10 things I’ve learnt about parenting

The internet and Malcolm Gladwell will tell you that if you practice something for 10,000 hours, you can become a master. Well I’ve now been parenting for 10 years, that’s 87,600 hours (or 87, 548 if you subtract the hours I was asleep), which means that I am pretty much the Yoda of parenting. So here are 10 things I have learnt over 10 years of parenting.

1. Spinning plates

I can remember a time in my 20’s when I knew that if I just dedicated a Sunday to ‘catching up’ then I could get back on top of pretty much anything. Finances? Check. Clean the house? Check. Annoying little jobs around the house? Check.
But the arrival of Josh lead to a 2 year period where life became a constant plate spinning act.
Finally feel that I’m getting on top of things around the house? But what about fitness? Quick do more fitness! Oh no…what about that Tax Return that’s due? Quick do that. Aaaghh!! What about spending time with the Hull-Browns…Oh God and the Riordan’s? Oh crap, I’ve got to devote some of my time to keeping the marriage together, and the dogs could really do with some attention…but I also need to get on top of things around the house!!!
By the time Holly arrived I started looking on in horror as some of the plates I was spinning crashed to the ground…and by the time Xavier arrived I was pretty much walking around with the sound of crashing crockery rebounding around my head. Did the world end? No. Did my marriage dissolve? No. Did the kids become little monsters? N…actually…look, let’s just say it could have been worse. But the simple fact of the matter is that spinning plates is foolish and overly ambitious. Just have as many plates as there are people in your family, put good food on them, make sure everyone uses them at the same time, clean them when they’re finished with and everything else will sort itself out from there.

2. Misery likes company

You need to make friends with people who are going through the same thing as you. Friends without kids will be nothing but a well meaning source of jealousy. Parents of kids who are older or younger than yours are also of little use. Those with kids older than yours have already repressed the horror that you’re going through, and besides they’re a little distracted by ‘Oliver! Get down from there! No don’t jump down!!! Oh God. I told you not to…yes, yes I do think it’s broken.’ And people with younger children have absolutely no interest in entertaining the possibility that things could actually get worse (or as I like to call it ‘bad, but in a different way’).
What you need is people who can look at you through bleary eyes and say ‘Yeah…I actually went in and woke her up at 2am so that I had an excuse to watch the Tour de France’. People who aren’t appalled when you mention your kid has Hand, Foot and Mouth, people who will buy birthday presents that aren’t Axle-F playing toy cats, and people who will occasionally utter to your child the most beautiful sentence known to parents ‘Yeah, of course it’s OK if you come over for a sleepover!’

3. Money

There is no end of things you can spend your money on once you have kids…and roughly 6% of these are things that you actually want. Mortgages, rent, cars, basketball, piano, choir, food, clothes, food again, I have been genuinely appalled at the number of times I’ve had to slink into a bank branch to withdraw money in the days leading up to a payday, simply because I had less than $20 in my account and so couldn’t take money out of the ATM.
If I had my way, the whole family would be living in a tent somewhere subsisting on foraged food and care packages from concerned relatives, while money accumulated in our bank account. ‘Fun costs money!’ I would yell at members of the family as they suggested expenditure of frivolous items such as holidays, or parties, or running water. To say the least, I am a fiscal conservative.
Katie on the other hand doesn’t share my fear of spending money. Indeed, if she had her way, we would probably  be living in the same tent foraging for food, but we wouldn’t have a large bank balance and instead would have an amazing array of life experiences to show for it.
Fortunately we have managed to find a middle-ground that sees me spending a lot of time feeling anxious and Katie spending a lot of time feeling frustrated…but our kids have a renovated roof over their head, they rarely have to forage for food, and the care packages come in the form of dinners at our parents house. Which is really the sweet spot you should be aiming for with your parenting.

