Dear Dave

Saturday 28 April 2007

Every child is different

Dear Dave,

Already? Are you sure? I mean, I guess you'd know but... Yeah, thinking about, I suppose you are halfway to another child but where's the time gone? Goodness. You're probably thinking the same thing. No wonder you're sounding a little panicked. Still, you'll probably find coping with two easier than you're expecting. You've had plenty of practice with everything like nappies and baths and it won't take long to get slick again.

On the other hand, not to worry you or anything...

Every child is different.

You'll know some mistakes to avoid but, chances are, some of the things that went smoothly first time round will be more of a bumpy ride this time.

Fraser had terrible trouble sleeping and it got to the point where I had to share the spare bed with him and cuddle him most of the night. Since it was a single bed and neither of us is small, I tended to wake up both tired and hunched and then lurch around the house like Quasimodo, gibbering about coffee. After a year of that, it was a case of either leaving him to scream himself to sleep or constructing my own bell tower and just going with the whole tormented mutant look. Fortunately, a couple of nights of hard hearts and stubborn wills sorted things and he's gone to bed fine ever since.

After our experiences with Fraser, we were keen to do better with Lewis. He got hankies to clutch for comfort (replaceable and easily portable!), he wasn't allowed to sleep so much during the day and he was left to get himself to sleep from an earlier age. We also used Ashton and Parsons tooth powder. It all worked great. He slept twelve hours a night from a year. He didn't sleep at all during the day by that point but I didn't care - we had evenings and I'd almost entirely lost the desire to go bell-ringing. We smugly believed that we knew what we were doing.

Then Marie arrived.

She never slept well to start with but teething was disastrous. She wouldn't go to bed until ten or eleven at night and then often woke up and cried for a couple of hours at three in the morning and then got up at eight (if not before). I dreamed of the days when I felt as agile as a hunchback. My limbs seized up and I took on the twisted appearance of a gargoyle. I sprinkled coffee directly onto my Sugar Puffs.

Nothing worked. She had muslin cloths to cuddle but she merely grew to need them as well as me to get to sleep. She spat out Calpol. I managed to get the tooth powder in her once but that was only by taking it out of the sachet and putting it on a spoon. That took her by surprise. The next time, she saw it coming and blew it all in my face. I couldn't cut down on her daytime sleeping because, well, it wasn't like she ever really slept then either.

There was no alternative but to go for the screaming again. It was desperate, but we were pretty sure it would work...

I had to leave Fraser to yell in the cot for nearly five hours before he gave up and went to sleep. (Going in to check on him made things worse, by the way). Marie only lasted a minute and half before becoming so upset that she was copiously sick all over herself, her sheets and the carpet. This happened every time we tried. It was more work than cuddling her to sleep. We gave up.

My skin turned hard and grey. If I stood still outside for too long then pigeons started to nest in my hair. Passing stonemasons attempted to kidnap me and stick me to a church.

It was only when she was over two and able to be reasoned with that we had any success. One night, when she'd been up for hours, I put her in her bed, told her to go to sleep and then stayed in the room with her. Every time she gagged, I told her to calm down. After three hours, it was time to get up but at least she hadn't vomited. After a few nights of doing this at bedtime and whenever she woke up during the night, she got the idea.

Life's been a lot easier since. I can now walk without creaking. Water no longer pours out my mouth when it rains.

We'll know what to do next time...

(Yeah, right...)

Keep your wits about you. Try different things. Get some sleep now.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 25 April 2007

Toddler Wars!

Dear Dave,

As you'll know, one of the primary qualifications for being a housedad is a high boredom threshold. You have to be able to play Snakes and Ladders over and over again for several days, and not mind watching Nemo being found fifty times in a month. Of course, boundless energy allowing you think up and facilitate exciting new activities on a daily basis is a valid alternative but, for most of us, survival is a much more realistic objective. If the kids are happy, just go with it.

