Dear Dave

Wednesday 31 December 2008

Happy New Year

Dear Dave,

Those sound like some excellent resolutions. To get more sleep, drink less coffee and wear less vomit are, indeed, noble aims. Unfortunately, you have a fifteen-month-old.

Basically, you're stuffed.

Perhaps next year, eh?

As usual, I haven't come up with any resolutions myself. If something's worth doing, it's worth doing whatever the date. Thinking up things specially at New Year doesn't seem like a great idea. If I'm not inspired by a plan, then starting it in the depths of winter during the holiday chaos isn't exactly going to give it a large chance of success. Now is not the time to lose weight or attempt to be less snappy with the kids.

I suppose I did (totally coincidentally) think of something worth doing yesterday anyway. Not so much a New Year resolution as a Christmas Sale resolution. These aren't as common as New Year resolutions, admittedly, but I suspect they might catch on. Maybe not everyone's going to have a seasonal epiphany in the menswear department of Debenhams but, what with the confusion of crowds and deals and Credit Crunch uncertainty, I doubt that I was the only person at the shops who suddenly wondered what they were doing.

I wasn't buying clothes, obviously - that would have made twice in the past twelve months. (After my shopping trip at Easter, I shouldn't need to buy anything other than a few pairs of socks until Fraser is at secondary school.) Nope, I was browsing through the half-price toys that had spilled over from the department next door. There were licensed cuddly toys, simple board games, brightly coloured plastic steering wheels and a remote controlled helicopter.

The helicopter was vaguely tempting but it didn't have a price tag on it. Besides, Marie isn't quite old enough yet and the boys wouldn't be interested in it for more than a few minutes before sloping off to play the Wii. Doubtless those few minutes would contain a fair amount of fun but they'd also contain some arguing, quite a lot of frustrated bickering and a small explosion.

It didn't really seem worth it.

Then it struck me that none of the other items were of interest at all. This was a peculiar thought. Not so very long ago, I'd have rifled through the garish tat, hunting out educational bargains to set bleeping and flashing before my children in an effort to stimulate them. These days I'm pretty sure that extra stimulation is not required - sometimes it feels like I'd be better off shutting them all in a darkened room in order to get them to calm down.

Most of the toys on offer were beneath my kids and the others we have plenty of already. Lewis has enough cuddly toys to start his own carnival stall, Marie got a whole book of simple board games for Christmas and Fraser has long-since moved onto the kind of plastic wheel which you have to put a wireless controller in and then use to steer Mario round a race track.

It turns out that I no longer have small children - I simply have children. It's a change that seems to have taken an age to achieve and yet has still managed to creep up on me. Maybe Mike's right. Maybe I need to start thinking about what I'm going to do once Marie starts school in August.

After nine years of being a housedad 24/7, I will have time on my hands. People may even expect me to go back to my old job. This is nonsense, of course. It's been such a while since I left LBO that I've forgotten where the toilets are, let alone how to write a complex data retrieval program for a Large Banking Organisation that functions smoothly without bringing the world's financial system to its knees. Although this isn't so much of an issue as it would have been a few months ago, someone will still need to take care of the kids after school, in the holidays and when they're sick, and that might as well be me.

I won't have time for a 9 to 5 job. I will have some time, however. I will have a chance to explore new career paths and dabble in fresh possibilities. Perhaps this is an opportunity. Disregarding childcare related expertise, all my skills have atrophied. I'm not tied down by up-to-date qualifications. I could do anything!

As I wandered the upper floor of Debenhams, I started to feel disoriented, overcome by the frightening array of potential options available to me. That said, I may just have been dizzy from walking around the escalators in the same direction for twenty minutes, killing time while waiting for Sarah to finish her shopping and appear for lunch.

Then I had another revelation that cheered me up - I don't need a plan for August at all. I need a plan for the following August. I can keep myself busy for a year. There are untold chores to be done around the house. Decorating, cleaning, tidying, organising - there's plenty to get stuck into. The loft needs cleared out; the garden requires a tactical nuclear strike. If worst comes worst, I can always take some time to buy more clothes. You know, smart ones without vomit that would be suitable for interviews.

It's possible I might even have the occasional day where I relax and don't achieve much besides eating biscuits and playing the Xbox.

Yep, I can certainly 'keep myself busy' for a year once all the children are at school. It's only after Marie begins Primary 2 that I'll feel some pressure to justify my subsistence and contribute financially to the household. I hasten to add that this pressure won't be from Sarah but will mainly be internal guilt fuelled by well-meaning acquaintances asking what I've been doing in my 'spare' time. Nonetheless, it will start to get to me.

I suppose we could always have more children to keep me occupied. I'm maybe reaching the stage where that thought doesn't instantly give me a nervous twitch. The other day, friends came round to visit and show off their young baby and I unexpectedly got a strange desire to give it a cuddle...

Then again, when I was actually holding it, I noticed there was dribble coming out one end and at the other there was a feeling which wasn't quite damp but was definitely warm and humid. The kid started to cry because I wasn't entirely holding it at the angle it preferred and it was already hungry, tired and sitting in pee. I noticed I was referring to it as 'it'.

I quickly returned the adorable little bundle to its mum.

So, yeah, maybe I should look into a new career. I'm not going to be a housedad forever. There's no rush but I definitely need to work on a plan. I need to try and think what I want to do and figure out how to achieve it - who to talk to, what training to do, where to go, what to change and when to do it. And I can create this plan happy in the knowledge that I don't really need to go through with any of it yet.

I guess, when it comes down to it, my Christmas Sale resolution for this year is to work hard on coming up with some proper resolutions for next year. Can't be too hard...

...can it?

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Good luck with the sleep. Happy New Year!

Wednesday 24 December 2008

The twelve days of housedad Christmas

Dear Dave,

It's that time of year again. Think I may have had too much mulled wine:

On the first day of Christmas,
My children asked from me
A plaster for a sore knee.

On the second day of Christmas,
My children gave to me
Two lovely hugs
And a disease that made me rather queasy.

On the third day of Christmas,
My children caused to me
Three crushed toes,
Two bruised limbs
And a very painful groin injury.

On the fourth day of Christmas,
My children lost for me
Four unpaid bills,
Three left shoes,
Two remote controls
And the remains of my sanity.

On the fifth day of Christmas,
My children made to be
Five muddy marks,
Four sticky floors,
Three stained shirts,
Two soggy socks
And an unexpected puddle of pee.

On the sixth day of Christmas,
My children found for me
Six 'interesting' sticks,
Five dropped coins,
Four elastic bands,
Three stray dogs,
Two mouldy socks
And a slug to keep them all company.

On the seventh day of Christmas,
My children left for me
Seven empty tubes of glitter,
Six sparkly carpets,
Five sparkly cushions,
Four sparkly ceilings,
Three sparkly computers,
Two sparkly socks,
And a sparkly cup of coffee.

On the eighth day of Christmas,
My children went to Gran's
With eight cuddly toys,
Seven warnings to behave,
Six sets of clothes,
Five heavy bags,
Four hours on trains,
Three Mario games,
Two long good-byes
And I got some time without my family.

On the ninth day of Christmas,
I worked around the house:
Nine toys for gluing,
Eight rooms for tidying,
Seven shelves for dusting,
Six taps for gleaming,
Five carpets cleaned,
Four beds changed,
3,427 sparkles hoovered,
Two toilets scrubbed,
And shower sealant all over me.

On the tenth day of Christmas,
I had a long lie down,
Ate lots of crisps
And drank beer while watching TV.

On the eleventh day of Christmas,
I caught up on my sleep,
Ate mince pies,
Watched action films,
And then lay around playing a PS3.

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My kids returned to me
With twelve toy drums drumming,
Eleven gadgets bleeping,
Ten lice a-leaping,
Nine hankies dripping,
Eight tales for telling,
Seven bags of washing,
Six arms a-waving,
Five nettle stings,
Four startled Kurds,
Three new pens,
Two painted mugs,
And their mum
(whom I was very glad to see).

Merry Christmas!

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 19 December 2008

Housedad history

Dear Dave,

That's a good question. Have there been any famous housedads?

Well, it's a little known secret that there have been quite a few. Most, however, have tended to hide their family situation from employers and public alike in order to avoid potential discrimination and social stigma. You have to dig quite hard to learn the truth.

Here are the celebrity housedads I've been able to uncover so far:

Pictures of famous housedads - Neil Armstrong, Abe Lincoln, Henry V, Geoff Hurst, one of the three wise men and Genghis Khan.
Oh, and that's not including the fictional ones:

Pictures of fictional housedads - Indiana Jones, Neo and Darth Vader.
So, you see, we're not entirely unique. There really are plenty of other housedads out there.

Erm... Possibly...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 17 December 2008

Christmas sneeze

Dear Dave,

There are a few phrases I never expected to have to say as a parent. I feel that someone really should have warned me they might come up. They include such things as:

'Why are you wearing your brother's socks on your ears?'

'Don't slide down the stairs naked - you'll give yourself carpet burns on your bottom.'


'Where did you find that poo?'

I've also had plenty of unlikely conversations. Only a minute ago, I said to Lewis, "Stop swinging on the banisters, you'll pull them off the wall. How many times do I have to say it?"

Quick as a flash, he replied, "Yes, but you normally say it to Fraser..."

Ho hum. I'm kind of used to the bizarreness of parenthood now, though. Not much throws me. I have to rely on adults for my surprises. Like last Saturday night, when Mike said, "Turn the heat down or you'll burn off all the alcohol."

That simply can't be a common utterance for ministers of religion.

"I haven't added the alcohol yet," I shouted above the surrounding chatter and cheesy Christmas music. "The recipe says I've got to boil the other ingredients for ten minutes before I add the wine. It's still got a little bit to go."

Mike peered suspiciously into the huge pot I had bubbling away on the hob. "It looks like you've put some wine in."

"That's just the dregs from the last batch."

"Ach, it'll be fine. Pour in the plonk. Some of us are waiting."

