Dear Dave

Sunday 30 December 2007

My little Santa

Dear Dave,

Glad to hear you had a good Christmas and that your mum is finally giving you some sympathy rather than treating you like a slacker who callously sends his wife out to earn a living in the cruel world while he stays home and eats biscuits.

It's probably thanks to the large age gap between you and your brother. Your mum never had to deal with two children under four at the same time herself, so you've gained a stack of ranking points relative to her in the All-Time Parental League Table. (You did know scores were being kept, didn't you?)

Obviously, you haven't had to put up with being in charge of yourself as a teenager, so you'll have to handle any number of rows, dubiously pierced girlfriends and a couple of police cautions before you catch up with your mum entirely but at least you're on more equal terms now. You've been a housedad long enough that she knows it's not some passing notion you're going to jack in when things get tough. She'll also know, from her own experience of parenthood, that things must be pretty tough already. She still may not understand why you're living your life in this crazy, mixed up way but she can appreciate the effort you're putting into raising her grandchildren.

That effort is especially noticeable at Christmas. I remember a time before kids when Sarah and I went to stay with my folks for the holidays. I would sit around drinking beer, eating mince pies and watching the Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special. Then I would doze off while reading the paper. I have vague memories that my mum might have had to do a certain amount of cooking at various points but I was fairly oblivious. It was a blissful break from work.

This is somewhat in contrast to a couple of years ago when we had Sarah's family round to ours for Christmas. The children were one, three and five. I had to lay on the full turkey spectacular in adult, toddler and baby formats while co-ordinating nappy changes, naps and tantrums. I needed a lie down for most of Boxing Day to recover. Except, of course, I didn't get one because it's not like the children went anywhere. It was a fun Christmas but not much of a rest.

Things were a bit more relaxed this year, though. For a start, we went to my sister-in-law's to eat but it also helps that the kids are older and more able to entertain themselves now. It's going to be a long time, however, before I, once again, get to spend Christmas eating and drinking and then doze off while watching ancient repeats of Only Fools and Horses. Judging by the state of the various grandparents attending, though, my wait will not be forever.

Anyway, Christmas morning, we unwrapped some of the presents, dressed Marie up in a Santa outfit, went to church and then headed off to Catriona's.

We were greeted at the door by her husband, Chris. "Good to see you. Looking gorgeous as always, Sarah; sometimes I wonder if I married the wrong sister. Oh, and Ed, you're just in time - Catriona's needing some help in the kitchen and the kids are no use - you know what teenagers are like. Hope you brought your own pinny!"

"Nope, brought yours," I said and, on cue, Marie danced over with a small, squishy parcel.

"I'm Santa!" she said, grinning. "Merry Christmas!"

Chris looked confused, both for being given an apron and at Marie's attire. "I thought you didn't do Santa," he said.

"We don't."

"Then why...?"

"We don't pretend there's a real Santa but pretending all the pretend Santas don't exist would be crazy." I called Marie over. "Are you really Santa?"

"No," she said, giggling at my stupidity. "I'm me!" Then she pulled another grin, did a little twirl and danced off into the lounge to an adoring fan club of aging relatives.

"She's having fun and we're not having to lie. Everybody's happy," I said. "Hopefully it will stop us having to explain that we don't do Santa so much as well."

"How do you mean?" said Chris.

I motioned him over to the lounge doorway so that we could observe. Marie had bounced over to Great Aunt Edith. "What did Santa bring you?" said Edith. Normally this would have led to Marie looking blank and Edith repeating the question over and over, until someone mentioned our unwillingness to join the Santa conspiracy, and then Edith looking blank and the someone repeating the statement over and over, and... You get the picture.

The costume helped get round this. "I'm Santa!" said Marie.

"Yes, and you look lovely, dear," said Edith, "but what presents did you get for Christmas?"

And thus confusion was avoided. Well, the Santa confusion was avoided, anyway...

"I got Rabitty-Rabbit!"

"You got a rabbit?" said Edith, struggling to hear and getting the wrong end of the stick. "That will be hard work to look after."

"A cuddly rabbit. I cuddle her."

"Oh, a new cuddly toy?"

"No!" said Marie, shaking her head. "She's not new. She's my rabbit."

"But you got her for Christmas?"

"No! Mummy and Daddy took her out of my bed and wrapped her up in a present and I opened up the present and I said, 'Rabbity-Rabbit!'"

Edith's eyes narrowed. "Your mummy and daddy took a toy you already had out of your bed and gave it to you for Christmas?"

"Yes, and for my birthday, too."

"They gave you a toy you already had for your birthday as well?"

"Yes, and her name was Rabbity-Rabbit!"

Edith's voice quivered with genteel indignation. "They gave you the same toy you already had for your Christmas and your birthday?"

"Yes! I cuddle her. She's Rabbity-Rabbit." Marie smiled sweetly and twirled off. "I dance now."

Edith scanned the room and then fixed me with a steely glare. I hurried over to explain that Marie had asked for her rabbit to be wrapped up and that, yes, she'd got other presents as well and, no, they weren't all recycled. Chris couldn't help laughing, however. "Looks like you're out of the will," he called after me.

I think I'll stick to bad-mouthing Santa next year. I'll look less of a Scrooge that way.

Not long after that, Chris was very keen to point out that he'd managed to secure for his daughter the very last Nintendo Wii console in Britain, thanks to calling in a favour. He'd only had to pay twice the normal asking price.

He then proceeded to play Wii Tennis on their vast plasma TV in a hugely aggressive manner without strapping the wiimote to his wrist. Luckily, Fraser told him off and then soundly trounced him with a few quick flicks of his hand.

I've never been more proud.

Chris didn't get much support from his own family either. Lisa was too busy texting to pay attention and Ned just smirked. "Don't worry, dad," he said, without looking up from his PSP. "He's had practice. Uncle Ed's had one for ages."

The wind taken out of his sails, Chris stomped off to carve the turkey.

I shouldn't have felt superior, however. Despite receiving the latest (translation: most expensive) Pokemon and Mario games for Christmas, the boys have spent much of the last week playing Sonic Adventure which I picked up second-hand as a stocking-filler. So, essentially, they've been using the must-have present of 2007 to play a game from 1999. I could just about cope with this until they unlocked a version of the original Sonic the Hedgehog and started playing that and it was suddenly 1991 on our telly. Next year, I think they'll be the ones getting recycled presents. I'll just go hunting in the loft - they can have a Walkman, my old Atari and some Fighting Fantasy books.

Actually, better not. I might find something really scary buried underneath. You know, like Mr Blobby or John Major...

Lunch was vast and then we stumbled through to watch the Queen in HD and very wide screen. It was a little perturbing in a number of ways. The persistent thought I had, however, was that the huge face plastered on the wall in front of us made it feel like we were conducting diplomatic negotiations over the viewscreen on the bridge of the Enterprise. I kept expecting an analysis from Mr Data and for Counsellor Troi to sense that Her Majesty was holding something back.

I'm guessing Prince Philip's up to something suspicious in the Neutral Zone.

After that, some of the guests went for a walk, the kids played and I helped clear up until I was told to get some rest while I could and I was sent back to a lounge full of snoring septuagenarians. I plonked myself down on one of the sofas and then realised Ned was there too. He'd been ordered to stay out of his room and mingle but he was still gazing intently at his PSP.

"Playing anything good?" I ventured.

"Syphon Filter."

"The new one or the old one?"

"New one," he mumbled.

"Oh, I haven't played that. The old one was quite good, though."

"Yeah. This one's the same."

I nodded. "I'd heard that. Got anything else?"


There was a pause.

The pause continued.

I eventually realised that, although Ned seemed willing to talk in principle, I was going to have to do most of the work.

"What are they?"

He rattled off a few titles. I'd played about half of them and that was enough for me keep the conversation going. It felt good having some firm point of contact. There are probably some TV shows we both watch but he'd have been bound to mention something I'd never heard of pretty quickly. As for music, the only CDs I've bought in years are The Best of Don McLean, an anthology of Celtic melodies and a Dido album. I suspect that may put me in the realm of 'uncool'.

After a while, there was another long pause. I'd run out of things to say. It wasn't awkward, though - we'd had a little male bonding and we were done. I settled back in the sofa and reached for a magazine to see what was on TV.

"Sorry about dad," said Ned, unexpectedly.

I sat up again. Ned didn't seem to be referring to anything in particular. It was more of a general apology. "No problem," I said. "He's not the first person I've met who totally couldn't cope with the idea of a housedad and... Actually, no, now I come to think about it, he was the first person I met who totally couldn't cope with the idea of a housedad... but, er, he wasn't the last. There are lots of things I don't have much self-confidence about - being a housedad isn't one of them. I can cope with your dad." I shrugged. "Besides, I'm not the one he's thinking of sending to boarding school."


"Ah..." I'd kind of got the information fourth-hand via Catriona, my mother-in-law and Sarah. I'd assumed it wasn't a secret. I hastily back-tracked. "I take it he hasn't run that one past you yet, then? Something about toughening you up. It was probably just an idea. I doubt he really meant it."

"Doesn't matter. I'm not going." It wasn't said with defiance. It wasn't determined and said through gritted teeth. As a statement, it barely even deigned to be dismissive. With a minimal shake of his head, Ned consigned the whole concept to the mental garbage disposal unit that teenagers reserve for parental lunacy. He didn't even look up from his PSP.

There was another pause.

I still couldn't think of anything to say but I didn't feel I could leave it there. I looked around the room for inspiration.

"Does that take SD memory cards?" I said, pointing to Chris' snazzy camera that he'd left lying around.

"Yeah, think so."


