Dear Dave

Friday 29 February 2008

Road rant

Dear Dave,

You're right - those Children's Traffic Club books are great, aren't they? My kids all loved them and became much more aware of road safety after working through them. Marie now complains whenever she ends up next to the road as we walk along the pavement holding hands.

Of course, they only help up to a certain point. Fraser's reached a stage where he's forgotten lots of the information but he thinks he knows everything. It's almost like I'm having to start again as he becomes responsible for himself and has to stop relying on me the whole time. Teaching him to cross roads is harder work than I imagined it would be:

We live in a maze of side streets, so, most of the time, we have to cross near a junction - we can't avoid it. Fortunately, there aren't that many cars about and they're usually not going that fast. Less fortunately, there are plenty of inconsiderate drivers who don't indicate. Sometimes this is laziness brought on by the lack of other vehicles; sometimes it's because they've got their hands full as they smoke while holding a mobile phone. It happens so often, I pretty much have to assume that any nearby car is about to make a sudden turn and head straight for us, whether they're signalling this intent or not. (To be fair, some drivers do start indicating when they notice me standing at the kerb with three small children but, since they've already begun turning by this point, it's not actually that helpful. If they're still smoking and holding a mobile phone, I'd really rather they concentrated on steering.)

The only thing more dangerous than the really inconsiderate drivers is the really considerate ones. These people seem to delight in taking politeness to a potentially lethal level. They see us waiting at the edge of the pavement looking from side to side, and take pity on the poor parent with small children. They stop their cars and wave us across.

I really wish they wouldn't.

This kind of behaviour is highly unpredictable and it often means that crossing the road takes longer as we wait to make sure they've really stopped and aren't just checking out a parking space or lining us up for a triple-point hit-and-run combo. It confuses me, so it's not handy when teaching young children the Green Cross Code. It's also hugely dangerous - just because they've waved, it doesn't mean it's safe to cross. There are the other directions to consider. I've been lulled into a false sense of security a couple of times myself and only remembered to look the other way at the last minute. When my kids are older, I firmly believe that the biggest risk to their health will be courteous drivers.

Some of them are just crazy.

Frequently, a car pulls out of a side street (turning right) and the driver notices us waiting for them to go past before we cross the main road. He or she stops and waves us across. The car is still partly in the side street, partly where it wants to be and mostly sitting at right-angles across the wrong lane. This doesn't seem smart.

Some drivers see us ready to cross in the distance and slow down to give us an opportunity to hurry over before they arrive. This is infuriating. A car traveling along a straight road at a constant speed is easy to predict - even a child can do it. It's very hard, however, spotting that a car going twenty-five miles an hour is gently slowing down if it's coming directly towards you. By the time I'm certain that the driver isn't just fiddling with the radio, there's never time to cross safely. They either have to go past or stop. What they usually do instead is increase pressure on the brake a little more - just enough to give us time to cross but ensuring they don't actually have to come to a halt. Needless to say, it's almost impossible for us to tell that this is what's going on. For a start, the brake lights are on the back of the car. More than that, it takes a few seconds of observation to mentally calculate the rate of deceleration of a slow moving object. Factor in the time it takes to look for cars coming in the other direction (who may have decided to join in the insanity) and there's still no chance of us making it across.

The driver wonders what we're playing at but is now committed to the whole thing. He or she slows down a fraction more. The cycle repeats. Everything proceeds at the rate it takes Xeno to shoot a tortoise. Several days later, the car stops and the driver waves us across, just as the cars coming the other way give up. We wait some more. Everyone involved dies of dehydration.

Quite often, the cars that do this tortuous rolling to a stop are the only ones in sight at the point when the whole rigmarole begins. If they simply kept going, we'd be across the road the moment they'd gone by.

Somehow, I have to teach my children to deal with this nonsense and yet still arrive at their destination on time and in one piece. I've started putting Fraser in charge of working out when it's safe for us all to cross and it's been quite nerve-wracking. I imagine this must be what teaching someone to drive is like. Half the time, I want to slam on his brakes, the other half, I keep wanting to shout, "Go! Come on! Now!" as he spends thirty seconds checking in each direction, moving his head around and hopping up and down in case a car is lurking behind a lamp post ready to pounce or a motorbike is about to leap out of a wheelie bin.

After much consideration, he points into the distance. "There's a van over there."

I shield my eyes and squint. "Yes, but it's on Mars." Meanwhile, in the other direction, cars have had a chance to arrive all the way from Glasgow in order to not indicate and then turn corners apparently using only the power of the drivers' nicotine addled minds. We're back to square one.

Ho well. The kids will figure it out eventually and the whole process will be worth it in the end. Let's face it, if they're ever going to move out, they're going to need to know how to get off our block.

Hmmm... I think I'll go start Marie on the next book...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS At the moment, the kids aren't that fussed about learning to cross roads by themselves. They'd be quite happy for me to chaperone them everywhere for the rest of their lives and then have me hang around to perform menial tasks.

Yesterday, for instance, Lewis wanted to climb on the bike racks at school and he needed his hands free. "Can you hold onto my lunchbox?" he said, waving it at me.

Marie was already climbing and I was, very obviously, preoccupied with preventing her falling on her head. "Hang it off the buggy or something," I said in exasperation. "I'm not your slave."

Marie chuckled at the absurdity of this idea. "No," she giggled at me, "you're my slave."

Wednesday 27 February 2008

This is normal

Dear Dave,

I guess you don't have long to go now. Another fortnight and Liz will be back at work. Your life will be a whirl of sterilising bottles and defrosting milk. You'll have to figure out how to fit all Daisy's feeds and nappy changes around ferrying Sam to nursery and clubs. It'll be a constant rush to keep up with the timetable and you'll have to do it all while suffering from broken sleep and whatever illness the kids have brought home this week. It will be long and tiring.

Enjoy it while you can.

I'm not kidding. I think I miss it a little.

Yes, yes, I know I'm mad. I've blanked the repetition, frustration, exhaustion and endless Teletubbies from my mind. There is something to be said, however, for the simplicity of survival. Eighteen months ago, my horizon was firmly fixed at getting through the day to a can of beer and some CSI. Every time I made it to the sofa, switched on the telly and cracked that ring-pull was a triumph. (Apart from the odd occasions where the can had been shaken and I got a lapful of Murphy's, obviously). No one was even sure how I managed it. Friends and family applauded me merely for keeping going.

Now things are different. The children are older. They can all sleep through the night, use a spoon, switch on the telly and go to the toilet without too much intervention. My services are becoming obsolete.

Since I no longer need to be chasing after them the whole time, there's opportunity for longer term goals. There's even some expectation I'll achieve things (both from other people and the craziness in my own head). I can start educational projects with the kids, attend to long-forgotten chores, study, work, keep fit, meet social obligations and generally look beyond bedtime. Except I can't do all those things. I don't have that much time or energy. I do have time and energy for some of them, though. This means I have to make decisions and I'm not used to those kinds of decisions any more.

This was brought to my attention the other morning when I heard a knock at the door. It was Mike. He was wearing his dog-collar and carrying a Bible and his ring-bound personal organiser. I wasn't expecting him, but he definitely looked like he meant business.

"I'm here for lunch," he said bluntly.

"Er... Do you have a reservation?"

"No," he said and came in anyway. "Where's Marie?"

"I'm in the lounge!" came a shrill cry from upstairs. "I'm cooking Bagpuss!"

"Mmmmm, fried cloth cat," I said, taking Mike's coat. "Are you sure you want to stay for lunch?"

"Sandwiches will be fine," he said, going through to the kitchen and taking a seat.

"Cup of tea?"

He shook his head. "I've had seven already, thank you."


He sighed. "I spend much of my time visiting elderly ladies. Over-dosing on tea and biscuits is one of the hazards of the job."

"How about a beer then?"

Unusually, Mike was momentarily lost for words. This didn't appear to be an offer he'd often received in his twenty years of ministry. He pondered it for a moment. "Just a small one," he said, trying not to appear too pleased. "With my lunch."

