete with a huge smile on his chops, I totally welled up. It was incredible! And those moments happen throughout the first year. His first shuffle backwards on the living room floor. The first roll over from front to back and back to front. Learning to crawl. His exploration of the space around him – working out how to get over something, under something (he drops his whole body to the floor and army crawls!), and around things. Playing peek-a-boo and seeing him try to play it back with you. Having a chat with him where we make the same sounds at each other. Making him giggle with a funny noise or action. All of it is unlike anything I have experienced before, even as an uncle.

I feel such huge pride at the way he has developed over the year. The three of us being at Camp Encore Coda meant that he learnt to be really social (that happens when breakfast is in a room with 150 people!). During breakfast announcements he noticed everyone was clapping at certain points, and over the days and weeks he started to join in with that clapping as his motor skills improved. His pincer grip allowed him to put all sorts of random crap in his mouth, from goose poo to half a dead wasp, but even that was a source of pride! The help of the wonderful Waterfront Director, Anne, meant that he learnt to love swimming (and what a place to learn to swim…). He also responds brilliantly to music after hearing all genres this summer.

Since I left the 9-5, I’ve been able to spend much more time with him, and I can see all of this happening in front of my eyes. Even this morning he made some new sounds. Every day provides some wonder, and I feel privileged to be around to see it.

I often felt really guilty. About everything
Imagine this: You’re trying to get ready for work in the morning. You have a meeting you have to concentrate on and prepare for. You haven’t slept. And as you’re preparing to leave, your baby is screaming, your wife is exhausted and crying…and you still have to leave.

It’s horrible. Absolutely horrible. The guilt I felt at leaving Angie in the mornings to get to the office was unlike any guilt I’ve felt before. It made me feel like I was a thoroughly bad person.

I think people at work cut you some slack for the first few weeks after paternity leave when you return. But our no-sleep continued for months (and still continues), which meant my ability to focus at work diminished, my ability to lose my cool about stuff increased, and my resentment towards the entire situation grew.

That meant that not only did I feel guilty for leaving Angie, but I felt guilty for not being the brilliant, positive, can-do co-worker that I pride myself on being. I felt guilty for getting to the office late because I was trying to help at home as much as possible. I felt guilty when I stayed late due to work commitments, and had to miss bath time. I felt guilty when I left work on time, especially if there was work still to be done. Life was one big pile of guilt.

Hearing him giggle is pure joy and totally infectious
Lucas has a brilliant giggle. The thing is, it doesn’t come out too often. He laughs a lot, and is really smiley, but the giggle requires a mix of him being in the right mood, and you catching that mood with the right tickle or silly noise. But when you do get it right, it is a sound unlike any I’ve ever heard, instantly able to bring smiles to everything within earshot. It’s awesome.

Reading books with Lucas is one of the best ways to spend my time
Once Lucas started showing an interest in books, we started reading to him at nighttime just before bed. He really enjoys a story, and already seems to have some favourite books (although why Sally didn’t look in the basket for Spot first, instead prioritising the piano and the grandfather clock, is beyond me…). Most nights after dinner I will sit him on my lap and read a few books with him. It is probably one of the most satisfying parts of my day, and makes me feel like a real ‘Dad’, if that makes sense.

Travelling with Lucas in the first year was actually good fun
IMG_1595I think this is an area where you just have to work it out for yourself. After telling people that we were headed to the US for the summer, we were then presented with all sorts of ‘travelling with a baby’ horror shows. The screaming, the tantrums, the lack of space…. but I actually really enjoyed it.

Let me give you an example. On the way to Boston, we travelled in BA’s First Class cabin. This is not because we’re rich, by the way. More that when I’ve needed to focus on something away from real life in the past year, travel hacking has been the answer.  Anyway, we were in the Concorde Room at Heathrow, and Lucas was crawling around on the floor. And as he crawled around, he went headfirst into some safety glass that was stopping humans falling onto the concourse below. It was the first time Lucas had come across glass at his level that stopped him from going where he wanted to go, and it was incredibly confusing! It was also incredibly funny! I let him bump his head gently several times while he worked out what was happening – when I turned around, lots of other passengers were looking my way and smiling or chuckling. It was a lovely moment. A baby exploring and finding new things is fascinating to watch.