I popped the memory card out and stuck it in the Wii. Then I showed Ned how to use the photo-editing software. We'd just finished adding a Mexican moustache, Elton specs and fairy dust to a picture of his dad when the man himself walked in.

Chris wasn't too impressed. "Shouldn't you be in the kitchen?" he said to me but didn't cover it with laughter the way he normally does. I erased the changes and hurried off to find something useful to do.

Maybe I over-stepped the mark. I'm not going to be too thrilled if, when Fraser and Lewis are older, random relatives start taking their side. Of course, when my boys are teenagers, I expect to be an incredibly enlightened parent who is always understanding and open, dispensing gems of wisdom to aid my offspring though life's tribulations. I will always be right and they will know this. There will be no argument and no side for the extended family to take. The world will be at peace. A rainbow will permanently end in our back garden. It will rain cute, fluffy bunnies.

Teenage strife in my household? Never!

Well, maybe a little, when Marie has some dubious piercings and then gets arrested on a date with your Sam...

This is all bound to come back and bite me sooner or later. Hopefully later, though.

The rest of the day passed pleasantly. Chris was quickly back to his jovial self (outwardly, at least). I had a couple of mince pies and a drink or two and the kids mostly found their own entertainment. Eventually, as the evening wore on, Marie started getting crotchety. I scooped my little three-year-old up and gave her a cuddle. "I think it's time to go home," I said.

She cheered up. "Can I go to bed when we get home?" she asked excitedly.

"That sounds like a good idea," I replied.

She produced an enormous smile. "Thank you!" she said and gave me a big hug.

With luck, she'll stay that easily pleased for a good few years yet.

Yours in a woman's world,


Sunday 23 December 2007

Hopes and fears

Dear Dave,

Merry Christmas! Well, almost... Christmas seems to have been going on for three weeks already this year. The kids are exhausted from a constant stream of parties and relatives and Santas. I'm somewhat confused the actual day hasn't quite arrived yet.

That said, I'm putting off wrapping a big pile of presents by writing to you.

Still, I'm looking forward to singing plenty of carols in the next couple of days. There's the Christmas Eve Christingle service tomorrow. (Forget offering hope, love and forgiveness - the Christingle is where we entice families with young children into the building with promises of oranges and sweets.) Then, of course, there'll be more carols on Christmas Day. I like them because most of them have decent tunes that even tone deaf people like me can just about manage to belt out.

We got a bit of a taster at church today with Oh, little town of Bethlehem:

Oh, little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The ever-lasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

It's probably my favourite carol. ...The hopes and fears of all the years... That line always stirs up emotions and usually makes me think about God becoming human to show us how to live, to fix our relationship with him and to give us a glimpse of the world beyond.

Today, however, my mind turned elsewhere.

Spare a thought for Joseph.

He'd had to live through months of gossip, thanks to the wedding date and due date not entirely adding up. That had been followed by a lengthy trek with a heavily pregnant wife in order to register for a census which was almost certainly merely an excuse to stiff him with a hefty tax bill. Then he'd failed in his first task as a dad - finding somewhere decent for his child to be born. (This isn't normally the first task, but he'd missed out on the usual one and that was a whole different issue entirely...)

So he finds himself in the stable, surrounded by animals. He's finally managed to get the rowdy shepherds out the door, along with all the townsfolk made curious by the talk of angels and saviours. Mary is passed out from exhaustion in the corner. He wouldn't mind joining her. He wouldn't mind just going and lying down beside her and giving her a cuddle.

If only the little Lord Jesus would flipping lay down his sweet head.

No crying he makes? Yeah, right. Newborn babies are usually pretty frustrated and irritated. This one has recently gone from holding the whole world in his hands to not being able to find his own thumb without sticking it in his eye. That's one very frustrated and irritated baby.

Chances of a silent night: slim.

So Joseph sits there, bleary-eyed, rocking the baby in his arms and finally has the opportunity to wonder what he's got himself into. He suddenly realises he's a dad. Never mind the dreams and prophecies, he has a tiny life to take care of. A son! A son to teach and love, to provide for and protect. Terror and pride mix together at the prospect.

...The hopes and fears of all the years...

At that moment, he feels the truth of those words more than anyone.

Then he discovers his sleeve is warm and wet. He sighs and starts hunting around for a few more swaddling clothes. It's going to be a long night...
Best wishes to all your family. Have a great Christmas. I'd better go wrap those presents.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Did you ever read the somewhat unorthodox nativity play I sent? If you haven't, then I can't think of a better time.

Friday 21 December 2007

Two types of children

Dear Dave,

Thanks for asking how my attempts at consistency in childcare are progressing. Unfortunately, things could be going better. I've come to the conclusion that there are two types of children:

1. Those who don't do what they're told:
Cartoon of child balancing stuff on his head.

2. Those who do:

Cartoon of the whole family pretending to be Daleks.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS It's going to be a busy couple of weeks so I can't guarantee regular correspondence. I'll see what I can do, though. If you don't hear from me, don't worry, I'll be drinking beer, playing Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and eating mince pies...

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Mince pies and mistletoe

Dear Dave,

It was the Christmas party at Scary Karen's parent and toddler group today. I turned up early with Marie to help decorate. There were some streamers in the hall already and a decent sized tree complete with baubles and lights and, if I were running things, that would have been enough. Karen, however, adheres to the 'more is better' philosophy of holiday decor which holds that you simply can't have too much gaudy tack stuck to the walls when the festive season comes round. In her case, it doesn't even have to be relevant tack. She emptied out the Millennium Centre's store cupboard and we hung up everything we could find. Pretty soon, amongst the tinsel and stockings, the Easter Bunny stood atop a pile of grinning pumpkins. It had flashing red eyes and was wearing a Santa hat.

I set up the spinning disco lights. Trevor, the bouncer, inflated huge numbers of balloons with a single breath each. Karen's friend Bess put on some suitable musical accompaniment. It appeared to be the CD that all the shops have had on loop since mid-November. I suddenly felt the urge to buy lots of junk in a mad panic and did my best to phase out the jaunty melodies. I didn't do too badly until Slade came on and Marie started running round the room shouting, "It's Christmas!" at everybody.

She knew it to be true because Noddy Holder had told her so.

"Well, sort of," I said, when she got to me. "It's a Christmas party. It isn't actually Christmas until next week."

She considered this for a moment and then ran round the room again shouting, "It sort of Christmas! But not really!" at everybody. Then she came back to me and said, "Can I have a mince pie? Pleeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaase..." She made her eyes wide and pouted mournfully. She gave the impression she hadn't been fed in a week. I knew, however, that only half an hour previously, she'd taken one small bite of toast for breakfast and then declared herself finished.

"No," I said.

"Oh," said Marie. Her lower lip quivered and tears welled up. "But I'm huuun-greeee..."

"You should have eaten your breakfast then."

She started to sob. "You made me sad, daddy," she wailed and buried her face in her hands.

"Tough." I went back to wiring up the lights. The other adults nearby looked at me like I'd just told Tinkerbell to her face that fairies don't exist. I ignored them (and Marie) and, before long, the room was bathed in multicoloured swirls. Marie lay face down on the floor for a bit and then gave up. "I have mince pie later?" she said hopefully.

"OK," I replied.

She grinned, wiped her eyes and ran off to dance. I barely had time to grab a cup of coffee before she ran back and gleefully exclaimed, "It later now! I have mince pie?"

"Nice try," I said, sitting down amongst a group of mums.

"Awwwwww..." She tipped her head to the side, tucked in her upper lip and tried to drown me in eyes that were deep, pleading wells of sorrow.

"Not just now."

"You made me sad again, daddy," she said and threw herself back to the ground. The mums gave the impression that I'd just given Bambi the bad news in a rather callous fashion.

I ignored the looks (and Marie). "You all ready for Christmas?" I asked.

This brought on various tales of shopping woe and festive mayhem that distracted everyone. Marie got up and went back to dancing. The conversation eventually turned to advent calendars.

"Yeah, we got the kids a chocolate-filled one each last year," I said. "They kept forgetting to open them and we ended up with a stock-pile of little edible Scooby-Doos that lasted well into January. They've got one between them this year and we're still three days behind. The only one who's organised is Lewis. He's on the bottom bunk and has taken to suspending an additional stuffed animal from the slats above him every day in the run-up to Christmas. It's less of an advent calendar, more of an advent toy lynching."

"Christmas sounds like fun in your house," said Jess.

"Shouldn't be too bad really. We're off to Sarah's sister's for the actual day. Her husband will make a few snide comments about my place being in the kitchen but, apart from that, it'll be fine. How about you?"

It transpired that they would all be experiencing a mixture of custody wrangles, bickering with relatives and Brain Training. The first two were quickly glossed over in favour of comparing which family members they were getting a Nintendo DS for Christmas. It ranged from kids to grannies. This moved on to some discussion of how much the 'discs' cost and how the bit with the rocket when you do well is ace. I just sat there, somewhat perplexed. By rights, I should have had a great deal to say on the topic but, after years of not having anyone to talk to about computer games at parent and toddler, I was dumbfounded to suddenly be surrounded by women promoting a game as both entertainment and mental exercise. It was as stupefying as my mum suddenly admitting she was thinking of becoming a Jedi and asking me where she could get hold of one of those 'lightswords'. I just sat and looked surprised, wishing I'd bought shares in Nintendo a few years ago.

Marie broke me out of my trance by shouting in my ear. "Is it later yet?"


She didn't even blink. "And now?" she said, smiling endearingly.


Pause. "And now?" She did the cutest little dance you've ever seen and, still smiling sweeter than a Sugar Puff dipped in saccharine, she asked, "Can I have a mince pie, nooooooooooooooooooooow...?"