"Right you are." I set about preparing the food.

"How are Rob and Kate and the baby?" he asked. "Have they thought of a name yet?"

"They got to the registry office in the nick of time on Friday," I said, rolling my eyes. "The poor kid almost got called '[To do]'. They settled on Luke Robert in the end."

Mike chuckled. "You've been living in Scotland for fifteen years and you still can't say Luke properly, can you?"

"Don't you start," I said, my head in a cupboard. "I think Rob chose it just for an opportunity to wind me up. Apparently, if I can pronounce the kid's name correctly five times in a row, then I get to be a godparent."

"Much luck?"

"My high score's currently two and a half. So, no. Not much."

I put some bread on the table and dumped half the contents of the fridge beside it. There was cheese and sliced meat, some salad and a tub of humous. "Help yourself," I said. Then I started cutting up some fruit for Marie.

"I'll need a knife."

"Oh, yeah." I grabbed one from the drawer, rubbed off a couple of fingerprints on my shirt and handed it over.

"Thanks." He made himself a sandwich and briefly waited for me to sit down but then realised I wasn't going to. I went to find that beer under the shelves, switched on the kettle as I went, poured a child-sized cup of milk on the way back, opened the bottle and put it in front of him. Then I went back to chopping.

Mike started eating. "How's life?" he said through a mouthful of food.

"Busy. Marie's settled at nursery but I've been spending the free-time sorting out the house and stuff. The boys have been having lots of friends round. Sarah's got extra work to do at the moment. All being well, the last of the repairs from the flood will be finished tomorrow - if the plumbers turn up, they can fix the pipe in question and they don't break anything else in the process. Once that's over, though, we're looking into getting the kitchen done, so that'll be more chaos. At some point, I'm planning to do some writing. Next month we're going to..."

Mike cut me off. "That's what you've been filling life with. It doesn't answer my question. Stop what you're doing, come over here and talk to me."

"Er..." I was almost finished getting Marie's lunch ready. I just needed to spread margarine on some crackers... I reached for the packet.


"OK," I said, sheepishly. "Can I wash my hands and get my coffee?"

"All right."

I gave my fingers a quick rinse, dried them on my trousers, poured my drink and hurried to sit opposite Mike. I rested my elbows on the table and held the mug up with both hands, trying to look natural and relaxed rather than as if I was using it as a steaming shield to fend off any cross-examination.

"So?" said Mike.


"So how's life?"

I shrugged and looked away, not knowing what to say. Sunlight was streaming in through the patio doors and it appeared to be an almost nice day outside for a change. Beyond our back fence, I could see Julia playing Tig with her children in the park. They were wrapped up warm against the wind but they seemed to be having fun. She still hasn't put the four of them into school yet. Maybe soon. I watched them for a bit, imagining the laughter that I couldn't hear through the double-glazing.

"I don't know," I said eventually. "It's a few years since I've really had a chance to think about it. There's been one thing after another. Well, one child after another, anyway. It's just been a case of keeping on going. I suppose life feels like an endless game of Tetris sometimes. I used to be able to clear the screen every so often and take a breather. Now it feels like I've had too many of those 'S'-shaped blocks in a row and I'm forever struggling simply to keep the last few lines from filling up. Things are getting better but I don't think I'll ever get the screen clear again."

Mike didn't say anything for a few moments as he considered this, then he changed tack. Or maybe he didn't. It's hard to tell sometimes with him. "How's Dave?" he said.

"He's OK. He's got two kids now so he doesn't have so much time for letters but we're keeping in touch. It's quite odd thinking back to when I was in the situation he's in. Having a small baby seems like so long ago."

"It's about a year since you started writing to him, isn't it?"

"Yeah, maybe - certainly since we really got going. It's weird how much has changed. I'm getting proper sleep, Sarah's job has settled down, Fraser can almost look after himself, Lewis is at school, Marie's at nursery and we've been able to pass on all the baby stuff. I keep thinking that life will get back to normal soon. Then I realise that Marie's nearly three and a half. Even when she starts school, life won't be that different. These days, looking after them is often a case of keeping an eye on them while I get on with something else. We're already past the stage where I had to be constantly physically involved with the children just to keep them fed, clean and rested. This is normal and it's going to be the way of things for a while."

"Uh-huh," said Mike, making himself another sandwich. Then, off-hand, he added, "And how are you coping with that?"

He didn't even glance up. I'd been expecting to have to deflect his piercing gaze with my coffee. I was taken off-guard. "Er..." I said, lowering my mug in surprise. "I'm... well..."

Then he looked me in the eye. I was trapped and defenceless. There was no avoiding an honest answer.

It took me a while to think of one, though. "Things are different and I'm not used to that yet. I'm not quite sure what I am. For years, I've been able to introduce myself as a housedad and be confident that that covered everything. It doesn't any more. Then again, I'm not even close to getting my old life back. I'm somewhere in between."

"Does it matter what you are?"

I shrugged. "If you're wanting me to figure out who I am, it's going to take more than one visit and I'll be needing some of that beer."

"We can arrange that," he said, flipping open his organiser and unscrewing the lid of his fountain pen. He poised the nib over the page. "A week on Thursday, in the evening?"


He wrote the appointment down before I could reply. "I'll bring the beer; you provide the PlayStation. It's been a while since I got to embarrass you with a shotgun."

"Er, can I invite anyone else?" I asked, giving in.

"If you don't mind sharing your angst with them."

"I'm long past caring," I muttered.

Mike grunted. "We'll see."

Marie bounced into the room. She had a toy saucepan in her hands. A pink and white tail trailed out from under the lid. "Lunch time!" she squealed.

"It's almost ready," I said, jumping up to finish piling her plate.

Then she caught sight of the park and Julia's children. "It's Marcus! He's playing a game on the grass out the back door! Can we play, too?"

I glanced at the packet of crackers and at Mike. It wasn't really a convenient time but another twenty minutes and Julia was bound to have gone in. It would probably have started to rain as well.

"Please..." said Marie.

"It does look like fun," said Mike, leaning back in his chair. "I'll sit here and watch, though, if you don't mind."

I dithered for a few seconds. There was stuff to do and I had a guest but there was also something to be said for fresh air and exercise while we had the chance... "OK," I said at last, "we won't be long." Marie and I got our shoes and coats on. "Help yourself to crisps," I called over my shoulder as we stepped out into the sunshine.

"I was going to," said Mike, sipping his beer.

Julia waved us over cheerily and we joined in with the running about and screaming. It was cold enough to see our breath. My ears were soon ready to fall off. Still, it was fresh air and exercise...

It was also a chance to play with my little girl before either of us grow up any more.

We had fun.

Yours in a woman's world (for now),


Friday 22 February 2008


Dear Dave,

When I was small, my parents' TV had a remote control with a handful of buttons on it. You could turn the set on, select a channel (from a choice of three) and maybe even change the volume. It worked by sound rather than infra-red but it was probably pretty swish for the time. Pulling the curtains shut quickly did always switch the programme over to ITV, though. The remote apparently never functioned quite the same after I buried it in a bowl of washing powder, either. Oh, and we had to wedge a matchstick under the power switch on the set itself near the end. Still, getting to watch Button Moon was a simple affair: Turn on at exactly mid-day, insert matchstick, press button three. In the event of unwanted BBC news due to remote control failure, close curtains violently. Sit back and enjoy.

It was quite a contrast, yesterday, when Fraser rushed upstairs while I was giving the other two a bath and demanded to know how to pause Ben 10 so he could go to the toilet without missing anything. I suggested the old-fashioned method of waiting for the adverts and then making a mad scramble for the facilities. Unfortunately, he'd already wasted half the ad break coming to find me. I didn't want to leave the two younger ones alone in water, so I had to attempt to explain to Fraser what to do. This was tricky because the show was playing from the TiVo but he was watching it in the kitchen. The TiVo isn't in the kitchen. For the remote to work, he needed to turn on the video sender. Turning on the video sender was liable to switch the TV to the AV channel, though. This wasn't likely to go well.

