Dear Dave

Friday 29 June 2007


Dear Dave,

I think I may have mentioned before how I seem to get more credit from mums than they give themselves. I only do the things they do but managing to do them despite being a man makes me special. You probably get the same. It's hard to know whether to be flattered or offended... We're not special, though, we're just unusual.

Still, if I'm going to be treated like a hero, I might as well dream. If I really were SuperDad, these would be my special abilities:

The abilities of SuperDad.

How about you?

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 27 June 2007

Educating Useless Dad

Dear Dave,

Everything continues to be entertaining here. The house is still full of air-blowers, I've had a stomach bug, Sarah's off on a course for three days, school finishes for the holidays on Friday and the overflow fitting for the bath fell off yesterday for no apparent reason. Hope things are going more smoothly for you.

Thanks for asking how it went with Sarah's manager, Steve, the other week. As you'll recall, his wife, Deborah, had organised for me to go with him and our combined horde of marauding children to invade the local soft-play and pillage the place. Somehow during the chaos I was supposed to nurture his latent fatherhood skills and make him less of a Useless Dad.

Well, I'm not sure I entirely succeeded. He's certainly not the man he was but it's possible he may just be a different kind of useless...

Anyway, I arrived at their flat on the Saturday morning with my happy band of midget barbarians and, to no one's surprise, Steve wasn't quite ready. The boys raced off to hunt Deborah's cat; Marie clung to me at the sight of Steve - she'd seen his childcare abilities at first-hand and wasn't wanting to be his next victim. No one was going to shove a bottle of milk in her ear while reading the business pages.

Useless Dad's first mistake on this occasion was in his attire - he was dressed in a suit. He'd obviously gone for a more casual look by not wearing a tie but it really wasn't suitable for clambering around inside giant plastic piping.

Since he'd needed to look smart for some kind of business networking breakfast, I guess, technically, the suit wasn't actually his first mistake. His first mistake was not leaving himself three times as long as he'd expected to get his children ready to go. His second mistake was temporarily misplacing his children altogether. His third mistake was that between them they had a leaky nappy and some Play-Doh. His fourth mistake was not restocking the changing bag. So, on reflection, thinking Deborah and I would let him out of the house again without changing was probably his fifth mistake. It was the first I was fully aware of, however. (The changing bag fiasco took us nearly two hours to discover. The Play-Doh has subsequently turned up in a pair of slippers, their DVD player and the cat. Half of it remains missing...).

Still, who wears a suit to the soft-play?

Someone who needs plenty of pockets...

"Have you got your PDA with you?" I asked nonchalantly.

"Of course," he replied.

"You might want to leave it here," I said. "You wouldn't want to lose it in the ball-swamp."

"In? I thought we just got to sit and watch."

"And by 'sit and watch' you mean 'occasionally glance up from reading the paper', don't you?" said Deborah.

He looked nervous. "Er..."

I coughed. It was a strange, throaty cough which came out sounding a bit like, "Frisk him!"

Deborah patted Steve down. The quick search revealed the PDA, his mobile phone, a magazine entitled Middle-Management Now!, a pad of Post-its, a Nintendo DS complete with golf game, a pack of cigarettes, a pre-paid voucher for The Telegraph and a half-eaten custard cream. She confiscated the lot.

"Hey! Let me keep the phone," he pleaded. "I need it for... Er... Oh! What if you need to contact me?"

"I'll phone Ed," she said.

"How come he gets to keep his phone?"

"Because no one's going to phone him." She looked at me. "No offense."

"None taken - it's the truth. Anyone phones me and all they get is small children in the background shouting, 'Who is it? Who is it? Can I talk to them?' No one even tries anymore."

"OK, OK." Steve put his phone away.

"While you're at it," I said, "you should change your clothes into something more suitable for crawling in confined spaces with sweaty children. You probably want to go for old and stained."


"I never know exactly why but the kids usually find a reason before the day's out. Look here - Marie wiped her mouth on me when I picked her up." I pointed to a orange smear near the shoulder of my t-shirt. "And here's where Fraser stood on me while we were playing football..." I indicated a black stain on my side. "That was after Lewis guddled in some mud and shoved me over." I showed him brown handprints on my back and grass stains on my knees.

"What's that red one on your front?"

There was splatter across most of the lower half of my t-shirt that I hadn't noticed. "I don't know." I gave it a couple of licks. "Oh, blackcurrant. That could have happened any time."

At that moment, their three-year-old daughter, Ophelia, went past wheeling baby Josquin in a highchair.

"What's that?" said Steve, pointing at the floor behind them.

I peered closely. "Looks to me like a trail of gravitational droplets," I said. "Directionality suggests the perpetrators came this way from the kitchen."

Steve went to investigate. The ensuing swearing made me suspect that he'd managed to step directly in the primary crime scene.

It was almost another half-hour before we finally managed to leave. My boys were bouncing off the walls by then but, fortunately, they didn't break anything expensive. Once we got going, we made brisk pace the few streets to the soft-play. The four ambulatory children tore off their shoes and plunged straight into the vast, three-storey structure of nets, pipes, platforms and slides. Their ululating battle-cry was rendered unintelligible by the screams of those already present. Toddlers poured out the exits like fleas from a sinking rat. Fraser clambered to the very top and did a little dance. Victory was ours.

I left Steve to sort out Josquin and play with him in an area reserved for smaller children and I went into the main network in order to make sure the girls didn't get into any trouble and the boys didn't cause any. There was no way Steve and I could really sit and talk while still giving the entire horde adequate supervision. My hope was that being abandoned with his son would encourage some bonding and that I could talk to him later over coffee.