"OK, OK," I said, unscrewing the tops of three bottles of cheap red and emptying them into the pot. Then I stirred the resulting concoction with a wooden spoon, spices and slices of fruit whirling around. It all certainly smelled like mulled wine, which was most of the battle. I was reasonably hopeful that it would taste like mulled wine too and I tried not to sneeze in it.

I seem to have had one disease after another the last couple of weeks - cold, cough, stomach bug, you name it. What with the end of a long term approaching, all the kids at school are worn down and there are loads of bugs going about. It was so quiet walking along the road the other morning, I was convinced the bell had already gone and we were late. Turned out that we were on time and everyone else had merely decided to stay home, crank up the heating and hide under a blanket.

Wish I'd thought of that plan.

I've been stumbling around, following the normal routine. The man in the corner shop treated me like I was mad when I bought six packets of throat sweets at once. Maybe he was right. I should probably have given up, hidden under a blanket for a couple of days and let the kids run wild. Instead, I've chain-sucked Lockets and risked menthol poisoning in an effort to make sure they make it to all their usual clubs and activities.

At least the kids haven't succumbed to any of the illnesses yet. Doubtless they're saving them for next week but I should have recovered by then.

When we had our annual Christmas party, I was still feeling grotty. Nonetheless, several helpings of hot, spicy wine did improve matters somewhat. Once the contents of the pot had warmed up, I ladled myself another medicinal dose and then filled Mike's cup as well.

"Cheers," he said and we turned our attention back to the room.

All the children present had vanished upstairs to the lounge where they were being mysteriously quiet. I hoped they were happily playing computer games rather than dismantling the furniture but I didn't dare go find out. Judging by the number of adults packing out the kitchen, no one else was too keen to risk breaking the spell either. Friends and neighbours mingled together. Every so often, someone remarked, "The children are being very good." This was a cue for every parent in the room to glance nervously at the ceiling and then mutter something about 'going and checking in a minute' before shiftily returning to their drinks.

Useless Dad and my sister-in-law, Catriona, had found each other and were introducing their spouses in an excited exchange of business cards. My niece, Lisa, was chatting with Kate and cooing over baby Luke. Trevor was showing off his tattoos and shrapnel scars to Ned. Scary Karen had Rob trapped up a corner and was regaling him with the details of the birth of her children. By the look on his face, she'd got to the part with the spatula on the train.

A dozen other people swirled around. Everyone was mingling nicely.

That or the combination of mulled wine and over-the-counter cold remedies was making my vision blur slightly. It was hard to tell.

"So...?" said Mike.

It was that time again.

"So...?" I echoed, playing stupid as always.

"Thought about where you're headed yet?"

"I've got a few days break coming up. Sarah's taking the kids through to her parents before Christmas. I'll get a chance to do some things round the house, like re-grout the shower and clean the carpets, and then I'm going to have a lie down. Just me, the Xbox and some beers."

Mike didn't look impressed. "That's not what I meant."

"I know."

He shook his head. "It's only another few months now."

"It's nearly a year!" I replied, incredulously.

"It's nearly a year since Marie started nursery," said Mike, not having any of it. "How long does that feel?"

"Like a few months," I sighed.

Mike nodded. "She'll be at school before you can blink. Better be ready." He ladled himself some more mulled wine. "I'm busy enough without coming round here every week to counsel you."

I wasn't entirely sure if he was joking.

"I do think about it," I said and blew my nose. "There really is plenty of time left, though. Once I've had a rest and I'm well again and Christmas is over, I'll maybe have a better idea what I'm going to do."

"And who you're going to be?"

"That's what I meant."

Mike was sceptical. "Are you sure?"

"Uh-huh. You've made the point enough times recently; I've just about grasped it now."

The words came out sounding more irritated than I'd meant.

He was right, of course. I've spent so long as a man in a woman's world, constantly having to explain my existence, that it's come to define me. 'Housedad' isn't merely my job - it's what I am. Looking after the children is my justification for being. There's a chance that I'm going to get to September and feel redundant. I'll lose the place I've made for myself in society and mope around in a haze of self-doubt and imagined social rejection.

"Sorry," I said. "Look, honestly, I'll figure it out but... for now I'm still a housedad. I know there'll be something the other side of that. Something soon. I'm just going to have to make my way barefoot through that darkened room littered with LEGO when I come to it, though. I'm too tired to be prepared."

As if to confirm this, I had a fit of sneezes and sagged against the worktop.

Mike thought for a moment but then took pity on me and decided not to press any further for the time being. The interrogation was over. "You do look like you could do with a rest. Do you want someone to come round and help you with the Xbox and the beer?"

"Forget that," I said. "I'd have to get dressed. I'm planning to loll around in the armchair in my pyjamas... Now, excuse me, I'm going to go rescue Rob before Karen decides it's her turn to show off her scars..."

I squeezed my way through the throng and pulled Rob clear in the nick of time, roping him into handing round mince pies. I set about serving drinks. There was more chatter and laughter and thankfully someone swapped the CD over to Christmas carols. It was all very pleasant.

Eventually, however, I couldn't resist any longer and I had to go and check on the kids. I was hugely pleased to find that four of them were playing on the Wii and the rest were keeping amused with toys I'd scattered about.

There was only one small problem - there were crumbs everywhere. I had to use one of those unexpected parental phrases. "Did it rain crisps in here?" I asked.

Most of the children ignored me but Marie was quick to pipe up. "No," she said, giggling. "Don't be silly. It can't rain crisps. It snows crisps..."

That pretty much answered my question.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 12 December 2008

The parable of the sweets and the scooter

Dear Dave,

I eventually managed to get the kids to stop complaining about their stolen chocolate Santa by threatening to feed them canned peas if they didn't keep quiet. Nevertheless, it was only a couple of days before we found ourselves in another discussion of equality and social justice.

I once heard a talk by a guy who thought children have an innate sense of fairness. He reckoned this is obvious because they're always saying, 'It's not fair!' at any given opportunity.

Even at the time, I felt this was a somewhat misguided observation. Now, however, having accumulated over eight years experience as a housedad, I can confirm that it's crazier than giving a hyper-active toddler a drumkit.

'It's not fair!' can usually be translated as, 'I'm not getting as big a cut as I expected!' Occasionally, from the mouth of a more enlightened child, it can mean, 'I'm not getting as big a cut as I expected and my friend/sibling/hamster/cuddly toy isn't either!' It certainly doesn't mean, 'Hang on! This isn't entirely equitable. I think I might have a couple of biscuits more than my share...'

This is only to be expected, though. Even putting self-interest aside, 'fair' isn't a simple concept. It's something pretty hard to determine and something we have to learn.

'From each according to their ability, to each according to their need,' could be the definition of fair, for instance. Many would argue, however, that in general, 'From each according to their ability, to each according to what they've contributed,' is actually 'fairer'. Then again, plenty of situations essentially come down to, 'Let's divide the spoils equally and split the bill.'

More than that, it's possible for individual people to hold all these views at the same time. Sometimes about the same thing. The fairest solution to any given situation isn't necessarily straightforward. This makes instilling a sense of fairness in children more difficult than it first seems.

Lewis is definitely struggling with the concept at the moment.

Last week, the whole school went to see a pantomime. At the end of it, the cast threw sweets into the audience. Lewis didn't manage to get any but Fraser happily showed one off in the playground at the end of the day. As he unwrapped it, though, he admitted that he'd had one earlier.

Lewis immediately demanded Fraser hand over the sweet he was about to eat. Since Fraser had already had one, Lewis felt natural justice demanded Fraser give the other one to his brother. One each was only fair after all.

Well, in some sense... I didn't know what Fraser had had to go through to get the sweets. Fighting his way out of a scrum of screaming, excitable children was a distinct possibility. At the very least, he'd had to do some crawling around in the dark. There'd probably been plenty of luck involved but he deserved some reward for his efforts. Besides that, Marie had been at the pantomime and hadn't managed to grab a sweet either. Lewis had no more claim to Fraser's loot than she did.

Fraser hurriedly piped up that he'd had three sweets initially but given one to the child next to him at the pantomime. This didn't exactly appease Lewis. Nonetheless, it considerably surpassed my expectations of Fraser's generosity and put me firmly on his side. I decided to deflect Lewis from the issue.

"You know that boy who was asking for a go on your scooter ten minutes ago?" I said. (Lewis comes out before Fraser and we loiter in the playground for twenty minutes.)

"Yes," said Lewis.

"Did you give him a shot?"


"Then why should Fraser give you his sweet that he's never going to get back, if you're not prepared to give someone else a quick go on your scooter?"

Lewis hugged his scooter jealously. "He said he has his own scooter at home. And a bike. He could have brought them."

"Uh-huh..." I muttered, shaking my head. Lewis couldn't see the connection and I knew that pressing it further would only lead to us talking round in circles. Luckily, Fraser had had the good sense to pop the sweet in his mouth by then, so the point was moot. We headed home, Lewis grumbling as we went...

I think I've still got plenty of work to do with the whole social justice concept.

Maybe I should start with teaching the kids about providing for the elderly... and parents. Particularly elderly parents. Elderly parents deserve nice nursing homes.

After everything they've had to put up with it, it seems only fair...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 10 December 2008

They're getting craftier than me

Dear Dave,

Marie loves to make things. She can spend hours painting, arranging Hama beads, gluing shiny stars to paper or making a necklace by stringing baubles onto a length of elastic. Leave her alone with some art supplies for a few minutes and she'll have them all stuck together and painted pink before you know it.

She's not hugely worried about quality, however - a roughly-oval, orange spludge with a line coming off it is a mouse, for instance. Quantity is really what she's after. She can produce an entire colony of rainbow-coloured rodents in half an hour and then move onto pictures of computer peripherals and their accompanying mats. (Luckily, her computer mice are wireless so it's easy to tell them apart from the other kind - they're the roughly-oval, orange spludges without lines coming off.) At one mouse per sheet, she can race through a stack of blank paper and happily rack up more creative masterpieces in an afternoon than the boys managed in entire years of their preschool life.