The alternative was to fire up the TV in the lounge and control the TiVo locally. Except, of course, there was no guarantee that the lounge TV would be displaying the correct AV input. Also, the TiVo control in the lounge is kept out of the reach of children, so he'd need to fetch the one from the kitchen - if he could even be certain which was the TiVo remote from amongst the pile of five controls. More than that, we don't normally let the kids touch the TiVo remote in case they somehow delete things, so he would probably need to bring the remote to me, in order for me to show him which button was 'Pause'. Since he was unlikely to figure any of this out before the ads ended, I knew I would also have to teach him how to rewind. This was bound to go badly.

I told him to just go to the toilet and that I'd sort it out later.

Luckily, he had substantial business to attend to, so, before he was finished, I was able to safely nip down, turn on the video sender, rewind, pause and tell him how to get it going again. Phew!

Twenty minutes later, he came and found me to complain that the Wii wasn't working in the lounge. I realised the problem instantly. Since the video sender was on, the AV auto-switching was automatically disabled. He needed to switch the video sender off. He's not normally allowed to touch the video sender, however, because... Well, I don't know, he just isn't. I gave him precise instructions what to do. He came back and told me that the video sender had more buttons than I remembered.

I lost it a bit.

After I'd calmed down, I left Marie under a towel and went to check. Fraser turned out to be right. I switched the thing off, the Wii came on and Marie finally got dried. It was all a bit of a palaver.

Thinking about it later, I really shouldn't have got frustrated with Fraser. Babysitters frequently give up trying to get our AV equipment to show them anything other than blank screen, Mario or CSI. These tend to be what come up by default and viewing anything else can be fairly complicated. This is partly because we've got too many gadgets chained together but it's mainly because electronics these days can be very confusing.

Take our DVD player, for example. The remote control has forty-eight buttons. Most days, I get by with five of them. I normally only ever use sixteen of them. This means that two-thirds of the buttons I haven't touched since I was fiddling around with it on the day we bought it. (Actually, that's not entirely true - I have accidentally touched most of them a few times but I've always regretted it...)

I can only imagine that gadgets are designed by people who use short-cut keys. The kind of people who can press Control-Shift-#-K followed by Alt-Tab-Backspace-Q and then Escape-/-[-H and make their computer download The Matrix, burn it to DVD and print a label while they're still reading the online version of T3.

The average consumer doesn't use short-cut keys. I've been using computers for twenty-five years and I still save files by clicking on the menu. I was quite pleased with myself for utilising the 'Home' key the other day...

I like technology and I'm not stupid, so it makes me wonder how everyone else is getting on. How many buttons on their DVD remotes are they ignoring? Almost all of them, I suspect, and that's turned out to be very bad news for Toshiba.

Yes. HD-DVD is dead. Long live Blu-ray! The great high definition disc format war is over.

And do you know why? It's because modern TVs are too complicated for the assistants in electronics stores to operate.

Let me explain. HD-DVD had a head start and cheaper players so it really should have done better than it has. A million machines sold globally? That makes the Dreamcast look successful. The problem is, an HD-DVD player is pointless without a high definition television. So, before Toshiba could convince us to buy HD-DVD players, they had to convince us to buy HD-TVs.

That really hasn't gone hugely well. For a start, television technology has already changed a couple of times in the last decade, with both widescreen and integrated digital taking off. The kind of people who want a large TV have shelled out for one relatively recently and don't necessarily have space and cash for another. On top of that, there's not much high definition stuff to watch and most of what there is involves significant extra expense. HD-TVs aren't the obvious objects of desire that manufacturers thought they would be. We need them sold to us. Heck, it's only about five years since I was watching Buffy recorded Long Play onto VHS from a fuzzy aerial signal. That was good enough. Now I can watch Galactica on DVD in widescreen. It's like a cinema in my own home! How much difference can HD make?

Which is where those assistants come in. I should walk into the electronics section of a department store and be blown away by the clarity and resolution. For some reason, however, most places that sell HD-TVs don't seem to think it necessary to set up their display models properly or to feed them with an HD source. In fact, most of the sets usually look like they're showing something recorded on Long Play VHS. Considering a decent HD-TV costs two or three times what I paid for my pin-sharp 'normal' telly, this doesn't make for a hugely tempting purchase. And that's before getting into the nitty-gritty of contrast ratios, response times, pixel counts and AV sockets.

I barely go out, I'm a keen gamer and I watch DVDs all the time - I'm a prime target for being sold a high definition entertainment combo. Admittedly, I was never going to be in the first wave of those buying HD-TVs but, if I'd got one a year ago, I might well have also got the HD-DVD add-on for my Xbox 360. That I haven't got an HD-TV yet was always going to spell HD-DVD's doom.

Sony meanwhile (at great expense) has slipped Blu-ray into ten million homes via Trojan PS3s. Sure, PS3 games look better on an HD telly, but you don't need an HD-TV to give a PS3 purpose. Sony is hoping that, as people get round to buying new TVs, they'll discover the joys of the Blu-ray player that's already in their living rooms and start buying discs in a big way.

I'm not so sure that's going to happen, though. Just because HD-DVD has lost, doesn't mean Blu-ray has won. Not yet, anyway.

I'm curious as to how many people are playing Blu-ray movies on a standard TV via the composite AV output of their PS3 and are wondering what all the fuss is about. Word of mouth from that can't be good for future sales.

Even those who know what they're doing may not make Blu-ray the success which Sony hopes. Personally, when I do finally get an HD-TV, I'll almost certainly get a PS3 now because they're still relatively cheap as Blu-ray players and far more versatile. I'll even rent some Blu-ray discs. I'm not going to buy many, though. Replacing my DVD collection isn't worth the expense and DVDs are more useful anyway. We have at least nine devices in the house capable of playing DVDs. I can watch DVDs everywhere apart from in the shower. More importantly, I can sit the kids in front of a DVD anywhere, whether we're at home or not. I can't see Blu-ray replacing DVD. Yeah, it will be nice for a bit on the big telly in the lounge but I'll still be using DVDs most of the time, right up until digital downloads finally take over.

The only way Blu-ray will survive long term is if digital download devices remain a complicated faff to use. However, if Toshiba can quickly turn their resources to producing some really simple ones, they may have the last laugh yet. How simple? Well, let's just say that the testing should involve a harassed adult two floors away from the equipment relaying operating instructions to a seven-year-old who desperately needs the toilet. If the thing functions correctly without inducing frustration, sarcasm or warm dampness in any of the test subjects then they'll be onto a winner.

I'd be in the first wave for that.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 20 February 2008

Nobody expects the Spanish I/O error

Dear Dave,

Some things didn't really change when I became a housedad. Bringing up kids is very like running an IT project - for some reason, I'm always behind schedule.

With IT projects, the difficulty is that there are always unexpected snags. Typical issues range from a logical inconsistency in the specification (i.e. you've been asked to do the impossible) to a discovery that the highly paid contractor brought in to handle the tough stuff was bluffing all along and has spent six months playing Minesweeper. If you're really unlucky, the project will simply open up a vortex in the very fabric of nature that sucks in time and money and dumps them out beyond the galactic rim. (That's never good).

Obviously, it's possible to figure some leeway into the production timetable but, if you don't know what the problem is going to be, it's difficult to know how much time to allow for solving it. Maybe it will only require someone nipping to Curry's for a cable. Maybe it will send the whole project back to the drawing board. Who knows? Probably best to allow twice as long as you're really hoping, though.

