Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Planning for an adventure

Over the last couple of years, Julie and I have wanted to take our family on an adventure of some sort - to get away from the everyday, to do something different. We've been fortunate enough to go on all sorts of vacations and see wonderful places, but we wanted to be able to go somewhere long enough to truly experience the people and the culture. Julie, in particular, has wanted to brush up on her French, so France seemed like a perfect fit. Besides, we both love France (o.k., I border on infatuated, but Julie likes it too).

At first, the plan was to go for 6 months, maybe a year, and possibly teach English and practice our French. But this plan now seems a bit ambitious, and possibly cruel to some very engaged grandparents.

So our hope for the past year has been to spend a few months of parental leave - once our second baby arrived, in the south of France. Knowing that we would be living on only one parental leave salary (mine), we started to save up for this trip quite some time ago (the old pleather couch in the living room and the pink family room downstairs tell the story of our frugality).

Well, the last week and a half have been insanely busy. Besides getting everything confirmed for the trip (we leave January 21 and come back April 21), I found myself with two job exams to write and one interview to sit.

But everything is done. We're booked in Nice - 4 people and a dog, in the heart of the French Riviera - pricier than we wanted, but everything's there. Julie will be able to go to activities, classes, etc. in the evening and between naps. I'll be able to take Chloe on fabulous day trips, and the family outings should be unforgettable. I've done some research, and museums are generally free, transit both in Nice and in the region is 1 Euro a trip, and we'll be surrounded by both Mediterranean and mountain towns. It's the perfect spot for a family that won't be too mobile. I may even take some cooking lessons, if we have any money left.

This is important to me... and I think to Julie too. It's also quite scary, and I'm not just talking about the plane trip!

It's funny, but what's scaring me most is what I presume others might think. Bad enough that a father's not at work, he's taking the family on a holiday for three months.

I have to admit it, it's sometimes hard not to be "working" everyday. Even though I know I work much harder here right now than I ever did managing imaginary crises at work, this is just not the type of work that men do. Every bone in my body hates that kind of stereotype, but still... I can't help but feel somewhat emasculated in my current role. If only I could say, I'm going to be teaching in France, or taking classes at the University. That would be more acceptable, I'm sure. It would demonstrate some sort of productivity? Heaven help a man who isn't being "productive."

No matter. This is part of the experience, part of the learning for me. I never would have thought of myself as being bound by such silly conventions and expectations, yet here I am struggling with them, constantly haunted by my Grandfather's words, "a man shouldn't take that kind of time off." And I know the words wouldn't haunt me so if I didn't respect his opinion so much.

So what grounds me? What brings me clarity? Every experience that I'm sharing with my children, and my wife. "Seize the day." That's what I'm doing, that's what I'm teaching, I hope.

I want to show Chloe and Emily that there is virtue in taking risks, exploring life, geography, culture - seeing everything and everyone from a new perspective, in this case a French one. And there is definitely virtue in striking a different course than others. My parents taught me that, and I thank them for it.

When faced with seemingly difficult choices, I usually find it helpful to project myself 10 or 20 years into the future, looking back on the choice. What would I have wished I had done. It's amazing how easy some decisions become when you do this. It helped me decide to take parental leave to be with my family, to go to France with two kids and a dog when we "should" be paying down the mortgage, and to write this blog.

A new couch will have to wait.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Standing in line at McDonald's, pained that poor planning after an afternoon of apple picking had led to us having to resort to McNuggets for Chloe's dinner, the lady in front of me drops her Coke on the floor. It wound up on my glasses, on my nose and on Emily's head (I was holding her against my chest, fast asleep). At first I was irritated, but decided I would be friendly about it... after all, it was an accident. The lady, however, didn't apologize, just gave me one of those "what are you going to do" smirks.