There are only so many portraits of mice (furry or otherwise) we need, though. There's also a limit to our requirements for bead designs, glitter pictures and tacky jewellery. Marie hasn't yet questioned what happens to the surplus but I doubt she'd be too thrilled to hear 'they've gone to live on a farm'. It would be nice if she branched out to other things soon. Unfortunately, we've tried some of the 'makes' on TV and in books, and they're totally beyond her. She can't cut stuff out with any degree of accuracy or safety, glue goes everywhere and sticky-tape ends up stuck to her hair, itself and my socks. I have to make the thing, whatever it is, and then she paints the finished product pink. It's all a little pointless.

It's not like we usually have the materials to do most of the ideas anyway.

I remember when I was young, I watched one of the presenters on Blue Peter make a space rocket from an empty washing-up liquid bottle. It looked fantastic and I raced through to the kitchen to see how much Fairy our squeezy bottle had left. Disappointingly, it was almost full. Undeterred, I kept an eye on the bottle and bided my time until I could stick a couple of pieces of card to it, paint it silver and launch it into the galaxy.

Three weeks later, the bottle was still almost full.

In fact, it actually had more washing-up liquid in it than when I'd first checked. That wasn't right... I knew it was the same bottle, though, since the writing was worn off the side in the same places and there were some recognisable bits of gunge still stuck to it. But how...?

I checked with my mum. It turned out she bought washing-up liquid in bulk and topped up her supply from an industrial-sized vat in the shed. She'd been using the same squeezy bottle since 1962.

The flipping thing lasted out my entire childhood and I never got to make my space rocket.

Bah, humbug.

These days the concept wouldn't work because washing-up liquid bottles aren't even cylindrical anymore but that's nothing compared with a make for a toy car I saw on TV last week. It involved four large cotton-reels and a disposable plastic cup. Four cotton-reels! How many homes have that number lying around? Not many, I bet.

The results weren't even worth it. Sticking four cotton-reels, a disposable cup and a small spoiler to a cardboard box doesn't make a very convincing car. It might have been OK in the old days, when cheap plastic toys weren't quite so cheap, but the way things are at the moment, we could probably nip to a charity shop and get something better for not much more than the price of the disposable cup.

We've only had a few successes with homemade toys over the years. When Fraser was crawling, I cut a slot in the bottom of a cardboard box and turned it upside down. He spent quite a bit of time posting little toys in the hole, wondering where they'd gone and then being delighted when he discovered them under the box. He was also very impressed one train journey when he was four - I'd brought a dice with me and I simply drew a Snakes & Ladders board on a piece of paper. (Sarah spiced it up even further by adding mushrooms and stars to give the game a Mario theme and some interesting extra rules.) On other occasions, all three of the children have enjoyed making crowns to wear.

That's been fairly much our limit, though. In general, ideas for homemade stuff I've seen either require expensive materials or look naff. Sometimes both. Marie got a book recently with instructions for a princess jewellery box:
  1. Get a small cardboard box and paint it purple.
  2. Cover the top with glue and stick some shiny jewels in the middle.
  3. Surround the jewels with rice.
In summary, the proposed object would need fake gems, be hideous and make passing pigeons explode if they ate it. I don't think we'll be making that.

So what can I get Marie to make?

Some of the boxed kits of craft items in the shops look tempting. There are all kinds of fluffy animals to create and key rings to design. Sadly, I know the reality would be nothing like the pictures on the box. If you don't believe me, go look at a packet of plasticine and examine the photos of smiling children standing behind 'their' model village, complete with accurately modelled people and mock-Tudor housing. Compare this image with your memories of playing with plasticine as a child. You'll probably notice that your recollections have rather more wonky snakes and considerably fewer hanging flower baskets.

Maybe I should stick to thinking up things to make from stuff we have lying around. Hang on a minute while I take a quick inventory.



Ah... Erm... Well...


OK, I've taken a look, and the readily available junk at my disposal consists of: margarine tubs, dead batteries, carrot peelings, plastic milk bottles, beer cans and some lard.

Now I'm sure MacGyver could produce something pretty spectacular with that lot but it's beyond me.

Never mind. Perhaps I should just leave Marie to it. She insisted on painting a two-foot cardboard tube pink and gold a couple of weeks ago and she's been using it as a telescope ever since. She and Lewis keep piling cushions in the middle of the lounge carpet to make a pirate boat.

Creativity and teamwork at the same time. I'm not certain I could have organised that if I'd tried...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 5 December 2008

The parable of the chocolate Santa

Dear Dave,

The nursery organised their usual fund-raising festive raffle last week. Parents were asked to donate groceries for a Christmas hamper and we were then sold tickets at a rate of five for a pound. At the end of the week, the tickets were put in a hat, a single winner was drawn and one lucky family got the entire stash.

The hamper was left on display in the hallway outside the nursery door and, as the week went on, it gradually began to fill with all manner of delights. There were packets of biscuits, bottles of wine, jars of jam, noodles, teabags, canned soup and, bizarrely, three tins of peas. Apart from the peas, it all looked delicious.

Perhaps too delicious...

You see, the nursery is attached to the primary school and school kids frequently walk by on the way to the toilet. At home-time on the Thursday it became clear that one of these children had seen a crafty opportunity - a chocolate Santa poked clear of the other items in the hamper, his head cleanly removed, as if a child had taken a big gulp in passing, silver foil and all.

When told about it, my boys were impressed. Robin Hood had daringly snatched a share of the loot. The whole idea made them fall about laughing.

That's to say, it did... until we won the raffle. At that point, they were suddenly overcome with righteous indignation. They wanted their chocolate Santa, no matter that carrying home the remaining contents of the hamper was still nearly enough to kill me and that our shelves are now overflowing with tasty treats (and canned peas). They wanted the Sheriff of Nottingham called in to deliver retribution and compensation.


I think this may explain rather a lot about the world.

Merry Christmas,


Wednesday 3 December 2008

Some part of the slate is always blank

Dear Dave,

Don't do it. I know it will be tempting when you see all the trays laid out in a row like that but you just shouldn't do it. It's only going to end in angst and self-doubt. You will question your abilities as a housedad, your genetic heritage and the very future of your children. You may even get a ticking off from a teacher. It's simply not worth it.

When you go along to the parents' evening at school and you're hanging around, waiting for your appointment, resist the urge to take a quick shufti through the jotters of children who are not your own. Sure, some will be full of unintelligible, spidery scribble that will make Sam's back-to-front letters look like the work of a young Da Vinci. These will reassure you that he's doing OK. Unfortunately, those won't be the ones you open as you grab a book at random while checking over your shoulder for passing members of staff and little Amelia's mum.

Nope. You will be horrified as a pop-up version of the Sistine Chapel springs forth in your hands, light shines from the open page and somehow, impossibly, Handel's Messiah blares out, seemingly from the very paper.

This will be distressing, for any number of obvious reasons.

As you carefully put the book back, nonchalantly whistling to yourself under the suspicious gaze of everyone in the entire dining hall full of parents and teachers, you will understand beyond doubt that there are some competitions that Sam will never win...

Of course, you already know this to be true but the full realisation of it is still liable to be shocking. Although competition at parent and toddler is fierce, it's all rather meaningless. In reality, it makes no difference how many teeth a one-year-old has, whether they can say 'tractor' or how many blocks they can stack - barring a real problem, every child present is going to catch up eventually. It's a case of when skills and attributes develop, not if.

By the time the kids are at school, however, the situation has changed. Nature and nurture have really got to work, and talents and weaknesses have begun to emerge. Gradually it becomes a case of if, rather than when.

Not long after Fraser started Primary 1, I went along to a talk given by his teacher about the curriculum for the year. She went to great lengths to point out that there's always wide variation in the abilities of kids starting school. She showed us a couple of pictures of a group of people eating, drawn by different children in the class. One was a scribble. Without being told, there was absolutely no way of knowing what it was supposed to be. The other was like a black felt-tip version of The Last Supper. People sat behind a table, food set out before them. They had expressions, the table was drawn in perspective and it was even possible to tell what was on the plates. I was flabbergasted. I knew then that Fraser was never going to win any art competitions. He can barely manage that level of composition now that he's in Primary 4.

While my mind was still reeling, though, his teacher went on to talk about maths and how all the children had a line taped to their desks with the numbers 1 to 10 marked on it, to help them with their addition. This confused me in an entirely different way. Fraser could already subtract two-digit numbers from each other in his head. The thought that kids around him might need a crib sheet in order to add 3 to 5 was as astonishing to me as his classmate's sketch.

Every child has stuff they're good and bad at.

Lewis could do any thirty-piece jigsaw with ease by the time he started nursery. Marie's been there a year and can barely do twelve-piece jigsaws, but she can say 'please' and 'thank you' better than the boys can already. She can also beat me at Uno. She has much more empathy than the boys as well - when she was under a year, we showed her a picture of a crying baby in a book and she burst into tears herself.

(Admittedly, she's not always so understanding of the plight of others these days. Last week, a friend came round to visit but started sobbing when her dad left. Rather than consoling her, Marie said, "Stop crying so loudly. I can't hear Bob the Builder." Nonetheless, she has much more concern for the people around her than the boys can muster between them.)

There's no point beating yourself up over what your kids can't do. Maybe if I'd spent more time doing artwork with Fraser when he was small, he'd be better able to draw now but, then again, perhaps the distraction would only mean he was worse at maths. I don't know. Some skills, like reading, are vital but others aren't so important. If he's never able to paint, then so be it, as long as he understands that it doesn't really matter and he has the confidence to muddle through his art classes. I'd rather he spent time improving the skills he's good at and enjoys.

When a kid is born, infinite possibilities stretch before them. As they get older, it can be sad to see some of those possibilities begin to fade but it's merely a consequence of the child developing and finding their way. They can't do everything. They shouldn't be expected to.

