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?