I've found many ways of coping with the tedium of a wet afternoon at home. For instance, encouraging a child to make the task in hand massively more complicated for me provides fantastic mental exercise. You should try it. Why bother with two-player Monopoly when three cuddly toys can join in? Play should not proceed clockwise but in alphabetical order of hair colour. Everyone should swap playing pieces after each game. Just attempting to remember whether to move the boot or the car next will keep you busy.

Another option is to put excess brain resources into critical analysis. Are the Teletubbies' favourite things an expression of their individual characters or part of the definition of those characters? In what way is Hungry Hippos a metaphor for life? If Pui and Sid from CBeebies got together, what would their children be like? Who decided Snakes and Ladders was fun? What does Tinky-Winky normally keep in his bag? Where's the nearest nursery? What do Fimbles taste like? Who clears up after Clifford the Big Red Dog? Why doesn't Wily Coyote order KFC? What bearing do the underlying suppositions of Scooby Doo have on our understanding of eschatological events? And why isn't it teatime yet?

This is fun but can become obsessive (and thus scary) after a while. You wake up screaming from Tweenies-inspired dreams where small children transform into puppets whenever they go outside. As for making things complicated, sometimes simplification is the way to go. Turns out toddlers can be persuaded to play Snakes and Ladders with imaginary dice which removes a great deal of the need for concentration. (It also allows things to be ended abruptly when sanity requires - "Look! Twenty-seven! I win.").

When boredom threatens, I normally just put my brain into neutral and let it wander wherever. This is usually nowhere very much, by way of Nicole Kidman, biscuits, the probable length of time it will take for the PS3 to halve in price, what to make for tea and whether, if I close my eyes for a second, I'll be able to open them again. Sometimes, however, inspiration strikes.

I was at parent and toddler the other day, drifting away to a make-believe amusement arcade where the games are free and chocolate digestives are served by Australian movie stars, when Marie gave me an idea. She was busy collecting a pile of toys in the corner of the room and screaming at any other children who went near them. "Mine! It's my trolley! You not touch it! It's mine!" Of course, while she was busy defending the trolley from one child, another would blithely sneak behind her and make off with a large plastic duck. Most parents might well have thought something along the lines of 'I should go and make her share,' but I know that's a waste of effort. I thought, 'There's a computer game in that...'

Think of it:

You are a pre-school general. Recruit a gang of under-fours by giving them toys covered in drool. Send them out to collect everything that isn't nailed down. Choose between devoting resources to protecting the loot or locating more. Set interfering grown-ups on your opponents. Slap opposing forces about with alphabet bricks; run them over in pedalled vehicles; put Play-Doh in their hair. Get allies to distract adults by climbing on piles of chairs and balancing precariously. Throw the toys into the pram (and make a run for it). Fight, cry and unexpectedly fall over. Unleash screaming tantrums. Rule the playgroup. Do it all in Toddler Wars!

Trust me, it's the way forward for strategy games. No more geek-pleasing space opera conflicts but a setting which people can relate to. Finally, AI where allies fail to do what they're told and enemies inexplicably walk into obstacles is no longer a bug but a feature. And then there's all the sequels: Seven-year-olds with Big Sticks, Buckfast Teenagers, Office Ambush, Mid-life Mayhem, Pensioners at a Jumble Sale and Zimmers at Dawn!

It's brilliant. Who says not enough sleep and too much Snakes and Ladders addles your brain? I'm off to write to the makers of Command & Conquer.

Hope you're keeping yourself entertained.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 20 April 2007

Useless Dad

Dear Dave,

I met a Useless Dad the other day.

You can usually tell them by the look of bafflement on their faces but there are often other giveaway signs:

  • They think three minutes is a long time for a baby to have been crying.
  • They are convinced that their partner has magical baby-whispering powers and so looking after children is somehow easier for her.
  • They try and read the paper at parent and toddler and have plans to work from home later.
  • The baby strapped to their front is upside down and kicking them in the face.