It's worth remembering, however, that no matter how many avenues are closed, there are still infinite possibilities left. (Infinity is great like that.) Plenty of choices remain to be made and there's still a need for guidance, encouragement and teaching. There's even room for the unexpected:

Fraser took part in an art competition when he was in Primary 1. It was to do with road safety. All the kids were given a picture of a lollipop lady and they had to colour her in. Fraser was relatively neat and used a blinding selection of day-glo shades. It wasn't exactly a masterpiece but his efforts fitted the criteria for the competition very well.

At home-time on the day the winner was announced, the perpetrator of The Last Supper stomped out of the building in a foul mood and scowled at me. Fraser was not far behind, joyously waving the blinding, day-glo reflective jacket he'd won.

So, yeah, don't worry too much at the parents' evening what Sam's classmates can do. Concentrate on finding out what he can do and how you can help. Save your effort for thinking up some intelligent questions about Sam's progress to ask his teacher...

...particularly if she's young and cute and has a tendency to wear low-cut tops. What with that and the occasional outbreaks of Hallelujahs behind you as other parents 'accidentally' rifle through the wrong trays, you'll be pretty distracted when your time slot arrives. It's best to be prepared...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 28 November 2008

Blinking their lives away

Dear Dave,

As I was saying in my last letter, life is marching on. I blink and Fraser is another inch taller. I've lost an entire month since... well, since about a month ago actually. Where are the days disappearing to? I can't believe it's time to rebook the kids' clubs for the next session again.

Except I had that thought at the beginning of October. Now I've finally got round to sharing it with you, it's time to rebook them AGAIN. Drama, swimming and gymnastics are all badgering me to sign my children up for another twelve lessons after Christmas. Each child does a couple of activities a week and every class costs around four pounds a time. I don't really want to think about what it all adds up to over the year but I suspect it's somewhere in the region of a very large telly.

I suppose I have to look at it as an investment in my childrens' development. They're learning new skills, meeting new people and coping with new situations. They're getting exercise and gaining knowledge. Marie even enjoys her classes.

That said, the boys would prefer the big telly.

Ho hum. Maybe one day they'll be grateful. Maybe one day they'll fall into a large body of water and be glad they've learnt to do something other than sink like a fridge. Unfortunately, they're not convinced by this argument at the moment. After all, they say, why would they be out and about near a large body of water if they had an enormous telly at home that they could be watching instead?

It wouldn't be so bad but, besides the cost of the courses themselves, there's the incidental expenditure - bus fares for us all, chocolate for them and an occasional cup of coffee for me. This quickly adds up. I try to take snacks with us when I can but the kids don't always let me. Getting to put coins in a vending machine, press the buttons and then watch Daddy hammer on the glass in frustration because the Maltesers have got stuck again is one of the highlights of the trip.

Thankfully, however, they don't like fizzy juice so they're not so fussed about drink dispensers. I can save one pound fifty by handing round cartons of own-brand blackcurrant I bought in a 3 for 2 deal at the supermarket.

If I remember them that is...

I should really make a list. Every Friday lunchtime, I find myself packing a huge pile of towels and swimming costumes, goggles and leisure cards into a backpack and every week I zip it closed and immediately think, "I'm sure I've forgotten something..."

Usually it's the hairbrushes. Sometimes it's the drinks. Once it was the goggles. (The last one was a real disaster. Lewis only put his head in the water a single time during the whole lesson and kept complaining his eyes were sore. In essence, I spent four pounds for him to bob about in the corner of the pool for half an hour, looking glum and shivering. Not ideal.)

If I had a list, I could just go through it and make sure I had everything I needed. It would make life easier. I don't, though, for a number of reasons:

  • I wouldn't look at it. I'd be halfway through putting stuff in the backpack before I remembered I had the list and by then it wouldn't seem worthwhile going to find it. This thought process in itself would probably be enough distraction to make me forget something.
  • It's a bit late now. It's four years since I first took Fraser for swimming lessons and I've done OK without a list so far. Writing one now would be acknowledging defeat. I'd be admitting that all the broken sleep and Teletubbies I've endured since then has finally turned my brain to sludge. What next? I might get to the middle of a sentence and.
  • If I started leaving handy, fool-proof lists lying around of what to do and when to do it, someone could steal my job. I'm not really expecting this to happen but I used to work in IT. Old habits die hard.
I guess I do have lists of things to pack for when we go away on holiday but I haven't updated them since shortly after Marie was born and I don't really look at them anymore. I merely have a quick skim over them before clipping the rucksacks shut. This isn't so much to remind me of things I've forgotten but to make me smile at all the things I no longer have to strap to my back and cart to the other side of the country:

Bottles, baby sleeping-bags, bibs, nappies, cloths, slam-stoppers for doors, toilet seat(!), bath thermometer, rubber spoons, breast-pump, two of the carseats, microwaveable steriliser...

You name it and we don't need it anymore or we could live without it for a few days. Somehow we still seem to end up with about ten items of luggage but these days they mostly contain clothes, washbags and a surprisingly large number of electrical chargers.

Yes, what we've lost in baby equipment, we seem to have gained in gadgets. Two phones, four handheld games systems, two cameras and a laptop. Then there are the kids' torches, random toys and the rechargeable batteries to go with them (plus charger and a screwdriver to open stubborn battery compartments).

Life moves on. How long before Marie insists on packing earrings, crop tops and a boyfriend? Time is scurrying past. Maybe I really should begin thinking about all the things I'm going to do next year when she starts school.

Now that I'm going to need to make a list for...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 26 November 2008

Learning to cook (again)

Dear Dave,

Yeah, you should probably eat something for lunch other than coffee, Krispie cake and whatever you happen to find down the back of Daisy's high chair while you're cleaning it. I'm not one to talk, though. If I have a cheese toastie and the limp remains at the bottom of a bag of salad, I consider that a balanced meal. I'm kind of hoping that eating the cores of the apples I chop up for the boys' packed lunches counts as one of my 5-a-day helpings of fruit and veg...

I go out of my way to make sure the kids have a healthy diet but by the time it comes to me, I'm usually out of motivation and energy. Also, chocolate bars taste good.

I can cook. That isn't a problem. I taught myself when I was a student and I've come a long way since I first arrived at my grotty accommodation armed only with a packet of cheese sauce, a cauliflower and a copy of Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course. Quite why I thought cauliflower was a good place to start, I have no idea, but that night I learnt an important culinary lesson:

Almost everything tastes good when coated in warm cheese.

Dubious fish, soggy chips, wilting salad, dodgy burgers, stale bread, burnt Krispie cakes, anything (even over-cooked cauliflower) can be made edible with liberal coatings of melted cheddar.

This lesson helped me survive the initial few weeks as I experimented with recipes and techniques and generally got the hang of things. Since I took it in turns to cook evening meals with my flatmates and I didn't have to cook all the time, I could afford to go to town when it was my night. I made everything from lasagne to stilton soup to some strange vegetarian concoction involving lentils and a vast supply of aubergines. As the year wore on, I even learnt to cut corners. Three different kinds of meat in lasagne isn't essential, for instance. Neither is sieving the white sauce. Any recipe which asks you to sieve beetroot isn't worth starting.

Then I got married, got a job, began a family, became a housedad and lost several years somewhere. More corners were cut. It began with buying jars of sauce rather than making my own. Then it moved on to bags of frozen vegetables. In the end, I discovered ready-made frozen lasagne was cheaper than making my own and tasted almost as good. It also took a heck of a lot less time to prepare and didn't create anywhere near as much washing up.

It's been a while since I made anything from scratch other than birthday cakes and omelettes.

The other day I realised, however, that once again, life is moving on. I went to put the remote for the DVD recorder away on top of the TV unit with the other controls and suddenly wondered why I was bothering. The kids are now old enough that I can leave all the remotes on the table by the sofa without fear of them mucking about and accidentally over-writing the entire contents of the TiVo with forty hours of celebrities bickering at each other in a jungle. This has probably been the case for a year. It just never occurred to me before.

Similarly, I can keep eggs easily accessible in the special rack for them in the fridge door for the first time since Fraser was eighteen months and he decided to see if they bounce. (Hint: They don't.) I can also think about being a little more adventurous with food.

At the moment, the kids live on raw fruit and vegetables, various bread products, cheese, sausages, fish fingers, pasta, pizza and crackers. They've done so since they were small because Fraser hates sauces of every kind. Preparing anything complicated for him is a waste of time and ingredients. I don't have much incentive to persuade him otherwise either, since the kids need fed before Sarah gets home - I have to make one meal for them and one for us anyway, so I might as well make them simple stuff I know they'll all eat.

Lewis and Marie can often be convinced to eat normal, 'adult' meals, though, so some proper cooking at the weekend seems almost worthwhile. More than that, the children are now old enough to entertain themselves while I'm busy in the kitchen. There's no reason for me to feel I'm neglecting them by slaving over a hot stove to provide them with a tasty, nutritious masterpiece.

I can't quite be bothered yet but maybe sometime soon.

Another sign that life is moving on is that it's much more feasible for us to invite guests round for food. Getting the kids to bed is no longer a two hour operation which swallows the evening. Fraser can even get himself to bed without any physical intervention whatsoever. (Constant verbal goading is still mandatory but it's a step forward all the same.) Having friends over for dinner is possible once more without constantly having the conversation interrupted by crying babies, stroppy toddlers and pressing childcare issues.

In theory, anyway. Finding the energy is another matter...

Nonetheless, Sarah's sister Catriona and her husband Chris came over to visit with their teenagers Lisa and Ned the other Saturday. It was a while since we'd seen any of them other than Ned and it was definitely our turn to host. I met them at the door. The 2 Cs were dressed just far enough to the smart side of smart-casual to make me look shabby and Lisa had really pushed the boat out with a sequined blouse and plenty of make-up. Ned shuffled in, wearing his hoodie.

"We picked this up in Peru," said Chris, handing over a bottle wrapped in tissue paper. "The owner of the bodega recommended it himself. It's got rather an interesting taste; not like the normal stuff from Waitrose. It was made using traditional methods..."

"Child labour," grunted Ned, kicking off his shoes.

"For the last time," replied Chris, exasperated, "getting the children of the village to stomp the grapes during a festival is not child labour."