Of course, putting vast amounts of blank space in the schedule 'just in case' gives a bad impression, so it doesn't usually happen. Then, halfway through the project, someone leaves the team or the customer suddenly needs the product in a hurry and management has to cut corners in order to get the job done. The easiest thing to do is remove from the schedule the time and manpower set aside for contingencies. Voila! The whole project is back on track... as long as nothing goes wrong. Management may argue that this is the kind of emergency that all the padding in the schedule was for, but the truth is that these are management problems that should have had padding of their very own. In reality, what's gone is all the time required to cope when it turns out that the software you've bought in from another company doesn't do all the things the salesman said it would, doesn't work at all or has manuals that are written entirely in Danish (apart from the bits in Braille).

Somehow, management is surprised when the project over-runs...

Maybe it's an unwinnable battle. If, by some quirk of fate, a project did ever come in early, the customers would simply start trying to think of 'little' bits to add on. These would almost certainly involve starting again from scratch and the project would end up over-running anyway.

Similarly, with children, being late can be inevitable. If, on a good day, it takes ten minutes to get everyone's shoes on and get them out of the house for school, there are going to be other days where it takes twenty. Setting aside twenty minutes is asking for trouble, though. You don't want to be waiting outside the school for ten minutes in the rain. Equally, you don't want to be hanging around at home for ten minutes - the kids will complain loudly about being bored, take their shoes off again and then lose them. They will arrive very late for school, wearing their slippers. Yep, leaving too much time for a task can make you later than leaving too little. You'd be better off allowing fifteen minutes on a regular basis and simply accepting the fact that you're going to be five minutes late on any day that one of the children gets distracted and tips his milk into his ear rather than his mouth.

That said, with a little knowledge and planning, it's possible to avoid being horrendously late all the time. Bearing this in mind, here are a few tasks that I've found unexpectedly hard in the past. You've probably encountered most of them yourself already but they may not have seemed like that big a deal. Please remember, however, that the time taken to solve these issues is proportional to the square of the number of children you have. Thus, now you have two, you need to allow four times as much space in the schedule for:
  • Getting them to wear appropriate clothing. I tell my kids that it’s raining and they’ll need to put their raincoats on.

    Without looking out a window, they say, ‘No, it’s not.’

    I argue for a bit, they don’t put their raincoats on and we step out of the door. They immediately start screaming that it’s raining and run around in a panic like they’re the Wicked Witch of the West and someone’s just dumped a bucket of water on them.

    I say, ‘It’s almost stopped. You’ll be fine.’

    They argue for a bit and demand their raincoats. Eventually, I give up and they go in and put their raincoats on.

    The rain stops, the sun comes out and they complain it’s too hot in their raincoats.

    They refuse to take them off.

    When we eventually arrive at our destination, people wonder why we’re wet, late and sweaty. I just shake my head and sigh…
  • Getting them to do stuff for themselves. Marie kicks up a huge fuss about drying her own hands. She's currently lying on the hall floor yelling for help because a small part of her lower arm is still wet. She's actually holding the towel in her other hand but wants me to go through and combine the towel and arm with some gentle rubbing action. Suffice to say, she'll be yelling a while longer - probably for several minutes after the water has evaporated of its own accord.
  • Getting gloves on a toddler. Their fingers go everywhere apart from the right place.
  • Getting them to stop doing stuff for themselves. Of course, if we're in a big hurry and I pro-actively decide to dry Marie's hands for her, she'll absolutely insist on doing it on her own... Really... really... slowly...
  • Going to the shops to buy milk. Between getting them dressed, toileted (including the washing and drying of hands) and actually persuading them to leave the house, going to buy milk can take longer to organise than a trip to Paris without children.
  • Going to Paris with children. Like going to buy milk but with added luggage.
  • Keeping gloves on a toddler. It doesn't matter that it's freezing and you've just spent five minutes getting the things on, the kid wants to see her fingers...
  • Feeding them five portions of fruit and veg a day. It's not so much getting them to eat it, it's supplying it:

    Why I have to go to the shops so often: 5 family members x 5 portions per day x 2 days = 50 portions. We also require around 8 pints of milk and a loaf and a half of bread. Hang on a minute while I just nip to Tesco again...
  • Cheering up a toddler whose hands are cold. If you can just get them to calm down for a minute, you might be able to get those gloves back on. (Briefly).
  • Working out when they're ill. When my kids were small, it was easy to tell how ill they were from the number and amount of toxic substances oozing out of them. These days there's usually less to go on. They'll complain of aches and pains, cough a couple of times and then sneeze. Questioning them uncovers that they've been feeling 'not that great' for 'a bit'. Taking their temperature reveals that one ear has a mild fever and the other is dead. (Repeated attempts cause the symptoms to swap randomly between ears. Shaking the electronic thermometer produces a rattling sound).

    Since I've now spent nearly eight years clearing up toxic substances despite having had various strains of plague myself, I'm low on sympathy for minor cases of the snuffles. Still, I don't want them going rapidly downhill the second they leave the house. I can do without being summoned to school halfway through the morning to explain why I sent in my highly contagious child. (Teachers are scary).

    Coming to a decision always takes forever.
  • Explaining the difference between live-action TV drama, cartoons, documentary footage, the news, CGI and real life. As for theatre, well: 'Yes, those are real people pretending to be the real people who normally pretend to be the pretend people in Lazy Town but if that one falls off the ladder it will really hurt. And, yes, it is just a story, but vegetables really are good for you.'
  • Avoiding drowning in Fimbles. Soft toys. Everywhere. Stuck now. Can't... make... it... to... the... door...
  • Being understanding. This takes a surprising amount of effort. What I really want to say is, 'I told you you'd get cold hands.'
There we go. Hopefully, with this knowledge, you should be able to leave enough time (but not too much) to achieve most goals. I wouldn't count on it, though. The kids are bound to find some new way to slow you down.

At least you can take consolation from the fact that you're not in charge of the software for the government's ID card scheme. I hear that's created a vortex that's spitting stuff out. They're having to deal with giant space spiders, unicorns and sudden downpours of odd socks.

Whatever happens, we're never going to be as late as them.


Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 15 February 2008

Consider the penguins

Dear Dave,

Well, so much for my new found freedom. Just as I was getting used to a couple of hours without children every weekday morning, the February Week holiday has arrived. More than that, it turns out that the name is misleading. It's actually the February Week-and-a-bit holiday.


I was back to steering a trolley and three under-eights round the supermarket today. It wouldn't have been so bad but they've all reached an age where they're eager to help. Between one pushing, one loading and one sitting in the seat and yelling, 'Charge!' we tend to leave a trail of mangled groceries and scattered discount signs in our wake. Most other shoppers get out of our way but we occasionally scoop up random (very surprised-looking) children by mistake. We haven't knocked a granny into a chest freezer lately, though. (They're always so polite and apologetic as they lie there surrounded by frozen peas, feet and Zimmer frame sticking up in the air - it makes me feel bad.)

Oh, that reminds me. I may not have achieved much with my extra time but at least I've managed to defrost our freezer. Yep, that's right, in the three weeks Marie has attended nursery, I've successfully done all the stuff I normally do, gone for coffee once and melted some ice. Big whup. In my most recent plans for world domination, I forgot to figure in time for things, like eating breakfast and routine tidying up, which I used to do while Marie was having her own breakfast. They still need done even though she's not around. I also failed to realise that, most mornings, I used to sit about at parent and toddler, chatting and eating biscuits. It was a time of relative relaxation. Now, if I spend the mornings getting stuff done, I don't have much energy left in the evenings to do extra stuff. Drat. Looks like JK Rowling's lawyers can rest easy for another year or two. It doesn't appear I'll get around to my unofficial eighth Harry Potter novel (in which Harry deals with the trials and tribulations of being a stay at home dad) until Marie starts school. Watch out for Harry Potter and the Nappy of Disaster in early 2012!

As far as the holiday goes, it's been fairly quiet. The kids have had a couple of friends round but, in general, they've been glad of some rest. The boys have been honing their hand-eye-Mario coordination and Marie has glued lots of pink, sparkly bits and bobs to some coloured paper.