I got stuck into chasing children around the brightly coloured wonderland. I don't remember soft-play existing when we were kids so I like to make up for it now. I know from experience, however, not to go sliding down any plastic tubes - I always end up trying to brake with my elbows and friction burns are never pleasant.

After awhile, I went and checked on Steve. He was sitting dejectedly rocking Josquin on a small see-saw. They both looked like they'd rather be doing something else. I offered to swap with him and he shrugged and slouched off to watch the other children. I set to work lifting Josquin onto slides, tickling him and throwing ball-swamp balls around for his amusement. He cheered up a bit.

Sometime later, Marie and Ophelia wandered over and started building towers of squishy shapes while giggling at each other. It took me a minute to realise that Steve hadn't followed them. I couldn't see him anywhere.

"Where's your dad?" I asked Ophelia.

She shrugged and waved a finger about as if indicating he was on the same side of the planet as the rest of the soft-play.

"OK," I said, picking up Josquin and heading off to search. "You girls stay here. I'll be back soon."

Fraser and Lewis were easy enough to find - they were racing each other up and around in circuits of the main structure. They would have been a lot faster at it if they hadn't stopped every five feet to claim the other was cheating in some way. I asked them where Steve was. They looked at me blankly. I continued on.

I eventually found him in a corner of the ball-swamp. Things had not gone well for him. He had obviously sat down on the edge of a large, doughnut-shaped squishy shape and then somehow slipped (or been pushed!) backwards into the hole. His muscles atrophied from years of doing nothing but drafting pointless memos, he had been unable to break free, his wriggling only causing him to sink deeper into the swamp. He was folded in half, his limbs sticking straight up, his bottom sticking straight down, and the doughnut stuck tight around him. He was trapped.

Scavengers had already arrived. An eight-year-old was trying to prise the watch off Useless Dad's wrist while a three-year-old had liberated his left sock and was using it as a hand-puppet. A particularly portly four-year-old was eying him in the way Wile E. Coyote looks at Road Runner. A speck of drool had formed at the corner of the kid's mouth.

If I'd arrived much later I'd have found nothing but bones jacked up on bricks.

I rolled my eyes and rescued him.

"I was just having a rest," he muttered.

"Aye, well, you'd be safer smearing yourself with jam and going to sleep on an ant hill. Keep moving about a bit or the little blighters will get you. I'll send the girls back and you can chase them or something."

I left him to it and took Josquin back to the lower slopes. Marie and Ophelia seemed delighted by the suggestion they go and make Ophelia's daddy run around. They rushed off, giggling to each other. What I wasn't expecting was for Marie to come back a few minutes later in a huff because Ophelia's daddy was hogging the slide.

He'd got really into it. Not so much the interacting with kids part but the sliding head-first screaming into a vast vat of plastic balls part. There wasn't much I could do about it, though - I was left taking care of the baby. It was then I discovered the stock issue with the changing bag. I had to fashion a makeshift nappy the best I could out of a muslin cloth, some cottonwool and two plasters. Then, as an added precaution, I sat Josquin down on an absorbent-looking copy of Middle-Management Now! that Steve had snuck into the bag. (That, at least, seemed somehow appropriate).

Our time was up soon after. Steve wanted one more shot but I dragged him off the clamber nets and we hurried home to find nappies. He spent the whole journey arguing with Fraser over which part of the soft-play was the most fun.

I didn't fancy recounting the tale of my limited success to Deborah and so we parted ways at their door. The nightmare isn't over, however. I got a text message from her a few days later, impressed with Steve's enthusiasm about the whole experience and informing me that I'm going back with him in a couple of weeks. This time he's going to bring some of his friends!

Apparently, he's even thinking of hiring the place for a team-building day.

Sarah is going to hate me.

Yours in a woman's world,


Saturday 23 June 2007

Pac-Man ate my hamster!

Dear Dave,

There have been times in this whole housedad thing when it's been a struggle.

It's not so very long ago that the boys were getting up at half-past seven in the morning, the girl was going to bed at eleven o'clock at night and they were never all asleep at any point in the middle. I had to choose between sleep and time to myself, and that's always quite a tricky balancing act. Not enough sleep can drive a man crazy; never getting enough waking moments of peace can also drive a man crazy; not getting enough of either is a recipe for running down the street yelling, "Tweenie Clock! Where will it stop?" while wearing nothing but a teapot and three chocolate digestives.

Suffice to say, time became very precious to me. For a while I didn't read books, I didn't do any writing, I didn't paint any little plastic goblins and I didn't watch much TV. Sadly, I remain two Harry Potter books behind and the goblins still lie gathering dust but I'm slowly getting a bit more opportunity to do a few of the things I want to do. (You wouldn't be reading this otherwise). The one hobby I've made sure to make time for throughout it all, however, is playing computer games. I find playing computer games allows me to switch off and relax and recharge. It's something I can do when I'm too tired to read and don't have long enough to watch a film with explosions. It's something I look forward to. It's something I enjoy. I can honestly say that, in some of the more difficult times, the calming effect of computer games helped prevent me going entirely round the twist and probably saved my neighbours seeing rather more of my digestives than they'd bargained for.

So coverage of games in the mainstream media nearly always annoys me:

'They stop children going outside. They make teenagers anti-social. They suck adults in so they lose track of time and ignore their families. Most are trash. Many are worthless. Some are evil.'

Imagine if they said that about books...

True, games seldom rise above the intellectual maturity of Die Hard but they are a young medium hindered by technical obstacles. They will grow up. Some already present the opportunity to ponder moral dilemmas, to learn, to think, to empathise, to share and to wonder. It's not all shooting aliens and violent murder.

But you wouldn't guess that from reading the papers.

