‘Down to Earth’ toddlers group: on nature and connectedness

  

Last month we went to the Brigit’s Garden in Pollagh in Galway for the open day of a Toddler group. It was a bright spring day that brought the forest to life. The sun was peeking through the trees and was catching the children’s faces. It is at moments like this that I understand why it is so important to bring children to nature.
I was brought straight back to my childhood. My happiest memories are from being outdoors and around nature. The Swiss knife as treasure tool, old clothes to get dirty, the endless space in my aunt’s cottage yard, granddad’s mountain enclave and the surrounding forest. Today I saw a pencil made from wood and my heart felt warm remembering that I once owned one too. I shared baked potatoes with my children and I was taken back to sitting with my cousins by the bonfire, cutting through a hot spud and crushing salt onto the melted butter.
My children had a lovely time, playing with all the precious things that were made by the leaders of the group. Beautiful, natural, handmade objects. Swings made of knotted ropes, wooden jewellery and instruments. The children used leaves, mud and water to cook in their imaginary kitchen.

Nature exposes us to the concepts of continuity and connectedness. In today’s fast changing and fragmented world, it is difficult to feel it on day to day basis. It’s difficult to capture our experience and keep it safe – photos in the cloud, letters lost in the mailbox, luggage with childhood memories left behind after moving house again. We are just going with the flow, the years passing by. We wear new clothes, because the old ones remind us that we too are getting old.

We live half of our lives online. We travel, change places, learn languages and fly far away from our childhood homes to build a new ones and sometimes never return. The world is transforming and with that comes great developments and fantastic new inventions, but we as humans inherently desire those feelings of connectedness and continuity. We still need to understand our roots, to know where we came from and what needs to be respected.
Experiencing nature can help us with remembering what’s important and who we are. It helps us to get in touch with ourselves and appreciate all the gifts of the earth. Encouraging our children to interact with nature is an important part of their long term development and helps to teach them to nurture what’s already theirs.

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The Fathers as we see them (through the lens of our culture) 

  
Lego started to recognise the changing role of fathers in our culture. We have now Lego figurines with happy fathers pushing buggies and staying at home with the children. And it’s great, the message sent by main players on the market is heard by many families and it does have an impact on our perception of social norms. Role playing toys are powerful medium through which our children receive hints on what are the accepted ways of doing things in our society. 

But do we really know what we expect from fathers these days?
I think fathers have several reasons to feel confused about their role in the family.

Stupid jokes

The thing which strikes me each time I come across it in social media, is circulation of insensitive jokes about fathers. Fathers are patronised, pictured as incompetent, silly people, who seek woman’s help in all the tasks concerning children. I recently saw a joke-chart on FB saying mummy is the one answering all sorts of questions children might have and father who is presented with the only single question: where is mummy? Other example is an image of a family bed, where father sleeps uninterrupted on ‘his half’ of the bed, while mother is awake on her side, having have to accommodate the children (and the dog and the cat) there; and obviously – doesn’t get any sleep at all. It might put a smile on someone’s tired face when after many sleepless nights. It can be viewed as a sort of acting out-frustrations joke. But in fact this enhances the false picture of fathers as those uninvolved and disinterested parents. Whereas in every single family I know, fathers take a big part in minding small babies at night (even when they have to get up the earliest and go to work).
I understand these jokes as displacement of anger and frustration onto fathers (husbands, partners). These difficult emotions are completely normal and understandable, but dealing with these feelings through partners and leaving them look incompetent and selfish is not fair.

Segregation

Fathers face contradictory expectations regarding their participation in bringing up children. The question I often heard when our first child was born, was: “Is your partner helping?”. I didn’t feel word ‘helping’ was accurate description of our arrangement. It wasn’t him helping with the child, it was us bringing up the new baby together; each of us bonding with our daughter in our ways. It wasn’t me giving him access to the child for the time of ‘helping’ or him thinking: ‘I’d better help out a bit here’.
But the most vivid example of fathers being expected to get involved but in some special, father-like way is a gender segregated parenting. Parent-toddlers groups are mainly attended by mothers from obvious reason – they are still main care givers – staying at home parents, who seek for social support and company for their children; it’s mainly mother-toddlers group we are speaking about. 

Nevertheless, there are stay-at-home-fathers and single fathers, who would also benefit from attending toddler groups. It is much more difficult for fathers to make an appearance in such groups. When fathers enter a toddler group it’s like they invade the space reserved for mothers. It seems to be uncomfortable for both mothers and fathers. A few times I experienced weekend meet ups, where few fathers turned up. They usually ended up half hidden, in the corner of the room, or squeezed between two mothers turned back, chatting with someone else. Latter on, those fathers, who made it to the meeting was labelled as ‘brave’. There was also a suggestion, that fathers should have their own, fathers’ meeting set up. 

Why is it brave to attend a meeting, which should be a joint pleasure – an occasion to see a child interacting with other children? Why isn’t it ‘normal’ to meet and talk about parenting (or something else, for that matter), in a mixed – mothers and fathers group?
The reason might be our deeply rooted traditional way of thinking about parenting. It is not necessarily helpful these days, but it’s there, as an artefact of the old order.

On the other hand, it preserves the importance of mothers’ role and gives them power to lead and dictate the conditions in the world of bringing up children. 
All parties: children, mothers and fathers are benefiting from shifting power relations and more engagement of fathers and mothers in family life. Change isn’t easy and some fathers might need more encouragement in taking up the roles which traditionally belonged to women, and mothers might need to find ways to be more open to change too.

What Fathers definitely don’t need is a prejudice attitude that comes from the past and is often unconscious, that pushes them to the sidelines. This isn’t good for fathers or mothers, but most importantly it isn’t good for our children.
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