"Sounds like it."

"Listen, young man..."

Catriona interrupted them. "Ned, please don't wind your father up before we've even got our coats off."

I took the wine politely and resisted the urge to point out to Chris that the only thing I really cared about was what colour it was. I'd made that mistake on a previous occasion while he'd been telling me about his latest car.

"Do you have a whisk?" asked Lisa.


She waved a heavy shopping bag at me. "You wanted us to bring dessert. I'm going to make pavlova. I need a whisk."

"Pavlova? That's rather ambitious..." I'd been expecting them to pop into the supermarket on the way and buy a trifle or something.

"Don't worry. She makes it all the time," said Catriona. "She does most of the cooking in our house. I'm always having to travel to fundraisers, Chris gets home late and Ned can't work a tin-opener, so Lisa's had plenty of practice. Haven't you, dear?"

Lisa blushed and Ned sloped off to my study to play Tomb Raider. Chris and Catriona went upstairs to find the others in the lounge. I hunted around and found a whisk. Lisa eyed it up suspiciously, tested its weight, wiggled the loops a little and then frowned. "Do you have a different whisk?"

As it happened, we did. The kitchen cupboards are full of obscure utensils and unlikely implements which I haven't touched in years. I hunted around amongst the fondue sets, baking dishes and cake tins and eventually produced a heavy-duty egg murdering device which was to Lisa's satisfaction. She set to work and I put together the ingredients I'd prepared for the lasagne I'd been making.

It shouldn't have taken me long but I'm out of practice. Somehow, Lisa finished first and made far less mess. She carefully put the pavlova on the bottom shelf of the oven and then asked, "Is there anything else I can do to help?"

"You could lay the table," I said, wiping white sauce off the toaster. I pointed to the drawers. "Cutlery is in there."

"What about napkins?"

"We don't use napkins."

Lisa looked at me like I was slightly strange. "Where do you keep the place mats, then?"

"Er... We don't use place mats either. We used to but Fraser kept trying to eat them when he was a toddler. Doesn't seem to be any point going back now. The table has survived fine and it would just mean more stuff to clean."


I didn't reply. I merely put the lasagne in to cook and left the room, chuckling to myself.

I went to check on the others. The boys had found Ned and dragged him off to play Nintendo. Marie was showing Catriona her collection of pink jewellery. Sarah was trying to appear interested as Chris told her about Peruvian wine. I sneaked away again.

I swear I was only gone ten minutes. Lisa had searched through the cupboards and found all manner of stuff I'd forgotten about - coasters, crystal wine glasses, some paper serviettes left over from a party, the good place mats (i.e. the ones without bite marks) and a flowery tablecloth. She'd set everything out immaculately. The serviettes had been folded into swans. I was amazed... and a tiny bit scared. I began to grasp why Ned has given up trying to compete.

The meal itself was chaos. Our kitchen is a reasonable size but getting nine people round a table which is only designed for six is pretty cosy. Fraser told Knock, Knock jokes he'd heard at school, Marie sang songs about the alphabet she'd learnt at nursery and Lewis felt left out and made up a story about a chicken that went through a door to cross the road and then exploded into a pile of 'M's.

Near the start, Ned tried some of the wine his mum offered him and his dad jokingly had a go at him for enjoying the output of an underage workforce. The lad didn't say anything after that. Chris and Catriona pretended not to notice and filled us in on all the wonderful things they'd been up to. Somewhere during dessert, Lisa was forced to tell us about her latest successes in the school orchestra and how well she thought the admissions test for Cambridge had gone.

Everyone was polite about the lasagne but it was the pavlova they had second helpings of. Then the kids vanished. All the boys disappeared to play computer games some more and Marie insisted Lisa help her get ready for bed. There was space and peace again. I made some coffee.

"How was Peru?" I asked over my shoulder as I filled the kettle.

"It was so encouraging watching the charity's work in action," said Catriona. "It will really help me focus appeals in the future."

"How did Chris get to go?"

"He joined me for a holiday at the end of the trip. Don't worry - it's all above board. He paid his own way."

"I didn't mean that, I, er... Was the weather good?"

"Very pleasant," said Chris. "Not so sure about the food."

Catriona nodded. "The scenery was spectacular."

"Yes," said Chris. "We brought the photos."

"Oh, good..." I couldn't think what else to say. Time was, that bringing photos meant handing round a couple of packets of prints, half of which were duplicates or out of focus. Everyone could dutifully shuffle through them in a couple of minutes each and those who were really interested could go huddle up a corner with the photographer and discuss the geographical features of the Andes to their heart's content. These days, bringing photos means a dozen memory cards crammed full of the bewildered faces of everyone encountered on the trip, the meals eaten, a million scenic views and at least two blurry videos - one of street theatre and another of an amusing squirrel. Everyone gets to watch a slideshow on the telly for an hour.

Sarah slyly made some excuse about checking on the children and slipped away. I couldn't blame her - she'd probably heard all the details of Peru while I was making dinner. The topic unexpectedly changed, though.

"Thanks for dealing with the trouble Ned had at school while we were away," said Catriona. "It was very good of you to speak with the headmaster about his behaviour. It must have been a trial fitting it in amongst all the school runs."

Chris laughed. "He was probably glad of the chance to get out and about. I know I'd go mad sitting around the house all day."

"Just ignore him, Ed," said Catriona.

"Uh-huh," I muttered, counting under my breath. I concentrated on making the coffee. "Do you take milk?"

Chris shook his head and took his mug from me. "Ned won't be any trouble again. I've had a few words with him. One more slip up and he'll been on his way to Lochinver Academy. They'll teach him what's what."

"I'm not sure a military-style boarding school in the Highlands is really the best idea. As I said on the phone, the fight wasn't entirely his fault. Besides, I thought the deal was that he could stay at Malton House if his science grades improved. They've picked up quite a lot."

"Because you're doing his homework for him."

"I'm tutoring him. I'm helping him understand and clarifying concepts. I'm not telling him what to write..." I thought back to the previous week and some difficulties with the combined gas law. "Er, much. Look, I know Malton House isn't that great but..."

Chris interrupted me. "It's a fantastic place - good academic results and large playing fields. They've turned out several rugby internationals and I work with a couple of old boys."

"The headmaster has a real vision for developing children," chipped in Catriona.

"It's not as good as Lisa's school, I'll admit," said Chris, "but it's not like Ned would have got in there even if he was a girl. Still, it is a good school. Whether it's the best school for Ned right now is another question. I don't think they're giving him what he needs."

I couldn't help agreeing with that. "Have you tried asking him what he needs?"

"He's a teenager. He doesn't know he's born, let alone what's good for him."

"Maybe..." I said but I thought loudly that it might be worth at least investigating before packing him off to boot camp. Telling other people how to raise their children is a tetchy subject, however. I wasn't up for a fight - certainly not without consulting with Ned first. I let the matter drop for the time being and brought out a box of After Eights.

Chris changed the subject again. "So, I hear you got to register Marie for school. What are you going to do with yourself once she starts? Have you learnt to knit yet?"

Catriona elbowed him in the ribs. "As I said, Ed, ignore him."

"What?" said Chris, smirking.

I gave them my usual spiel about having a lie down for a few weeks and then catching up on nine years worth of chores and Oprah. Sarah returned to claim her fruit tea and minty chocolates and let us know that the boys were in their pyjamas and Marie was in bed. We drank our hot drinks, chatted about this and that and then it was time to go upstairs to watch the squirrel. I grabbed another bottle of wine on the way. It was very cheap but, to be honest, by that point I didn't even care what colour it was.

Next time we'll have Rob and Kate round, play Wii Sports and order in a curry. It will be so much more relaxing.

Can't really see Rob making pavlova, though, which is a shame. That was tasty...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Remember to eat some vegetables this week.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Attack of the snot

Dear Dave,

Never tempt Fate. The poor girl has no self control. Give her a couple of vodka martinis and it can lead to all kinds of trouble...

I believe I mentioned last week that I hadn't had to use the buggy in months. I also commented to someone else that my family had been mysteriously well since the summer.

I suspect Marie may have inhaled some germs at that very moment.

Three days later and she now has a stinking cold. The kind where she lies around mournfully in a sleeping bag, demanding her nose be blown every three minutes. I spent the entire morning watching Bob the Builder with her sitting on my lap and a box of tissues by my side. When we went outside, she barely had energy to climb into the buggy, let alone scoot anywhere.

This afternoon I couldn't get warm. I put my thickest jumper on and that made no difference. I turned the heating up and that didn't help. I started wearing my coat, hat and scarf. I still felt cold... in the lounge... with the heating on... I finally had to resort to stuffing a hot water bottle down my shirt. I suspect that I may not be feeling that well by tomorrow morning.

To make matters worse, it turns out I'm old:

I've just done Fraser's homework with him. The textbook reads: 'Skin is elastic. If you pinch the skin on the back of your hand and let it go it springs back into place. An old person's skin does not spring back into place but forms wrinkles.'

Sure enough, his skin twanged back into shape instantly. Mine stayed in a sharply defined ridge long enough for me to forget why I was staring at it and wander off in search of some Werther's Originals.

I'm thirty-five and I'm falling apart.

I think I'll go and have a lie down.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 19 November 2008

Women love a man who can clean

Dear Dave,

Liz may have a point. Let's face it, somebody is going to have to clean the fridge sometime.

It should probably be you.

If you leave it until Sam's old enough for you to get him to do it, that lingering smell of curdled milk you mention is only going to get a heck of a lot stronger. It will pervade everything. Your lettuce will start to taste of cheese. (Dubious, unpasteurised French cheese at that.) Not good. You're just going to have to bite the bullet and get on with it. The 'house' part of 'housedad' has to be done as well as the 'dad' part.

Oddly, mums I talk to are often more impressed that I know how to work a bottle of bleach than that I can look after three children all day. It seems that although men are generally taking more of an active role in childcare, equality is lagging further behind when it comes to household sanitation. In many relationships, even where both partners are working, the female still ends up doing all the chores.

