A weapon called the word

There is a heat wave. England blazes temporarily, a shimmering heat-haze halo surrounds her crown;

The thermometer hits 30C (86F). The air is hot, thick and muggy. Sun kissed skin, shorts and flip flops abound.

We head out to our outdoor public swimming pool for some respite. We are joined by my daughter’s best friend and family.

The girls rip around the swimming pool together, laughing, splashing, exploring and making mischief. Other friends join us. It’s perfect. Just perfect.

It’s 5pm, the shadows lengthen, but the heat continues.

Thoughts turn to food. We decide to eke out the remnants of the glorious weekend in the sweltering courtyard of a nearby pizzeria. Six adults and six children under four. Magnificent chaos.

We are the only people here. The adults kick back and chance bottles of cold beer. The children pulse, faces red and glistening with sweat.

The sky turns a peachy hue. Honeysuckle and Jasmine curl around a trellis, radiating a heady and intoxicating scent. The courtyard bakes.

It is a perfect scene but fatigue sets in. Tempers start to fray. My daughters’ best friend is tired and becomes emotional. But my daughter wants to carry on playing.

After one rebuke, my daughter turns to her best friend and blurts out “Do you like me?”

I am surprised. I have never heard my daughter seek affirmation before. She may be 3 years old but I still have this mental image of her crawling around in nappies, squawking excitedly at house flies and chewing on our furniture.

And I can tell by the intonation in the question that she is feeling a little hurt. Something has happened between them.

If I’m shocked by the question, then the shot gun blast of a response knocks me off my feet.

“No. I DON’T like YOU

It is delivered with an indignant turn of the back, the emphasis firmly on “YOU”

This passage of conversation stops everyone in their tracks. Someone on the table gasps.

Silence.

A fly buzzes past. A car horn sounds.

The perfect day begins to crumble.

I immediately feel a whole series of emotions; anger, heart-break, sadness, shock

My daughter starts weeping, hard.

Not only has she asked a question that has laid her emotions totally bare, but she has done it in such an open and public way.

And she has received the ultimate social put down in return. Worse still, it is delivered in front of all the people she cares about most in the world.

“I DON’T like YOU

Ouch.

Fucking OUCH.

My daughter sits on a step and sobs her eyes out, her back turned to the group. No parent likes to see their child cry, but I notice this is a different kind of crying.

My daughters face is contorting in ways I have never seen before; her face is the canvas for the expression of her soul – writhing, wounded, anguished and vulnerable.

Yes I expected this kind of thing during the teenage years, but not NOW at three years old. Surely not now? Not yet.

The parents of my daughter’s best friend, to their credit, try to reassure, try to get their daughter to apologise. They try to blame it on the heat, they try to resolve the situation.

It couldn’t have been easy for them to hear either, for our children are tiny little mirrors that reflect right back at us.

They try, but to no avail. The damage has been done.

I don’t know what to do or how to react.

Part of me wants to ignore it. It has happened, it’s going to happen again, and my daughter is going to need to learn to deal with it on her own.

And after all, maybe her best friend doesn’t like her and was just being honest.

It was brutal honesty, but at least it is honesty.

The other part of me wants to step up into man-mode and solve the problem; I want to give my daughter a big hug, carefully admonish her friend for saying something so cruel, gently but assertively elicit an apology and then, situation resolved, accompany everyone (smiling) back to the half eaten pizzas – the perfect day, still on the cards.

But while man-mode is ideal for fixing punctures or strimming hedges, it is not equipped for emotional trauma. The fragile gossamer threads of emotion cannot simply be fixed with some glue and a screwdriver.

This is going to happen again. She needs to work out how to deal with this herself. She needs to know that I am here for her, but that I can’t fix the way that her friends feel about her. And I certainly can’t fix the way that makes her feel.

But I can role model a reaction to social rejection. A reaction that will hopefully breed resilience. A reaction that will equip her for everything that is to come.

I went with what seemed instinctively right. A comforting arm. Whispered cajoling. A big hug. No judgments, no admonishment, just calm reassurance that I am there;

She did calm down. We eventually went back to our pizzas. The evening finished on a reasonable footing.