"In ten minutes," I said. She threw herself down and cried into the floor again.

The mums looked at me like I'd just flushed the Andrex puppy down a toilet.

"Oh, look," I said, directing their attention elsewhere. "Santa!"

I don't normally imagine Santa with tattoos. Or bald, for that matter. Still, the red suit and fake, white beard gave the impression that Trevor was at least attempting to pretend to be Santa. He didn't look too happy about it, though. I can only assume that Scary Karen had used her feminine wiles to talk him into it. She'd slipped on a slinky, fur-trimmed, scarlet outfit complete with Santa hat. It was surprisingly fetching in a scary kind of way. It also seemed liable to burst at the seams at any moment in an even scarier kind of way. I had visions of an explosion and nothing being left but the hat.

I quickly focused myself on Trevor. He really wasn't looking too good. I imagine he'd be totally up for catching bullets with his teeth but he's quite nervous with kids. Still, all he had to do was sit on a chair, pull the gifts out of a sack, read the labels and call over the children to take them. How hard could it be?

It was unfortunate that the first three gifts he pulled out were for Mateusz, Enkhjin and Joao. Karen had to bend over to help him make out the names. Each time, I tensed myself in preparation for the velvet and ermine shrapnel, and then sighed in relief when the catastrophe never came.

After that, it was Marie's turn.

I picked her up off the floor and gave her a little shove. She trotted over to Trevor, who held out the parcel to her at arms length. He was oblivious to the creaking bodice-work beside him and seemed worried that it was Marie that might explode.

He may have had a point.

She looked at the parcel briefly, obviously torn over whether to take it. She glanced at the sack to see if there was anything more promising in there. She peered suspiciously at Trevor's fluffy beard. Then she made the eyes and pulled the face. "I reaaaa-leeeeeee want a mince piiiiiiie..."

"Er, I don't have mince pies," said Trevor. "Just this." He shook the parcel and grimaced slightly.

She threw herself at the floor and started to cry again.

I rushed over, grabbed her and the parcel, and then whisked her out of the way. "Santa doesn't have any mince pies!" she wailed.

"It's OK," I reassured her. "That's not really Santa and Santa's not really real anyway."

It's possible I may have said this a little too loudly.

Every adult in the room looked at me like I'd just stood on Tinkerbell while wearing fluffy slippers made from Bambi and the Andrex puppy. Luckily, every child in the room remained transfixed by the sack of presents.

"Would you like a mince pie?" I asked Marie hurriedly.

"Yes, please!" she said and we beat a retreat to the refreshment trolley. The whole thing was a close call... but I think we got away with it. The gift-giving resumed and everyone relaxed again. Soon, toddlers were dancing once more and I was being offered something warm and spicy in a mug. Jess had mulled some of her homemade wine specially.

I've never had green mulled wine before. I looked at it nervously.

"It's the spinach," Cress whispered.

I shrugged and tried some. It actually tasted kind of all right - not disagreeable as such but you wouldn't ask for it specially. I guess a lot of Christmas is like that. I had a second helping for no other reason than it was there. I guess a lot of Christmas is like that, too. It seemed to make Jess happy, though.

Marie opened her parcel. It was a set of pretend medical supplies containing a stethoscope, a rectal thermometer, a pair of scissors, a hammer and... a spoon. All the essentials of a home surgery kit, apparently. She was delighted and set about listening to my knees as she took their temperature.

The time slipped away and then, all of a sudden, it was half-past eleven. We had places to be but I was reluctant to get our coats. The Millennium Centre is going to be closed at the start of January so Karen's toddler group won't be on again until after Marie has started nursery. Today was our last one. It was odd looking around at the familiar faces and toys, knowing that, barring sanity-threatening accidents, I'd never be back. I lingered, finding it hard to leave, not knowing quite how to say good-bye.

Then I realised that Scary Karen had found some mistletoe.

I wished everyone a merry Christmas and headed out the door.

It was time to go.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 14 December 2007

We've got to let the mums win at something

Dear Dave,

Yeah, I know how you feel - Christmas suddenly seems to be upon us. Sounds like you're mostly on top of things, though.

We're getting there. We've converted the lounge to 'Christmas Land' (as Marie calls it) with the help of plenty of shiny baubles, an explosion of tinsel and a very irritating musical santa. Hopefully we'll get the cards done soon. We've given the kids a gift or two each already to spread things out. We're having a mulled wine party in a few days. (Scary Karen has promised to bring her accordion!) The shopping's mostly done. I've been to a couple of carol services. Everyone keeps asking Marie what santa's bringing her. Fraser keeps impatiently explaining to them that santa isn't real. The school nativity play was yesterday. There's Christmas music everywhere. Christmas adverts. Christmas food. Christmas lights. Christmas. Christmas. Christmas. Christmas. Christmas. Christmas.

Too much Christmas.

And there's still over a week to go. Goodness. I'm going to be burnt out before the day arrives.

Must think of something else...

Actually, there is something I've been meaning to write about for a while and it's kind of related to Chr... er, that other thing... in a round about sort of way:

A recent study has indicated that boys who have been cared for by their fathers for a significant amount of the time as toddlers perform less well at academic assessments upon starting school than boys who have been looked after by their mothers.

There are plenty of obvious questions thrown up by this. Why boys and not girls? Exactly how much less? Were the dads who were surveyed looking after their children out of choice or circumstance? How does this compare with children who are looked after by their grans? What sort of assessments? And what's all this got to do with Chr... er, the time of year?

Maybe the actual study answers some of these questions. (Well, perhaps not the last one). Typically, however, the press coverage didn't even ask most of them. It was all 'housedads could be damaging their childrens' future chances'! Men don't give children as much mental stimulation as women, apparently... or, at least, possibly. The study didn't have any definitive reasons for the discrepancy.

Of course, the instant reaction is for us to jump up and down in annoyance. How dare journalists accuse us of not stimulating our kids? They do fine at school. What are the researchers talking about? Unfortunately, this is twisting things to support our own agenda as much the newspapers have done. Men and women are not the same. There are plenty of situations and problems that, on average, men and women will deal with differently. Whether this is due to upbringing or genetics doesn't really matter - it simply is the case. This is bound to apply to childcare too, and thus it's bound to affect the kids in some way. Maybe what this study has discovered is true.

Don't hurriedly rush out to find a job and order Liz back home to stimulate Sam and protect his future, though.

There are a million things you could measure about a kid to evaluate good parenting. These include nutrition, behaviour, happiness, fitness, curiosity, dental health, vocabulary, politeness, bravery, cleanliness, stubbornness, resilience, knowledge, empathy, hand-eye coordination, kindness, imagination, road safety awareness and biscuit decorating ability. Chances are, dads are better than mums for encouraging at least some of these things. Working out whether it's men or women who come out on top for a majority of the list would take rather a long time, however, and, even then, it wouldn't necessarily help very much in determining who should look after the children. Is a slightly higher chance of the kid being resilient more important than a slightly higher chance of them being polite, for instance? That could be quite a debate and, in the end, the childcare duties in any given relationship will still come down to finances and temperament. Which is how it should be. Having parents who are solvent and enjoying their roles is going to do more to encourage a child's long term development than anything else.

Bearing that in mind, I'm quite happy to accept the results of the study. There was always going to be something that dads aren't so good at. I'm actually pleased that it turns out to be this. You see, I'm not certain that children doing less well in academic assessments upon starting school is necessarily a bad thing. Surely the whole point of schools is to teach children how to do well in academic assessments. I wouldn't want to interfere with the teachers' jobs and, besides, being a little behind the curve gives plenty of room for some quick confidence-building improvement. Even The Daily Mail pointed out that the research didn't investigate whether 'the damage to the boys' prospects' is permanent. There's every possibility the boys in question caught up in a very brave and resilient manner after a couple of months. Maybe the other ones, the ones who'd been taught to read by their mums, got bored, burnt out by the end of the second week and dedicated their lives to politely decorating biscuits.

Who knows?

And you're still wondering what this has to do with Chr... the current up-turn in sales of turkeys and Brussels sprouts...

Well, I guess my first point - that housedads aren't an abomination against nature - doesn't actually have anything to do with Chr... Frosty the Snowman... but, given the context of this letter, it's not really much of a point either. You probably saw it coming. My second point, however, is about stimulation:

I grew up somewhere so dull that I used to sit watching the test card for entertainment. Maybe if my mum had sat with me and taught me to spell then I'd be a genius now, but I doubt it. I'd probably just have been a know-it-all who made life difficult for my teachers in primary school. I might also have lost a very useful trait. As it stands, I have a very high tolerance for tedium. This makes my job a whole lot easier. I can play Snakes and Ladders for hours at a time without going mad and watch the same episode of Tweenies endlessly without gibbering. I should really thank my mum for leaving me to my own devices so much as a child. (I'm not going to, though, just in case it comes out wrong...)

So remember, next time you sneak off to check your email, you're not ignoring the children, you're building resourcefulness and self-reliance. After all, there is such a thing as over-stimulation.

If you're in any doubt, think of Christmas.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS I've got a peculiar ringing in my ears now. I think it's jingle bells...

Wednesday 12 December 2007

The disappeared

Dear Dave,

Marie starting nursery seems to have been a tantalisingly close prospect for a long time now. Back at the beginning of the year, I thought there'd be an in-take after the October Week holiday and, since Marie's birthday is late September, I was hoping she'd get in then. Just before the summer holidays, I found out she wouldn't be eligible for a place until after Christmas. More recently, I started to hear rumours of place shortages at the nursery attached to the boys' school. There were tales of kids having to wait months, even though they were already three; accounts of parents having to beg, plead and shout to get their children in; whispers of vast hordes of Polish four-year-olds invading the area and demanding pre-school education; suggestions that Marie might have to wait until August 2008...

