Tag Archives: growing up

On being a new father – No man’s land #9

Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference 

Years before I was even considering parenthood, I got seriously concerned about the prospect of being a father. I don’t really know why, but I got burdened by just thinking about the parental responsibility of influencing a growing child by everything said and done in his/her presence. Now, of course, I know better; parents are just not that influential – much of what they say is rarely heard, let alone acted upon!

Which is not to say that our lovely daughter has even gone out of her way to challenge her upbringing; it never ceases to amaze me how lightly we’ve got off as parents. When she was a toddler everyone talked about ‘the terrible twos’ but that never happened. Then people warned us about the teenage years – they came and went. We’re still waiting for the storm…

Which is not to say her birth was without incident. In fact, for my wife it could be fairly described as traumatic. 14 weeks before her due date, my wife’s blood pressure rose alarmingly and two weeks later our very special daughter was born by emergency caesarean section. She weighed in at 2lbs 1.5 ozs – “less than a bag of sugar, but infinitely sweeter” was how I reported the news to my parents (and a surrogate grandmother from Uruguay).

The NHS care our daughter received for the next nine weeks was brilliant. Even at her birth in the operating theatre there was one team looking after my wife, one for our daughter, and a nurse for me – in case I fainted. For the record, I didn’t. I had absolute faith in the doctors and nurses and the bank of life-supporting equipment in the neonatal intensive care unit to which we had access 24 hours a day.

My wife was less calm and with good reason. She’d trained as a maternity nurse and knew too much about the hazardous journey ahead for our seriously premature baby. This, combined with a new mother’s strong maternal bond and hormonal turmoil, made our daughter’s nine week stay in hospital a particularly massive ordeal for her. My role as the ‘supportive husband’ included daily lunchtime visits to get photos developed that had been taken the day before and then visiting the hospital each evening. I felt it was very much a walk-on part and I now wonder whether I really understood what my daughter and her new mother were going through, or acknowledged my own true feelings.

Two weeks ahead of her due date, our beautiful daughter came home and some sort of normality returned to our household. Having a nurse and health visitor for a wife was both reassuring and slightly isolating. I didn’t think to ask questions about our growing child’s development assuming if all had not been normal my wife would have said something. My wife appeared to be in control but I’m not sure I ever thought to check.

I feel our daughter has developed and demonstrated her resilience by surviving those first precarious 12 weeks of her life. That and ‘willingly’ being sent to school at times she was probably unfit to go – that’s what comes from having a nurse for a mother! As parents of an only child with such a precarious arrival into this world, it would have been easy to spoil her, but we’ve tried to leave that to others.

We were warned that lung development might present problems for our daughter in later life (she had an emergency intervention when she was 12 hours old) but apart from a short stay in hospital aged 2 with bronchiolitis, her development has been smooth and untroubled. The medics said she’d be average weight by the age of two and that’s just what happened.

In earlier blog posts I’ve referred to the well-known advice for parents – that they should give their children ‘roots to grow and wings to fly’. But all parents will know the mixed emotions as they watch their young ones go off to school alone or with a friend for the first time. We  celebrate their new-found independence while regretting that one more parental tie has been broken. And then comes the recognition that our children have reached an age and stage in their lives when their pain can’t simply be removed by a kiss and a cuddle. I’ve sometimes look on feeling helpless and inadequate not knowing what to say. But then maybe just being there says something worthwhile?

We also want to shield our offspring from the darker side of life forever, but that’s just not possible. I’ll never know how my mental ill health during my daughter’s formative years may have affected her, and I don’t think the health professionals would know either.

So, was parenthood as concerning as I thought it would be all those years ago in my late teens? No – it was much less daunting thanks to the support and love of others. Before taking paternity leave, my then work colleagues reassured me that babies could be dropped without breaking (not that I ever put this to the test). And while parenting was not the number one topic of conversation at the fathers’ nights out after leaving London, we compared notes about sleep deprivation and joked about taking our daughters to football matches in the interests of being politically correct (remember this was nearly three decades ago…)

I know it’s a cliché to say so, but raising our daughter and seeing the person she has become is my proudest achievement. Her love and support have enriched my life and given me strength when I was at my lowest. She has inspired me to take on new challenges, her values, wisdom and approach to life have shown me new routes to a better world. I am truly blessed.