But I can’t shake this feeling that my daughter’s innocence has been dented by her best friend and I have done nothing to protect her.

And this little incident, played out very publicly in the theatre of the restaurant is both a window into the future and a comment on the present.

For the present it tells me my daughter is growing up, quicker than I realise.

For the present it has rammed home my limitations as a father.

For within my home I can protect and provide and nurture. And yet the moment I step out of the door, I am reminded of my parameters.

Society snarls and bares its teeth like a rabid wild animal and I have to turn away. I cannot protect my daughter, not even from tiny words that tumble from a tiny mouth.

And for the future it tells me there will be more of this to come. Social rejection, alienation, paranoia and shifting social bonds are unfortunately all pervasive features on the rich landscape of modern childhood.

And for the future it tells me that for every success and failure that my children endure, I will feel it as profoundly as they do.

And one thing is for sure.

My young daughter has probably been dealt the first of many, many blows to come, with that subtle, yet powerful, weapon;

A weapon called the word.

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This post originally appeared on the Daddy Cool Project website. The Daddy Cool Project (DCP) is a London-based voluntary organisation which aims to help diminish negative stereotype of dads in the UK. It also highlights the importance and positive impact of fathers and male-role models living and working in today’s society. They do some really great work – go check them out at www.daddycoolproject.org.uk and follow on Twitter @daddycooluk

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Daddy Day Care

It’s Father’s Day month! The first post is here!

This first post comes courtesy of Dad vs The Kids who has a seriously funny Twitter account (@dadvsthekids) and a great new blog at http://www.dadvsthekids.com/ – go check him out!

I love this post and he is right, it does ALWAYS start off with the crayons……

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if you ever wonder whether you’re ever doing the right thing as a parent, DON’T. Those rewards are coming

Parenting – if you are doing it right, they will let you know

DADDY DAY-CARE

In the beginning, Mrs DvK would coddle and hold our kids tightly. I, on the other hand, would count down the days until their neck was strong enough for me to throw the kids into the air and catch them like all the other ‘cool Dad’s’ did on the TV. The women would scream in horror. The men would secretly hi-five me for my reckless abandon. Good times.

This would be my downfall. The following experiences of calculated mischief and impossible mayhem can only serve as a warning to all Dads who think its ok to close your eyes for 5 minutes when you’re entrusted to watch your own children.

THE COVER-UP

It starts off with the crayons. ALWAYS with the crayons. You didn’t buy them, but you accept them, not realising the full impact of what will eventually happen. Soon enough, you walk past a once pristine cream wall in your living room to find a piece of blue and orange wax wall art you don’t remember commissioning. And the tiny culprit nowhere in sight. Banksy?

The taste for wanton destruction escalates as your precious bundle of joy reaches each milestone of curiosity and creativity in their development.

My attempts to maintain my place as ‘cool Dad’ means, inevitably, I am the complicit accomplice in their misdemeanours, often hiding the evidence before Mrs DvK comes home.

As I fish out yet another brand new loo roll from the toilet, or wipe up urine and other unspeakable substances from every room in the house (except the bathroom), I give thanks to shows like CSI and Dexter for teaching me the finer points of crime clean-up.

One occasion finds me asleep AT THE DINING TABLE. I only wanted to rest for a few minutes, I swear. Seizing a rare moment of toddler independence, my two boys (about 2yrs & 3yrs old at the time) use this opportunity to find out what our large square cushions are made of.

You’ll recognise the moment when it happens to you. I jolt myself awake. Disoriented, I wonder where I am and why my usually noisy kids are unusually quiet.

Then I see the carnage.

Thousands of tiny polystyrene balls cover our living room floor like a beautiful, white, winter wonderland. Except with two small figures standing in the middle of it, one with the dustpan and the other with a brush, both working together to sweep up all the evidence to dispose of it in the kitchen bin. Busted.

In retrospect, that was the first time they worked together as a team. Brilliant, they love each other!

That was also the first time I remember regretting giving my eldest son a sibling-sidekick. Little gits.