4. They need you…but you need you too

I’ve seen a few parents who have continued on with their lives after kids exactly as they were before they had kids, and I’ve seen parents whose lives were gradually subsumed into the lives of their kids. As with most of these things, somewhere in between is where you need to be. You need to be there for your partner and kids…but you also need to maintain enough of the person you want to be so that when you look in the mirror you don’t wonder ‘Who is that chubby, dull, old guy?’
Having said that, I have swung to pretty much both ends of this pendulum. On the one hand I’ve spent an entire year training for an Ironman, and on the other hand I’ve spent so much time as the ‘self-nominated child minder at social events’ that I have pretty much become a social ghost in that I’m constantly leaving conversations before they can develop into anything interesting as I’m scampering off to move someone away from a ladder, or playing with a child until they have ‘warmed up’ enough to go and play with the other kids…or not even attending grown-up social events because I’m at home looking after the kids. The net result has been and increasingly reclusive lifestyle that only leads to jealousy about other people’s non-reclusive lifestyles.
So this is ultimately a very long way of saying, if I’m talking to you at a party and I’m really struggling to make small-talk…please bear with me…I’m a bit rusty.

5. Sleep

With all three of our kids we have spent the first two years of their life not sleeping through the night. So I clearly have no advice to pass on here, other than that sleep deprivation is a freaking killer. It kills motivation, patience, creativity, passion and tolerance…which are pretty much the essential ingredients for a successful family life, marriage and career. There will be plenty of times when you put a strain on these things…but if you feel you are losing them, get help. Try sleep school, ask your friends what they’re doing, see if  you can palm the kids off to a relative or friend for the night so that you can at least get one night of uninterrupted sleep. But don’t just try to ride it out. Sleep deprivation is like an insidious gas that distorts your perception and clouds your judgement, the only cure is a few nights of unbroken sleep…or failing that coffee…lots of coffee.

6. Mini-Me

Have you ever wondered what the personification of all of your insecurities and weaknesses would look like? Well let me assure you it looks a lot like your child as you watch them loitering around the outskirts of a social occasion, or you see them being dragged along the beach by a dog because they have absolutely no body weight…but are determined not to let go, or of course in that precious moment when at 3 years old they drop something and say ‘Oh, for Christ’s SAKE!’

7. They’ve got to take risks

This is one is really hard. Put simply, if you never let your kids take any risks you will probably have an unblemished report card when it comes to visits to the Emergency Department. But I also think you will have a child who will compensate wildly for this lack of risk taking in later life, or a child who is too scared to take the risks that we need to take as human beings to progress in life. With that said, I still feel a pang of fear each time one of the kids goes for a ride around the block, or heads up to the shop to get some milk, or stands on something very high and asks me to film a slow-mo video of him jumping off. But that’s nothing compared to how proud of themselves they are when they do it.

8. Parental guilt

One of the most brutal parts of raising kids, is realising what a turd you were when you were a kid. How hard you made life for your parents, how ungrateful you were for everything that they did for you, how ignorant you were of the myriad battles they were fighting. You want to apologise to them, you want to say ‘Is there anything I can do to make up for it?’, you want to do anything you can to assuage the guilt and feeling of indebtedness.
Instead, you say ‘Can you PLEASE look after the kids this Saturday night?’…and dig that hole a little deeper.

9. Some things you grew up with were actually really good

Growing up in Melbourne, and in a family that liked sport. I was pretty indoctrinated into the worlds of Cricket and AFL Football. But in my late twenties, I found that I was actually getting way too involved in the actions of 18 men on a footy field who I had never met and slowly started to divorce myself from footy. I also stopped hanging out with people who enjoyed watching cricket (or perhaps more accurately started living with someone who didn’t enjoy watching cricket) and I slowly lowered my cricket status to ‘aware of enough to make conversation if necessary’.
By the time Josh was born, I hadn’t watched a game of footy or cricket for years and so he has grown up without doing AusKick, or going to a footy match, or watching an ODI or 20/20 cricket match.
While we were down at Wilson’s Prom in January some kids came over and asked if he’d like to play cricket with them, he tentatively said ‘Yes’, but then admitted ‘But I don’t really know the rules’. In an instant I realised that at his age I was out pretty much every night in the backyard bowling at an imaginary batsman, or bouncing a ball off our back wall and catching the rebound, and that Saturday nights always held the potential of watching a Day/Night match at the MCG with my Dad.
I’d deprived my kids of this, just because I didn’t like the way it turned out for me…not because it was a bad idea. What’s more, in a city that lives and breathes sport, I’d deprived them of key information that will most likely provide the backbone of thousands of future conversations.