The other day, though, we went to the zoo with Steve and his kids. He's been doing a lot better recently. He seems to have come to terms with being a housedad. I'm sure that if a vaguely decent management position came up, he'd have the kids into daycare faster than a toddler-powered trolley into a precarious display of eggs, but he's giving it his best shot for the time being.

He's not entirely adjusted yet, however.

"Here's our timetable," he said once we'd arrived, and he handed me a print out. It was colour-coded to correspond with stickers he'd stuck to the map. "We're two and a half minutes behind already. We should be at the flamingos by now. Let's go."

I wasn't prepared for such unfortunate levels of organisation. "Shouldn't we check to see if any of the kids need the toilet first?" I muttered.

"There's a scheduled rest-break at eleven. Toilet and snacks then. Come on."

He was already striding up the steep hill on which Edinburgh Zoo is placed, with Josquin in the buggy and Ophelia skipping along beside him. I hurried after as best I could. The boys were still feeling queasy from the bus journey and were making a big fuss about holding paper bags just under their chins as they walked. Marie wanted to go to the gift shop and buy a live penguin. I had to drag them all along.

We were having the expedition because Deborah wanted Steve away from their flat for the day so she could get a stack of business calls done. I don't think she quite trusts him to manage out and about for that length of time on his own yet, so she roped me in. Our destination was selected on the basis that there were some hands-on exhibits taking place - spider fondling and snake cuddling, that kind of thing. If I'd known this, I might not have agreed. I hate spiders and snakes.

Helpfully, Steve tried to convince me otherwise.

"They won't hurt you," he said when we reached the door of the building housing all things that slither or scuttle. "Snakes aren't even slimy, you know. Come on, man."

"I have phobias," I said. "I could go in there but it wouldn't be fun."

He laughed. "Confront your fears."

"I go outside all the time. Doesn't stop me feeling a bit agoraphobic on days when the sky is clear and there's a light wind, though."

"Like today?"

"I... er..." I looked up into the cloudless blue and felt a tingle down the back of my neck and a familiar feeling of foreboding. I shivered. "I tell you what," I said, "Fraser's not too keen and Josquin's too young to care. How about I take them to the monkey house and we wait for the rest of you there? It's always nice and cosy."

"It's not very well lit," Steve chuckled. "There might be all kinds of snakes and spiders hiding in the darkness."

I rolled my eyes. "Cheers for that," I said and hurried off to find somewhere that had a low ceiling and was inhabited by creatures with more than no legs but less than eight of them. I was very relieved when I finally wheeled Josquin into the dim, musty, tropical confines of the monkey house. A wide selection of primates were visible playing behind the glass panels which let us see into the indoor sections of their enclosures. Fraser was vaguely interested to see them and even Josquin pointed. It's one of my favourite parts of the zoo.

I'd have been better off going to see the spiders, though.

In his excitement at seeing a macaque eat a grape, Josquin brought forward the scheduled rest-break and created a nappy so disastrous that even Harry Potter would struggle to overcome it. Being out of practice, I made something of a hash of things. I wasn't helped by having to change him on a bench in the gloom while watched by a family of chimpanzees.

As I was bent over my grim task, I heard the sound of something venomous approaching from behind me.

"Now, children," said a cold, female voice, "can anyone tell me where these particular creatures are from?"

This time the tingle of fear wasn't in my neck. I huddled down lower and hoped Fraser was adequately entertained elsewhere. I was fairly sure she'd never met him, so he wouldn't attract her attention on his own, but, if he rushed over and started talking to me loudly... I fixed myself on dealing with the nappy and concentrated on not looking round. On the one hand, I couldn't believe my misfortune in choosing the same day as her to go to the zoo. On the other, I cursed myself for failing to realise that she would never pass up the prospect of educational workshops complete with added arachnids.

I felt the air chill behind me as she passed by and I held my breath. Since I'd already been holding my breath for some time to avoid the smell from Josquin, I came close to passing out. I was terrified that the unduly loud beating of my heart would give me away.

Luckily, at that point, one of her grandchildren broke ranks at the sight of a lemur and ran off for a closer look. She was forced to follow, threatening all kinds of chastisements as she went. I chanced looking up.

Eleanor was disappearing into the murky distance, unfolding her portable naughty step as she went.

I breathed a sigh of relief and finished dealing with Josquin, getting him back in the buggy just in time for Steve's arrival.

The chimpanzees clapped.

"Daddy! Daddy! There were spiders!" shrieked Marie when she saw me. "Big spiders with hair and legs and eyes and they walked around like this!" She did a little dance that quickly began to attract adoring glances from other visitors. I'd suddenly become very conspicuous.

"Let's go and have that snack and you can tell me all about it," I said, ushering everyone towards the door.

Steve began wandering off to look at the monkeys. "It would be more efficient for us to re-arrange the schedule and..."

"It's eleven," I hissed. "Ice cream. Now."

"In February?"

"I..." Ice cream was the only thing I could think of that the kids would find more enticing than staring at monkeys but I didn't have time to go into that just then. "She's coming this way! Move. Move!"

I shoved Steve and the kids outside and hurried them round the corner to the cafe.

"Eleanor was in there," I explained when we were safely settled at a table with the kids busy defrosting frozen milk over their clothes.

"Who?" said Steve.

"I must have told you about her. She's the mum of one of my neighbours and I call her the GrandParent of Doom. We really, really don't want to run into her. Seriously, she's like Darth Vader in tweed and she's got it in for me."

He nodded but he was obviously just humouring me. Having escaped both The Twister Incident and The Parent and Toddler Night Out, he didn't know what she was capable of. I tried to fill him in on the details but we were both a bit distracted cleaning our children. Afterwards, we set off for another look at the monkeys. I was confident she'd have moved on by then, so it was the place she was least likely to be. I began to calm down but I spent the rest of the day glancing over my shoulder and, a couple of times, we had to take a sharp turn when I heard her approaching.

The problem came after lunch, when it was time for the penguin parade. Every day, the penguins get the opportunity to leave their enclosure and go for a short, circular walk on the path round the grassy area outside. If none of them are interested, then it doesn't happen, but there's usually a few. Just about all the visitors in the zoo turn up to watch.

Eleanor was bound to be there.

I'd already promised the kids that we'd go - it was one of the things that had persuaded them to put up with the expedition in the first place. This made avoiding her much more difficult. Of course, there was a chance she wouldn't notice us in the crowds (particularly as she was unlikely to recognise Fraser and Lewis) but I wasn't feeling lucky. We needed disguises. I contemplated plucking a llama and making us all false moustaches. It wasn't much of a plan, though. Fortuitously, as we got to the pool, I saw exactly what I was looking for in the window of a little shop full of penguin merchandise. They had a selection of cheap, waterproof hooded ponchos. These were black and white with orange visors. I quickly kitted out my family.

"It's not raining," complained Fraser as I put one over his head.

"It's to make the penguins feel safe," I countered.

"Why isn't anyone else wearing them?" said Lewis as we took up position by the parade route.

"They must be here to scare the penguins," I said, scanning the area behind us for hostiles. I was looking entirely the wrong way, however, and was taken by surprise when Marie squealed.

"Look! It's Darth Granny!" she cried.

I whipped round, only to discover I was facing my nemesis directly across the narrow path. I suddenly felt very conscious that I was dressed as a penguin. Eleanor fixed me with an icy glare. I pulled all my little penguins in close to me for safety.

"Oh, hi, Eleanor," I said. I wasn't sure how much of the previous conversation she'd heard. I was hopeful she hadn't picked up on the whole Sith Lord reference, though.

"I know her," said Fraser. "Is she the GPD?"

"Good afternoon," said Eleanor stiffly. "What, exactly, is the GPD?"

"GrandParent of Doom, of course," Lewis chimed in helpfully.

Sometimes children are paying more attention than they let on...

"This is Eleanor," I said to Fraser. "She's the gran of Marcus and the others." Eleanor's four young grandchildren waved back politely but they knew something was up and were noticeably edging away from her.