I'd got used to thinking it was several months away - just about in sight but too distant to really plan for. Now, suddenly, I know she's got a morning place in January. I'll have a couple of hours or so each day without children. In five weeks. It's actually going to happen. I can hardly believe it. I'm BobBIng UP aNd DOwn aS I tYPe. There are all kinds of possibilities.

I can hardly wait but, now it's all more of a reality, I can't help feeling a little pang of fear. I will no longer have a small child in my care every minute of the day to justify my existence. On occasion, I will have to be a person in my own right. That's going to be strange.

Stranger still, there will be no more parent and toddler.

Admittedly, I've been feeling like I'm serving out my time there for a while. I go along and drink my hot drink, eat some biscuits and stare into space while Marie entertains herself. I chat a bit but, if no one I know is around, I'm not desperate to introduce myself to new people.

The idealised image of these groups suggests I should have a core band of friends to go to the cafe and talk potty issues and sleep deprivation with by now. It's not happened, though. I just haven't collected a little clique of coffee-drinking companions.

Some of this is probably down to being a man. Place thirty mums and a dad in a room and tell them to make some friends, and the dad is almost bound to be at a disadvantage. Throw in another dad, and the two of them will stick together but there's no saying that they'll have anything more in common than being trapped in a room full of sleep deprived women and children with potty issues. This is not necessarily a recipe for long term friendship.

Oh and, chances are, the second dad will just be giving his partner a break on his day off from work and the first dad will never see him again anyway.


Yep, some of the reasons for not having a coffee shop clique are down to being a man but, let's face it, some of them are down to me. I'm quite shy, I struggle to start conversations and I've never been much of a coffee shop person. On top of that, when Lewis was young, I had depression, which is never helpful when making friends. When Marie was small, there simply wasn't time in the schedule between changes, feeds and school runs for any caffeine-based socialising .

It's not like it's been a total washout, though. I have made a few friends who live close by - just not very many of them compared with the number of people I've chatted to. I've made far more acquaintances. Unfortunately, in most cases, at the point I was starting to get to know them better, they disappeared. One week they were at parent and toddler and the next they weren't... ever again.

At one of the groups I attend, the other parents have all changed three or four times. Even the helpers have changed twice.

Often they've gone without me noticing. It's quite normal for people to be off sick or on holiday for weeks at a time. It's only after a month that it becomes clear they're not coming back. And there's no way of contacting them. The organisers aren't allowed to hand out personal details (if they even have them) and, by then, two-thirds of the other parents are liable to struggle to remember who I'm talking about, let alone where they live. (My descriptions don't usually help much. 'You know, that tired looking mum with brown hair and a couple of kids. She used to wear a scarf quite a lot...')

Where have these people gone?

There's no way of knowing. Have they moved house or got a job? Have they fallen out with someone or found a better group elsewhere? Has the kid taken to napping in the middle of the morning? Has the parent taken to lounging around in coffee shops? Are they all OK? Has there been a disaster? Was it anything to do with zombies?

It would be nice to know. Sometimes the family shows up again at nursery or with another child or when the kid starts napping in the afternoon once more. Other times, they're just gone. Vanished. Disappeared.

I wonder where they all went...

New people ask me, "Have you been coming here for a while?"

It's quite interesting watching their reaction when I say, "Six and a half years."

There's nearly always a slight double-take and some nervous laughter. New helpers realise that I know a great deal more about how the group works than they do. New parents realise the length of journey they might have begun.

And now my own journey is about to change course. In a few weeks, I will be one of the disappeared.

I can't help feeling a little sad and, as I said before, a little scared. Where has the time gone? What mark have I left? Will people wonder where I've gone and then struggle to remember my name?

I have to assume so.

Still, I've given plenty of advice and sympathy in my time. Hopefully it's done some good. More than that, parent and toddler has got me out of the house, given me the chance to talk to people old enough not to idolise the Teletubbies and provided me with a steady supply of hot drinks and biscuits. I've been very glad of it... but it's time to move on. I have a different life ahead of me.

I'm kind of hoping that it involves coffee shops and not zombies...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 7 December 2007

Aiming for consistency

Dear Dave,

I normally have to tell the kids to do something three times before they even acknowledge I've spoken. The next time they'll argue. The time after that they'll do something very similar to what I asked but different in some vital respect.

For instance, the other day, I was endlessly telling Marie to pay attention as she scooted along the pavement ahead of me. She just wouldn't, though. She kept veering all over the place as one thing after another went by and distracted her. "Look where you're going!" I shouted finally.

"I am!" she shouted back. She even looked right round over her shoulder to make sure I heard.

Strangely, she seemed surprised when, a moment later, she found herself sprawled on her back in a tree planter. A giant, bright blue tree planter that was visible from the other end of the street. She lay there, forlornly waggling her arms and legs, and said, "Daddy! I fell off my scooter!"

"Really?" I said, pulling her out. "Were you looking where you were going?"


"Even when you were looking at me?"

She put on her sad face, where her top lip disappears behind her lower one, and she mournfully shook her head.

"That was silly," I said.

She nodded. "I'll look where I'm going tomorrow."

"How about right now?" I asked.

She just grinned and scooted off again. Grr...

Ho, well, it's not like the first occasion one of the kids hasn't paid attention to me. They're used to it; I'm used it; we get by. Until I'm ill, of course, or tired or fed up. Then I want them to listen to me first time and they're just not used to that. Unfortunately, rather than acknowledging how patient I am with them normally and giving me a little understanding, they burst into tears or go off on a huge strop. This is maddening but children are like that and there's no real hope they'll grow out of it - adults are like that, too:

Back in the day, when I worked for LBO, everyone in the company was sent on a Customer Focus course. Most of it was totally obvious - things like smile, sound happy, do what you'll say you'll do, and don't have too much to drink on a Friday lunchtime and then go back to the office and delete accounts at random.

There were a few interesting points, though. One of them was that giving a customer better service than they might normally expect is liable to ultimately backfire. This sounds crazy but it's true. Imagine you take your car in for its regular service. It's a slow day at the garage so they decide to give it valet treatment, at no extra charge, to say thank you for your custom. Chances are, you'd be pretty pleased to have all the crushed breadsticks, raisins and footprints removed from the backseat. All well and good... until next time. You take your car in for a service, get it back and the fingerfood debris it still welded to the upholstery. You're secretly disappointed. You haven't been promised any cleaning and you haven't paid for it but, you know, it would have been nice. This sticks in your mind. The following year, you hunt around and discover that a garage on the other side of town will clean your car as part of its service and it's only a little more expensive than your normal garage. You go there. Essentially, the first place has lost your custom thanks to going the extra mile.

All this was brought to mind recently because I seem to be dogged currently by companies desperate to annoy me by doing me a 'favour'. (Stand back, I'm about to rant...)

First off, as always, is Nintendo Europe. Their PR has been a bit shonky for a long time but has improved dramatically of late, no doubt thanks to the marketing department getting a share of the huge mountain of cash from DS and Wii sales. Their loyalty scheme has been infuriating me for years, though. With every Nintendo game I buy, I get a scratchcard which reveals a code which I can enter online to receive 250 star points. I can then trade these star points for gifts. Unfortunately, these gifts consist mainly of PC screensavers and mobile phone ringtones. Occasionally, an actual physical game is offered for something in the region of FIVE THOUSAND STARS. These games are usually rubbish and always run out of stock immediately. What's the point? As a family, we've collected 12,000 stars over the course of five years and haven't traded a single one in yet. Every so often, I go to Nintendo's website in the hope that there'll be something good but there never is.

What makes it particularly galling, however, is that about three years ago, they ran an entirely separate promotion where purchasing a single game from an approved list was rewarded with a special Legend of Zelda collector's disc with no end of decent stuff on it. I bought something for thirty quid and got an extra freebie worth about twenty. With the whole stars thing, I've spent... hang on, let me get a calculator... er, divide by 250, multiply by... yeah, er... Right, I've spent... !!!!!!!!!!!

That includes lots of Christmas and birthday presents (both the boys' and mine) but... !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

For that level of expenditure and all the faffing with scratchcards and codes, I expect more from a reward scheme than ringtones. Nintendo could argue that they're under no obligation to give me anything and I should be pleased with whatever free stuff I get but, well, that would just annoy me even further which, you have to imagine, isn't the purpose of their PR department.

Then again...

A year ago, they promised to make the reward scheme good. They promised that it would be possible to trade star points for Wii points which can be used to buy downloads of old games on the Wii. (Normally you have to buy Wii points with good, old-fashioned cash).

That was a year ago.

There's a possibility that it might actually become reality this week but, even after all this wait, there's still no hint of conversion rates or anything. Who knows what I might be entitled to? Their previous generosity has made me hopeful. It has made me think that Nintendo loves me.

Unfortunately, they probably don't really.

My 12,000 stars will, in all likelihood, only get me half way to a copy of Frogger. Even if I get quite a lot more, however, I'm still liable to feel disappointed.

Moving on... In the past, LOVEFiLM have offered a free extra rental to say sorry for all kinds of things, from system hiccups, to seasonal delays, to postal strikes. This was very pleasant, particularly as many of the problems have been totally outside their control. I didn't get anything after the last strike, though. Also, they included a free sample of Nivea handcream with one of my discs recently, which meant it didn't fit through the letterbox and I had to go to the sorting office to collect it. I only got a fairly minimal apology when I emailed them. Again, I'm disappointed.