For instance, the outrage over the discovery that a game based on Law & Order contains a single still of CCTV footage from the James Bulger case seems excessive. The photo is so inconsequential to the game that it's taken four years for anyone to notice. Insensitive, ignorant, incompetent and requiring an apology - yes. Something for the news media which has shown that footage countless times to get into a frenzy over - not really.

Then there was the furore a couple of weeks ago about Resistance: Fall of Man featuring a fight inside Manchester cathedral. Boy, did the ITV news ever jump on that with glee! Resistance, however, is a science fiction game set in an alternate reality where humanity is fighting a desperate war against alien invaders. It's not inciting gang violence. Using the cathedral as a backdrop is in context. This really wasn't the game to prove the evil of interactive entertainment.

Fictional murders, shoot-outs, conspiracies and dubious goings-on are portrayed in places of worship for entertainment in films, books and on TV all the time and no one bats an eyelid. Resistance was only big news because it was a game. Whether Sony owe the Church of England some royalties is a different matter. Demanding the game be taken off shelves, however, was counter-productive. What the cathedral authorities should have done was tap Sony for a couple of demo pods and the running costs of a drop-in centre. Gaming gets some good publicity; the church gets to interact rather than alienate; everybody wins. (I wish).

The outcry was a bit of nonsense really. It certainly wasn't the start of a balanced debate on the merits of censorship. Unfortunately, the response of the gaming community often isn't much more reasoned. Witness the reaction to the British Board of Film Classification's banning of Manhunt 2 - an unremittingly bleak game featuring little but gory murder. The cry instantly went up that freedom of speech is sacrosanct and adults should be allowed to decide what's good for them themselves.

Except freedom of speech isn't sacrosanct. Films and games are routinely censored. TV has strict guidelines. There are laws against libel, slander and false advertising. We all have protection against written and verbal attack.

I censor things every day. I censor what my kids can say, what they can watch, what they can play and what they can hit with a big stick (not much usually). Not only do I restrict what they're allowed to say, I also put words into their mouths - usually 'please' and 'thankyou', admittedly, but it's not like they have unfettered control over their own words.

Some might argue that children don't know any better and adults should be allowed to decide for themselves. But is that really wise in all cases? Adults are affected by what they watch, read and hear. If they weren't, why bother arguing with anyone? And adults certainly aren't much better at deciding what's good for them themselves than children are. Sure, we'll usually avoid live electrical cables, long drops and suspicious gingerbread houses but the temptation to stand on a handy swivel chair to change a light bulb rather than fetching a step-ladder is often all too strong.

It's probably best that entertainment that has potential for corruption but no redeeming qualities is kept away from us. The problem is, who decides what's suitable for us to watch or read? From Lady Chatterley to Spycatcher, decisions to completely ban works often look pretty silly pretty quickly. Bear in mind that the last game to get a ban in the UK was Carmaggedon ten years ago - a game where the main aim was to drive around running over pedestrians. The game got a release anyway thanks to a quick patch to turn the blood green and by changing the word 'pedestrian' to 'zombie'. (I mean, what's that about?)

From a gamer's perspective it seems that Manhunt 2 has been unfairly singled out thanks to the political controversy surrounding the original. Why does this game get banned when there are so many disturbing books and films out there?


Manhunt 2 is a game that's obviously out to shock and offend. Defending it really doesn't do the image of gaming any favours. We gamers need to move on and go and play something else.

Maybe we should get some journalists to join us and prove to them we're not all homicidal maniacs. Let's promote the value of interactive entertainment. Let's educate. Let's counteract fear with friendship. Let's foster some understanding and respect.

What to play, though? Probably best not to start with a game involving chainsaws...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Now that guy's in The Herald. He's like my more competent but less photogenic alter-ego.

Wednesday 20 June 2007

The lies we tell our children

Dear Dave,

Glad to hear you got some peace and quiet on Father's Day too. It was a good day for putting your feet up and watching some sport, what with the tennis, golf, cricket and Formula 1. I'm slightly envious (well quite a lot envious, actually) about your recent upgrade to Sky HD but it's a wise move - once offspring number 2 arrives you won't be getting out much. Best to make yourself comfortable. It might even mean you have something other than phone-in quizzes to watch at 3 a.m. while you're sitting up with a grouchy baby. (Yeah, right... Better start stocking up on DVDs as well).

Everything's in chaos here thanks to the water damage but we're getting by. I'm tired, though. Marie tripped over in the lounge the other day and gave herself a slight bang on the arm. Being two-and-a-half, she couldn't just give it a quick rub, she insisted on me kissing it better. Thanks to the stress of the house dissolving, I was exhausted and was sprawled in the armchair trying to grab a couple of minutes rest. Sad to say, I couldn't be bothered to bend down to her level. I suggested that she kiss her arm better herself.

She wasn't too sure about that but she reluctantly gave it a go. It didn't work. Only I would do. I summoned up my reserves of parental strength and leaned over to give her elbow a very brief, but very loud, kiss. She was instantly healed and bounced off, smiling. I slumped back in my chair, thankful at least that she hadn't bitten her tongue and asked me to rub it better. (I hate that).

A few minutes later she managed to whack her chin off a toy and she came running over for another kiss. I was feeling more alive by then and I was intrigued by the details of this magical healing process. I decided to conduct an experiment. Once again, I suggested she kiss it better herself. She didn't seem bothered by the practicalities of this but was certain it wouldn't work anyway. She demanded a kiss. I tried blowing it to her. That helped but she was still sore. She demanded a kiss...

So I taught her to use her cheeks as bongos.