"I suppose this is one of your housedad friends?" said Eleanor, indicating Steve with tight-lipped distaste.

"Er..." I said. It was a tricky question. Technically, Steve is my currently-out-of-paid-employment acquaintance who's filling time by taking care of his kids. Under the circumstances, 'housedad friend' was close enough, however. "Yes?" I ventured.

"Can he not get a job either?"

"Er..." It was another tricky question. I could have defended myself easily enough because I know full well that I have a job already - a job I've chosen, I'm good at and I'm happy with. Steve was more of an issue. Everything I'd normally say in such situations was bound to only make him feel worse. "We came to see the snakes," I said.

"They went 'Hisssssss'!" said Marie, spitting all over Josquin who was in the buggy in front of her. Josquin burst into tears. Steve unstrapped him and picked him up, only to discover that his nappy had leaked copiously. It just added to the whole air of tongue-tied, poncho-wearing incompetence we were generating.

Eleanor was unwilling to hide her contempt. "I pity your poor wives and children."

"Er..." I said again. Then the penguins arrived, flanked by their keepers. The ungainly birds waddled past, squawking. Cameras flashed, children shouted and the crowds pressed in around us. I concentrated on keeping hold of my kids in the crush. When the mayhem was over, Eleanor had gone, her humiliation of us complete.

I was seething. Any number of things I wanted to say to her sprang to mind. Few of them were civil.

Then I took a deep breath and tried to let it go. Realistically, I don't care what she thinks about me. It's not like I'm a big fan of her grandparenting (or even parenting) style.

The encounter had been unpleasant but we'd all survived and it meant the GPD probably wouldn't bother us again for the rest of the day. It was time to relax, take some photos, break out some more snacks and then press on up to the safari area.

By the time I'd helped the kids off with their disguises, I was feeling much better. If I could whistle, I would have whistled.

Then I noticed that Steve wasn't around. I was worried he'd taken Eleanor's words personally and gone off somewhere in a funk. Who knew what he might be up to? I started to look for him but then Fraser and Lewis helped by running off in all directions to search and I had to concentrate on not losing them. This slowed me down. I was just at the point of becoming concerned and phoning Steve's mobile when I eventually found him and his children watching the penguins on the other side of the pool. It turned out he'd been off fumigating Josquin and the buggy. He did look pretty glum, though.

"Sorry about that," I said. "I told you she's not hugely keen on me. Still, could have been worse - at least none of us ended up breast-feeding in a box this time."

He shrugged and grunted.

"Look," I continued, "don't let anything she said get to you. She has very strong opinions about raising children and thinks everyone else should go along with them, no matter how inappropriate it is for their situation. We don't fit in with the way she sees the world and she can't deal with it. She doesn't even want to. Just ignore her."

"But she's right," he said, struggling to keep it together. "This isn't normal. This isn't how it's supposed to be."

"What do you mean?"

"I can't do this. I'm a man. I can't even put a nappy on right."

I shook my head. "I put on that nappy, remember? Maybe I messed up; maybe it was one of those things - I don't know. You dealt with it well, though. You had spare clothes, wipes and nappies and you just got on with it. A woman couldn't have done better and I've seen plenty do worse."

"But I shouldn't be here. She's right. I should be at work, providing for my family."

"What? Because the guys at the golf club say you should?"

He looked a little embarrassed. "How did you know?"

"Because I've met some of them and they're rather opinionated, too, if I recall. They see the world a certain way. If you can't look at things differently, then you're going to go crazy. You need to change your perspective."

Sudden fear gripped him. "You're not going to tell me about God, are you?"

"Er, no," I said, "I can, er, do that if you want but I... I was actually going to tell you about penguins."

This cheered him up and confused him in equal measure. "Pardon?"

"If you want to understand about perspective, you need to know about penguins. See!" I pointed over to where a particularly rotund penguin was clumsily waddling down to the water. "Penguins are funny birds with an awkward walk. They can't even fly. A bird that can't fly - what's the point of that?" At the last minute, the fat penguin slipped and did an enormous belly-flop. "Yep, the way we see them, they're comical and a source of slapstick. I doubt they'd agree, though. They probably think of themselves as ninja fighter-pilots. That one's The Red Baron to his friends."

"But they can't fly," said Steve.

I snorted. "Of course they can. You just need to see life from a penguin point of view. Follow me."

With the children close behind, I led him round and down to the enormous observation window in the side of the penguin pool. Initially, there was little to see but soon the The Red Baron came into sight and dived towards us, then fluidly banked and swooped upwards again, effortlessly gliding away. He was quickly joined by a couple of buddies, the three of them swirling around each other in an unbelievable acrobatic display. They were simply flying through the water.

"Don't be put off because other people can't see or appreciate what you're doing," I said. "You may not have some of the opportunities you want at the moment but you've got others. You can spend time with your children, for a start. Make the most of it."

We stood there for a while and watched the swimming some more. Steve appeared deep in thought. When he didn't say anything for nearly five minutes I started becoming concerned again. Had my analogy crashed his brain? I considered telling him about God after all. Then, finally, he said, "Isn't it the male penguins that look after the young?"

"They certainly take their turn," I replied.

He thought about this a little more, then said, "Glad I don't have to waddle around with an egg on my feet."

"Amen to that," I nodded.

After that, he seemed a great deal happier and fished out his schedule. It was time for us to move on. We headed further up the hill to see the zebras and kangaroos and big cats. Marie pointed excitedly at every sparrow we passed. The boys, however, were beginning to lose it. They took a quick glance at everything and then went back to bickering with each other. They barely grunted at the sight of a tiger.

Then, unexpectedly, they started bouncing around and pointing.

"It's a Raichu!" shrieked Fraser.

"Bless you," I said.

"No! It's a Raichu - the evolved form of Pikachu! Look! Look! That boy's got one."

The four-year-old in question did, indeed, have a small cuddly toy that looked like a deformed version of Pikachu. Fraser insisted on having his photograph taken with it. Luckily, both the boy and his mum were very understanding.

"There's a lion over here," I said when the photo session was done.

The boys just shrugged. "Whatever..."

Marie ignored me entirely and started dancing round some litter. "It's a crisp packet. It's empty! It's not in the bin!"

It was definitely time to go.

We called into the gift shop and bought a plastic penguin and some other assorted tack, then headed home. Steve and his lot had their car with them, so we said our good-byes on the steps. He shook my hand warmly but slightly awkwardly. Marie and Ophelia gave each other an enthusiastic, jumping hug. Josquin gurgled.

We waved them into the distance and then waited for the bus. It started to rain.

Handily, we had shiny, new waterproofs.

(Some things work out well in the end.)

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 13 February 2008

Being there

Dear Dave,

I'm sorry to hear that Sam has lost his cuddly green cat called Blue Rabbit. Have you checked inside his wellies, behind the sofa and under his mattress? How about coat pockets and the freezer? (Yeah, sorry, I know you're an old hand at this and you've probably searched everywhere twice but sometimes it's easy to overlook the obvious places).

Before Christmas, Marie lost a pink hat by posting it through the gap between the back and hood of her buggy. She thought it had landed safely in the shopping net underneath but, in fact, she'd cunningly dropped it on the pavement behind us. The next day, when we discovered it missing, we went searching but it had vanished. She was distraught. She wanted us to go door-to-door asking for it. Eventually, I had to tell her that it had 'gone to live on a farm' and it was happy gambolling through the fields. "No, it's not," she whimpered. "It's crying because it's lost me."

What can you do?

I hate not being able to fix things. It's particularly frustrating when children go out of their way to create insoluble problems. The other day, Marie burst into tears because I'd brought her raincoat rather than her umbrella when I collected her from nursery. We got soaked as she shuffled slowly and miserably home. All the way, she whined that she wanted her umbrella. Since the umbrella was at home and that's where we were going, I'm not sure exactly what she wanted me to do. She was just determined to be annoyed.