Meanwhile, GameStation has introduced a loyalty card. There are instant prizes available when I buy something, but each transaction also gives me an entry in the monthly lottery. The first month, the grand prize was an Xbox 360 Elite. That would be worth winning. Last month, the grand prize was a lifesize promotional mannequin of Mark Ecko. What on Earth would I do with that? How would I get it home on the bus? Where would I put it? Would anyone be prepared to pay the postage if I eBayed it?

I'd have to turn it into a coat stand or stick it outside and hang birdfeeders from it.

And, forever more, I would look at it and be annoyed that it wasn't an Xbox 360 Elite.

I had to actively avoid GameStation in November just to make sure I didn't win. Not the greatest loyalty scheme ever. I wonder what tat they'll be trying to clear out of the stock room this month?

OK, rant over. I had a point about children I was trying to make. Or was it adults? Maybe it was both. Er...

Anyway, it was about consistency. Nintendo, LOVEFiLM and GameStation are generally pretty excellent but they've just got a slagging, while the hopeless, bumbling company that handles my house insurance has escaped unscathed. This is because my insurance company have long since stopped disappointing me. Frankly, I'm delighted when they get anything right. The other three, however, normally manage a level of customer service that I can only dream of providing in my daily interaction with the kids. Do I remember that? Do I heck. I'm irritated the moment their standards slip.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to encourage mediocrity here. Good service is important - I would happily point people towards LOVEFiLM but I wouldn't recommend my insurers to anyone. It's just worth bearing in mind that consistently decent service is often better than OK service that is occasionally excellent. People like consistency.

Kids like consistency. How many tantrums do I cause by poorly managing the kids' expectations? Some days I have plenty of energy and feel generous, other days I'm tired and feel... somewhat less than generous. Often, I think of these as good and bad days. I hate flying off the handle when I'd normally give them another couple of chances. Really, however, I store up just as much trouble for myself by letting them off the hook when I've laid down an ultimatum. A few 'good' days in a row and the kids start to think I'll put up with anything.

There are times when I need the kids to listen to me urgently, however - such as when they're crossing the road or, for example, when one of them's about to scoot into a giant, blue tree planter. They have no way of knowing which those times are and which times it doesn't matter so much if it takes six attempts for them to engage their ears.

I need to be more consistent with both my firmness and my patience.

Getting them to respond appropriately first time, every time, is a bit much to hope for, though. I should probably aim for third time. It's not excellent but it's decent. It's also sustainable. Hopefully, it'll lead to less arguing and fewer tantrums (both from the children and from me).

Might even keep Marie out of the compost in future. You never know...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 5 December 2007


Dear Dave,

Steve hasn't been coping well with redundancy.

He had been coming round here most days to mope and mournfully steal all my biscuits but then, last week, he stopped. I didn't hear from him at all. My initial relief faded to concern as I thought back over the past two or three months. He'd gone from smartly dressed, bright-eyed businessman to exhausted, dishevelled housedad without me really noticing. The talk of CVs, contacts and interviews had faded. He no longer laboured under the recurring delusion that he was doing his wife, Deborah, a favour by 'taking the kids for a few hours' - looking after the children had become his job.

Under other circumstances, I'd have been delighted with another housedad in the area but (a) this is Steve we're talking about and (b) I don't think it's something he would ever have chosen.

Sarah and I decided that I would be a housedad. We planned for it. We looked forward to it. We made it happen. Steve just wasn't prepared for it. Rather than having embraced being a housedad, he still thought of himself as a businessman - a businessman who couldn't get a job. I'm dishevelled because I don't care; he'd become dishevelled because he'd given up.

When he didn't show at parent and toddler yesterday, I thought I'd better pop round to his flat and check he was OK. Marie was delighted at the idea. She'd missed playing with Steve's daughter, Ophelia.

Steve didn't look good when he answered the door. His eyes were bloodshot and his movements were slow and accompanied by little groans. He stared at me blankly. For a moment, I thought my worst fears had come true, and I scanned the stairwell for available weapons. I'd blundered into a zombie outbreak.

Marie didn't seem too fussed. "I'm Marie," she said. "I'm three. Can I play now?" She didn't wait for an answer but ran past him, the bobble on her pink fluffy hat bouncing up and down merrily. There was a great deal of mutual squealing as she ran into their sitting room and found Ophelia.

"Right," said Steve but didn't move out of the way to let me in. He hadn't shaved for a few days, his hair was wild and he was wearing his dressing gown. It had a selection of milky stains down the front. I relaxed a little - he looked a bit too shabby to be a zombie.

"I can come back and get her later, if you like," I suggested.


"Marie. My daughter. You can let me in or I can come back and get her later."


That seemed to be the closest to an invitation I was going to get, so I plastered over the social awkwardness with a grin and followed after her.

The sitting room was not as I remembered it. The ceiling was still high and the stairs to the mezzanine level were providing a great deal of excitement for the girls but nothing else was entirely as it should have been. Cushions were strewn everywhere, the bay window had paint handprints all over it, brightly coloured toys festooned the furniture, half-eaten bowls of cereal booby-trapped the floor and what appeared to be a sausage was sticking out of the video player. This was not good. Josquin, Steve's nearly-one-year-old son, was imprisoned in a playpen in the centre of the room, rattling a beaker against the bars.

"I'd let him out," said Steve, reflecting his own guilt off me, "but I'd need to tidy up."

I nodded. "Maybe a little. Tell you what, I'll take the bowls through to the kitchen. You sort yourself out a bit and then let him play in the cushions. Girls! You get off those stairs - there are plenty of toys to play with. Josquin!" He started in surprise at the attention. "You giggle. I'll be back in a minute. Drink your milk." He duly giggled and took a long swig from the beaker. I hoped it was reasonably fresh. "Tea?" I asked Steve.

"Thanks," he said and then, as if in explanation, he added, "Deborah's away for the week, overseeing a project."

"Uh-huh," I said, failing miserably to look surprised. I quickly gathered up the bowls and headed through to boil the kettle.

I needed a coffee. Which, I guess, is synonymous with saying that I was awake, since I always need a coffee, but, on this occasion, I really, really needed a coffee. Scary Karen had cornered me at parent and toddler and regaled me with accounts of her trip to the doctor and of her latest date with Trevor. Both these stories were long, dull and filled with vastly inappropriate detail. What's more, I'd been unable to escape long enough to grab supplies from the refreshment trolley. I desperately needed some caffeine and biscuits.

I put the kettle on and began to hunt around. There were a couple of mugs on the drainer that only needed a quick rinse, I found a clean teaspoon in the drawer and the teabags had all been inexpertly stapled to the noticeboard in a flower pattern. I carefully removed a couple. I couldn't locate the coffee, though. I rifled through the cupboards near the kettle, scanned the work surfaces, peered at the shelves and checked on the table but I couldn't see it anywhere. The dirty crockery, abandoned food and Weebles covering everything didn't help.

I searched further afield. There were some biscuits in the bread bin (plain digestives, unfortunately, but better than nothing) and the cupboard under the sink had the expected cleaning supplies in it. Unlike everywhere else, that cupboard looked neat and untouched. Rolling my eyes, I checked the cupboard on the wall above.

A cat exploded from it.

Oddly, it was painted pink and lightly sprinkled with glitter.

The cat screamed, I screamed, it bounded off my head, the teaspoon flew up in the air and the creature streaked off out the door in search of a new hiding place.

I paused to take a few deep breaths and let my sudden adrenaline high fade slightly. No one else in the flat seemed remotely concerned by the clattering and screaming. I took a few more breaths and considered examining the cupboard more closely but, on reflection, I decided it would be wiser just to close the door and move along. If the coffee was in there, I didn't want it.

My search became more cautious after that. It took me some time before I found the jar of Gold Blend in the fridge. The water was long since boiled and I made the drinks. I take my coffee black but Steve has his tea with milk and sugar. This was a problem - I couldn't find a supply of either. In the end, I had to just go with a dollop of yogurt and then rub two stale doughnuts together over the top of the mug. It was the best I could do...

Steve was sitting in the lounge where I'd left him. Josquin was still in the playpen. The girls had vanished. I took Josquin out of the playpen and let him crawl around.

"What's up?" I said, offering Steve a biscuit. The state of the flat went beyond incompetence. I was genuinely worried about his mental health.

He reached into his dressing gown pocket, drew out a crumpled letter and handed it to me. "I thought the interview went really well," he mumbled, staring at the wall. "I really did. They're a respected company with an excellent product. The benefits were good and I felt I connected with the management team. They liked my ideas. We could have moved forward together."

He'd been turned down for another job. It sounded like he'd got quite a long way through the process with this one, though. They'd even gone to the bother of getting references - the rejection letter mentioned some issues with one of them.

"What...?" I began but Steve cut me off.

He reached into his other pocket and drew out a second piece of paper. "I phoned them, hoping I could make them reconsider, and they faxed me this. It's what Scott wrote about me."

The mention of Steve's arrogant and vindictive old boss instantly made my hackles rise. I'd wiped his existence from my mind the moment he'd been transferred to Mongolia. It had been a very happy day. (Obviously, I didn't mention this, since it had been a much less happy day for Steve, what with him being Scott's head crony and getting immediately fired by Scott's replacement). I skimmed the recommendation, hoping that it wouldn't bring back too many memories, but I had to stop half way through and go back over it more carefully. I couldn't quite believe what I was reading. It was scathing.

Seriously, Attack of the Clones had better reviews.

"Wow," I said, finally. "Turns out that it wasn't just me he didn't like."

"I don't understand it. I always supported him. I carried out his plans. I did what he said. It's not my fault he ended up in Ulan Bator. Why did he write that?"

"I dunno. Maybe he's convinced himself that it is your fault, or he was frustrated and couldn't find a goat to kick. Hey, maybe he thinks he's got a chance of a job with these guys and thought this might impress them."