THE ADVENTURER AND THE WRESTLER

These days my boys, now 7 and 9, are seasoned players of ‘The Floor is Lava’, leaping from dining table to sofa to coffee table with the enviable flexibility of a Parkour athlete.

In the early stages of parenthood, the house was baby-proofed, so my ‘cool Dad’ instinct is to leave them to their own devices and discover things on their own. It’s ok Mrs DvK – you go out and run those errands. I GOT THIS. What’s the worst that could happen?

Our first trip to A&E occurred when the youngest (again, probably 2yrs old at the time) somehow manages to traverse a flight of stairs, get into the master bedroom and attempt to climb up our giant chest-of-drawers.

Oh, did I not mention the enormous widescreen TV that was on top? Everything. EVERYTHING toppled over on top of him, the TV missing him by inches.

I’ll never forget the crashing noise and the mythical superhuman strength I suddenly possessed allowing me to flip the chest-of-drawers off of him in one desperate, determined motion.

Despite being stunned for a few seconds, to this day I cannot explain how he emerged from the wreckage without so much as a scratch or broken bone.

The years go by, and the kids get bigger. And rougher. We get complacent, because dammit, for the 100th time, if you fall out of that tree and break your legs DON’T COME RUNNING TO ME.

I’m home from work barely 5 minutes. The boys are about 6yrs and 4yrs, and the oldest is recreating cartoon fight scenes in the living room with realistic aplomb. I’m tired and don’t care, heading up the stairs to check in with Mrs DvK.

Suddenly the crying from downstairs hits that ‘level’. You know the one. The level that says “Okay, they’ve taken it too far; I better stop ignoring them and do some actual parenting.”

I head downstairs. The 6yr old sprints past. “I’M SORRY! I’M SORRY! I DIDN’T MEAN IT!” What? I turn back to see the 4yr old following closely, his head split open and blood down half his face.

It’s the prom scene from Carrie and I am freaking out.

My reaction does not help the already distraught youngsters.

We explain to the nurses at A&E that the 6yr old somehow managed to pile-drive his younger brother into the corner of the coffee table, bashing his head in the process. Both kids are quiet and feeling sorry for themselves.

The only fatherly words of comfort I can offer are “Chicks dig scars.” Mrs DvK is not impressed.

Why am I sharing these tales of fatherly incompetence with you? Because I look back and see that my kids are creative, problem-solvers, resilient, bold, independent and braver than I ever was at their age. And eventually, they give back.

On Sunday May 26th, it was our wedding anniversary. 12 years. We’re not big on celebrations or cards, and when you have kids, that energy to put yourselves first for once and kick the kids out for the day just isn’t in us.

I wake up and reach for the iPad and instead find a handwritten note on a small piece of paper:

“Dear Mum & Dad,

It has come to my attention that it is your anniversary. I try to keep calm and it is not working. I know you love me and Tavon although you shout at us. Please read this letter carefully.

Love, Tyrese.”

No prompting from us.

For the first time, he wanted to do something for his parents that meant more than any specially crafted card or present ever could. Acknowledge in his own way how he felt about us.

Great, I’ve got a lump in my throat and something in my eye.

Fathers: as your child grows, all your fears/anxieties come down to the one question. AM I GOING TO BE A GOOD DAD?

The rules sometimes go out the window, and you’re going to beat yourself up over it. I know, because I have.

But keep at it. If you’re doing it right, they’ll let you know.

They WILL surprise you every day. And if you ever wonder whether you’re ever doing the right thing as a parent, DON’T. Those rewards are coming. And when they’re from the heart, all your sacrifice will be worth it.

Fear and love; those immediate days after the birth

I described in a recent blog the epic journey that is the birthing process. And if labour is a first tentative step into a brave new world, those immediate days after the birth are a head first plunge into the bottomless pool of raw emotion, vulnerability and sheer exhaustion that is called fatherhood.

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To be honest I got through the first few days on a wave of euphoria, adrenaline and caffeine.

There was so much to contend with.

There were the forms and the hospital processes.

The bombardment of (often contradictory) information.

Then there were the vaccinations that made my daughter squeal in pain.