Usually in these situations, she gets a handful of Extra Strong Mints to cheer her up. She loves having 'a fiery mouth', apparently. Unfortunately, the day before, she'd got a public health DVD from nursery detailing how to brush teeth and trying to persuade us to avoid sugary snacks. She'd insisted on watching it half a dozen times. It made her feel hungry and me feel guilty. Now, when she's not whining about me having brought the wrong waterproof equipment, she's whining because I won't give her Extra Strong Mints in case her teeth fall out.

Still, for a while, it was nice being able to put almost anything right with a touch of minty freshness.

Dental hygiene aside, though, it wouldn't have lasted anyway. The boys have already encountered emotional issues that are much harder to deal with than by just fobbing them off with sweets. For instance, when Lewis was only four, he was inconsolable for weeks after he learnt his best friend was going to a different school.

Fraser gets upset if particular kids won't play with him at school. He comes out of the gate at the end of the day and wants me to talk to their parents. I have to explain that adults can't force other children to be friends with him. He doesn't really seem to understand, though:

Years ago, when he was in nursery, I asked him who his friends were and he laughed and said, "We're all friends in nursery. That's the rule." I kept trying to find out who he was particularly friendly with but he just kept saying, "We're all friends in nursery," in a Stepford kind of way. All the kids had obviously had this drummed into them. It's a nice idea but, you and I both know, it's really just institutional short-hand for, 'We will peacefully tolerate each other's presence and not whack each other senseless with Duplo.' Fraser took it rather more literally, however, and hasn't quite recovered.

I try suggesting other children in his class he could play with but they won't do. He wants everyone to be friends with him but reserves the right to be selective about returning the affection. (Which, I guess, is normal - it's just a shame for everybody involved). My instant desire is to fix things for 'my little boy' and to make it all go away. That's not possible, though, and maybe it's not even a good idea. Coping with loss and disappointment is an important skill he should learn. I can help by acknowledging the hurt and giving him sympathy but there's no point pretending that everything's OK and it doesn't matter really. He needs to know that it's all right to be sad sometimes.

Admittedly, sometimes he needs to get a grip - in my book, it's not acceptable to burst into tears because you got the wrong type of bedtime hug nor to kick your brother in frustration because he doesn't want to play the same game as you. These situations require patience, respect and negotiation rather than emotional outbursts. Still, there are occasions when he has a right to feel genuinely upset and I shouldn't expect him to just shrug it off. Being rejected isn't fun.

All I can do is let him know we love him no matter what he does or achieves, and encourage him to explore and control his emotions. Giving him something to look forward to doesn't do any harm either. A Pokemon card battle is a great healer.

Good luck finding a replacement for that cat/rabbit. Will Sam be happy with a brand new one or will he insist on it looking, feeling and smelling the same? Hopefully he'll just accept your explanation that you've 'given it a wash'. If not, at least you can vent your parental frustration by giving the flipping thing a good battering with a shovel.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Don't forget to pour some milk on it and leave it in the sun for three days before wiping it on the nose of a passing dog. That should get the scent and texture just about perfect...

Friday 8 February 2008

That would be an ecumenical question...

Dear Dave,

When this housedad existence is over, all the kids are grown up and I no longer have any purpose in life, I'll probably have to find a job or something. By that point, of course, I will be a withered husk of my former self with out-dated qualifications and atrophied skills. On paper, my employability will be severely compromised. I'm not too worried, though. If I can blag my way to an interview, then I should be fine. I'll have had years of practice answering unexpected and awkward questions in high pressure situations. Nothing will phase me. After all, what could compete with being asked (loudly) on the bus, 'Why is that man so fat?' or being interrogated in the playground as to how exactly the baby-seeds get from the daddy to the mummy? In comparison, sitting in an office and having to answer some nonsense about what I can contribute should be a breeze. I'm reasonably confident of talking my way into senior management within a couple of weeks. That, or PR rep for British Nuclear Fuels, anyway.

Yep, I have to deal with difficult questions all the time. Lewis has an insatiable thirst for knowledge, no desire to think things through for himself and a complete lack of tact. Fraser is becoming intrigued by the mechanical details of baby production. Marie, meanwhile, has taken an interest in theology.

Fraser was the same at her age, asking all kinds of questions like 'Where is God?', 'What's he made of?' and 'Will I get to play computer games in heaven?' We were impressed until we realised that he was timing these questions at twenty-eight minutes past seven in the evening and his main aim was to avoid going to bed. This was still impressive in its own way but nowhere near as gratifying. Marie, however, seems to be looking more for a good doctrinal debate. She's equally uninterested in what we have to tell her but is keen to share her own theories with us.

Recently, she's been wandering around with a pink, sparkly teddy bear. "This is my toy Jesus," she says, holding it out in front of her and then letting go. "She likes being dropped."

Strangely, she doesn't get to take this particular bear to church.

A pink, sparkly bear.
The Messiah (as imagined by a three-year-old girl).

Then she picks up the bear again and says, "The real Jesus is inside." It's hard to disagree, since, technically, God is everywhere.

Well almost everywhere, apparently:

Sarah is taking the boys to Aberdeen for the weekend soon. Marie isn't too thrilled at the prospect of staying home with me. She demonstrated this to Sarah the other day. "God is here! He's in our house!" Marie shouted excitedly. Then her eyes narrowed and she muttered, "When you go to Aberdeen, he won't be there. He's going to stay here with me."

Does this say more about her understanding of God, I wonder, or about her knowledge of Aberdeen?

Hmmm... That's maybe one question I won't answer...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 6 February 2008

Some things are hard to grow out of

Dear Dave,

There are at least two sides to every story. I'm sure you'll become steadily more aware of this as your children get older. Conversations in your household will frequently run along the following lines:

Daisy: Sam pulled my hair!

Sam: She bit me.

Daisy: He hit me first.

Sam: She grabbed the car from me.

Daisy: It's my car!

Sam: I was playing with it first.

Daisy: I said I was going to play with it first.

Sam: I was playing with it before lunch.

Daisy: So it is my turn!

Sam: I hadn't finished my turn.

Daisy: It was your turn yesterday.

Sam: I didn't want to play with it yesterday.

Daisy: So? It was still your turn.

Sam: But you were playing with it.

Daisy: So?

Sam: So it was your turn yesterday.

Daisy: No, it wasn't it.

Sam: Yes, it was.

Daisy: No, it...

And so it will go on. Luckily, in this situation, the solution is a pretty easy call. Both children have started out by shopping each other for a couple of rule violations and then continued by shouting angrily at everyone - they both get sent to their rooms while you get a few minutes peace to sit and read the paper. Who gets to play with the car once the time-out is over is less clear but it's really up to personal parenting preference. You could toss a coin, work out a sharing timetable, give the thing to the most penitent-seeming child or just make it mysteriously vanish for a couple of days. Another option is to try distracting the kids from the whole issue with a fun and exciting activity. It's probably not worth the effort, though. As soon as the activity is done, they'll start arguing about the car again. You might as well address the issue straight off.

Yep, in the above scenario, it's almost impossible to get to the bottom of things. There is no root cause to the conflict except, maybe, Daisy's conception. These are just the kind of spats you have to deal with if you have more than one child.

There are some cases, however, where one side of a story is vastly more illuminating than the other:

Sam (rushing into the room): Dad! Dad! Daisy sat on my head!

You: Really? Where was your head when she sat on it?

Sam: Hiding under her favourite cushion.

You: Uh-huh...

