THE VIRTUAL SHED
A space for potterings & musings of the modern Dad

Welcome to the second instalment of our regular feature, The Virtual Shed! The time is gone where fathers sat on the sidelines of family life… most of today’s dads are fully involved and invested in their children and have a lot to say about raising kids and what it’s like to be a parent. Women readily chat about the nitty gritty of motherhood with each other, but a number of our menfolk told us it’s rare they hear other dads talk openly and honestly about the reality of being a father, and they’d be really keen to hear this. So, the Virtual Shed was born! Every month we’ll be interviewing a different Dad and asking him some probing questions! We’re not interested in airbrushed waffle… We want this to be a space where Dads can be as candid as they like, and chat about the reality of parenthood in all its messy, wonderful and crazy glory.

So… the second resident of the Virtual Shed… father of a daughter this time… it’s the hairy half of our lovely friends Ben and Rachel, and Dad to Huey’s little buddy Matilda… introducing nonsense-crooner and lego-megalomaniac… BEN THORLEY!

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Tell us a bit about your family
Well there are 4 in our little clan. I’m Ben (Dad), then there is Rachel (Mum). We have a 19 month old daughter called Matilda (Tilds, Tilda, Tildatron) who is our biological child and a stripy dog-child called Ziggy who is not our flesh and blood, but he pretends to be, and for the most part we humour this. I’m originally from Blackpool and Rachel was born in Salford. We’ve both lived in Manchester for a long time and currently reside in Northenden where we bought our house.

What do you do for work, and how do you juggle the hours/location(s) with family life and childcare?
I work for Bupa as a Digital Content Editor putting things on websites. Rachel is an Educational Psychologist. Matilda attends a local nursery in Northenden 3 days a week and spends every Thursday with Rachel’s Mum and Dad and every Friday with Rachel.
The days certainly feel twice as long as they did when we were Tild-less. Yet it still feels like you are cramming it chock full with as many things as possible. There will never be enough time. It’s a relentless, bulging, overweight 24 hours, but we manage pretty well. We have settled into a good routine and I think Rachel and I have been quite intuitive in helping each other out. We know when it’s time to step in and takeover. It’s a big team effort and I think that it’s really important to know when your other half is running out of petrol on ‘Struggle Street’.

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What does your role as ‘Dad’ in your family look like?
I try to make sure I am as involved as possible as the Dad of our house. I generally get home from work at 5:30pm and take over from Rachel in getting Tilds ready for bed, Rachel having already collected her from nursery and fed her tea. I’ve always been the cook in our house, so I play a big part in prepping up some dishes for Tilds. Pasta is her favourite and has been for ages. However a mysterious new food group simply called ‘cake’ is beginning to become the top answer to the question, “What shall we have for tea Matilda?” Tilda seems to have inherited Daddy’s sweet tooth. It can only be genetic because I can honestly say that I have not once given her a Jaffa cake to keep her quiet whilst I was watching football.
After tea I am the Baron of bath-time and Sovereign of the sleepy-hour. I always run a big bubble bath and give her a good dunk followed by some stories and then a cuddle with some milk. All being well, I usually put her down to sleep for 7pm and navigate my way out of her room, dodging all the creaky floorboards like a floating ghost-ninja.
At weekends I’ll always try and take Ziggy for a walk in the morning with Matilda to try and give Rachel a lie in. We both tend to share the night time antics that puncture not only the early hours but our souls. Matilda has never been a fantastic sleeper so we’ve both had to muck in and help each other out during testing times of tears.
I think I see myself as a sort of Dr-bodyguard-clown. I’m there to look after and protect the family and make everyone laugh, just without the white coat, the muscles or the red nose. I think I’m pulling it off.

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How did you cope with the transition to fatherhood and the impact and changes it had on your life?
I think I coped well. It never panicked me or scared me as I always knew that I wanted to be a Dad. The idea wasn’t crazy and watching the birth was pretty joyous, if a little icky and messy. Nothing really prepares you for seeing the mucous membrane floating in the birth pool does it?! I think at first it was hard because I really wanted to have the same connection to Matilda as Rachel had. Yet that’s not going to be possible when my nipples don’t lactate and I was back to work full time after 3 weeks paternity leave. I think you just have to be content with picking up a lot of Dadmin duties and trying to do as much as possible to fill in the gaps and help out and spend as much time as you can with the little one whenever you can. Once the milk shackles had been put back on the nipples for night-time feeds, I definitely felt more involved now that I was the milk maid.
The change in lifestyle was the bit that I struggled with the most to be honest. Rachel and I had always lead a very active, spontaneous social life (we went to the pub a lot) and when that suddenly stops, you wait for it to click back on again (when can we go back to the pub a lot?) but it doesn’t. It took me ages to get my head round the idea that things will never be the same again. They’ve changed forever. So simple but so difficult. You no longer swan off to the pub for 3 days. Every trip out is a carefully managed, touring circus that tries its best to get out of the house before midday with everyone still on speaking terms and with a billion quintessential items all loaded into your massive car. All this for a trip to Aldi and maybe a coffee and a floppy vanilla slice served by ‘Callum’ in the Tesco cafe. You’ll spend 5 hours doing things that once took 45 minutes. Time sucked and gurgled away like the milk in the bottle. It’s Matilda that drinks a lot now and we try and squeeze in a shandy when we can.