Then we got on the plane, and there were a few looks exchanged when fellow passengers saw that we had a baby in First. It’s perfectly allowed on BA, and yet….it definitely splits opinion. Anyway, we had taken the baby carrier with us, and as it was Lucas’ naptime, I stood in the galley area, jiggling him around and shushing him, aided by the loud white noise that you find on planes, and got him to sleep.

And so began a brilliant flight, with Lucas crawling around the floor a bit, taking it in turns to be with me or Angie, walking up and down the plane in my arms, napping a few more times in the carrier, and just soaking up the experience. We also ended up talking to just about everyone in our cabin, who shared stories of their children and travelling experiences, and even held Lucas.

Once, when I was standing up with Lucas, a passenger came up to me and told me a bit about his family. We ended up chatting for a long time, and it seemed that he really missed his children. Obviously we didn’t get the full back story, but he was looking at Lucas and seemed to have a tear in his eye, so I asked ‘would you like to hold him?’ He gave me a big smile, gave Lucas a huge hug as he bounced him around, and let a tear roll down his face. It was an absolutely beautiful moment, and one that we just couldn’t have experienced had we not been travelling.

Just to bring us back down to earth (literally), after we landed at Logan, we then got on a coach to Portland, Maine. 15 minutes in, Lucas decided to empty his bowels. ‘It’s okay,’ we thought. As long as he doesn’t scream, we’ll just pretend it hasn’t happened. A few moments later, there was poo on Angie’s jeans. Ruh roh. And then we changed Lucas’ nappy in a coach toilet, travelling at 60MPH on a curvy motorway, with Angie on the loo, Lucas on the floor, and me in the aisle with my shoulder holding the door open! A truly First Class experience!

Overall, we’ve taken five flights this year, mostly in economy, and we’ve managed to have a great flight each time. The flight attendants really took care of us, and chatting to fellow passengers was a lot easier with Lucas around. As he’s grown, he’s wanted to move a lot more, so it has gotten progressively harder to keep him occupied with every flight, but the experience was incredible and well worth the hassle.

A baby is the ultimate conversation starter
Wherever we go now, we talk to people. Having Lucas in the carrier, or walking along holding our hands, seems to attract people. Restaurants, hotel lobbies, the high street, parks, cafes. Wherever we go, we end up talking to people….and I love it!

On my birthday we went to Aldeburgh to walk along the coast. A few minutes into our walk, a lady, who was walking towards us, stopped to smile at Lucas. We ended up talking to her for about 20 minutes, finding out that she was French, living in London, and somewhat of an expert on language acquisition. We would never have met her had it not been for Lucas giving her a big smile. Lucas brings a little light into people’s worlds and it makes me really, really proud.

We’ve been smothered with opinions, and they’re mostly not helpful
My baby was doing this by then. My baby was already walking/talking/doing parkour by then. Oh, you just have to let them cry it out. You really should be feeding him biscuits by now. You should just do this, that’s what we did….

Over the past year, we’ve received a lot of advice and opinion on raising a baby. Most of it was well-meaning, but in all honesty, most of it made us feel even worse about the situation than we did before. It just highlights another area where you feel you aren’t quite up to scratch.

The world seems to want to pigeon hole babies into categories, and your baby must fit into a category. From what I’ve seen, every single baby is different. Lucas is different to his cousins. The cousins are different to each other. Our friends babies have all slept differently, eaten differently and behaved differently.

Sometimes, it has been easy to feel envious of other friends who have babies that sleep through the night. Envy is not an emotion that I’m aiming to cultivate, so I’ve had to work hard (really, really hard) to let go of that emotion and be thankful for the baby that Lucas was, and the toddler that he is. Angie had a huge impact on switching my way of thinking about Lucas’ sleep when she wrote down why she was thankful for his waking.