This worked a treat and she charged off happily, feeling much better. When I told Sarah about it later, however, she wasn't too impressed. Apparently getting my daughter to slap herself (gently) about the face was a misuse of power, even in the name of science.

She's probably right.

It did make me think, though. I try very hard not to lie to my children. I either tell them the truth or explain that they're not old enough to know. Sometimes that means extra challenges for me. Fraser's already had some sex education because he asked pertinent questions and I didn't want to fob him off. I've had to argue at length the fictitious nature of a certain red-coated Christmas individual with Lewis. I don't avoid conflict by pretending there's a chance we might get a puppy or an enormous inflatable waterslide or Coco Pops Straws or a time machine.

I try very hard not to lie but... The whole 'kiss it better' thing implies that I think a kiss will actually make things better. Then there are other things I say that stretch the truth somewhat:

What I say. - What I really mean.

You're all right. - You'll have to fall over harder than that if you want any sympathy from me.
This won't hurt much. - This will hurt.
It's good for you. - It tastes of seaweed.
The TV's tired. - That's quite enough Numberjacks for today, thankyou very much.
You need to get some sleep. - Daddy needs to go play the Xbox.
I'll be there in a couple of minutes. - Your demands for attention are important to us but all of our service operatives are busy at this time. Please hold...

I should really try harder. They might argue, but children can be told things straight. Being up-front with my kids will pay dividends in the long run. If I'm open with them, the hope is that they'll be open with me.

Which is easier said than done... I want them to be happy. I don't want to upset them. Often I just want a quiet life. More than that, sometimes the truth is just hard to find. Marie really believes kisses have healing powers and who am I to argue? Occasionally a bit of compromise seems the only the way to go:

Last night she scraped her ankle and got me to kiss it better. I did kiss it but she just became more unhappy - her ankle was still sore. I told her that sometimes kisses take a day or two to work. She cheered up a bit. Then I gave her some chocolate. It turns out chocolate has magical healing powers too.

Of course, I know from experience with the boys, her perception of the truth will change as she gets bigger. She'll start experimenting on me to find out what I really think. She'll start taking dives in order to get a chocolate biscuit. She'll start playing rules off each other: If she isn't allowed dessert unless she eats all her other food, but food dropped on the floor goes in the bin, can she feed her food to the bin and skip straight to the cake?

At some point, she will grow up. She will understand my version of the truth and my concept of how the world works but she will be content with her own. Hopefully, however, if I'm as honest as I can be, we'll still be able to talk about things even when she's a lot older.

In the meantime, she'll probably just humour me. I'll stub my toe and she'll use my face as a percussion instrument to make me feel better... I really should be more careful what I say.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Check out this article in The Guardian about housedads if you haven't already. They quote a guy who sounds just like me. It's freaky...

Friday 15 June 2007

All I want for Father's Day is...

Dear Dave,

What are you doing for Father's Day?

I keep getting junk email advertising all kinds of bloke-oriented toys and gizmos that I might want my family to buy me as tokens of their appreciation for my very existence. Remote control items seem to be the thing this year - cars, helicopters, dragonflies, boats, you name it. There are plenty of other bits and bobs on offer as well, from Sat Navs to football playing robots to little fridges to keep beer in. Bizarrely, one company even thinks I might find some digital calipers useful. Even more bizarrely, the only use I can think of for digital calipers is to measure the internal diameter of my nostrils. (I've spent so long around small children, I suspect I'm going native).

Besides gifts, I've also had suggestions for special Father's Day trips I might fancy. There's a deal on at the zoo, for instance, giving a slightly reduced entry fee for families if you eat at the restaurant. Big whoop.

The problem is that none of this advertising really seems to speak to our situation. It's all along the lines of 'Remember to take time out from work. Relax, play and celebrate your family. Spend some quality time with them. Oh, and drink some beer.'

I get to play with toys all the time, however. We have at least three remote control cars in the house already - one only turns right, one is supposed to turn both ways but only turns right and the other is broken and doesn't turn at all but is a model of Mario on a kart so we can't get rid of it. I already have small children to watch play football badly. I don't care what temperature my beer is. None of the stuff really appeals. (Although I might be tempted by some remote control, football playing beer. I still wouldn't care what temperature it was, though).

As for taking the kids for an exciting day out to the zoo... That would be rewarding hard work with more hard work.

Sarah has a similar problem when Mother's Day rolls round. All the advertising involves children thanking their mum for the sweat and tears she's shed looking after them all year. It's a time for mums to put their feet up while someone else makes Sunday lunch. This just makes Sarah feel guilty for never making Sunday lunch. She'd just like a bit of appreciation for being her.

That's another story, however. The question is how to mark Father's Day. I'm not even wanting any games or DVDs - between renting and the ones I've got already, I've more entertainment available than I have time to fill. Which, I guess, pretty much suggests the solution. Even the kids managed to work it out without prompting. What I could really do with is some peace and quiet.

This Father's Day the children are going to show their gratitude for all I do by leaving me alone for a change. Sarah's going to take them to the zoo and I'm going to stay here and put my feet up. I'll take some time out from work. I'll relax, play and celebrate my family being somewhere else. I'll spend some quality time with the Xbox. Oh, and drink some beer.

Have a good one.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Three weeks and seven plumbers later, the leak is finally fixed. There's a good chance we'll have to move out while the damage to the walls is repaired but for now we've just got three large air-blowers cluttering the place and making the house sound and smell like a laundrette.

An air blower in my kitchen.
A big, blue, blowy thing.

I want to take one of these along to a convention of stylists and do a Crocodile Dundee. "That's not a hair-dryer. This is a hair-dryer."

Wednesday 13 June 2007

Another conspiracy

Dear Dave,

Sorry to hear your neighbour thinks you're moving in on his wife. I take it he believes that because you're both home most of the time there's more scope for temptation.