"If they'd employed me, I could have put in a good word for him. How does this help?"

"Well, er..." The honest answer was that, if they'd hired Steve, they might have realised what a clueless manager he was and been none too impressed with the guy who'd provided them with a glowing recommendation. Judging by Steve's fragile state, I wasn't sure he was ready for quite that much truth. I stalled. "Who knows what he was thinking?"

Steve shrugged. "It doesn't matter. It's almost certainly too late for this job but I need someone else to provide a reference. Maybe if Sarah wrote me one, I could convince them to take me on." His voice was pleading. "You could phone her right now and ask..."

"Yeah, I could..." I suppose I should have seen it coming. As Steve's former chief underling, Sarah was an obvious candidate. I didn't fancy floating the idea by her, though. She didn't need the stress and I didn't need a stressed wife. Having a stressed wife makes me stressed. Me being stressed, makes Sarah stressed. The thought of her getting stressed because I was stressed about her being stressed, made me stressed.

Which was stressful.

I tried to think. There was a way out. All I had to do was not phone her. If I took the stress of dealing with Steve myself, she wouldn't need to get stressed. Sure, I'd be stressed, but I might be able to internalise and ignore it before I spoke to her again. That would prevent her from getting stressed about it. If not, at least I'd removed one layer of complexity from the problem. Rather than being stressed about her being stressed about me being stressed about her being stressed, I would only have to be stressed about her getting stressed about me getting stressed.


Er, maybe...

I started to run it by myself one more time but then suddenly realised that no one had said anything for a couple of minutes.

Steve was still staring expectantly. There was nothing for it but to tell him the truth. I felt like I was about to shoot the Andrex puppy.

"There's no point Sarah writing another reference," I said. "It would be the same. Kinder and with less swearing but, fundamentally, the same. Productivity has at least trebled since you left."


"You're not a very good manager."

"Oh..." The silence stretched on for a while again. It was broken only by an enormous eruption in Josquin's nappy.

Shoulders slumped, Steve picked his son up and carried him to the changing unit out in the hall. I followed, in case help was needed.

To my surprise, it wasn't. Steve had been practicing. He gave the mobile above the unit a spin to distract Josquin's attention, made lots of soothing noises, whipped off the dirty clothes and nappy, wiped everything clean, contained a surprise second delivery without incident, wiped everything clean again, fastened a fresh nappy, slipped on clean clothes, put the kid in the playpen, tidied and disinfected. Then he washed his hands thoroughly. He could have done it in his sleep and, if my own experience of small children is anything to go by, he probably had. It was a masterclass in nappy changing. I almost clapped.

Steve went back to sitting dejectedly in the lounge. I checked on the girls. They were hiding happily under a duvet so I left them to it.

"Maybe you should try something different," I said when I returned to my seat.

"Like what? I don't have any skills."

I pretended to consider this for a few seconds as all my mental energy went into not saying, "That never stopped you before." I just managed contain myself but the thought was so loud that everyone in the building suddenly got a headache. A pigeon flying past the window was temporarily stunned and dropped out of the sky. A moment later, a car alarm went off on the street below.

I did my best to ignore it. "Six months ago," I said, "you couldn't change a nappy. I had to talk you through it. Just now, you carried out one of the smoothest nappy changes ever seen, without any help, and without even thinking about it very much. That's a skill right there."

"I can't put it on my CV," said Steve, rubbing his forehead, as if in pain.

"Depends what you're wanting to do. Deborah's business is doing well and she's really enjoying it but she'd rather the kids didn't spend all day in nursery. If you got another nine to five job that would leave her with some difficult decisions. You might want to..."

"Stay in the house and look after the children?" he interrupted.

"You don't have to stay in the whole time. Actually, I'd advise against it. But, yeah, look after the children."

"I couldn't do that."

I tried to reassure him. "Sure you can. A little more training and..."

"No, I mean, what will everyone at the golf club say?"

I shrugged. "All kinds of ignorant things, probably. Tell them you're taking time to consider your options and explore new avenues, or something. Tell them you're prioritising your family. I don't know. Does it matter?"


"Oh." I guess I've forgotten what it's like to be socially embarrassed about being a housedad.

"What if they found out that I had to get Deborah to pay my membership fees?"

"Tell them it's part of your benefits and compensation package," I said.

"How do you mean?" he said, sounding more interested.

I remembered to speak his language. "Think of yourself as a team player. You're empowering Deborah to complete the task and supplying her with back-office support. Without your cog, the family machine would fall apart. As such, you're entitled to a share of the profits." It seemed to be working, so I pressed on. "Re-analyse your goals, step back from the plate and, er, take a fresh look in the mirror."

He shook his head. "Maybe you're right but..." He motioned around himself at the bombsite that was the room. "Where do I start?"


He looked sceptical.

"Anywhere. Come on. Whatever you decide to do eventually, you need to concentrate on the job in hand until Deborah gets back. This week, you're a housedad, whether you like it or not. Now, you go and get dressed, and me and the girls will get started with tidying up in here. I'll do the washing up; you feed the kids and put some laundry on. Then I'll entertain them while you give the kitchen and bathrooms a quick wipe around."

Spurred on by my feigned enthusiasm, Steve perked up a little and went to have a shower. I extricated the girls from the bed linen and set them to clearing up. I wouldn't let Marie help at home - there's far too much chance of spills or breakage - but the opportunity to give her some training with other people's valuables was too good to miss. She quite enjoyed herself. Once Steve had dressed, he explored the cupboard full of cleaning stuff and the next couple of hours passed quickly.

There was one moment of concern after lunch. I was sitting in the lounge with the girls when Steve screamed and I nearly jumped out of my skin. The girls went on with their colouring as if nothing had happened. Marie merely looked up briefly from her scribbled, pink masterpiece. "He found cat," she said cheerfully.

We had to leave soon after that to go and collect the boys from school. Steve was seeming a bit happier by then and the flat was in a hugely better state. I was still reluctant to leave him to fend for himself for the rest of the week, though. As we stood there in the doorway, my eye started to twitch. We'd said our goodbyes but I was stuck there. I felt an involuntary urge to...

"Why don't you bring the kids round tomorrow? We could have coffee." It was out of my mouth before I could stop it.

Of course, Steve readily accepted and I made a mental note to buy more biscuits on the way home. I couldn't believe I'd actually invited him round. I'd had more than enough of him moping in my kitchen over the previous weeks. As we headed down the stairs and out of sight, I valiantly restrained my desire to kick myself.

My efforts were undone shortly after that, however, as Marie's voice echoed shrilly up the stairwell. "You're silly. Don't hit the wall with your head."

Hopefully Steve didn't hear that.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 30 November 2007


Dear Dave,

We're all suffering from one illness or another, the mice are back and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 was unexpectedly rubbish. I'm pretty fed up.

I've been coughing for three weeks and I'd just like to feel better, thank you very much. Fraser has some kind of virus that's making him tired, achy and argumentative. (Well, more argumentative than usual). I don't think he'll be at school tomorrow. As I write this, it's late at night and, over the baby listener, I can hear Marie sounding pretty choked up. This could be a long one...

Still, on a positive note, Marie has a place at nursery after Christmas. I can hardly believe it - it's even a morning one. I'll have two and a half hours each weekday where I won't have any children to look after (during term-time, at least). The possibilities seem endless. It's not a case of not knowing what to do with myself. It's a case of not knowing what to do first. I hardly dare imagine it.

Interestingly, Marie can't imagine it.

"What should I do once you're at nursery?" I asked her.

"Come and collect me," she said.

"Yes, I'll collect you from nursery but what should I do all the time you're there?"

She looked blank. "Play with me?" she ventured.

"No, I'll be somewhere else."

She considered the thought that I exist when she isn't there and seemed to reluctantly accept it.

I asked her again. "So what should I do?"

She laughed. "Go to work!"

I wasn't impressed.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 28 November 2007

All I can remember is Jeremy Clarkson

Dear Dave,

Sorry to hear the sleeping has gone out of the window again. I've rarely had to deal with children playing tag-team parent waking so I don't entirely know what to suggest. Daisy's so young that there probably isn't much you can do - if she wants to wake up in the middle of the night, she will. (Controlled crying is always worth a try, though). At least Sam's at an age where you can threaten him with reprisals if he doesn't ignore her and go back to sleep - I find that turning off Marie's night-light for a few minutes is usually enough to get her to settle down.

You've got my sympathy. I've had plenty of experience of sleepless children. I refer you back to the tricks I've learnt. Probably the most important is to have a DVD you want to watch in the player ready to go. That way, if worst comes to worst, you won't be stuck watching phone-in quizzes as you while away the small hours of the morning with a grumbly baby. It's worth making sure the DVD has subtitles so you can still follow what's going on above the whining and crying. Other options include web-surfing using a Wii, Teletext and MTV. Personally, I have many memories of semi-consciously watching repeats of Top Gear I'd recorded on TiVo. It was amusing and it didn't matter if I missed dialogue here and there thanks to a screaming baby or if I 'rested my eyes' for entire sections.

Actually, there are parts of Marie's early life where I remember more about three nutters destroying caravans in entertaining ways than I do about much else. Sleep deprivation addles your brain. I got to a point where I was functioning on autopilot most of the time. The boys were up from half seven in the morning until eight at night. Marie woke at eight in the morning and was up until eleven at night with only an hours nap in the middle. I stayed up until half past midnight to get some time to myself to help stave off insanity. Frequently, Marie then woke up at three for an hour or two of crying.