Further reading:

My father’s shadow https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/my-fathers-shadow-no-mans-land-6/

For other posts in the ‘No man’s land’ series go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land

Back to school – no man’s land #8 part 1   

Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference 

Birkenhead, September 1969

They [the products of the British public school] go forth into the world with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts. An undeveloped heart – not a cold one. The difference is important”                               E M Forster

If you’d asked me on leaving boarding school after seven years what I’d got out of my schooling, I’d have said (and I can actually remember saying it at the time) it was self-confidence and independence. Following a ‘year off’ after leaving school, I felt I was well prepared for further education. The maturity that came from a privileged education, followed by work in Handsworth Birmingham and the south of France was confirmed in my first term at university when I was astonished by the number of people who guessed I’d been to public school. “You just have an air of self-confidence about you” they’d say.

Yes – I had a very privileged education – public school (I’ve never worked out how private schools came to be called ‘public’) followed by university in London in the days before loans. In my defence I would say that, even then, I was well aware of the exclusivity of the education and I made every effort to invest in that education for the benefit of wider society in the years that followed – grand ambitions indeed!

It’s taken the best part of my adult life since leaving secondary school to understand the impact of that period – my formative years. Unbelievably perhaps, it’s only in the last 12 months that I’ve really found out about its impact on others with whom I shared those school years. This probably speaks volumes about my own and other contemporaries’ reluctance to think, let alone talk, about it. I know I’ve found writing this blog post the most difficult to date.

If you ask me now – 50 years after starting at secondary school aged 11 – what I feel about my boarding school experience, I focus more on the downsides. It robbed me of an important part of my childhood – the emotional development associated with puberty – I couldn’t be myself. Until my years in the sixth form I was living two lives – at school in term time and at home in the holidays. A school friend came home one holiday and he was amazed to see ‘my other side’; he recently confirmed this observation of my double identity. “I remember thinking that you had two personas – school and home. At school I recall that you were well behaved and rule-bound and somewhat the opposite in your home environment (nothing extreme though)”.

As I mentioned in the previous blog in this ‘No man’s land’ series, it was a single sex school. There was an equivalent girls’ school on the other side of the city and relations between the two (and the school students within them) were carefully controlled. It was almost as if, until the sixth form, we were ‘let out’ at different times by design. But if love does really conquer all, it gave me that tingling-down-the-spine sensation as my mind wandered to thoughts of my first ‘true’ love. When the relationship ended I was devastated. I went into a slump that, looking back, was something more than just feeling unhappy. I seem to remember the girl of my dreams got some sort of pastoral support from her school over the breakup while I was probably expected to man-up. But the love story has a happy ending – we’re still friends, in touch, and happily married (just not to each other).

Did you know there’s a website for ‘survivors’ of Boarding Schools? I learnt this many years ago when helping to organise some of our annual school reunions. I say ‘organise’ but apart from some major gatherings (25 years was the first big one) they organised themselves around the official school reunion weekend. Our gatherings continue to run alongside it and a hard core are regular returners coming back to complain about their time at school – being on tranquilizers in their final year, surviving only because of their love of sport, and other such revelations that have come out over the years. This might seem like a contradiction – returning to the scene of unhappy experiences – but maybe it’s something like criminals returning to the scene of their crimes?

Guardian journalist George Monbiot, who himself boarded from the age of eight, is vociferous in his condemnation of boarding schools for young children brandishing it as ‘child abuse’. He says “We end up with a [boarding school educated] elite, of people in positions of power, who are emotionally damaged. That’s a very dangerous place to be because children who are taught to deny their own feelings, also learn to deny other people’s feelings…

I’ve kept in touch with a good number of my former school mates through our re-unions, but only recently have I made it my business to share experiences of those distant but potentially still influential years. A number have contributed their views, but I’ve assured them their anonymity – we still live in mysterious times when unguarded or misinterpreted remarks can come back to bite us.

So, what have I learnt about inter-actions in the school – in particular antisemitism, bullying, sexual discovery – and being away from home?  To be continued…

Further reading:

For earlier blogs in the ‘No man’s land’ series click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land

George Monbiot and Alex Renton on the abuse that is boarding school education https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/feb/11/boarding-school-early-age-child-abuse-video

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/08/school-boarding-secrets-crimes-alex-renton-kipling-rowling-dahl-churchill

The Boarding School Survivor’s website http://www.boardingschoolsurvivors.co.uk