I don't mean novice dads here, I mean perfectly capable men who see having a family as an infestation of little people that the wife deals with. It's not that they don't like children, it's that they're not entirely aware of them. The other week I was talking to a mum with two children at parent and toddler (not Scary Karen's one, the one with the great biscuits but hard seats). Her eldest was three years but she'd only left her husband in charge on his own for a couple of hours ever. "When I came back," she said, "the baby hadn't been changed or fed and my daughter had drawn all over herself with felt-tips. I'm never leaving him alone with them again."

"So you're going to do all the work while he sits around drinking beer?" I replied. "Are you sure that wasn't his plan all along?"

Realisation dawned. "I never thought of that," she said.

"Maybe you should give him a bit of training."

Her eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips as if contemplating the possibilities. "Maybe I should," she said in the manner of an evil genius holding a cute bunny and a pair of electrodes, and smiled to herself.

I slipped away to find a chocolate digestive, knowing my work there was done.

Anyway, I was at the same parent and toddler the other day and saw this guy looking uncomfortable and went over to chat with him. He was perched on the edge of his chair, holding a six-month-old as if the kid were about to explode. Every so often he peered nervously over at the drawing table; the rest of the time he looked around shiftily, trying not to make eye-contact with anyone breast-feeding.

"Hi, there," I said. "Have you been here before?"

"No. The wife told me to take the morning off work while she goes for a massage."

"Wow," I said, not quite sure where my sympathy lay.

"Yeah, that's the second time since Easter she's just gone off and dumped the kids on me."

"Wow..." I repeated, suspecting my sympathy had sloped off to the gym for a good rub down. "That's, like, nearly once a week."

"I know. She never did this before. Then she was talking to this guy she met somewhere and decided I should 'take more of an active role'. She said the guy looks after his kids all the time, so I should be able to manage it now and then. Calls himself a homedad or something. Can you imagine?"

"I'll keep an eye out for him," I said. The baby was starting to look familiar and I noticed that a three-year-old girl at the drawing table was busy on a kaleidoscope of felt-tip butterflies that already stretched most of the way up her arm.

"Do you know how to stop this baby crying?" said Useless Dad. "He's been doing it for five minutes and I just can't get him to be quiet. He's never like this for Deborah. It's probably the smell. Something smells terrible in here."

I nodded. "Yeah, kind of like an unchanged nappy."

I heard the refreshments being set out and I made to slip away but then I noticed the pleading look on the baby's face. It was the look of a small child who has been screaming to no avail for awhile and is in desperate need of a translator (or a t-shirt with the slogan 'I'm sitting in poo, you idiot!').

I sat back down. "You might want to check your son," I said to Useless Dad.


"His nappy." The man looked blank. "You know, you might want to check it."

"Oh! Right..." He investigated with slightly less care than was wise and then swore. "Where did that come from?" I stayed quiet, hoping it was a rhetorical question, and he continued. "It was only an hour ago that Deborah changed him. What am I going to do now?"

Unfortunately this appeared not to be a rhetorical question. I glanced over to check on Marie. She was dressed up as Bob the Builder and was happily playing with a stuffed toy of Postman Pat, trying hard to saw him in half. I sighed. I could have done with being called away to an emergency. "Do you want me to talk you through it?" I said reluctantly.

And I really had to. He opened the changing bag like he had no idea what was inside and things just went downhill after that. He got there eventually but I had to resist the urge to take over on several occasions.

"I take it you've changed a few nappies then," said Useless Dad when we were done.

"One or two," I said and decided to come clean. "My wife goes out to work and I stay home and look after the kids."

"Oh, really?" he said, not quite getting it. "I'd rather have a rest at the weekend than babysit. Deborah's thinking of doing something a few hours a week but I'm trying to talk her out of it. It's not like we need the money and, honestly, she's much better with the kids than I am. Doesn't really seem worth it."

"No, my wife works full-time," I said but it was like he couldn't hear me and then he had to rush home. He had some work he wanted to get done. He packed up his stuff and strapped on his baby-carrier.

"That's upside down," I said.

"I know," he said nasally, his son's foot wedged up his right nostril. Then he grabbed Butterfly Girl and dragged her out the door. I shook my head and made my way towards the refreshments.