A minute later, I turn around, with Emily still asleep on my chest and see a grandmotherly lady smiling at me. I smile back, hoping she's infatuated with Emily and not me, and she says, "poor little girl." I smiled, thinking she was referring to the Coke incident and said, "oh, she's o.k., no problem." "Poor little girl," she says again, "with her neck all twisted to the side like that," she's going to have a sore neck." I looked down at Emily, and yes her neck was, as typical, off to one side. That's how she likes to sleep. I thanked her for her concern and turned back, gratefully, to the teenager behind the counter. All she had to say was how cute my baby was... refreshing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Roles and responsibilities

I get along pretty well by taking things one day at time. But then I'm not too hung up about being a good father at this stage. Let's face it, the bar's not set that high yet for fathers of young children. Some score points just for sticking around. Most get nods of approval for remembering to bring the kid's snack along to the park. I'm committed to being fully engaged right from the start, which I hope one day will be the norm, but it's not yet.

Traditionally, a man's responsibilities have started later. The father was responsible for preparing the speaking, thinking child (usually boy)to succeed and even thrive in the outside world - the public sphere. And men are still quite hung up about this burden of responsibility. But what men didn't realize or care to think about was that preparation for the outside world begins long before a child's first words. I remember Chloe's first days in daycare and the reassurance and self-confidence she needed to interact with a room full of children.

Whereas men have the luxury of exploring their new roles as fathers with a sense of awe and curiosity, a mother is burdened with the weight of generations of expectations right from the moment her child breathes its first breath. Mothers are "supposed" to know what they're doing. Its supposed to come "naturally." Their mothers and mother-in-laws did it - with more kids and with fathers who didn't get parental leave.

I think we need to remind mothers today that the times have changed in a lot of ways. Yes, "they" did it (and went through a lot of grief in the process, I'm sure, although memory is beautifully selective). But they also had more support. Families lived closer together. Raising young children was a responsibility shared by mothers, sisters, grandmothers. A mother of a new baby benefited from the wisdom and experience of the other mothers that surrounded her.

But what was isn't anymore, which is why men take parental leave, and why women need more of that kind of support at home. Society has adjusted to changing circumstances. And if it hadn't, it's my belief that our birthrate would have fallen off a cliff by now. As it stands, it's actually starting to improve.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sleepless in Aylmer

Sleep is coming less easily now. It's a cruel irony (and I mean that in the Alanis Morissette sense of the word) that the less one sleeps, the more difficult it eventually becomes to get to sleep. To those who suffer from true insomnia (i.e., not baby induced), my heart goes out to you.

Last night we had a lovely dinner with Brendan and Michele - and Michele got to meet Emily. For dessert we had dark chocolate and tea. Julie really hadn't had chocolate since Emily came along, and we had no idea what we would be in for last night. Emily was up all night burping and farting out the effects of caffeine and whatever else in chocolate turns a sweet innocent child into something that looks and sounds an awful lot like Gollum. I wound up getting very little sleep, and Julie got less. Poor Emily has been catching up on her sleep all day - which is the only grace we've been given.

I worry about Julie when she doesn't get enough sleep. She needs more than I do, and mothers have a unique burden that fathers, thankfully, are spared. A word to new fathers, if I may: As your partner gets tired and discouraged in those early months of motherhood, offer lots of reassurance that they're doing a darn good job. Frankly, I don't know how they can be up every hour all night and not lose their sanity.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chloe is infatuated with Emily. Yesterday, the two girls and Mom were all sitting on the couch together, and Chloe was stroking Emily's hair (o.k. scalp) and giving her little kisses while she was feeding. Chloe always wants to be around her sister. She's excited, loving, and very protective of our new family member. Of course, she's also finding this change quite an adjustment, and I've never had so many hugs and kisses from her. She certainly notices that attentions that were all focused on her before are now being divided, and it's a testament to her sensitive, inclusive nature, that she does not appear to resent her sister. I keep waiting for Chloe to get mad at Emily or her parents, but she doesn't. She'd just like to be held at the same time as her sister, and reassured that she's still important too.

Julie said something to me yesterday that has stuck in my memory. She said, "you know, their relationship will outlast the relationship they have with their parents." I hadn't thought of this, and it gives me great comfort.