This article appeared on the Daily Telegraph website under the title ‘What a stay-at-home dad learnt when he took his children out on his own‘.
Like my articles in the New Day, there are some points of variance between my original and the final published article. I suppose that’s the newspaper editing process for you though.
With two months of shared parental leave under my belt, I thought I’d cracked the whole caring for my daughters thing. Then Lola, my four year old, broke up for the school holidays.
This was the first time I’d had to look after her and her eight-month-old sister Mina on my own for entire days at a time. Suddenly I found myself staring across the breakfast table at four expectant blue eyes waiting to be entertained for the next 10 hours.
To have any hope of filling those 10 hours, I realised I’d need to get them out of the house. I’d not taken the girls on any proper trips on my own before – the playground in our local park represented the extent of my ambitions to date – so this would be uncharted territory. Given the fuss I was making about it, I think my wife assumed I would be packing the three of us off on a month’s trekking expedition in the Himalayan foothills.
Realising I should probably keep my ambitions in check (so no mountaineering in Asia for the time being) I settled on a few day trips around London. Over the course of a week, we visited Kew Gardens, the Natural History Museum and Hounslow Urban Farm. All three were further than we’d gone together sans mummy.
That week was an education the like of which I’d never experienced before. So what did I learn?
Kids are more versatile than you imagine
Something happens when you tear kids from their usual environment. They adapt at a remarkable rate. It’s an opportunity for them to step up, one that they tend to seize in my experience. Both girls impressed me greatly during those few days.
Whereas I felt like a marquis in the queue for the guillotine while I stood at the top of the Tube escalators, holding a pushchair and the hand of a four year old, Lola took it all in her stride. She simply freed up my right hand by holding on to the back pocket of my jeans, allowing me to get a better purchase on the pushchair. We made it up and down numerous times without so much as a whimper from anyone involved. In fact the only person who was in the least affected by the experience was me.
I should note that Mina’s routine has more or less gone out of the window when we’ve done these trips. But it was a sacrifice worth making given how much we gained from the experience..
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
I’ve hated that phrase ever since I first heard it on a work training course a decade ago. Still, I can only assume that Ben Franklin – to whom it is attributed – made this observation shortly after he took a group of children out for the day.
Preparation is all if you’re taking out two small children. Everything needs to be checked in advance: the weather; transport routes; travel times; opening hours; lunch arrangements (even if you bring a picnic, where will you sit to eat it?). And that’s before you begin to pack your bag and pushchair with everything you own to ensure that they remain fed, watered, sanitary and entertained.
I’d hazard that Glastonbury requires less preparation than a day trip with my two. Just accept that however much you plan and prepare, it’ll never be enough. You’ll always forget something. In my case, it’s usually water, as my two parched kids can attest.
It’s never too early to expose kids to new experiences and ideas
It can be tempting to hold back from explaining difficult concepts to children on the assumption that they won’t grasp the point.
Yet at the Natural History Museum, I found myself explaining the theory of evolution to Lola in front of a wall of primitive skulls. I assumed that it had gone over her head until a few days later, when she visited the Museum of London with her grandparents. After that trip, she enthusiastically told me about the prehistoric skulls she’d seen in the museum’s ‘London before London’ section. Here was evidence, if needed, that these things do linger in their fecund little minds.
And eight-month-old Mina was transfixed by the exotic animals at the Urban Farm, even reaching out to stroke a couple of the lizards. She may have been trying to put them in her mouth. Either way, that experience of exploration will stay with her, even if she is too young to actively recall it.
Exploring these places with my children led me to conclude that it’s important to ignore age recommendations and go with them wherever their curiosity (or yours) takes your family.
Mums make it look deceptively easy
Since commencing my portion of shared parental leave, my respect for my wife has been on an upwards trajectory.
It’s one thing to stop the kids falling down the stairs or putting their fingers in the sockets at home. It’s quite another to take them out into the world and avoid getting them run over or losing them or preventing them wetting themselves.
While my wife was the primary carer for our two girls, I always had this notion of myself as a hands-on dad who was doing his bit. Now, I see that Mrs Burge was actually doing the hard work all along.
I’m glad that I got my act together and took the girls out on these trips. Although not every father will be able to share parental leave with his wife as I have, there are weekends and other days off work when it’s entirely possible to embark on adventures, big or small. Men need to seize the chance to practice our parenting skills out in the real world without our wives standing behind us, picking up the pieces. And if it requires their encouragement, then, Ladies, please encourage us: send the kids out of the house with dads in tow. Don’t let us back in until we can prove that we’ve been beyond the local park. You won’t regret it.
Naturally there are more pictures of our outings on my Instagram feed.