Marie was still putting her tools to good use as I went past. "I hammer Postman Pat to table," she said.

"Good girl," I replied and hurried to get my tea before the mugs ran out.

The whole experience was quite an eye-opener. Mums give me a huge amount of credit for being a stay at home dad but I only do as much as they do; less, if they're dealing with partners anything like Useless Dad. Sarah is more than willing to help look after the kids when she's not at work and it sounds like your Liz is the same. They may not know exactly where the pastry-cutters are kept or which day the bins go out but they can be trusted to look after the kids for whole days at a time. They don't grudge it either.

We should probably appreciate them more. I'll keep reminding you, if you keep reminding me. Deal?

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 18 April 2007


Dear Dave,

Thank you for your continued interest in the Patented Parental rePeater, my invention which takes the work out of being ignored by endlessly repeating whatever a parent just said.

As you point out, I did promise that the Triple-P would be available for purchase by now. Unfortunately I've run into difficulties and am now in legal dispute with a company looking to produce an item called the Toddler Answer Back (TAB). Here's an extract from some of their marketing material:

Children!!!! TAB is for you. Fed up of repeating yourself because you're not getting what you want? Tired of saying the same thing AGAIN AND AGAIN! Want the power without the effort of actually pestering?

Get TAB (TM).

Hang it round your neck, go about your daily mayhem and then, at the touch of a brightly coloured button, have TAB repeat the last thing you said. Press a different button and keep it saying the same thing over and over and over until THE END OF TIME!!!!!! The longer it goes on, the louder and whinier it will get. Everyone will hear but only dogs will understand! Your parents will give you ANYTHING just to get the noise to stop.

You need TAB.

Comes complete with 127 pre-programmed sayings, including:

  • No.
  • Heh!
  • I want it.
  • I need toilet.
  • Wake up!
  • I don't want it.
  • So?
  • I really need toilet.
  • I want mummy do it.
  • I want daddy do it.
  • I want Barney do it.
  • I do it myself.
  • I REALLY need toilet.
  • I'm not wearing it.
  • Why?
  • You not touch my TAB.
  • I don't need toilet anymore.
  • I hurt my tongue.
  • You rub it better.
  • Look at me!
  • NOW!
  • I need dry socks.
  • Turn your hearing aid on. (For use on grandparents who are supposed to be helping out but have in fact opted for a crafty nap).

Save your own annoying sayings and noises:

  • Prove to your parents how loudly they snore.
  • Play electronic nursery rhymes back slightly out of sync with the original toy.
  • Disable voice-activated security systems with ease.
  • Drive people insane - set TAB to copy whatever they say!
  • Record calls for help, hide TAB in common household appliances and watch your parents panic.
  • Mimic the phone, the doorbell and the fire alarm.
  • Use built-in voice masking wizardry to argue in the style of Darth Vader, Yoda, Beach Fun Barbie or a Dalek!

TAB also has several special modes:

  • Extra Screechy - for use in church
  • Firm but Polite - for use on other people's parents
  • Extra Loud - for cinemas, funerals and early mornings

TAB is waterproof, shockproof, easily portable, resistant to sledgehammers and has a battery-life of between 6 months and 25 years (dependent on the number, age and stubbornness of your parents). Buy it now!

TAB - It complains so you don't have to.

(Batteries not included).

Obviously, I think I have a strong case that they've ripped off my idea and subverted it, but things aren't looking good - their lawyers are smaller than mine. The law firm itself is large but the actual lawyers are small and, in my experience, small lawyers are the most dangerous. (Think Tom Cruise in The Firm). Still, I'm hopeful we can come to some form of mutually beneficial arrangement. I'm thinking a dual pack containing both a Triple-P and a TAB might work. Then both devices could be set going, sealed in a lead-lined box and buried in the back garden. This would leave families free to play together happily without disagreement, knowing all the pointless arguing was being taken care of elsewhere. Peace and harmony would be assured.

If only...

Yours in a woman's world,


Saturday 14 April 2007

In memory of the changing unit

Dear Dave,

The changing unit has gone.