10. Don’t listen to people on the internet

For the love of God, you’re an adult…and a parent. Why are you reading this? You don’t need advice from someone on the internet about your own children. You know full well they’ve probably just plonked the kids in front of a screen so that they can find the time to write a blog about how to be a good parent. You also know that the photos that people post on Facebook showing the happy family engaged in an educational/cultural/physical activity was preceded by 5 minutes of screams and threats. You know that the parent humble bragging about their child’s achievement at school/sport/lion taming is glossing over the part where their child also nearly set fire to the cat.
So don’t surround yourself with someone else’s curated version of parenthood. Surround yourself with real life parents living with real life kids and share the good, the bad and the ugly. Because that’s what parenting should be about; sharing the dazzling highs and commiserating on the soul-crushing lows. But most of all it’s about talking honestly about what your kids are doing and what they are going through…and then walking away and thinking ‘well at least my kids aren’t doing that!’


My top 10 photos for 2014

2014 has been an interesting year of photography for me. On the one hand, training for the Ironman has left very little time to get out and take photos. But on the other hand taking part in The Age’s ‘Clique’ photo competition has meant that I’ve been forced to really push myself out of my comfort zone in terms who and how I shoot. Plus I shot my first wedding (there’s a blog on that coming soon). The net result is that I shot a lot more photos that I was happy with this year…so here are my top 10 in no particular order (if you’re having trouble viewing the images you can also find them here.)

#1 X & A

The X-man and Ashy. ISO 100, 50mm, f1.4 1/200
X & A. ISO 100, 50mm, f1.4 1/200

Probably the biggest change to my photography came with my purchase of the Zack Arias video series ‘Onelight 2.0’ It transformed me from someone who swore he would never shoot with a flash, to someone who suddenly saw the opportunities a flash presented. Like capturing that moment when a couple of 2 year olds give each other a big hug. On my normal settings I would have missed this. They would have been slightly blurred…or a little out of focus. But with the flash they were captured in this moment, and they both just look so freaking happy to be in each other’s company.

#2 Lightspeed at the roadhouse

Light speed at the roadhouse. ISO 640, 24mm, f2.8, 8sec
Light speed at the roadhouse. ISO 640, 24mm, f2.8, 8sec

I owe a pretty hefty debt to Luke Vesty for the idea for this one. We were on a two day roadtrip in regional Victoria and had decided to take some long exposure shots. Luke got an amazing shot of a truck driving past so all you could see was a road sign and the trucks red lights disappearing into the distance. Clearly I couldn’t steal his idea…but I could appropriate it! So this is my remix. I set up my shot of the roadhouse and then waited for a truck to come past. When it was about 500m away I took and 8 second shot…and this was the result.

#3 Selfish portrait

Selfish portrait. ISO 400, 17mm, f3.5 and 6sec
Selfish portrait. ISO 400, 17mm, f3.5 and 6sec

One of the Clique challenges was to ‘shine a light on something you are passionate about’. So I had the idea of getting a shot of me out on the cycling trainer with a long enough exposure that my legs would look blurred. In theory the idea was pretty straight forward…but it took about an hour of setting up the camera, pressing the button, then running over to the bike and pedalling until the shot was done, then getting off the bike and back to the camera to see if it had worked. Eventually it did and I love the final shot (the light on the back wheel is coming from my phone which I had set up against the trainer)…but was it worth the numerous mosquito bites? Probably not.

#4 Down at the Nieuw Amsterdam

Down at the Nieuw Amsterdam,
Down at the Nieuw Amsterdam, ISO100, 17mm, f2.8 & 1/6sec

Another Clique challenge was to take a photo of someone who worked from dusk til dawn, and you had to use available light (ie no flash). I have a friend at work whose husband runs a restaurant in the city called Nieuw Amsterdam and I asked if I could come in and take a photo, and she said no worries. So I traipsed into the city one Wednesday night and headed down to the cocktail bar at Nieuw Amsterdam, and discovered that while the bar had an awesome ambience…it was freaking dark. So I asked the barman if there was any way of getting some more light in to the bar ‘Will this do?’ he asked and put a brulee torch to a block of sugar. *snap* ‘Yep, that will do nicely.’

#5 Maxim

Maxim, ISO 100, 24mm, f2.8 & 1/80sec

This shot was taken at Josh’s birthday party. My children pretty much refuse to do anything that I ask in a photo…but that doesn’t mean I can’t ask other, more polite children to stand under a skylight and look up towards it. I originally wanted to use as a colour shot as there was heaps of brightly coloured lego in the background…but it worked so much better as a black and white.

