Monday, 12 October 2015

AIPL: the mysterious world of weaning


For obvious technical reasons, the natural way to share a year of leave is for mum to take the first half and dad the second half. This meant I was able to benefit from Mrs Tomsk's hard-won experience in many areas, but weaning would be a daddy-managed activity. Little did I realise how it would dominate proceedings.

The advice from on high these days is not to start weaning until your baby is six months old, a good couple of months later than used to be the case, and exactly the time I was due to take over. Elspedoodle had tried a few things before this time, most notably in the notorious Magnum chocolate accident, but also broccoli and a chip she reached out and grabbed when we weren't looking. So she was aware of the most important food groups, but making a concerted effort on her weaning fell to me. I am rather proud of navigating her from an essentially milk-only diet at the start of my leave to three meals a day by the end while somehow miraculously maintaining her growth percentile line throughout. I can't claim any special insight into how this was achieved and credit must also go to E for the small matter of learning how to eat, but I do feel the satisfaction of a job well done (perhaps because of all the time I spent cleaning up after her).

Anyone who has not had to come up with a weaning strategy may be terrified to learn that there are two competing ideologies to choose from: spoon-fed and baby-led weaning. Spoon feeding is considered more traditional and involves making up lots of purees in ice cube trays, which are delivered into baby by means of a spoon. Baby-led weaning is considered a bit trendy and involves making up lots of finger food, which is offered to baby to play with and then delivered by baby over a wide radius around their highchair.

Elspedoodle forced the issue by looking expectantly at our food and grabbing it whenever given a chance, so plunging us down the baby-led route. The concept was also appealing, the idea being that babies should discover food at their own pace and have fun with it so they don't feel that eating is a terrible way to be spending their time. E was started off on typical finger food like pears, cucumbers, well-boiled carrots and the like which she very much enjoyed throwing about and occasionally gummily chewing.We avoided mush as a rule but weren't zealots about it: the spoons came out for porridge, yoghurt, mash and so on. Like with most ideological clashes there is a happy medium somewhere between the two extremes.

E quickly developed some favourites, including a very Chorltonish pitta and hummus combo which I became adept at cleaning up on the move (it's surprising which things are easy and which are hard to clean up: hummus is straightforward, while broccoli is an absolute nightmare). We also benefitted from Mrs Tomsk's heroic baking efforts leading to plentiful reserves of quiche and mushroom rolls in the freezer.

E rarely refused to try new things but did have some unusual dislikes, bananas and strawberries surprisingly chief among them. These aversions were cured by Mrs Tomsk baking them into muffins, and Elspedoodle now loves strawberries so much she has stripped the garden bare of them. The muffin-disguise ploy could conceivably be used for any foodstuff up to and including sprouts. We've stocked up on muffin cases in preparation for the next bout of fussiness.

The hardest period was what I recall shudderingly as "peak weaning" when E was trying out 3 meals a day while still having all her bottled milk as well. I was effectively full-time chef, waiter, potwash, floor mopper and formula milk barista over that time. Thankfully her milk intake started to decline soon after, particularly after she got teeth. After that everything became a lot easier to eat, not to mention prepare. Her joy at being able to strip a cucumber down to the skin in mere seconds was something to behold.

The weaning experience has changed our diet too thanks to an obsession with minimising salt along with an increased commitment to cooking with fresh ingredients, which has kinda sorta lasted into the post-leave era. Now that E is past her first birthday the rules are a little relaxed and she's easier to cater for when we're out and about, but we still have interesting puzzles to work through in the evenings like how to make a curry that's suitable for all of us (usual answer: two pans). She's also less messy while eating, at least until she's had enough and decides to throw everything left over the side of her chair as a reminder of the early days, all the while smiling cheekily at us.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Adventures in Paternity Leave


I've been back at work now for almost as long as I was away on paternity leave, and excuses for not writing a blog about it are wearing thin. My memories are starting to get distinctly rose-tinted too: as we battle through nursery virus season juggling work commitments it feels like a lost era of tranquillity and cake. Not that there wasn't cake, of course, but I'm pretty sure I'm imagining the tranquillity. Time to publish before it turns entirely fictional.

It's only recently that fathers have been given a right to paternity leave in the UK. The standard leave of one or two weeks after birth was introduced only in 2003, and it wasn't until 2011 that it became possible to transfer a portion of maternity leave from the mother to the father (aka "additional paternity leave"). These were the rules under which I took my time off work, but things move fast in the paternity leave game and since 2015 the more flexible "shared parental leave" has been introduced where mum and dad can swap in and out of work more frequently.

I didn't really follow the earlier developments at the time, babies not being top of the agenda for us until recently, and so it took some research and a fair amount of digging through my conditions of employment to understand exactly what leave I was entitled to take. But one thing that both I and Mrs Tomsk were keen on from the start was sharing the main period of leave. From a practical point of view it made sense as we both wanted to keep working and there were no major financial implications to transferring the leave, but apart from that it just felt like the natural thing to do. I wanted to take a step back from life's multitude of other concerns for a while and spend my time getting to know our baby's crazy ways - and that's exactly what's on offer now to dads as well as mums. I'm really glad I took up the opportunity. Every couple needs to decide what works for them, but I would urge anyone who is in a position to do so to consider sharing their leave.

I don't think at the time I quite appreciated how rare it still is for the father to be the primary carer, at least until I realised I was the only one at our antenatal classes who would be doing it. My colleagues at work were completely accepting of the idea, if occasionally bemused by it, while HR were supportive and excited because I was one of the first to take additional paternity leave in the organisation and it gave them something new and interesting to administer. It helped that some of the projects I work on can be put on hold without causing the world to end, and what with "Keeping in Touch" days and the ever-present temptation to check emails (usually suppressed by having 1001 other things to get done during naptime), you never really lose track of what's going on.

We should be grateful that paternity leave is one of the few areas of the welfare state where provision is getting more generous and flexible rather than less. But it remains to be seen whether the new rules will result in more fathers taking up the opportunity. The evidence from Sweden (a mere 40 years ahead of Britain when it comes to childcare arrangements) suggests that it won't make a whole lot of difference and only a "use it or lose it" right to paternity leave will get a significant number of dads taking time more off. Let's hope we continue to follow in the footsteps of the Scandinavians.

Next time: weaning!