No, I'm sorry, you're going to have to be more impressed than that. I'll write it again. The changing unit has gone. I hope you clapped politely that time. (Count yourself lucky - if you were American I would have to insist on you punching the air while making a loud whooping sound).

A chapter has ended. I've been changing nappies on that unit almost every day for seven years. That's a lot of nappies. Three children for two and a half years each. Assuming an average of six nappies a day per child, that's over 16,000 nappies. That's a lot of nappies. OK, I didn't change all of them, but I changed a heck of a lot of them. At least 12,000, I'd say. That's still a lot of nappies.

Thinking back, it seems like only yesterday I first placed Fraser on that changing unit and gingerly investigated the small swamp he had wrapped round his nether-regions. So many memories! How about the time I was in the middle of dealing with him and heard a tinkling noise six feet away on the other side of the room but spent several seconds wondering like an idiot what it might be? Or the time he peed in his own ear (and he cried when I laughed)? Or the time Lewis spewed forth copious liquid evil from his backside that went everywhere (and he laughed when I cried)?

Ah, happy times...

You've probably blanked a lot of the messiest moments of your own experience from your mind but, with a baby on the way, they're all going to come back to you pretty soon. I remember, in the early days of being a new parent, talking a great deal about the contents of nappies. Fraser would produce and then Sarah and I and any unfortunate visitors would gather round and peer closely, trying to discern his health from the splatter. It was like reading tealeaves. ("Ah, yes, I see much tribulation in your future, young man. You will meet a tall, dark stranger. Then you will poo on him.")

Second time around, things are much more everyday. You know what to expect.

The first week is the worst. For some reason babies come supplied full of tar which they exude through their bottoms for several days. What's with that? Then comes fudge sauce followed by chicken tikka masala. It eventually settles down to something fairly normal on a good day and end-of-term stew on a bad one.

End-of-term stew is the final meal made by hard-up students before going home for the holidays. Everyone clears out their cupboard and bungs the remaining contents in a pot. Typical ingredients include peas, corn, Shredded Wheat, a hairclip, four crushed breadsticks, half a sausage, seventeen pence in loose change and some raisins. Grated seaweed is added for that extra special aroma and then the whole lot is boiled up in thick gravy. Strangely, the results are less than appetising and the students sneak round to my house and dispose of the slimy mess down the back of a nappy. This is why my children have often been seen waddling around with a surprised look on their faces just before Christmas and Easter.

Well, that's all behind me now. There will still be accidents to be dealt with and I daresay I'll be wiping Marie's bottom for another couple of years but hopefully my days of wrestling a stinky toddler are over. There'll be no more need for nursery rhymes to stop them kicking me in the face. (It used to be I could get the kids to calm down by singing to them. Now the only thing which works is promising to stop singing). We're moving on...

The changing unit.
The changing unit. RIP.

A friend and his mate came round today to take the changing unit away. It has a good home to go to but I found myself oddly sad to see it leave. They lifted it up, revealing dents worn in the carpet, and a tear welled in my eye. It had served me faithfully and seen me through many unfortunate crises. As they carried it out the door, I patted it goodbye and watched it taken out of my life forever.

Then I went and washed my hands.


Yours in a woman's world,


PS I'll stop going on about bodily waste now...

Wednesday 11 April 2007

Mind the puddle

Dear Dave,

Thanks for your sympathy over the ubiquitous and extensive puddles of pee which have overrun my home since Marie has stopped wearing nappies. Bearing this situation in mind, I'm surprised you want potty training advice from me but I'll do my best.

We had it pretty easy with Fraser. He has a bladder the size of Iowa and sphincters of steel. We ended up having to toilet train him because he was holding it in for seventeen or eighteen hours at a time and then peeing his nappy off with the explosive power of a Super Soaker. It was useful for putting out small fires but ultimately more messy than teaching him how to use a potty. The main problem we had with training him was actually getting him to perform. He had to be sat on the potty for ten minutes being constantly entertained with stories about Teletubbies before he was able to relax enough to release the floodgates. Once he got the hang of it, though, he only needed the toilet twice a day and barely had an accident. He went from thinking a potty was a funny kind of hat to no nappies whatsoever in about ten days. Easy.