Which is just mad.

He doubtless goes off in a suit to a workplace full of smartly-dressed female colleagues who he has ample chance to meet up with in his lunch hour. You, meanwhile, are run ragged by a toddler every minute of the day, barely have a moment to brush your hair and are covered in a multitude of minor stains. Also, quite how you'd find the opportunity to get up to something - let alone keep it secret - with three small kids between you, is another matter. I can't sneak away for a four minute game of Geometry Wars on the Xbox without a little person searching me out and demanding some attention.

If he keeps hassling you, drop Sam round their house one Saturday morning and let him witness how impractical the whole suggestion is at first-hand. I don't know about you, but it can be hard finding time and energy for the woman I already have in my life. I'm not looking to borrow another.

That said, though, I did have an uncomfortable conversation myself the other day. I answered the phone and a well-spoken and attractive-sounding woman on the other end said, "It's Deborah."

The name didn't ring any bells straight off and I didn't recognise the voice. "Er..."

"Steve's wife." I still couldn't place her. "You know - Useless Dad."

"Oh!" I'd spoken to her briefly at parent and toddler a few times but not for several weeks. I remembered her as intimidatingly confident and pretty. Calling her own husband by the derogatory nickname I'd given him had the combined effect of making me warm to her but also of scaring me. I couldn't recall having mentioned the name in public. What else did she know? More than that, what did she want and how had she tracked me down?

She smiled at me down the phone. "I was wondering if you want to meet up for coffee?" For some reason I felt like a fly being waved at by a cheery spider. Something didn't entirely add up.

"Er, well..."

"I've got the cleaner in just now but she won't be here long - it's only some tidying up really. Why don't you come round at eleven?"

Normally that would be a rubbish time but Lewis was going round to a friend's house after nursery so I didn't have to collect him. I had the distinct suspicion, however, that Deborah was the kind of woman who would remember that I had a child in morning nursery. She probably even had his name, birthday and favourite foods in her mental Rolodex. So why would she suggest a time that she knew I wouldn't normally be able to make? Unless she already knew it wasn't a normal day... But she couldn't possibly know that unless the kids' conspiracy had reached new heights and they were bringing in adults to help them... But that was insane thinking... I was reading too much into things. I... I decided to be non-committal.

"How did you get my number?"

"It was stuck to our fridge."


Being a man in a woman's world has many advantages, such as receiving adulation in the park for being able to reach high enough to unwrap the swings and having a changing room all to ourselves at swimming lessons. One of the disadvantages is that taking the kids round to visit their friends can be a little awkward. It's just socially odd meeting up with a woman in her house without any other adults present. It's not like we're alone or that anything could possibly happen or that I would want anything to happen - it's just strange. I couldn't help feeling it would be even stranger going round to see a woman who was rapidly giving the impression of stalking me.

"Oh come on," she said, discerning my reticence. "I hear the girls get on really well. It would be good for them to get to know each other better. I'll make a cake. We only live ten minutes away."

As attempts to get me to do things go, that was pretty persuasive. She made me feel like a bad parent for not wanting to go and then pointed out the way to be a good parent involved only a short walk to eat free cake. Genius! After a bit more back-pedalling, I eventually agreed to take Marie round and sorted the details. As soon as Deborah hung-up, however, I speed-dialled Sarah. Nothing was going to happen but it's always worth informing the wife after accepting an offer of home-baking from a mysterious woman - that way there's less chance of a misunderstanding turning life into an American sitcom. Only less chance, mind:

"LBO marketing department, Sarah speaking. How can I help you?"

"Your boss's wife has invited me round for coffee. I was just checking..."

"I can't speak right now, Sandra. I'll call you back in a few minutes." She hung-up and I was left staring at the phone. Somehow I'd found myself in a re-run of Friends.

I filled the next while encouraging Marie with her drawing while I pondered whether I would rather be Ross, Joey or Chandler. Then the phone rang.

It was Sarah. "She called you already then?"


"Steve's still around here somewhere," she said and then lowered her voice. "He's not to know about it."

"He's not to know I'm going round to his house?"


"But you know about it?"


"I'm a little confused."

"Well I knew that before I married you. Just go round and listen to what she has to say. You still owe me on all of this, remember?"

"For letting your boss into our house? I thought you'd forgiven me for that. But if you're in on it, no wonder she found it so easy to persuade me. There was no need to go telling her all your secret techniques for manipulating me."

Sarah laughed. "Don't be silly. If I'd told her my secret techniques then you wouldn't have known she was doing it."

"That's not reassuring."

"It wasn't meant to be. Oops, got to go. See you later, Sandra."

I was left staring at the phone again. I felt like such a Chandler.

An hour or so later, I set off with some trepidation. Marie was very excited about the whole prospect, however, and toddled along at speed. "We go play! I run!" she shouted. I did my best to concentrate on gently steering her through the usual obstacle course of puddles, dog poo and admiring old ladies.

Deborah lived in what appeared to be an old, stone-faced hotel that had been expensively renovated into luxury flats. I expected high ceilings, marble finishing and a mezzanine level in the vast lounge.

I wasn't disappointed.

She greeted me with a peck on the cheek and then ushered me through to sit in a bay window where tea and cake had been set out on fine china. There was a table-cloth and everything - the cake was even on a stand. None of this helped put me at my ease.

Marie was oblivious. "I go play now," she said and ran off hand-in-hand with Ophelia. I hoped anything valuable had been put out of reach but I spent the rest of the visit expecting her to come back shaking a Faberge egg, hoping to get the surprise toy out.