This is, of course, bad and wrong but it's also somewhat short-sighted on the part of the men involved. If they helped out, their womenfolk would be hugely appreciative and have more energy.

It really is in your best interests to deal with that fridge.

But yeah, I know, cleaning is dull.

I don't mind it too much myself, though. I've mentioned previously that I have a high tolerance for boredom. That's one of the blessings of having grown up in rural Norfolk. I had an entire summer holiday where seven of the top ten most exciting things which happened involved ducks walking past the lounge window. At least one of the other three involved painting a ceiling.

I'm used to a fairly high level of tedium. Housework, however, is dull and involves effort, not to mention dust, noxious chemicals and toilets. If motivation runs low, it's important to remember that there are far worse jobs out there. I've had a couple of them.

My first proper experience of paid work was pickling grass.

My dad got me to help on the farm with making silage. This involved wrapping an enormous cylindrical bale in a bin liner, sucking as much air out as possible with a hoover and then sealing the end with a rubber ring. It wouldn't have been so bad but the rubber rings were only a centimetre across and had to be stretched to around 10cm in diameter by sliding them down a wooden cone. I removed the pads of both my thumbs within minutes. The whole thing was painful, dull and left me smelling like a lawn had sneaked its way into my pockets and promptly died... several weeks previously. I'll take having to occasionally clean the bath over that any day, thank you very much.

My second proper experience of paid work involved getting ridiculously sunburnt while being slowly encrusted with blackcurrants.

A little dusting now and then certainly beats a nine hour shift on the back of a currant harvester, sifting fruit from twigs and hefting heavy containers around. It was painful, dull, extremely loud and left me stained purple. As an added bonus, I got paid considerably less than the girl standing next to me because I was three years younger than her.

Yep, there are worse ways to earn my keep than with a bit of light hoovering. Washing up is even therapeutic. I can stand still, put my brain in neutral and relax while doing it.

A triple-decker dish drainer.
It helps that we have the world's best draining rack.

One important consideration is how often to clean? You don't want to leave it too long. If the children get stuck to the kitchen floor, for instance, you need to pick up the pace a smidgeon. Then again, you don't want to waste time and effort doing the cleaning too often. If the place looks unfailingly pristine, your family will begin to believe that this is its natural state. They will believe stuff never gets dirty or that the mess disappears by magic. They will imagine you open the window, burst into song and a small army of woodland creatures leap in to give the place a quick once-over while you play the PlayStation.

To avoid this confusion, I tend to go for a fortnightly blitz. Fraser gives the kitchen floor a daily hoover and I wipe the worktops regularly but most other things I leave to do in one big clean. After a couple of weeks, the house doesn't look too dirty but it's shabby enough so that once it's been polished up everyone notices that I've put some effort in. I could spread the work out a little but I like waking up the day after cleaning day to find the whole house sparkling.

Over the years, I've developed ways to reduce the amount of housework which needs done. I only buy clothes which don't need ironing or that look good creased, for example. I used to make the mistake of checking every so often how deep the dust had got on our few remaining shelves of knick-knacks. I would touch my finger to the thick layer of grey and create a crater that was as lasting as footprints on the moon. There was no choice but to take everything off the shelves and dust the lot. Now I leave well alone. Similarly, it's simply not worth moving the freezer to have a look underneath or poking around too hard behind the sofa. It will only end in breadsticks. (If I'm lucky, there will be raisins and a sock as well.)

Let me know your own tips for minimising the work involved in cleaning while still ensuring the place looks spick and span.

But first, go and clean that fridge.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 14 November 2008

It's not just me that's worn out

Dear Dave,

Nice try but I really, REALLY don't want a load of old baby clothes. Please don't send them here. Find another victim. Move along. I mean it. We're done.

Guess you're not planning any more either, if you're having a clear out. Good luck freeing up some space. Daisy's a year now, so you can palm off the steriliser to someone else and she'll have already outgrown the crib, the big pram, the baby bouncer and that crate of babygros you so kindly and 'amusingly' offered.

Honestly, don't even joke about it. If Sarah and I got cracking right now, Sprog4 would more than likely arrive on Marie's first day at school. Rather than getting to lie down for a well deserved rest, I'd be back to Nappy One. I don't have the energy for that. Merely contemplating the possibility is enough to trouble my sanity. Excuse me one moment while I pretend to be a turkey...


... gobble-gobble ...


It's probably best if I go back to thinking about stuff:

Yep, there are plenty of bits and bobs you can dispose off. If you're ruthless, you might be able to reclaim half a room. In contrast, I'm trying to work out which items I can eke out for another few months until Marie's through her current development spurt.

Take the buggy, for instance. It's been folded up for a month but I don't want to retire it completely because there may still be days where the weather is wet and cold and we have some distance to go. If Marie's tired on such an occasion, the buggy will come in handy... as long as the wheels don't fall off. Like so many things, we're not quite done with it yet but it's old and nearly spent. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will hold out.

It's the same with paint. The boys stopped wanting to paint at home around the time they turned five and so I'm loathe to buy any new bottles, knowing that Marie might not use them much. Unfortunately, we've finished up several colours recently and we're now left with black, red, light red, blue, greeny blue, bronze, gold and evil purple.

This is not a particularly useful palette and the mixing potential is limited. It's hard to believe but she wanted some brown paint the other day and the closest I got was dark purple with metallic flecks. How is that possible? I always thought you could mix pretty much any selection of colours together and get brown. It certainly worked with the plasticine I had as a kid.

Which reminds me, all Marie's Play-Doh is decidedly dubious. It's kind of rubbery and a murky shade of green. She hasn't shown any interest in it since May, though. She's unlikely to play with it much now unless I get fresh tubs. There's no saying that she'll play with it much even if I do get fresh tubs, however. I might be as well giving up on the stuff entirely. We can always make biscuits if she wants to use cutters.

I've already given up on the large sheets of coloured paper she used to paint on. They were expensive and she's a prolific producer of works of art which could all be entitled Pink Spludge. It didn't seem worth it in the end. Worse still, she went through a monochrome phase where I would hand her a sheet of blue paper and she'd then proceed to paint every inch green (or, indeed, blue). Now she has to make do with cheap printer paper.

Out in the shed, we've got half a bag of sand left. Hopefully that's enough to bolster the muddy residue at the bottom of the sandpit and keep it in service one last summer. If not, I'll just empty the thing out and turn it into a water tray rather than cart a sack of powdered rock home from the shops simply to entertain the girl for three-quarters of an hour on the one sunny day next August.

When it comes to toys, I have no idea what we're going to get Marie for Christmas. The house is full of a huge accumulation of preschool stimulation as it is. Most of it she may never touch again. She'd rather make things with beads, play board games or take digital photographs of her brothers' ears. With a little careful rotation, the toys we have at the moment should keep her amused until she moves on to the next stage. What do school age girls covet anyway?

Bratz and make-up probably. Oh, great...

It's not all bad news, though. There are a few items in the household inventory we're not going to run out of any time soon. Chalk is one. We have several boxes of coloured chalk lying around but the kids have barely used three sticks worth. The problem is, once they've drawn a picture on the blackboard, they want to keep it. Forever. After six months, I can usually rub it off without them noticing, ready for another, but it doesn't exactly use up the chalk quickly.

We're also drowning in wax crayons. Every time we go to a restaurant, we seem to return home with three more little boxes of them. I'm thinking we should take a handful with us next time and leave them as part of the tip.

Oh, and if you want any stickers, we might be able to do you a deal. Goodness knows where they all come from.

When I was young, stickers were special. I maybe got a sheet of twenty every other birthday. I remember using them sparingly and then cutting up the bits of edging left on the sheet to salvage whatever I could. Now stickers come in boxes of a thousand and my kids simply don't know what to do with them. More than that, there's barely a day that goes by without one of them coming home from school with a sticker proudly stuck to their jumper for 'sitting nicely' or 'playing well' or 'working hard'. None of them has yet received a sticker for 'excellent work with stickers' but I'm sure it's only a matter of time...

Some supplies are running out slightly too fast, others will still be going strong when my grandchildren are done with them. There are a few things that are somewhere in between. For example, we have loads of felt-tips but hardly any of them work. It's the same with glue-sticks. I bought a stack of them not long ago but I can't ever seem to find one that has more than a millimetre of glue left and that isn't stained pink and encrusted with glitter. It's worrying. What have the kids been sticking?

Ho well, one day soon I'll be able to have a big clear out, pass plenty of stuff on and get the house back.

Then again, I used to dream blissfully about Marie getting older and not needing constant supervision at the swing-park. I imagined taking all three children along, setting them loose and then settling down on a bench to play my PSP while they entertained themselves. Unfortunately, Marie isn't quite at that stage yet and Fraser is already old enough to be easily bored by climbing frames. Now I suspect that I'll maybe manage to sneak five minutes of Lemmings some time next July. After that, I'll need to be playing catch or football with the boys whenever Marie's having a shot on the slides. I'm actually going to have to put in more effort.

I wouldn't get used to the extra space if I were you...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Most of Marie's trousers don't reach down to her ankles any more. Sarah tells me that some of them aren't too small - they're not supposed to come down to her ankles. Which pairs are which is something of a mystery to me, so I'm thinking they'll all do until the New Year.

It's not skimping on essential clothing, it's fashion! Excellent.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Back to school

Dear Dave,

"This is Geoffrey Fitzroy, headmaster of Malton House," said a plummy, English voice. "I'm calling about your nephew, Ned."

I was caught by surprise. I'd been expecting it to be someone conducting a market research survey or a recorded voice promising me a holiday in Florida. I put down the cup of milk I'd been carrying and transferred the phone to my other hand so I could listen more carefully. "Is he OK?"

"Physically, yes - apart from something of a black eye - but I'm sorry to say I've had to suspend him from school for a couple of days. Could you possibly come in to collect him? I'd like to have a chat about his behaviour."