In retrospect, this was pretty horrendous but, at the time, I was cocooned in a hazy mist of zombie-dom. With one child at school, one at morning nursery and another needing regular feeds, bottles and nappies, my timetable was always laid out before me. It wasn't so much that we had a routine, it was more that there was only one way to fit everything that needed to be done around everything which had to be done. I could muddle though the day without much thought. I don't actually recall wandering around with my arms stretched out, muttering 'Brains... Brains....' but, then again, I don't actually recall very much at all.

I do have a very strong recollection of Richard Hammond trying to make an amphibious vehicle out of a camper van, however.

Strangely, that's more useful than you might imagine. By concentrating on that memory, I can make other recollections surface. I can bring back thoughts, feelings and experiences that would otherwise be forgotten. It doesn't just work for Top Gear, either - by thinking about a book I've read, a film I've watched or a computer game I've played, I can remember something of what life was like at the time and possibly even specific events from that period. Little else jogs my memory so well, apart from thinking back over times when I've been ill or exhausted. I can remember those occasions very clearly too.

This means that many of my most vivid memories are of multimedia delirium, where illness and entertainment have coincided.

For instance, I know I had gastric flu a couple of weeks after Final Fantasy VII came out. I clearly remember where I'd got to, how I felt and what our old lounge looked like from that combination of gaming and vomit. Going from that, I can also work out the time of year, how my job was going and any number of other little details. When I felt too ill to even play a game (which is very ill, by the way), I sent Sarah to the video store to find a film with explosions. She came back with Die Hard with a Vengeance - proof, if ever I needed it, that I married the right woman.

Similarly, the fifties version of Day of the Triffids is linked inescapably in my mind with the first week of my chickenpox eruption, the second week is brought back by thoughts of playing Fable on Xbox. Mention of the forthcoming Fable 2 just makes me feel queasy.

The Hellboy movie recalls a cough so bad that I had to chain-suck Lockets and sleep sitting upright in an armchair.

My one experience of sleeping rough is all the clearer in my mind because I bought West of Eden by Harry Harrison the next day. The memory of trying to keep warm while lying in a binbag on a hillside in Derbyshire is made sharper by the memory of reading about horny, humanoid dinosaurs while very, very tired.

Other people's recollections seem to be triggered by different things. Sarah's memory is jogged by smells. My mum's is organised around food. It's like she uses what people ate as some kind of mental hook. She'll tell me news she's read in the paper about an old school friend of mine that I don't even remember and, when I look blank, she'll say something along the lines of, 'You went round to his house once. You had chicken.' I'm not sure whether I find it more weird that she remembers what I had to eat or that she thinks I'll remember it too.

Quite what this tells us about any of the people involved, I've no idea, but I've been trying to work out how my kids best remember things.

Thinking about it, the descriptions they came up with to differentiate between the parent and toddler groups they went to when they were small are telling. Fraser referred to his as, "The pink one, the one downstairs and the one near John Lewis." It was an aspect of the location which stuck in his head. Marie talks about, "The one with Craig, the leaving one and the snack one." It's the most significant event of each one that makes hers memorable, whether it's the attention of a particular helper, the quality of the snack or me slinking off for three-quarters of an hour while someone else takes over.

Lewis' preferences are harder to remember (the irony!) because most of the time he just copied Fraser. Probably, given free rein, he described them with phrases like, "The one with jigsaws." He differentiates places by what's there because he has a good memory for what things contain. We keep trying to make a little more space for him in his bed but he always knows when something has been removed.

Lewis' bed covered in cuddly toys... as usual.
There's a bed under there somewhere...

Maybe there's some way I can use this knowledge to get them all to remember to wipe their feet when entering the house. If only I could work it out...

Ach, the scary thing is, even if I did work out a theory, I'd probably forget it unless I caught a cold and then watched a movie.

Ho well, maybe you can mull it over while you're watching Pirates of the Caribbean at three in the morning. Let me know if you come up with anything.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Marie has a frighteningly good memory, actually. She was watching Laura's Star on DVD the other day. She hadn't seen it for a while but she was quoting the script with ease. The film got to one bit and Marie described what was happening and followed it up by saying what was going to happen next. "And then Laura goes up to the roof and she meets a robot cat and she says, 'Hello, little cat, how are you?'"

Sarah was freaked. "How do you remember that?"

Marie just smiled. "It's a good thing to say to a robot cat if you find one on the roof."

Sarah found that kind of hard to argue with. They went back to watching the film.

Friday 23 November 2007

Triumph from disaster

Dear Dave,

I can't ice cakes.

On the one hand, I'm not very good at it. On the other, I just don't care. The combination of these two factors nearly always leads to sugary catastrophe.

This doesn't matter when the cake making is merely an activity to entertain children (with the the added by-product of cake!) but, when I'm baking for a birthday party and other parents are going to see the results, it's more of an issue. The solution I use is to get my offspring to do some of the decorating, even if it's only to add a single chocolate button. That way, I can always claim loudly to have had 'help' from the kids. I go straight from hapless cake defacer to long-suffering, indulgent parent.

Some very poorly decorated biscuits.
I had somewhat less help with these than you might imagine...

It's a step up from the usual routine of using the children as an excuse for everything from being late to the state of the house. In these cases, it could always be suggested that I just need to be a little more organised or a little less lazy. No, this is turning the situation on its head and making the disaster into a parenting badge of honour. 'Sorry we didn't get here on time. I had the kids help with the navigation and, well, would you believe it, we ended up in Peebles. They were getting quite good with their map-reading skills by the end, though. I'm thinking of starting them on their Duke of Edinburgh award...' or 'Mind where you step. Fraser's supposed to be helping me mop but he's just too tired today, the poor lamb. I thought we'd leave it till tomorrow. I would do it myself but I wouldn't want to deprive him of the sense of accomplishment and contribution...'

I wonder what other things I could claim to have got the kids to aid me with? Normally I shy away from getting them to help because it means that whatever I'm doing will take twice as long and only turn out half as good. It probably doesn't help that I'm a control freak. I like things done my way.

This is an issue, however. I need to train them. Otherwise they'll never learn how to do anything and I'll be running around after them until they're fifty and then have to watch helplessly as they attempt to look after me and get it all wrong. They'll clean the toilet with a facecloth and then iron the carpet.

I need to avoid that future but, let's face it, some help here and now wouldn't go amiss, either. Maybe the way forward is to start by getting them to help with things that are bound to end in disaster anyway. No harm done then. Once we're all used to long-winded calamities we can move on to things which I'd normally expect to pass without incident, like the washing up, a little light dusting and cleaning the fridge. By then, anything which doesn't involve us all needing a complete change of clothes will feel like success. I'll be more laid-back and they'll just be glad I'm not getting them to do my tax return or clean the wheelie-bin.

I've begun by getting some help with this letter. I asked Marie what I should write about. She said, "The boys." Smart answer - incriminating one's siblings is an important skill when you're three. This wasn't really enough to go on, though. I pressed her further. "The boys dancing," she said.

I've no idea what she was talking about. The boys haven't done any dancing recently. They do like a good ceilidh, though. It's an excuse to wear a kilt and twirl round at high speed until they feel ill. Unfortunately, someone taught them that the purpose of sporrans is to collect other people's loose change and so they have a tendency to walk up to other dancers, point at the region of their groin and demand cash. This is kind of embarrassing.

Maybe next time I should claim they're helping me with something.

Or maybe not...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS The pronunciation war continues. I overheard Marie taking my side with one of the (Scottish) helpers at parent and toddler the other day.

"I made biscuits with daddy last week," she said excitedly.

The helper duly made a show of being interested. "You made biscuits last week? That's nice."

Marie shook her head. "No, we made biscuits laa-st week."

The helper didn't get the problem and just tried to sound even more interested. "You made biscuits la-st week. What kind of -"

"No!" said Marie, jumping up and down in frustration. "We made biscuits LAA-ST week."

"Yes, I know. You made biscuits la-st week. I wanted to know what kind of -"

"No," said Marie, starting to speak loudly and slowly, clearly believing she was dealing with a particularly stupid adult. "WE MADE BISCUITS LAAAA-ST WEEK!"

The helper was aware by this point that something was slightly amiss but couldn't quite put her finger on it. A small child was saying something, she was repeating it back verbatim and somehow the small child was getting upset. It was a mystery and she couldn't seem to think of a way out. "You made biscuits la-st week?" she said.

Marie prepared to explode.

Luckily, it was time to go. I grabbed my daughter and ran, leaving a trail of exasperated long vowel sounds behind us. The two of them might have gone on for hours otherwise.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

My pet consumer

Dear Dave,

Our efforts to teach Fraser the value of money are failing miserably.

He was always pestering us for stuff, so we started giving him a pound a week pocket money. Now, if he wants something, he has to buy it himself. We thought giving him money of his own would dissuade him from demanding the first shiny thing which came to hand whenever he walked into a shop. The hope was that he would be more discerning.

The reality was that we lost a certain level of control on his purchases.

How much tack can he fill the house with before he gets the idea? We've got the dreaded Golden Coin Maker and Scooby-Doo! Cyber Chase, more pokemon cards than is sensible, various oddly shaped plastic doodads, a santa with flashing LEDs, some fluffy pencil toppers, a compass and three packets of gingernut biscuits. He won the biscuits in a tombola that he insisted on entering despite the fact there was nothing he wanted to win.

He blew four pounds on a Lazy Town sticker book at the school book fair the other day. I took exception to this for a number of reasons:
  • He blew three pounds he didn't have on stickers, this time last year. He was broke but he was so desperate for this box of random stickers, he took out a loan against his future income. Then he didn't use them. They've been sitting on his bedroom table gathering dust for months... next to several hundred stickers left over from some birthday or other... only a few feet from the half-full tub of 2000 stickers Lewis got for Christmas... and under a shelf upon which rests a still sealed box of Scooby-Doo! stickers the grandparents turned up with one day.