Baby books are a minefield
You should definitely let your baby cry himself to sleep. You should never, ever let your baby cry himself to sleep. Both approaches could affect their emotional wellbeing.

So what do you do?!

Just like the dieting world, the baby world is awash with people citing evidence that their way is the best. It is confusing, conflicting, and ultimately damaging. Reading two different books which advocate two different things just adds to the pressure that you’re under with a newborn baby and little sleep.

In the end, me and Angie had to agree not to read any more books about sleep or parenting. That largely goes for blogs too, although we made an exception for this wonderful piece of writing that made us feel a whole lot better about life…

It’s been easy to have a Paleo baby
What’s the ultimate Paleo food? Breastmilk. And what are the main foods that seem to be encouraged next? Pureed fruit. Bingo!

I thought that it might be difficult to feed Lucas in the Paleo style, but actually, it has been pretty straightforward. Lucas has enjoyed pretty much all of the food we have tried him on, apart from having a bad reaction to eggs (bummer) and not really fancying the texture of avocado. But, chicken, cucumber, mango, coconut oil and cream, sweet potato cottage pie….he has enjoyed it all. Even when we’ve been travelling, Ella’s Kitchen products made it relatively straightforward with their organic and mainly Paleo dishes.

It’s really not about me anymore
When me and Angie first got together, I had been single for a while. During the first years of our relationship, Angie almost had to coach me into not just thinking about what ‘I’ want to do the whole time. I had to think about ‘we’ a lot more.

It was a struggle to adapt! All of these years later, I still have those ‘I’ thoughts. What would I like my week to be like? What are my dreams that I want to fulfil? What would I like to do today? Well, that doesn’t work anymore. There is no ‘what do I want?’ It has to be ‘what is best for us?’

IMG_0718This might seem like a funny reflection to write down, but it’s actually been a significant shift. In mine and Angie’s relationship, we always had time to ourselves, so I could still satisfy those ‘what do I want to do’ urges. If I wanted to train at lunchtimes, go to the cinema with a friend, celebrate a colleagues birthday, go and see Ed in Birmingham, or catch a gig with Jim or Ilse, then I could. It was easy. I just arranged it with Angie and went.

But now, the implications of ‘what I want to do’ urges are far greater. If I go to Birmingham, Angie has a whole weekend of looking after Lucas. If I go out for those drinks, I’ll miss Lucas’ bath and story time. So, for the time being, there is barely any ‘what do I want to do?’ But hopefully some of that space will return. I need to keep practicing my piano scales, after all…

The last bit
This has been the hardest, biggest year of our lives. We had Lucas. Angie not only coped with the birth, but also with several bouts of seriously painful mastitis (and helped hundreds of ladies with her breastfeeding blog). We haven’t slept for more than four hours for 365 days. We quit our corporate jobs. We moved to the USA for three months, with me working in a very demanding role. We built a studio in our garden. I played in the Band at a friend’s wedding. I started teaching again. And we’re now launching our business.

And you know what? We survived. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve had tough times and we’ve stuck together and pulled through.

Looking back, I honestly wouldn’t change any of it. I’ve learnt a lot about myself – not only what I can cope with, but also that there are clearly some things I need to work on; some emotions, responses and negativity that I would like to address or improve. I think you find out who you really are when the going gets tough, and unless you face a struggle, how will you ever know what you need to work on? 

Our path to a simpler life definitely did a u-turn towards complication this year, but as a step towards our end goal of living a simple, minimalist life, we made huge strides.

Our son is happy and healthy. We are still married! Angie is still my best friend. And finally, we are getting to the stage where we are no longer looking back at the life we had, but rather we are looking forward towards this new life we’ve created as a threesome and a family.

This blog contains my own thoughts on our experience. But your experience will be completely different. Your baby will be unique.

And even though I’ve told you not to listen to advice, I’m going to give you some:

Listen to your gut, follow your instincts, and do it your way. No matter how tough the ‘now’ gets, you’re going to be stronger for the experience, which will mean a brighter future for you and your child.

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