"Er..." I glanced across the kitchen at Marie. She was busy eating her lunch. She grinned at me and waved, a green bean protruding downwards from either side of her mouth as she pretended to be a walrus. I didn't fancy my chances of getting her through town in a hurry. "Wouldn't you be better talking to his parents?"

"I've just learned from Ned that they're currently in Peru."

"What!?" This was news to me. I immediately suspected that Ned was making it up to avoid his dad being called in. Then again, there was a possibility I'd been told about it and forgotten. (Chris and Catriona are always gallivanting about with their jobs and I've long since given up paying attention.) I decided it was safest to play stupid. "Oh... Really?"

"I'm afraid so. Yours is the emergency contact number."

I did remember agreeing to that. Admittedly it had been more than a decade previously, back when Ned was in nursery, but what could I do? "Fine," I said. "I'll be there in three-quarters of an hour."

* * *

I'd say that Malton House is an unusual place but I've yet to encounter a private school that isn't at least a tiny bit wacky. In this context, Malton House is pretty normal.

The original building is a crumbling Georgian mansion covered in ivy that's imposing but not awfully attractive. It's a stone box with a grand, pillared entrance and a shallow dome on top. It does, however, draw attention away from the profusion of portacabins and concrete science buildings which have sprung up around it over the years.

The grounds are fronted by a high wall and I headed through the main gateway with some trepidation. My memories of school are not good - I was afraid the iron gates would clang shut behind me and I'd suddenly find myself forced to endure Double German and then play rugby.

Oblivious to my nerves, Marie whizzed off down the tree-lined driveway on her little pink scooter and I was forced to jog after her. A sports field stretched away to our left and a lawn to our right. Across the lawn was a very dense clump of bushes and some thickly packed firs. Through the trees, I caught the occasional glimpse of a truly hideous architectural monstrosity lurking in the shadows beyond, hiding itself from scornful looks amongst the dank foliage while squinting longingly at the light.

My heart sank. The physics block had been banished. I really wasn't going to blend in during my visit to the school. I hadn't had time for a haircut but I began to wish I'd changed out of my baggy pullover and put on a shirt and tie.

As we reached the main building, a discrete sign labelled 'Administration' directed us to a side entrance. I knocked on the door and there was a muffled, "Come in," so I opened it tentatively and went into the cramped and cluttered office beyond. It was more a cubby-hole off the side of a corridor than anything else and it had been filled with a desk and filing cabinets. An older woman eyed me suspiciously from behind her computer monitor, peering at me over the top of her half-moon glasses as if I was about to waste her time. "Can I help you?"

"Er..." I began.

Then Marie piped up with, "I'm Marie. This is my daddy. We're here to get Ned. He's been bad."

The woman didn't even smile. "Quite," she said. "The headmaster is expecting you. Go on through."

"Thanks," I said and hurried down the corridor, carrying Marie's scooter in one hand and dragging her along with the other, hoping to get away before she could divulge any information which I might regret.

Marie kept a steady stream of witter aimed at the school secretary as we went. "We came here on a bus but we're in a hurry because we have to get back to collect my brothers from their school. One of my brothers is called Lewis and he's six. My other brother is called Fraser; he's eight. They don't have to pay for their school but it's just as goo..."

And we were round the corner.

The secretary must have buzzed ahead because the headmaster appeared to meet us. He was a cordial man with slicked-back white hair and a firm handshake who welcomed me into his study as if I was an important benefactor.

The room was less cramped than the secretary's office but just as cluttered. The walls were lined with bookshelves and glass-fronted cabinets. Along with a vast collection of leather-bound books, a strange assortment of museum pieces was on display. There was everything from a flintlock pistol to mounted butterflies to a full-size totem pole which filled one corner of the room. It was like being backstage at The Antiques Roadshow. Up near the high ceiling, a selection of stuffed animals scrutinised us from the top of the cabinets. I was strangely disturbed by an guitar-playing owl and a pussy cat in a pea-green boat. They had some honey, plenty of money and very surprised expressions.

I averted Marie's gaze as best I could.

Ned was already there, sitting hunched over on a chair in front of the headmaster's desk, his hands in his pockets. He grunted a hello and I sat beside him. The upholstery on the chair was threadbare, as was the carpet, and the whole place had a faint odour of decaying fabric and furniture polish.

The headmaster poured me some tea in a china cup and then returned his attention to the work on his desk which had obviously been occupying him before I arrived. I politely drank my tea as he finished gluing teeth back into the manky remains of a baby crocodile.

Marie ran over to Ned and gave him a hug and started telling him all about her day in nursery. "I played in the water tray with Amy but she made splashes and got us wet. She didn't put her apron on, though, and so she was wetter than me and Miss Nolan told her off for making splashes and not putting her apron on. Then I had a snack. It was pizza! I didn't drink all my milk, though. I only drank nearly all my milk and..."

Ned's good with her. He nodded and smiled in the right places even when she continued on for several minutes.

After a while, I began to get restless. I put my tea down and checked my watch. We didn't have long before we needed to catch the bus back. Fortunately, the headmaster took this as some form of cue and looked up from his repairs. "So?" he said, waving some tweezers at Ned. "What do you have to say for yourself, young man?"

I grabbed Marie and handed her a plastic tub with the remains of her lunch to keep her quiet.

"Collins started it," said Ned.

"Mr Jacobs quite clearly observed you throw the first punch."

"Collins was calling me names."

The headmaster dismissed Ned's words with a chuckle and a patronising smile. "Well, a little name-calling hardly seems like a reason to hit someone in the stomach."

Ned didn't reply.

I guessed there was more to it than he was letting on. "How long has he been calling you names?" I asked.

"How long have I been at this school?" Ned said bitterly. "I can't do anything without him and his mates laughing at me."

I pressed further. "Has he ever started a fight with you?"

Ned shrugged. "A few times."

I turned to the headmaster. Having been in Ned's shoes as a teenager, I had a fairly clear idea where this was going. "Is this other kid getting suspended as well or has he been put on the rugby team?" I asked.

"Collins does have an important match this afternoon," said the headmaster, confirming my suspicions, "but I fail to see the relevance." He put down his tweezers and leant back in his leather chair. "Did you report these incidents?" he asked Ned.

Ned shook his head.

The headmaster locked his fingers together and cracked his knuckles. "We cannot act on events we know nothing about. If you don't report such things, we cannot deal with them."

"Erm," I said. "He's reporting them now."

I got the full force of the patronising smile. "It's a little late in the day, don't you think? I require dates and witnesses and..."

He trailed off as we all suddenly spotted that Marie was trying to feed the crocodile a cheese sandwich. "I'm a walrus," she said with a grin full of green beans.

The headmaster simply stared at her.

We were onto a lost cause and I used the distraction to beat a retreat. "We have to go. Two days suspension, was it?"

Mr Fitzroy managed a nod as he poked at the sandwich with his tweezers. It wasn't going to come out of the crocodile's mouth without a fight.

"OK," I said. "I'll tell his parents exactly what happened. Let's go, Ned."

I bundled everyone out of the room without looking back. We weren't in that much of a rush but I was mildly worried in case the school had dogs and they were about to be set on us.

The secretary glared at us as we left.

Marie gave her two slightly-chewed green beans to cheer her up.

* * *

"Why didn't you say something?" I said as we sat down on the lower deck of the bus. "You've been round our house every other day for six months."

I was next to Marie; Ned was on the seat behind. I turned to face him as best I could but he was looking at his knees. "Were you bullied at school?" he muttered.


"Did you tell anyone?"

He had me there. "Guess not," I said. Somehow he'd managed to answer my question in full without actually telling me anything. As Marie befriended an old lady across the aisle and told her all about the crocodile, I tried a different tack. "OK, so why'd you decide to hit that boy today? I'm not too happy at having to cover for you, by the way. Why'd you tell Mr Fitzroy that your parents are in Peru?"

"'Cos they're in Peru."


He shrugged. "They'll be back on Monday. Lisa's eighteen - they left her in charge."

Understanding began to dawn. "Of you?" I said.

"Yeah." He finally became animated as the injustice of being ordered about by his sister welled up inside him. "I have to clean my room and everything. She's got me arranging the food in the fridge by sell-by date and taking a shower every day. It's like living in Stepford."

It's true that my niece, Lisa, is something of an over-achieving control freak who scares normal people with her inhuman levels of enthusiasm and politeness... but she does mean well. I didn't want to be critical of her when she wasn't even present to defend herself. Also, having spent plenty of time around Ned of late, I was on her side about the showers. I tried to stay neutral. "Come on, she can't force you to smell nice."

"Mum and dad left her the cash. I can't do anything if she won't let me. I'm skint - I spent out on Big Macs last week." He saw my confused look and explained. "She got a home delivery and it was all salad and yogurt."

"Oh," I said. "I take it that this explains where my stash of crisps and chocolate biscuits has disappeared to recently."

"Sorry," he said. "Needed food." He opened his school bag to reveal a familiar looking pile of snacks. "Couldn't leave it in my room - she'd have found it and turned it into cat treats or, you know, given it to homeless people or something."

I sighed. Technically he should have asked before taking but I was simply glad to see the stuff. I'd been fretting over where I'd put it. I was certain I'd bought it and brought it home, so its absence from the kitchen cupboards had been worrying - either the mice had got hugely brazen or I'd got distracted and made a serious unpacking error with the shopping. After the washing machine and the bathroom cabinet had proved to be full of nothing but dirty clothes and toiletries respectively, I'd spent a couple of days checking my shoes for Mars bars before putting them on.

In my relief that I wasn't going barmy, I took pity on Ned. "You could always stay at ours for two or three nights."

"Yeah, please!" he said, delighted at the prospect (and at not getting another telling off).

"You'll have to sleep on an air bed in Fraser's room," I said, attempting to quell his excitement slightly, "and you'll definitely have to shower at least once during the visit."

"No problem."

"Right then." I was rather thrown that I'd suddenly got an overnight guest I hadn't been expecting. There was a bed to make and food to buy and goodness knows what else to do. Then I looked out of the bus and noticed we were passing near Ned's house. "You can get off at the next stop and pop home to collect your stuff."