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As a dad, what things do you think you’ve got nailed, and what things do you think you could scrub up on?
I sweat nonsense. It oozes out of all my pores, flows out my mouth and seeps from my ears. Matilda loves this. Rachel has had to put up with my gibberish bananas for 5 years and I can tell she is happy that Matilda is now the one that listens to most of my tripe. Whether it’s a song about roast beef or a never ending ditty about different types of shoes, Tilda is my biggest fan.
When Matilda and I play Lego Duplo, I tend to get very engrossed in what I am building and less so in what she is making. Some of the stuff I have put together is nothing short of mind blowing and to be honest, up until now, some of Tilda’s creations have been…. well…. a little disappointing. I’m not very good at sharing certain bricks with her either. Also I need to be a little more empathetic towards Matilda’s desire to dismantle bricks rather than build. Matilda is more of a destroyer rather than a creator when it comes to Lego construction, but I just don’t get it?!? Make something!! Build something!! Stop wrecking all my hard work and build your own Super-Cow Flower Tower Of Doom!! I will try harder to appreciate her efforts and just how beautifully she has obliterated my multi-coloured temples of wonder.
Oh…. and I really….really….REALLY need to stop swearing. I’ve had to do this question session in drafts to remove all the swearing because even my writing is sweary. I just love swear words. I figure that I gave up smoking 2 days before Tilda was born so swearing is my only vice. It is probably time for a swear jar and a new vice…. Graffiti?…. Car-jacking?…. Knock-a-door runs?

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Biggest pleasure about being a dad?
There are a lot of things. The first smile, the first time she said Daddy, the times when the nappy smells like a MASSIVE poo but it’s just a baby fart. The greatest pleasure is having a relationship with Matilda and doing things with her that only me and her do. Our silly little things. Just me and her things. Knowing that we are close and even at her young age, on a familiar wavelength is totally brilliant. I’d like to think that we can still be tight when she gets older and hopefully we will.

Toughest thing about being a dad?
I find it hard letting Matilda loose. I’m not a control freak by any stretch of the imagination and I think I am quite relaxed as a Dad, but I maybe tend to err on the cautious side a little too much. I can’t help it! I think I see the worst outcome unfolding too often and panic a little. What if she eats that massive pebble?! What if she drinks too much water from the tippee cup and the lid falls off mid-drink and she drowns?! Are all the cuddly toys safe even if they are NOT Disney?! If she watches TV will her eyes wither and die?!?…..Arrrghhh!!
I don’t ever want to see her fall or see her bump her little ginger head. I don’t want anything bad to happen to her. I’m sure that these are all totally normal feelings but we’ve all got to explore and make mistakes in order to learn. Some parents just seem a bit more at ease with their kids in vulnerable situations. I see the danger in things too easily. I don’t know why I worry though as Matilda is an absolute battle-axe who can take care of herself. She should probably be the one worrying about me.

Biggest surprise about being a dad?
I think I was surprised at how well I coped on a little amount of sleep. I have days when I am totally zonked but I seem to have this extra, reserve battery that clicks on when I really should be walking into walls and collapsing or accidentally eating my own hand. I have realised that I am more resilient than I ever thought I could be and this feels quite empowering to know that all of a sudden I’ve become a fighter without even realising it. I suppose it was always there but I guess I just needed to have something to protect.

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What would you like to ask other dads?
I’d like to know what Dads thought were the best things they’d done with the kids without Mum? Whilst Rachel was away I took Matilda to a Star Wars convention to meet Darth Vader. That was pretty cool and the fact that Matilda can now recognise the Sith Lord is a sign of epic parenting. She calls him Darf. Brilliant.
I’d also like to hear other Dads’ songs that they have made up. I am more than happy to share the lyrics to ‘Wiggle, wiggle roast beef’.

Best piece of practical advice for other dads?
Go with your guts. Trust your Dad-o-meter. It’s always been in you and now you are a Dad, it’s finally time to use it. There is a myriad of information available on the web… from friends…. from family…. and in turn a billion ways to do things. I find the best way to do things is to do what feels right. You can waste a lifetime at 3am in the morning trying to work out how to get your little girl to sleep. Consult the ‘Dad-O-Meter’. Mine told me try slow, swirling rubs on her back with my hand whilst marching around the room in the dark and chanting slowly…..”Shhhh…shhhh ….Daddy’s got ya…….Shhhh…..Shhhh…. Daddy’s got ya…”
Your ‘Dad-O-Meter’ will no doubt tell you something different. Trust it.

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Thanks so much Ben for being such a great Shed resident!

Other dads… the penultimate question in the Virtual Shed will always be, “What would you like to ask other dads?” We’d love you to chip in to answer in the comments below, so that the Shed can become more interactive, a virtual Dads’ community, rather than just a straightforward interview. So, if any of you have any responses to Ben’s solo-dad-days and dad-songs questions above, or of course any other comments about what he had to say, please do chime in below, we’d love to hear from you!

{Anna}