    There's probably more stickers in the the kids' arts-and-crafts drawer...

    He doesn't need more stickers.
  • The school book fair is a bit of a money-making scam. In essence, it's a bookstall that's set up at parent-teacher evenings for parents to buy their kids vaguely educational books. An outside company supplies the books but the school gets a cut of the sales or free books or something.

    The catch is that the teachers take the kids to look at and fondle the books during class time. Their desire for ownership is conceived without parental caveat and then fuelled by discussing with friends what they're all going to get. It's further reinforced as they spend the rest of the day trying to remember what 'their' book is called so they can place an order when they get home. It's pretty hard to exert any influence by then.

    I'd rather the school just asked for donations. We'd pay less, they'd get more and I'd still have shelf-space.

    What's next? Is the school going to sign up with Amway?
  • Fraser's not actually a great fan of Lazy Town. Sure, he'll watch it and enjoy it but he'd rather watch a dozen other things. If I'd offered to buy him a book and taken him to a proper bookshop, he'd have come home with something pokemon related.
  • He's supposed to be saving up for Super Paper Mario on the Wii. He'd have enough money by now if it weren't for yet more pokemon cards and for the sticker book. This is particularly galling because I want to play it.

    Barring the tooth fairy taking matters into her own hands and turning up with pliers, however, he's not going to be able to afford the game until Christmas i.e. the point when the boys (and myself) will be getting various other games anyway and won't have time for them all. In the meantime, Fraser gets to sit around not twiddling his thumbs because he's finished everything he can be bothered to play and spent his cash on stickers he didn't need.
  • He hasn't read the books he got from the last book fair.
Maybe some of that's a little uncharitable. I chose the books last time and I did so on the basis that they looked both entertaining and educational. He really wanted the Lazy Town sticker book even then but they were out of stock when I got there. He's been wanting the book for six months - that's not just the passing whim of a magpie who's seen something shiny and suddenly must have it. It's the tenacious whim of a magpie who's seen something shiny and just will not let it go. Ever.

Still, you've got to admire his stubbornness.

I asked him twice if he really wanted it. I suggested other things he might want instead. He was adamant he wanted the sticker book. I couldn't see the point, I didn't think it was a good idea but... I let him buy it anyway.

You see, I have issues:

When I wasn't much older than him, I really wanted to get a handheld Pac-Man game. I even went to Jarrold's in Norwich with my mum to buy it. I had my birthday money ready. I'd been saving up. I was going to get it.

Except my mum asked me if I was sure so many times that she made me unsure.

I didn't get the game. Admittedly, it cost £18 twenty-five years ago, so it was pretty expensive, but I had the cash and I really wanted it. I would have played it until my thumb fell off. Then I would have turned it upside down and played it until my other thumb fell off. I would have loved and cherished that little Pac-Man machine. Instead, I got left with the lasting impression that spending money on something I wanted was somehow wrong unless (a) it was cheap or (b) my mother could see the point of it.

The upshot is that I can spend several hundred pounds on a discounted washing machine without batting an eye but I go through a lengthy internal dialogue whenever I get the urge to spend a fiver on a computer game magazine. A dialogue that my mum usually wins. I reluctantly put the magazine back on the shelf and then walk a couple of miles home in the rain.

When I arrive back at the house, dripping the contents of a small cloud onto the carpet, I justify the decision to walk by claiming that it's good exercise. If pressed, I might add that it's stressful fighting my way onto the bus with the buggy. The real reason, however, is that walking saves me the pound for the fare. If I've got the boys with me, it saves me two pounds twenty. Each way. That's worth getting a little wet for. (Although the boys may not entirely agree). Besides, my mum never catches the bus, so it must be a waste of money.

I wish I'd stuck to my guns over Pac-Man. I might have a little more perspective and a better idea of the value of money myself.

I want Fraser to be sensible with money. I want him to learn to live within his means. I want him to be able to plan prudently for the future. I want him to consider the effects his purchases have on the exploitation of the planet and of other people. I want him to understand the importance of money but not base his life upon it. I want him to be able to give money to those who need it. In short, I want him to be wise but generous. It would be nice, however, if he was also able to spend money on himself without feeling bad about it.

Most of those things I need to teach him. At least, I'll attempt to teach them to him - he won't listen but I'll have tried. The last one I need to remember not to knock out of him.

Wish me luck.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS My mum never catches the bus because she has a car and drives everywhere. I really need to get a grip.

Friday 16 November 2007

Protective perspective

Dear Dave,

You're right. Kids make you worry. Two kids is twice the worry and you only have half as much available time to fit all the worrying in. You need to concentrate your worry on major risks.

If only I knew what those were...

I seem to spend a great deal of my time shouting warnings about imminent catastrophe:

"Don't do that!"

"Look where you're going!"

"Watch what you're doing!"

"Don't stand there!"

"Don't touch that!"

Unfortunately, my voice usually carries the same sense of urgency whether 'that' is a sweet on the ground, my PSP, a python or an electrical substation. If the kids are doing something liable to cause injury, I will often throw in "It's dangerous!" If they're doing something hugely stupid, I might even go so far as to say "It's very dangerous!"

Still doesn't really give them a particularly clear picture of risk, though.

"Stop waving your fork around. It's dangerous!" isn't much of a step up from, "Watch out! Careful with your milk!" In fact, the latter is actually likely to create more of an impression thanks to the words escaping my throat in a frantic scream as I lunge across the table to catch a teetering cup. My kids probably live more in fear of giving me extra cleaning than they do of impaling their siblings with kitchen utensils.

I guess this will make them normal, though. It's hard to realistically determine probabilities and weigh likely rewards against possible disasters. It's not really surprising the kids don't have a clue. I don't even know what the most likely calamities might be and how badly they could go. Running with scissors probably is pretty dangerous (if they have a pointed end) and so is hopping with knives but how dangerous is dancing with a spoon? What level of warning should I use? Does it depend on the size of the spoon? The style of dance? The proximity of crockery?

Or should I just let the poor kid enjoy herself for a change without me prophesying doom?

The media doesn't help. I saw an item on the main ITV evening news the other week that was all shock and horror about the dangers of hazardous drinking. A large glass of wine every night is a hazardous level of consumption! Well-to-do rich people are drinking too much! Shock! Horror! Not once was it mentioned in what way this level of drinking was hazardous, nor to how great an extent. They did, however, imply a causal relationship between having an expensive house and drinking too much. This means that it's not really the drinking that's the root cause of danger - it's buying a mansion.

As I said, the media isn't much help.

Then again, neither is personal experience much good at assessing most risks. I know from experience that if we go to the swing park there's a good chance that someone will scrape a knee but what's the chance of one of the kids getting snatched? Considering I'm not in the middle of a custody battle, vanishingly small, probably, but all I've got to go on is hearsay and media reports. And I've already established that the media isn't much help.

Nope, it's very hard to tell what's really worth worrying about. Still, in terms of the amount of thought and effort I put into preventing disaster, these are the dangers I feel most threaten my children:

10. Food. Between obesity and food poisoning, additives and E numbers, E. Coli and bird flu, there are any number of food related scares around. I'm considering moving the kids over to a diet of lime juice and crackers, just to be on the safe side.

9. Going to hospital. Hospitals are full of germs and sick people. Must avoid.

8. Dirty hands. Dirty hands are covered in germs and cause sick people. Must wash.

7. My old Xbox. The instruction manual contains only one warning about photosensitive seizures but FOUR about not dropping the thing on a small child. Do the maths.

6. Dog poo. We have some inconsiderate dog owners round our way. I spend a great deal of time telling the kids to look where they're about to put their feet. Strangely, this usually makes them look behind them. They've got used to wandering around peering over their shoulder to see if they've just stepped in doo-doo. This is not hugely safe or convenient. I see dog poo on the pavement and shout at the kids, they look behind them, step in it and then walk into a lamppost.

5. Coffee. It's hot and spillable which is a dangerous combination. Luckily, it's usually gone cold by the time I get a chance to drink it.

4. Traffic. The boys have got the hang of the 'Stop' part of 'Stop, Look & Listen' but haven't yet realised that the other two are quite tricky if they're talking at me. A couple of days ago, while we were already halfway across a road, I told them to stop wittering about Mario and look for cars. Unfortunately, this just led to even worse distraction. Fraser promptly shouted, "Look! There's a car," and pointed at a car that was not only in the wrong direction but also on a different road. Handy.

3. Each other. When the boys were younger, I turned round from the washing up to find Fraser stabbing Lewis in the head with a fork as they sat quietly eating their tea.

2. Themselves. On closer examination, the number of triple puncture wounds suggested that Lewis had been letting him do this for a while.

1. Zombies. I watched 28 Weeks Later recently. Since then, most of my spare brainpower at any given moment has been devoted to locating emergency exits and suitable materials for barricades in case of the unexpected arrival of a horde of the living dead. It may not be a very likely threat but its consequences would be catastrophic. Best to be prepared.
That's the list. Essentially, if I gave each of the kids an eating utensil and a turkey sandwich while I was drinking coffee and we all followed a dog along beside a busy road on the way to the hospital, that's the most dangerous situation imaginable. Unless it started raining Xboxes... or zombies.

I suppose I could always take comfort in the fact that we all had clean hands.

Right, I'm off to purchase emergency plastic bags, a chainsaw, some bear-traps and a shotgun in preparation for the inevitable undead apocalypse. Got to keep the kids safe, after all. And it beats worrying about which secondary school would be best...

Yours in a woman's world,