"S'OK. I've got my iPod and I can play your Xbox."

"I was thinking of clean underwear and a toothbrush," I said. "Maybe some deodorant. That kind of thing."

Ned didn't look like he could be bothered.

I pressed the STOP button and jerked my head in the direction of the door. "Seriously. Go and get them or I'll feed you yogurt."

Reluctantly, he mooched off.

I relieved him of his school bag as he went past. "I can take that," I said helpfully. "Save you carrying it everywhere." He shrugged and gave it to me.

I think he was on the pavement before he realised that this meant I had all the biscuits.

I opened a packet of chocolate fingers and gave two to Marie. "Can I be a walrus again?" she asked.

"Of course you can," I replied and inserted a couple in the corners of my own mouth.

We banged on the window as the bus pulled away, just to make sure Ned saw us grinning and waving and impersonating aquatic mammals.

For some reason, he pretended not to know us...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 7 November 2008

PlayStations and Pooh

Dear other Daves and non-Daves,

It's time to break the fourth wall of this fictionalised blog for a moment and say thank you to all of you who turn up and read DadsDinner on a regular basis. I appreciate your support, comments and feedback over the last couple of years. You're all lovely, lovely people.

And, yes, I do need a favour...

I've recently cobbled together painstakingly selected and polished the best bits of Dear Dave and compiled them into a novel called PlayStations and Pooh. The book is available to read in its entirety on, a site run by the publishers HarperCollins as a way for aspiring authors to display their work.

Check it out now and rediscover why Scary Karen is so scary, why Useless Dad is so useless and why penguins are a housedad's best friend. Pick up tips on potty training, not going mad, getting enough sleep and conducting industrial espionage with doughnuts. Laugh and cry with Ed all over again in an easily accessible format, complete with proof-reading and everything.

Go on. Head to Authonomy and chortle like it's 2007. There's nothing you really have to get done in the next few minutes, is there?

Just one thought before you go, however... At the end of each month, HarperCollins reads the top five books as voted for by registered users of the site. Registering only takes five minutes and doesn't require much more than your name, email address and a password. Once you're signed up, you can add books you like the sound of to a handy watchlist to come back to later. You will also have a bookshelf capable of holding up to five books. Putting a book on your bookshelf brings it votes.

Can you see where I'm going with this?

Excellent. (Lovely and smart!)

There's plenty of other great stuff available on Authonomy and it's all free. Go have a look around. If you could 'bookshelf' PlayStations and Pooh while you're there, I'd be grateful. Comments and criticism would also be handy.

Here's that link one more time:

PlayStations and Pooh

Thanks once again for your support - keeping this site going can have its moments:

Cartoon demonstrating the irony of spending time writing a website about how fantastic being a housedad is rather than actually getting on with being a housedad.



PS Did I mention my book? PlayStations and Pooh

Wednesday 5 November 2008

So... What do you actually want to know?

Dear Dave,

Haven't heard from you much recently. Been getting enough sleep? Watched anything worth seeing? Has Sam settled in at school or not? Is Daisy walking yet? Has she said her first word? If so, was it 'dada', 'more' or 'Laa-Laa'? Are you ready for Christmas? Is the weather pleasant? Been anywhere nice? Got used to the new routine? Have you anything planned for Bonfire Night? You healthy? Folks well? Liz OK? Kids fine?

...And breathe...

Oops, sorry, I got carried away there. Feel free not to answer any of those if you don't want to - I know my life is already full of questions:

Me: We're going to Tesco to buy food, everyone. Get your shoes on.

Fraser: What was that? Shoes? Where are we going?

Me: We're going to Tesco.

Lewis: We're going to Tesco?

Me: Yes.

Marie: Are we going to buy food?

Me: Yes.

Lewis: Should I put my shoes on?

Me: Yes.

Fraser: Do we have to go now?

Me: Yes, we need food for lunch.

Lewis: Why?

Me: Because food will be tastier to eat than hoover bags, which is all we've got in the cupboard at the moment.

Lewis: Why don't we have any food?

Me: Because we haven't been to Tesco yet.

Marie: Can I take some hoover bags with me, pleeeeaaaasssseee?

Me: No.

Fraser: Where's my other shoe?

Me: Almost certainly where you last put it.

Fraser: Where was that?

Me: How should I know?

Lewis: Can I go play a computer game while Fraser looks for his shoe?

Me: No.

Lewis: Why not?

Me: Because he won't be long.

Lewis: How do you know that if you don't know where his shoe is?

Me: I... Er... Oh, forget it, I need a coffee. Everyone go back to what you were doing. I probably have a recipe for hoover bags around here somewhere...

I get a constant stream of questions all the time, often in triplicate. There seems to be no avoiding this, so my current project is to teach the children to at least ask questions that bring them the information they want. This will hopefully cut down on the number of questions and make me slightly less irritable. As things stand, Fraser has a tendency to make his queries a little too closed. He asks things like, "Is it going to be bath-time in ten minutes?" and then is surprised when I say, "No."

But I'm always going to say, "No."

What are the chances of it being exactly ten minutes until bath-time? He should be asking, "When's bath-time going to be?" He'd get a much more useful answer.

Sadly, closed questions bring out the pedant in me. In tests at school, I seldom had problems with short answer questions. I was more likely to struggle with multiple choice and, in particular, with true/false questions. I often thought there should be three possible answers: True, False and Sort Of.

I was reminded of this the other week when we went to a family quiz night run by a local church. It was the five of us and a student on our team, sitting round a table writing down the answers to the questions as they were read out. We were doing rather well until we reached the true/false round. Then everything headed down the glassware aisle with a flailing toddler...

For instance, take the question, "True or false: In Bob the Builder, the name of Farmer Pickles' dog is Scruffy."

The answer to this is absolutely, patently FALSE. Farmer Pickles' dog is called Scruffty. Anyone who has watched dozens of episodes several times, is able to sing the theme tune and has a house full of tacky merchandise can tell you that. Unfortunately, 'Scruffy' is sort of similar to 'Scruffty'. Perhaps too similar. We had to consider how closely the older gentleman who wrote the questions was paying attention while watching TV with his grandchildren the previous week. Especially bearing in mind that in the Harry Potter round he'd asked, "What subject does Professor Snape teach?" (To a chorus of, "In which book?" from the entire room.)

With a sinking heart, I wrote down 'False' because I couldn't bring myself to do anything else. Unsurprisingly, however, the quizmaster hadn't checked his facts and we didn't get the point. If we'd simply been asked the name of Farmer Pickles' dog, we'd have been fine, but in trying to make the question easier to answer by narrowing our options, it had actually been made harder.

We were robbed.

(The guy even thought Postman Pat lives in Pontypandy. I ask you...)

Yep, I definitely prefer some leeway in the kind of answer a question is searching for. Giving me some space nearly always works out well for the questioner as well. Ask me, "What shape is the Earth?" and I'll probably answer that it's round. Ask me, "Is the Earth round?" and I'll come back at you with, "Not exactly," and then feel compelled to add, "It's an oblate spheroid."

That said, sometimes a closed question is the only way to get a straight answer. Finding the right question is the difficult part. At the point Marie loses interest in a meal, I keep asking her, "Are you finished?" She shakes her head and sits playing with the single remaining food item for another ten minutes. Then I ask, "Are you going to eat that cracker?"

She looks sad and says, "No."

"So you are finished?"

She shakes her head again.

Finally, I twig what the problem is. "Have you had enough?"

"Yes," she says in relief, gets up from the table and goes and washes her hands.

Communication is a tricky thing sometimes...

I guess asking a question is a balance between giving a person freedom to impart information and setting limits in order to keep the response relevant. Although I'm a big fan of open questions, some can be slightly too open:

Last night, I said to Lewis, "It's going to be bath-time in ten minutes."

His immediate response was, "Why?"

There were any number of ways to answer this question. Ten minutes is how long it takes to fill the bath with water, for a start. But why was I turning on the taps just then? Was it because tea was almost finished or because if I didn't begin then, it would be impossible to bathe all the children before bedtime? Of course, this was assuming that bedtime and tea-time are immutable constants. Perhaps the true question was a challenge to the underlying timetable of our daily routine. Perhaps it was an attempt to more fully understand our weekly schedule. Maybe it was a critique of the Western obsession with cleanliness and a plea to return to an era where body odour was acceptable and natural.

Why in ten minutes? Why Tuesday? Why him? Why have a bath at all?

The inevitable answer was, "Because you smell, Lewis. Because you smell."

"No, I don't," he replied.

"Yes, you do."

"Why?" he asked, putting us right back where we'd begun.

I sighed. "Just eat your tea. Your bath is in ten minutes."

At this point, Fraser butted in with, "It's nine and a half minutes now."

"No, it's not," I snapped. "It's still ten minutes because I haven't started running the bath yet. I've been too busy arguing with Lewis."

"Then why did you say it was ten minutes a minute ago?" said Lewis, getting annoyed. "It was more than ten minutes!"


"I've had enough to eat," piped up Marie. "Can I have my bath now?"

Again, obviously, the answer was, "No," for the simple reason I hadn't yet managed to leave the kitchen to start running the flipping thing. More than that, if Lewis has a bath first, he can get himself dry while I'm washing Marie and then I can brush his teeth while Marie is enjoying a long soak in the tub. If Marie has a bath first, Lewis is in and out in less time than it takes me to get her dry, causing a slippery pile-up of wet children on the bathmat. Even when this is sorted out, I'm left with two children needing their teeth brushed at the same time. This is awkward.

"I want to have a bath," said Marie. "Can I have my bath now?"

The short answer was, "No," the medium answer was, "No, because I might get a toothbrush up your nose," and the long answer was complicated, dull and ended with, "Yes, Lewis it's still ten minutes until bath-time..."

Getting the kids to ask sharper questions would be great. I think I may be in it for the long haul on this one, though. Nevertheless, I'll lead by example and put my initial enquiry to you another way:

How's life and what have you all been up to?

Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours in a woman's world,