And the endless tests.

And you have to keep track of everything, because fantastic that they are, nurses and doctors are only human too.

And the random people with unsolicited advice, some of it often very unhelpful.

And there are the well meaning visitors who overstay their welcome.

The trips back and forwards to hospital.

The uncertainty.

The vulnerability.

The tiredness.

And the utter lack of a frame of reference for ANY of it.

In my professional life I am quite used to dealing with ambiguity and crisis. But somehow when I am standing in a village in the middle of a war zone I can externalise the stress.

The conflict is after all not mine. It is not my war. It is not me that will have to rebuild my home, my life and livelihood. I can help, and that is what I do to the best of my professional ability. But I don’t own the crisis.

But as a father having not slept for weeks, I find myself looking at a thermometer that is reading a high fever, holding a tiny screaming baby – MY tiny screaming baby. And it is in the dark hours before dawn, I’m shattered and not thinking properly and something isn’t right and the hospital is a long drive away and wait…….is that a rash on her skin?

 I soon learnt that as a father I was utterly responsible. This was my child. And THIS was now my crisis.

And I soon realised that she relies on me for EVERYTHING.

And there is no booklet. There is no guidance. However hard I wished in those first few weeks, no instruction manual appeared with my daughter’s name on the front.

Nothing to allay the fears. Nothing to allay the neurosis.

So I found myself doing something that human’s have been doing incredibly successfully for millennia: Adapting.

And surviving.

And there was something else there too.

Fear.

And I have seen fear before. Fear is the emotion that comes from being vulnerable, overwhelmed, ignorant and outflanked.

Fear is the emotion that comes from the dread of making a mistake where the stakes are literally life and death.

And I know that the only way to tackle fear is to understand that which frightens you.

So I read the leaflets and the books. I politely listened to opinions. I chose the ones that made sense to my baby and I, and disregarded the ones that didn’t.

I learnt to live on very little sleep.

I wished the visitors on their way. I thanked the family for their support.

I closed the doors, drew the curtains, took the phone off the hook.

And I spent the next few weeks literally lost in my baby; immersing myself in her. Holding her tightly, breathing in the sweetness of her skin, savouring the earthy fragrance of her hair and losing hours in the deep pools of her beautiful eyes.

Understanding her patterns and her rhythms

I sang to her to calm her, rocked her to sleep in the middle of the night, traced the lines on the folds of her skin and obsessed over her tiny fingernails. I held eye contact and lingered, unwilling to break the gaze lest the spell be broken.

I fell in love.

And I figured that if I was to be truly responsible then I would have to face my fear. Understanding the fear was my best weapon.

If there was no manual with my daughter’s name on it, then I would be the one to write it.

I became THE world expert on my daughter.

Those first few weeks are joyous. But they are also hard

I read a superb piece of wisdom on Twitter recently from one of the fathers that I follow. We were discussing how hard parenting and fatherhood is. He nailed it when he said

“…It doesn’t matter how many children you have. Wanting to be a good parent means you make it hard on yourself

And there it is.

If those crazy, chaotic early days taught me anything it was about facing down fear.

And they taught me that I can still surprise myself; that I can still learn and adapt.

And they taught me to trust MY instincts as a father to know what is best for MY daughter.

And they taught me that it feels hard because I want to be a GREAT father.

To this day I keep this statement in my mind. So on those days when the adrenaline runs out, the fatigue sets in and there appears to be no end in sight, I can let the statement out to shine a light into those darkest of corners.

And most importantly those early days taught me something else.

They reminded me of how utterly beautiful it is to feel those butterflies again, to experience that warm fuzzy disorientating feeling once more and to look into the face of another and see such beautiful perfection.

They reminded me what it is like to be giddy with life. To be overwhelmed with emotion.

To be hopelessly in love.

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This original post appeared first on the Daddy Cool Project website (http://www.daddycoolproject.org.uk/). I am currently blogging for them. The Daddy Cool Project (DCP) is a London-based voluntary organisation that aims to highlight the importance and positive impact of fathers and male-role models living and working in today’s society. Go check them out, they do some great work.