Settling back in a wicker chair festooned with cushions, I looked about. Whoever had decorated the place had really known what they were doing - it was elegant yet welcoming. I was acutely aware, however, that the cup I was drinking from probably cost more than all the crockery in my own house put together.

"Nice place," I said.

"I'm an interior designer," Deborah replied and I instantly wished I'd been a bit more effusive.

"Well, it's really nice. Really, really nice." I guess, on reflection, I'm just not a very effusive person. I pressed on. "Do you get much chance to do any work?"

"Not as much as I want. Ophelia will start nursery after the summer but Josquin doesn't sleep for long during the day so it won't help a great deal. A nanny is one solution, I suppose, but I don't like the thought of that. I really need Steve to do more of the childcare in the evening and at weekends."

"Are you sure that's wise. He's a bit... er..."



"I am aware of that," Deborah replied. "I phoned him on his mobile yesterday and Josquin's nappy rang. I get the impression that your wife has some issues with him as well."

"She's not up for meetings on the golf course, she'd prefer to see her family than go down the pub and she has a tendency to disagree with plans which are obviously stupid. This has her marked out as 'not a team player'. She also feels her work is under-appreciated because she doesn't get involved in the testosterone-fuelled bragging his leadership tends to encourage."

"It sounds like she's told you a great deal about it," she said, obviously knowing full well I'd had my share of angst to sympathise with.

"Sarah's mentioned it on a few occasions," I replied diplomatically.

Deborah raised an eyebrow. "OK," she said, spreading her hands on the table in front of her. "I'll be blunt. I need him to be a better dad. You need him to be a better boss. I think we can help each other. You teach Steve to be an involved father and I'll exert some influence on his managerial style. I can also supply Sarah with any useful information that comes my way, such as when he's going to be out of the office and anything he's planning, so she's prepared."

This wasn't the kind of proposition I'd been fearing. In some ways it was scarier. Still, it was a chance to make Sarah's life better, so I couldn't really turn it down. (I do love her).

I sighed. "I guess I could give it a go. Where do you want me to start?"

"You're going with him to soft-play on Saturday. I hear you should be free to meet him round here at two."

"I thought you were supposed to be supplying Sarah with information, not the other way about."

"We're all working together now."

"Apart from Steve," I said, frowning. "I take it he's not to know about any of this?"

"As if he'd believe you."

"Good point. He hasn't really taken in I'm a housedad yet."


At that point, Marie and Ophelia entered the room wearing Wedgwood bowls as helmets and Josquin woke up wanting fed. We turned our attention to keeping children happy and there wasn't much more opportunity for discussion before I took Marie home for lunch.

I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do. I guess I'll meet up with Steve on Saturday and see how it goes. Maybe simply by being round me he'll pick up some fathering skills by osmosis. You never know... Sarah's seeming pleased, though, so that's a bonus.

Good luck with your situation. I just hope that this doesn't all blow up in my face like a steriliser full of popcorn. (Don't try that by the way...)

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 8 June 2007


Dear Dave,

I think it's a conspiracy.

You only have one child so far, so you may not understand, but I really think it happens. Seriously, I think they get together and plan it. They must have actual meetings with agendas and flip-charts and brain-storming sessions. I keep expecting to find three discarded plastic coffee cups, an empty box of doughnuts and a laser pointer left lying around.

OK, I'm starting to rave but they pushed me to it. I even know that this is what they want but I can't help myself. I know they want to drive me insane. I don't know why they do, but they must do - there can be no other explanation, given the persistence of their co-ordinated efforts.

Maybe if I found their documentation, their motives would become clear. Yes, that's it. I'll have to search more carefully. I'd particularly like to see the PowerPoint presentation for the stunt they pulled the other day:

Fraser and Lewis had the opportunity to take a tour of Hibs football ground with Anchor Boys (the junior version of the Boys' Brigade). They have no interest in football whatsoever, however. They have so little clue, if forced to play football they might well struggle to know which goal to make for. This being the case, I assumed they wouldn't want to look round an empty stadium.

I hadn't counted on their long-term aim of driving me crazy.

Fraser was desperate to go look at some seats and a large expanse of grass. He pleaded with me to be allowed to take part. I was bemused. I tried to talk him out of it. The trip clashed with the boys' weekly swimming lesson which was paid up in advance. If they'd both wanted to go to Hibs, then I could have lived with that - it isn't something they'll have a chance to do very often, after all. But Lewis didn't want to go and it was logistically impossible for one to go swimming and the other to go on the trip. If Fraser went on the trip then I'd have effectively spent money for Lewis to sit at home. I was adamant they both had to decide on the same activity.

They argued amongst themselves for awhile. Neither would change their mind. I decided to leave the decision until the actual day.

The day came. While Fraser was at school, I tried to persuade Lewis to go to Hibs because I knew that Fraser was desperate to go. Lewis wasn't having any of it. He took a big strop, nearly cried and said he wanted to go swimming. Neither of them ever wants to go swimming. They kick up a fuss about it every week. I tore out some of my hair.

We went to collect Fraser from school. I still didn't know what we were going to do. Fraser came out and I tentatively asked him if he still wanted to go see the place where they played football. To my surprise, he replied, "No, not really. I've changed my mind. I don't want to go."

I sighed in relief. Then Lewis said, "But I do."

In years to come, I think that will be the moment I will look back on and say, "Yes... That's when they drove me over the edge..."

There was more arguing but still no agreement. I decided to send them both in the end and, thankfully, they had a good time. Their plan wasn't entirely done, however. Marie took a huff because she wasn't allowed to go. She only got to stay home and have my undivided attention, and apparently that just wasn't good enough...