Lewis wasn't much harder. He got the hang of using the potty really fast. All that was needed was to sit him down and close the bathroom door and he performed. Bizarrely, he then wanted to stay there for ten minutes being constantly entertained with stories about Teletubbies but at least the primary goal was always achieved quickly. Closing the bathroom door seemed to become a trigger, in fact. We discovered this one day when he took his pants down and closed the door himself before sitting on the toilet. (Nasty).

We thought he had a smaller bladder and needed to go more often so we had him in pull-ups for a while because he was more prone to accidents. Then, not long after he was in normal pants, we went down to my parents by train and he decided he wasn't going to the toilet again until we got to granny's. He decided this at the station in Edinburgh. My parents live in Norfolk. This did not seem like a good idea... We were nervous... We kept taking him to the toilet but he refused to perform for the entire six hour journey to Norwich. After that, it was another forty-five minutes in my parents' car. Their new car. The kind of car that has a TV to show you where you're reversing... We were nervous... But he made it all the way to their house without so much as a little dance. Go figure.

We didn't worry so much about taking him places after that. Except to get his shoes checked. Something about the prospect of new footwear seemed to irritate his bladder. For months he was bound to wet himself within twenty-four hours of visiting the children's shoe department of John Lewis. And I don't mean a little accident where he needed fresh pants, I mean the kind of accident where I had to stuff his trainers with newspaper. On the occasions where we'd actually had to buy new shoes, this was somewhat annoying.

The boys were both pretty keen to get out of nappies. Given the opportunity to use the potty and plenty of encouragement when they tried, they responded quickly. Marie just hasn't been so interested. We considered a chart where she would get to put on a sticker every time she succeeded in using the potty but she's the kind of kid who would abuse the system and end up producing a tiny amount every ten minutes just to get a sticker. Instead, we cut off her supply of Numberjacks if she refuses to go to the toilet every hour or two. This has worked reasonably well and she's getting the idea. The frequency of mishaps has calmed down but we're still getting up to three a day. Their scale has also reduced because she's keen not to be hosed down in the shower. We'll get there eventually. We know she can do it because she's going dry overnight. She just needs to apply herself a bit.

Some of her new pants have numbers on and this is helping to concentrate her mind. She mutters to herself, "Numberjacks for watching. Not for peeing and pooing on." Can't argue with that.

Every child is different. Good luck with Sam. I'm impressed he can write his own name already. Hopefully he'll stop doing it in such an unfortunate fashion on your clean laundry soon.

Yours in a woman's world,


Sunday 8 April 2007

A new dawn

Dear Dave,

Happy Easter!

I had planned on writing about this being a special Easter for me. Things have been going pretty well lately. I've had several months of decent sleep. This correspondence has given me a bit of purpose outside of direct parental action. The days are getting longer. An end to seven years of nappies looks like a possibility. Sunday is here. The stone has been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. Death is defeated. God is with us! It all feels like a new beginning...

That's what I'd been planning to write, anyway. Then I caught a stinking cold, the kids caught it too, the potty-training led to a household sock shortage and I felt so tired that I dozed off in a softplay. I leant against a foam shape and rested my eyes for a moment. The next I knew, I was dreaming of a nightmare world of primary colours where small children roam free and there is an ever-present danger of drowning in a pit full of plastic balls. I awoke to a reality that was very similar except a five-year-old that I had never seen before was barking at me in a Germanic language and prodding me with an enormous padded snail. For one hazy, flu-filled moment I thought I had fallen into a psychology experiment, a foreign arts film or, worst-case scenario, a painting by Edvard Munch. It wasn't good. I rounded up my children and headed home.

Since then, I've been muddling along as best I can until I'm well, looking to just get through each day without my daughter leaking too much.