#6 Show me the boy at 7 and I’ll give you the man

Josh, ISO 800, 55mm, f2.8 & 1/100

As mentioned in #5, my kids have pretty much decided that my interest in photography is just a ploy to annoy them. As such, I have at best 10 seconds to get any shot of them before they walk off…and, no, they won’t be taking any direction…what you see is what you get. And sometimes that is pretty awesome. There’s nothing special about this as a photo…but as a parent it’s exactly how I see Josh, and how I think I’ll see him in about 10 years time. So I’m so glad I’ve got this as a keepsake.

#7 Sir James

Sir James,
Sir James, ISO 100, 24mm, f2.8 & 1/160 (with flash bouncing off an umbrella)

Another big lesson for this year was ‘Don’t be afraid of autofocus’. I had always assumed that pro-photographers eschewed auto focus and manually focused all of their shots. But having spoken to a few photographers about this, they all had the same reaction ‘Wow, you’re focusing everything manually…I don’t do that!’

For this shot I was in near total darkness and had no scope to manually focus and so trusted the autofocus…and lo and behold the shots came out beautifully.

I had hired some flash gear for the weekend to take these shots, so I was shooting with gear I’d never used, following a technique I had just learnt from a video and I was taking photos of my father-in-law. So the scope for disaster was pretty spectacular, but if this year has taught me anything it’s that the more you push yourself, the bigger the rewards. My challenge with any portrait is to try and capture the essence of the person, and so in this shot I think you see someone who is content, confident, a bit cheeky and incredibly comfortable with a glass of wine in his hand. Which is pretty much exactly how I see James.

#8 The big sister

The big sister,
The big sister, ISO 200, 85mm, f1.8 & 1/200sec

Similar to the photo of Josh, this photo is incredibly important to me as it serves a record of how close these two are. Holly’s patience with Xavier is biblical, and Xavier’s adoration of his big sister is equally epic. In time this may change…but I’ll always have this photo.

#9 Harry Potter

Harry Potter
Harry Potter, ISO 200, 17mm, f6.3 & 15 secs

I can remember in my late teens I was having guitar lessons, and my teacher had given me a series of scales to learn. He explained that I could play the notes in pretty much any order and they would all work with each other as they are in the same scale. I worked on those scales for weeks…then one day I suddenly started to see the patterns in them and was suddenly able to create little solos by using the notes from the scales. It was like suddenly seeing how the magician did the trick. Suddenly things made sense.

This photo was a similar experience for me. I knew what I wanted to do with the shot, but couldn’t get the camera to do it. So I went to full manual mode and realised what I had to do. I changed lenses, I put the camera on a tripod, I manually focussed on the church, cropped the moon just out of the shot so that the overall shot was darker so that I could use a longer exposure, and I got this shot. Suddenly things made sense.

#10 Footjam Nosepick

Footjam Nosepick,
Footjam Nosepick, ISO 200, 42mm, f4.5 & 1/1,000sec

The final Clique challenge was to take a shot using a fast shutter speed, which again was something I’ve never really done before. So we headed to the Edinburgh gardens, and after watching the skaters for about 20minutes, I saw this guy on the BMX doing a few runs. He was pulling off some pretty awesome tricks, and so I decided he was my star. I watched him for a bit longer to work out where was a good place to take the shot (ie where I was close enough to a trick to get the shot, but not in the way of anyone else). Then I shot in bursts of 1/1,000. I got a couple of pretty good shots of him doing airs, and one of him grinding…but this was the hero shot.

I really like photos where the more you look, the more you see, and so if you look closely you notice his tatts, you notice the two skaters in the background watching him, and if you look really closely you see that he’s not using a hand-brake to keep his front wheel from moving, he’s jammed his foot between the tyre and the fork – a ‘footjam nosepick’.

In conclusion

So that’s my top 10 for 2014. I was really stoked to have my portfolio of photos for Clique make the final for the grand prize. But I was much happier with how many risks I was willing to take this year to work on my photography. From approaching relative strangers to be photographed, to taking on my first wedding, to trying new techniques and equipment…every risk I’ve taken has given me some reward. Now I just have to work out a way to get paid to do this on a regular basis so that I can afford to get some of these printed.

Thanks for following the blog this year, I know that it’s been pretty sporadic. But once I’ve got this Ironman done (in March 2015) I’ll have much more time to devote to creative pursuits….and hopefully 2015 will be an even better year for photography.