What was it Abe Lincoln said? "You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but when it comes to your own children you're royally stuffed whatever." I think that was it.

Ho well. Maybe it's only what I deserve:
The dark side of leaving dads in charge of children...
I'm off to look under Fraser's bed for an encrypted hard-drive.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 6 June 2007

Safe operating procedure

Dear Dave,

I was removing the packet of a new screwdriver the other day when I noticed that the instructions contained the warning, 'Do not insert in ear.' As I set about loosening the screw holding shut the battery compartment on a new plug'n'play computer game, I noted that the batteries came with the helpful advise, 'Do not open.' The game itself suggested the user should play in a brightly lit room, rest for fifteen minutes in every hour and never play when tired. I thought this was being rather hopeful. The additional advice to cease playing in the event of losing consciousness did seem sensible, however.

All this was for a child who came with no warning labels whatsoever and is, without doubt, the most dangerous thing in my house! It is time to redress the balance. The following should be distributed in maternity wards everywhere:

Your child. Care and safety warnings.

Congratulations. You are now the proud owner of a new human being. We hope you experience many years of happiness and satisfaction with this product. As with all complex biological systems, however, your offspring will require some care and maintenance to ensure optimum performance. Please take a moment to look over these instructions and familiarise yourself with safe operating procedure. Thank you for your cooperation.

Non-compliance with these warnings may cause malfunction of the product, injury or distress to pets and soft furnishings and/or invalidate your warranty. No returns can be accepted and there are strictly NO REFUNDS.
  • Keep away from fires, sharp objects and open tubes of toothpaste.
  • Handwash only.
  • Product may emit strong odour. This is not a defect.
  • Slippery when wet.
  • Cross-border transfer may be restricted.
  • This product can cause nausea, drowsiness, irritation, despair, anger, frustration or exhaustion. If symptoms persist, seek help, prayer and beer.
  • Caution: Contains vomit.
  • Not dishwasher safe.
  • Slippery when covered in suncream.
  • Do not throw out with bathwater.
  • Risk of high noise levels. Wear ear protection.
  • Do not combine with alcohol, excessive sugar, wet cement or fragile valuables.
  • Slippery when covered from head-to-toe in purple paint. Note: Also messy.
  • Not for use as a floatation device.
  • Danger of choking: Product may feed you LEGO while you are sleeping.
  • Just plain slippery.
  • Warning: Product may contain traces of its grandparents.
  • Do not tumble-dry.
  • Children in mirrors may be closer than they appear.
  • Prone to incessant wittering.
  • Do not leave in direct sunlight, cars or trifle. (Cages are fine).
  • Contents may stain clothing.
  • Requires love, attention, support and university tuition fees. (Not included).
  • Waterproof, shockproof and resistant to reason.
  • Store in a cool, dry place.
  • Do not refrigerate.
  • Handcuffs are not a substitute for parental supervision.
We hope this new addition to your family brings you joy and pleasure. Good luck.
Did I miss any? Hope things are going well. Thanks for filling me in on your own pokemon-related nicknames. Glad to hear you have a Diglett in the family. I wouldn't call Liz 'Snorlax' to her face, though, no matter how big she's getting.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS I've just taken a look at the list of possible side-effects of some travelsickness pills we have - one of them is vomiting. Hmmm....

Friday 1 June 2007


Dear Dave,

I went to the pub the other night. It felt very odd. For starters, it was only about the second time I'd been to the pub since the smoking ban came in up here so it was a novelty to be able to breathe. Just leaving the house without children was peculiar, though. Doing so at night was even more weird. I occasionally get to escape during the day at the weekend but I'm usually too tired in the evening once the kids are in bed. The world looked strange. I probably looked strange too, bounding along the pavement unencumbered by buggies or changing bags or screaming children. I seemed to bounce along as if the lead weights had been removed from my boots. It was like walking on the moon (with the added advantage of my head not exploding from lack of air pressure, fortunately).

Rob wanted to talk away from the women-folk and I thought I'd better make the effort and go and meet him. He was panicking again about the prospect of fatherhood. (Remember Rob? He used to be my minion at LBO).

He was waiting at the bar when I arrived. He bought us drinks and we settled ourselves down in a dingy corner. At least I settled myself - he downed half his pint and then sat and fidgeted. I suddenly remembered to check that the kids hadn't wandered off. Equally suddenly, I remembered I didn't have any with me. I was out in the world as a person in my own right. I wasn't obviously a dad to everyone who looked at me. This made me unexpectedly nervous. People let you off with a lot if you've got small children to protect you. They're a distraction, an excuse and a talking point. I felt exposed without any.

I covered by checking my phone to make sure I hadn't missed any messages. "How's work?" I said, which is normally a safe bet - Rob's always keen to talk through his technical difficulties.

"They cancelled the project."

"What? How are they going to manage the new accounts without the IT systems?"

"No, that's not it. They decided that giving out scratchcards rather than interest was going to get them in trouble so they've canned the accounts. We're still working on the IT."

"What?" I'd been looking forward to the scratchcards. "You're still working on the software for a product that's never going to exist?"

"Yeah. What else are we going to do? There's rumours going round about redundancies across the whole department. We're just trying to look busy."

I nodded. It occurred to me, however, that if I was in charge, people who managed to look busy despite clearly having no useful work to achieve would be the first to find their names mysteriously removed from the organisation chart.

We stared at our pints for a bit. "How's the leak?" Rob asked eventually.

"Put it this way," I sighed, "whenever I go into the cupboard under the stairs now, I take a snorkel and harpoon-gun with me just in case. We've had four different plumbers out to look at it. Mario and Luigi checked the pipes, Mario2 checked the drains and Mario's Friend checked the guttering. Fraser's list of amusing names is getting desperate already but none of them can figure out where the water's coming from. We're talking major work to repair all the damage as well." Rob muttered condolences but he was obviously still caught up in his own problems. "How's Kate doing?" I asked.