Marie gives me various indicators that everything is not going entirely to plan:
  • She points out the obvious. "Your socks wet, Daddy!"
  • She exclaims, "Pee!" as if wondering where it came from and what it's doing in her socks.
  • She lets out an, "Oh, no," giving the impression she's forgotten to pay her Visa bill this month. Or remembered that she has no clean socks left.
  • She mutters, "I go to toilet. I not go in shower." This thought is, of course, akin to shutting the stable door after the horse has urinated (in its socks).
  • She smiles to herself and then wiggles her bottom as if settling down into a nice warm cushion. Mmmmmm. Squishy... (Doesn't require fresh socks, at least).
  • She points at the pee streaming out her shoes.

It's a long time since a toxic spill around the house was a disaster or even particularly unpleasant but cleaning it up is an effort I could do without when I'm ill. Quite often when I tell people that I'm a housedad they ask me something along the lines of, "So you enjoy that then?" There's pressure to justify my existence by saying, "Yes, it's fantastic. It's a fulfilling roller-coaster ride of discovery, challenge, fun and hugs. I'd recommend it to anyone." To say anything else might be to confirm their suspicion that a stay at home dad is against all the laws of God and man. To suggest that children can be ungrateful, hard work and irritating can cause shock and outrage. The truth is, though, that there are days in any job when things could be better. Being ill, dealing with ill children through the night and then trying to hold it all together during the day isn't challenging - it's exhausting.

This time, the trauma should be over quickly, however. A day or two, and we'll all be well. Another week or so and Marie will have the idea. Then the changing unit can go and there'll be room for me to have a desk again - somewhere for me to sneak off to in order to write, surf and play Half-Life. Hurrah!

There have been times in the past few years, though, when it has seemed like the cloud would never pass. It was like the despair of a perpetual Good Friday. I went months at a time without a proper night of sleep. I had to cope with a wife with post-natal depression. I had to deal with depression myself. I couldn't see an end to it. Only trusting to God that there would be an end, kept me getting out of bed.

Being a housedad is fantastic. It is a fulfilling roller-coaster ride of discovery, challenge, fun and hugs. But I'd never recommend it to everyone. Being a dad, never mind a housedad, can be tough. We have to be prepared to admit that, talk to those around us and get support when we need it. Just knowing we're not alone can be a great help. Take care of yourself, OK?

All things considered and fleeting set-backs aside, this is still a special Easter for me. The issues I face as a parent may well become more difficult as the kids get older but a lot of the hard graft is past. (Oh, goodness, decent sleep makes so much difference!) I'll get more and more time and space to myself. I'll have some energy to spare. I might even have dry socks. Wouldn't that be great?

All the best to the family. You are in our thoughts and prayers.

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace from the Son of Peace to you.
This Easter and always...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 4 April 2007

The battle for the remote control

Dear Dave,

Following on from our recent correspondence about the effects of kids' TV, I have a confession to make. I have to admit that Marie is addicted to Numberjacks. Just as I can't function in the morning without my cup of coffee, she needs her fix of single-digit superheroes.

In case you haven't seen it, it's a mixture of CGI and live-action, involving the numbers zero to nine living in a sofa and being teleported out to help people who are experiencing maths related problems created by villains such as the Puzzler, the Numbertaker and Spooky Spoon. It sounds weird but the reality is pretty straightforward. The characters look like numbers and they're named after numbers so kids learn to recognise numbers. (If you want weird then check out In the Night Garden which is also on CBeebies - that's weirder than discovering your eyebrows have turned purple or than finding a tube of toothpaste embedded in your cheese. Lewis was watching it the other day and asked me, "Why did Upsy Daisy kiss the Ninky Nonk?" I honestly answered that I had absolutely no idea).

Anyway, if Marie doesn't get Numberjacks at regular intervals then she starts to get grumpy and uncooperative. Leave her too long and there's anger and tears. Eventually she turns into a quivering, whimpering wreck. Flick on the TiVo, however, and it's instant smiles and little squeals of relief. Then her eyes glaze over and she stares in rapt attention for twelve or so minutes until the episode finishes and she demands another one.

