an unofficial anti-guide to Irresponsible Parenting (part 1)
If there’s one thing more tedious than a childfree friend extolling the virtues of their carbon neutral fun-and-money-filled lifestyle, it’s a self-satisfied parent extolling the worthiness of their child fulfilled life. There seems to be a whole lot of navel gazing surrounding the weird, wonderful world of sprogs, with both ‘sides’ convinced of how much better their life is with/without. Therefore, as a new-ish dad, and someone who considered himself least likely to ever spawn an ankle biter of his own, rest assured I’m going to avoid a ‘how to’ guide on this subject like a five year old avoids broccoli. Honestly, my advice is the last thing you need – I’m so tired I can barely see straight.
But, just so you know I’m not being completely flippant, I’ll just say that the first year and a half of my daughter’s life has been a beautiful, humbling, frustrating, ego destroying, life-affirming thing of terror, wonder and awe. I’m alternately petrified for her safety, and in hysterics with laughter – often oscillating between the 2 within seconds. If you’re a parent, you’ll no doubt recognise this heady mix of heartache, sleep deprivation, caffeine poisoning and borderline schizophrenia. And if not, I’ve already lost you with the previous platitudes…
Right then, that’s sorted the wheat from the chaff. So, anyway… I’m not going to tell you how to raise your child – that’s what the in-laws are for. This is just us figuring it out as we went along, trying to get out as a new family and making lots of mistakes.
Our first attempt was a last minute, very unglamourous return to ‘car camping’ – I’ll spare you a photo. The campsite was right on the road; a caravan friendly, tent hostile kind of place. We pitched on the edge of the site, about 10 yards from a bus stop in an old school 4 kg tent with all the trimmings – kettle, gas stove, bar-b-q… the list goes on. For someone whose passion is wild camping in a tarp miles from anywhere, Dad was required to bite his tongue more than once. That was lesson 1, and compromise was a good lesson to learn, because despite all that confounded paraphernalia both Mum and daughter had a great time. I might have even enjoyed the fresh food and wine… begrudgingly, of course! Despite the venue, we had the right idea in general – a long summer weekend picking off little chunks of the lovely Fife coastal path, with plenty of stops for breastfeeding… and coffee.
We pitched up in the Lake District a month or so later, at a National Trust campsite in Wasdale. I’m not a huge fan of campsites, but this is one of the better ones, and once again, the ‘family’ formula worked. A cool-bag for milk and fresh food, bathroom facilities, blankets and duvets all conspired to make a day or two outdoors with the pocket anarchist not just possible, but fun. She seemed to really enjoy the intimacy of sleeping in the tent with both parents, as well as the small things that we take for granted – the birdlife, the local Herdwick sheep, the feel of leaves and grass. From our point of view, we have learnt to slow down a little and appreciate things we previously strode past in order to reach the summit.
An interesting thing happened on that trip. We traversed around Great Gable, alongside a DofE gold group and a father and son team, both of whom were a little out of their depth and kept losing the trail. Our little one was in a sling, buried in my partner’s coat. When the others realised we had a baby in tow, our coincidental companions became very concerned… the atmosphere got very ‘skittish’ and people lost concentration and group cohesion on the loose ground. I was amazed how quickly everyone’s composure crumbled! My partner and I were more than comfortable on this grade 1 scramble, but it flagged up for the first time other’s expectations of where and when we should have an infant with us.
I mention this because new, tired parents sometimes struggle with what seems like an onslaught of opinions about childrearing, especially when it comes to health and safety. Everyone’s an expert, right? So it’s good to take a step back: Other people’s concern may be a projection but it is understandable. More often, outdoors folk love to see us out with the little one. The naysayers are in the minority, so don’t be put off if you meet one.
Then again, some concern is a good thing. Our nipper’s first Munro was, appropriately enough for us Glasgow dwellers, Ben Lomond, on a sunny Autumn day. What did we learn? Double the time you normally take for a route – even small babies are heavy, and food breaks take longer too. Most important of all is warmth and circulation. Some slings and baby carriers can restrict blood flow to the legs with prolonged use, and the little one wasn’t keeping warm by moving, as we were. We got back to the car park after dark… and I’m ashamed to admit our child’s legs were blue with the cold. I was completely guilt ridden for days after. We got hold of a down suit after that, in my mind probably our single best purchase to date. Size up and choose one that’ll last 2 winters – she won’t be walking the first year anyway…
Fast-forward a few months to a camper van trip around Mull. Hiring isn’t something we can afford all the time, but it did allow us to access places we just couldn’t have managed on foot, and it was great fun. It also placated some of our parental niggles about weather protection and timings for food. After the first night of unsettled sleep due to unfamiliar surroundings, she loved waking up on beaches and lochsides, was introduced to sea eagles and oystercatchers, and even a cloud inversion on Ben More. By this point, we had her in a child carrier or backpack – an expensive but worthwhile item if you intend to do some hill walking with babe in tow – but longer serving carers than I will tell you that there’s a fairly small window before the little terrors 1. Get too heavy to carry and 2. Start to walk properly and won’t be carried. At the moment, we’re still enjoying that window whilst it lasts.
All this time I’ve been sowing the seeds for the first wild camp as a family, of course. A work and weather window came together just as mother and daughter appeared to need a break most, so I seized my opportunity and popped the question! I picked out a Glen Lyon camp, under Beinn Bhuidhe. The walk in is long but flat, and the glen feels quite wild and remote once past the hydro works. On reflection, I underestimated just how long the walk in would feel with 15kgs of baby and carrier and 20kgs of camping gear, so I’ll know to choose a shorter route between car and camp next time.
Tangerines and Tales of the Gruffalo helped passed the time on the way in, and once settled the cheeky monkey seemed to really blossom at camp. She was initially nervous but fascinated by the sun dappled burn running through the Glen, but loved the butterflies and the buzzard calling in the woods above, and even seemed to appreciate the view of Ben Lui. And, after gentle introductions to her home for the night, she was soon splashing about in the rock pools and crawling around in the grass. We were concerned about ticks and midges, but the former stayed away altogether, and the latter didn’t seem to bother her – just a couple of tiny bites, about which she couldn’t have cared less. After her 3rd Munro – which again took us almost twice as long as it might usually – she even walked her longest ever walk on the track out. And it may be wish fulfilment, but I could swear we saw a little developmental spurt in the days after – she seemed chattier, more stable on her feet. It wasn’t all roses of course: She stayed up half the night in the tent, excited by all the new things to see and do – a mixed blessing in the early hours…
Like anything new, I guess the secret with this is little and often, so that the mistakes aren’t too huge and we all learn a few tricks for next time. And for my next cliché… kids, even babies, really are as adaptable and resilient as their grandparents keep telling you. Time and again, we’re reminded that it’s our expectations as inexperienced, worried and sleep starved carers that sometimes need shaking up.
The wild camp felt like quite a big milestone for us. Whilst I am blessed to be outdoors for work fairly often, my partner isn’t out as often. The wild camp meant we were both able to re-engage our joint passion for the outdoors, as well as share it with the newcomer in our lives.