"Fine, I think. It's hard to tell - she's just knackered the whole time. She comes home from work and goes to bed. Then she wakes up in the middle of the night and eats sausages."

"I take it she's not veggie any more, then?"

Rob ran his fingers through his hair in agitation. "She reckons vegetables have started looking at her funny. You know, like a nutter on a bus. She's avoiding them in case they try anything. Broccoli - she's sure the broccoli is out to get her. She knows it's planning something."

"O... K... She should get over that in a few weeks, though. Have you thought any more about getting married?"

"To the woman who's thinking about taking out a restraining order against cabbages?"

"I was thinking more along the lines of to the woman you love and who is carrying your child but that too. Hormones and lack of sleep are going to drive you both crazy at various points over the next year or three so you're just going to have to get on and make plans anyway. Is she going to go back to work after her maternity leave runs out? If she is, is it going to be full-time or part-time? And what about you?"

"Me?" He was starting to squeak.

"She's a solicitor. She earns a good wage working with people in a job she enjoys. You work in a cubicle and spend half your time emailing me funny stories you found on the internet while you were bored. Which of you would cope better staying home? If there are redundancies going round anyway, you could go voluntarily and escape with a load of free cash."

"And become a deviant like you?"

"I usually refer to myself as a housedad, but yeah. You asked me about it the other day; you must be thinking about it."

"That was the day after I found out," he said, chewing his nails. "I was panicking. I didn't know what I was saying. I don't even know how to change a nappy."

"Neither did I before Fraser was born. You get plenty of practice pretty quick, believe me. Imagine it as a computer game. You gradually gain experience by doing things such as fighting your way through the baby department at John Lewis, braving the terrors of parent and toddler and experimenting with stain removers. You also get to solve puzzles such as which pram to buy and how to get porridge out of your watch."

This analogy seemed to be going down well, so I continued with a small genre switch. "Every so often your pokemon level-up, too. They start off with the ability to eat, sleep and expel bodily waste. As time passes, they learn new skills, allowing them to smile, walk, jump, talk and embarrass you in public. Then they evolve into bigger monsters that take more persuading to do what they're told and require totally different discipline techniques."

I was on a roll. "Eventually you're a level sixty wizard with a highly trained menagerie capable of doing all the chores around the house and then going out into the world and bringing back treasure to support you in your old age. An old age in which you get to laugh evilly for no apparent reason while being wheeled round by devoted slaves." I stared wistfully into the distance.

"I don't know," said Rob. "Don't take it personally or anything but aren't women just better at looking after kids? You know, multi-tasking and all that."

"A man can prepare a meal in between doing the washing up while entertaining a baby at the same time as supervising a game of Snakes and Ladders. That's all multi-tasking is. A woman feels superior because she can do all these things and hold a conversation without being distracted. They're really doing the same number of things, though."

"No, they're not. She's talking as well."

"Yes, but the man's thinking about sex. It's the same number of things."

"OK," said Rob, "so if it's that simple, why aren't there more housedads around? How come you and that Dave bloke you write to are the only ones I've heard of?"

"Well, there are lots of reasons." I scratched my head. "I don't know. Some people find the whole concept odd. In lots of couples, both partners have to work. Then again, some men feel it's their duty to be out there winning the bread or don't want to have to go cap in hand to their partner if they want to buy a gadget. There are all kinds of reasons. The hours are long as well and I only get about five days holiday a year."

Rob shrugged. "That's not so bad. I get twenty-two."

"Ah... No, I don't think you're entirely understanding me here. You get a hundred and thirty-five days holiday a year."

"Don't be daft."

"I'm not being daft. What do you think I do with the kids on bank holidays and weekends? Put them into storage?"

His eyes widened. "Oh..."

"And I don't get sick days, either," I added. "If you became a housedad, there'd be no more rugby-related viruses forcing you to take long weekends in Dublin in order to recuperate."

"Hey! I went into work when I really had the flu to make up for that."

"I always have to go into work if I have the flu. Did I tell you about the time me and the boys managed to throw up twenty-five times between us in the space of eighteen hours?"

"You're not really selling this."

"True. I'm just giving you something to think about. You're going to do fine as a dad and you could be a great housedad..." I coughed. "...given a bit of training. I'm not going to tell you it's a sunshine world of domestic bliss and biscuits, though. It's low-stress, fun and rewarding but requires plenty of hard work, patience, diplomacy and organisational ability. A strong stomach is also handy."

"Yeah." Rob nodded but his eyes were starting to glaze over with information overload.

I changed the subject. "Played anything good recently?"

"MotorStorm rocks," he said, looking a little embarrassed.

"You bought a PS3?" I said, slightly too loudly.

"Yeah. I was walking home past GAME the other day and it just kind of happened. I needed something to take my mind off things. My credit card's smarting, what with the HDTV as well. Looks ace, though."

"Tell me you got a spare controller."

"It was part of the bundle."

"Then what the flip are we doing here?" I said, finishing off my pint. "Get your coat - you've pulled."

We headed out the door for a night of excellent but foolishly expensive gaming. As we left, however, Rob looked at me sideways, a thought coming back to him. "You actually think of them as pokemon, don't you?" he said.

"Maybe," I said. "Certainly, when people ask Marie her name, she says, 'Pikachu'."

Rob laughed. "I think I'll call mine Squirtle." He laughed again. This time, however, there was just the faintest hint of a cackle...

I wonder what I've started now.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Do your kids have any unlikely pet names?