The boys were the same when they were younger. We ended up watching the Scooby Doo movie two or three times a day for a month at one point. I wasn't complaining, though, because (a) it has Sarah Michelle Gellar in it and (b) it kept them occupied for quite a while. Having to start up five episodes an hour is more of a chore while constantly reminding me how little 'real' parenting I'm doing. On top of that, she's not always entirely sure what's fact or fiction. She knows numberjacks are only 'in the telly' but if snot starts dripping out her nose then she's convinced it's the Problem Blob's fault. She was scared to go to bed last week because she thought the Shape Japer was waiting in her room. ("He bad! I not want light off!")

This leaves me with a dilemma. Which makes me a worse parent - letting her watch and risk her living in fear that an animated miscreant is going to turn her into a triangle, or not letting her watch and risk her being so miserable that she makes herself vomit? I'm not sure of the answer. On a practical level, however, not having to clean up sick always makes a course of action more attractive.

I had been quite smug about controlling my childrens' viewing up to this point. Our TV set up is so complicated they can't change the channel themselves and so I have control. As what they watch is limited to start with, I've only had to put a stop to a few things on Cartoon Network. There hasn't been much conflict.

On the occasions when I've discussed censorship with other parents, it's usually computer games we've talked about. On the one hand, there are people who don't realise how much games have progressed since the days of Pac-Man and don't realise just how unsuitable some of them are for children. On the other, sensationalist news coverage singles out violent games above any other medium as the root of all kinds of evil. As a keen gamer myself I've tried to point out the middle ground. Games have age ratings on them just like films. These are suitability ratings based on content such as sex and swearing. (I've overheard confused parents in shops think they were difficulty ratings. '3+' means it doesn't have nudity or terrifying brain-eating, chainsaw-wielding zombies; it doesn't mean a toddler will be able to play it).

Obviously, there's room for some parental discretion. In my household I do the games buying and it shouldn't be too hard working out what's suitable for my kids' ages and maturity as they grow older. I've already had to stop Fraser from playing Paper Mario 2 - he's good at the fights but for me to sit there for thirty hours reading the text wouldn't be fair on my other kids. He wasn't happy but we got through it. Am I going to stop him playing Grand Theft Auto until he's eighteen, when, here in Scotland, he could get married without my permission at sixteen? I don't know. Still, armed with reviews and my own gaming experience, I should be able to make a decision and argue my case.

As I said, I was smug. Then some thoughts crossed my mind. Forty TV channels enter my house but all I watch is Dr Who, 24 and three flavours of CSI. I can't remember the last non-animated film I saw at the cinema. My CD collection stops at 1997. My video rental card has bio-degraded. The library thinks I'm dead. There are... Oh...

One day they're going to figure out how to work the TiVo remote. I can't maintain control forever. Let's face it, I'll have little idea what my kids are listening to, watching or reading. They'll probably have unsuitable friends as well. Games are only a small part of what they will be exposed to. Every practical detail of drug use and benefit fraud I picked up as a teenager, I gathered from my parents' Daily Mail and from News at Ten (thanks, Trev!). Most episodes of EastEnders portray more lying and cheating than any game I've ever played. For every book full of enlightenment, there are three biographies of footballers. Shielding children and teens from difficult issues is impossible without solitary confinement. It won't make good kids anyway, just ignorant ones.

I guess, in some ways, our job is going to get harder as our children get older. Difficult issues should be a regular part of conversation. We need to talk honestly and openly to our children about everything - sex, death, violence, drugs, sexuality, God, relationships, anger, money, failure, love, forgiveness, everything. We need to listen to them and discuss these issues. In short, we need to fill them full of real sense so that the nonsense can't take hold.

Which is easier said than done...

Marie's still allowed to watch Numberjacks but we had to talk to her about it and convince her everything's OK. We reasoned with her as best we could but played along a little as well - we told her the Shape Japer had gone far away on a train. This cheered her up a lot. "He lost in tunnel," she said and went to bed. Crisis averted for now.

It's a start, I suppose.

Yours in a woman's world,