Actually, let's face it, most stories are pretty open and shut, but your children will try hard to convince you otherwise. More often than not, however, one of them will have 'forgotten' some salient fact, such as a threat to eat the other's nose, the lobbing of a cuddly toy into a ceiling fan or the incriminating sock they're holding that is not their own. It's usually not too hard getting an approximation of the truth fairly quickly. Sometimes, though, particularly if only one child was present at the incident, it can take a fair amount of probing to find out what happened. For instance, things didn't entirely add up when Fraser fell down the stairs recently:

There was a huge thud and a small scream and I ran to investigate. Thankfully, since our stairs are carpeted and divided into flights of only six steps, he was more scared than hurt. I untangled him and checked him for injuries. He had a couple of bruises. I gave him a cuddle and some sympathy but I was a little suspicious. It was at least the fourth time that Fraser has fallen down the stairs. Given that Marie and Lewis have only managed it once between them, there's the possibility that he's not always being entirely careful. On this particular occasion, taking into account that my Nintendo DS was lying open beside him when I arrived on the scene, there was the distinct possibility that he'd been being positively careless.

Playing videogames while using stairs is never liable to go well for long.

"Were you holding onto the rail?" I asked.

"Yes," said Fraser mournfully.

"Why did you have the DS open? You know you're not supposed to go up and down stairs with it open."

Fraser went on the defensive. "I hadn't started going down. I was just about to close it."

"You hadn't started going down but you were holding onto the rail?" I said, raising an eyebrow.

"I was on the top step and I slipped."

My suspicions were confirmed but I decided not to press things further. He had just fallen down the stairs, after all. I couldn't help myself from a little bit of telling off, though, to make up for the scare he'd given me. "OK, well maybe if you'd closed it before you got to the stairs, you might have been able to concentrate on not falling."

Fraser's concerns were elsewhere, however. "Is the DS broken?" he said anxiously.

"I think it's still working."

"What about the pen?" Fraser asked. "Did you find the pen?"

I was confused. "Isn't the pen in the holder?"

"I had it in my hand."

"So you had the DS in one hand, the pen in your other hand AND you were holding onto the rail?"

"Er..." said Fraser, obviously attempting to concoct a viable explanation for a temporary third hand. He stalled with, "But I wasn't going down the stairs."

Fortunately for him, I was just glad he was OK. "Uh-huh," I said and went to get us both some chocolate.

Doubtless, if I'd continued questioning him, he would have argued at length how he really had been being careful. He'd probably even have convinced himself. As it was, we both knew he'd broken a rule or two, and he had some aches and pains to remind him to be a little more sensible in future. It had taken a while to get there but the conclusions weren't really in doubt. As I said, open and shut.

Of course, I'm not saying it's a good idea to leap to conclusions. (You don't want to end up starring in your own personal sitcom). Always check the facts and consider different possibilities. It's just that children can spin a very complicated defence from an indefensible position. At best, this confuses the issue. ('I wasn't talking loudly while you were on the phone... I was singing!') At worst, it will incriminate them in several other cases of rule-breaking. ('I didn't throw the remote at Marie. I was juggling it with some knives but Fraser moved his leg that I was standing on and made me drop them all. It's his fault!).

Sometimes it's fairer to give them a short hearing than a long one.

This can feel wrong, though. We're used to balanced arguments. Debates, talk shows, news items and magazine articles are often set up so that both sides get equal time. In reality, both sides may not deserve equal time.

I got to thinking about this after receiving an invitation to an online discussion over the pros and cons of child vaccinations. A wealth of information was promised, along with input from experts on both sides of the debate. I just sighed. There is no debate. Vaccinations save countless lives and take a great deal of worry out of parenting. Horrible diseases have been eradicated; others have been held at bay. Vaccinating everyone who's old enough doesn't just protect those who have been vaccinated, it prevents the disease in question from spreading and infecting those who are too young or too sick to be vaccinated themselves. Vaccinations are fantastic.

You wouldn't know that from watching the news, however. Some shows have to pad out their time with endless discussion and controversy. Others feel the need to be impartial and give the same air-time to different points of view. Admittedly, we don't want the media to tell us how to think but a fair presentation of the facts doesn't necessarily lead to a balanced debate. Sometimes, giving equal time and weight to both sides of an argument isn't impartiality, it's bias towards nonsense.

I actually danced around the room when a recent Teletext article dismissed any link between the MMR jab and autism as discredited in a very off-hand way. Sanity at last.

The world is full of people constructing convoluted arguments and emotional appeals to further their point of view. Before long, your house will be full of little people doing the same. On occasion, you may want to treat the children like adults and hear them out. Most of the time, however, you'd be better taking it all as training to view adults like children - children who've got bigger and who are still determined to prove that it wasn't their fault they fell down the stairs while playing videogames.

Many things makes a lot more sense that way.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 1 February 2008

Punishment and bribery

Dear Dave,

Yep, I quite understand. They really do drive you spare sometimes, don't they? You'd think a three-year-old would listen to basic instructions like, 'Don't poke yourself in the eye.' At the very least, you'd expect them to avoid the stabbing pain and temporary blindness after, say, the fourth or fifth occasion. But, hey, where would the fun be in that?

I've no idea how you can get Sam to stop. You could always try encouraging him to keep doing it, I suppose. ('Both fingers next time, son!') A bit of reverse psychology - that might do the trick. (I wouldn't try it with other parents around, though).

Children can be awkward like that. For instance, only yesterday, Lewis started playing a cheap, handheld Tetris game and Marie tried to grab it from him. She'd been fiddling with it a few minutes earlier and felt it was hers, despite the fact she'd been happily doing something else for a while. I told her it was Lewis' turn and she erupted in tears and whining. She continued trying to wrestle it from him. I told her that she could have a turn when Lewis was finished. She cried all the louder. "I don't want a turn when it's my turn!" she bawled. And, sure enough, she kept grabbing at the game until Lewis stopped playing and I handed it to her. Then she refused to touch it.

As I said, awkward.

I'm actually in something of a parenting quandary myself. I'm really not sure how to proceed. Marie keeps wetting her pants. Not usually enough to cause a disaster but enough to require clean underwear and sometimes a fresh set of trousers. If anything, the problem's getting worse as time goes on. The threat (and frequent reality) of having her bedtime toys confiscated has helped but she really could do better since she can easily hold it in for four or six hours at a time. Unfortunately, she's just a little too confident and is prone to leaving things too late. I keep trying to persuade her to use the facilities more often but she ignores suggestions and kicks up a fuss at direct orders. Then, five minutes later, she wets her pants.

Frustratingly, it's not that she's incapable; it's that she's just not putting the effort in. Sometimes she'd rather just do something else than visit the bathroom. This being the case, I'm considering whether to make going to the toilet more exciting. I'm sure a reward scheme would work wonders - she'd go nuts over a pink chart with sparkly stars. I'm somewhat reluctant, though. Having a first child like Fraser has always dissuaded me from these kinds of things. Even at nursery, he knew how to work the system:

The kids at nursery go outside to play in two shifts. When it's time to head out, the helpers ask the kids who wants go to the playground in the first group. Unsurprisingly, most of them usually volunteer to go straight away - small children will plump for the bird in the hand almost every time. Pretty quickly, however, Fraser started actively asking to be in the later group. This was unheard of. The teacher felt the need to question him further. He pointed out that the second group returns after tidy-up time in the classroom and that that meant less work for him. The teacher was so impressed with his mental reasoning, she let him go out with the second group.

The following day, however, he wasn't so lucky...

Marie is bright enough to try a similar scam but she's also creative enough to get away with it for longer. She'd claim that she wanted to go out in the second group 'so the crocodiles didn't sit on her toes'. And there's just no arguing with that. The prospect of stickers would have Marie on the toilet every five minutes claiming that her tummy was full of cats, or some such excuse. The entire bathroom wall would rapidly disappear under sparkly stars.

There's also the fear that she might suddenly declare that she had exactly the right number of stickers and decide to never go to the toilet again. You and I know that she'd be as successful as King Canute ordering back the sea but that wouldn't stop her. I also suspect that she would somehow arrange to make sure that I was the one who got my feet wet.

No, if this is going to work, I need to think it through carefully and maybe be a little more creative myself:

Let's see... I suppose, my main experience of this kind of 'Have a gold star!' reward scheme is Gamer Points on Xbox 360. It's certainly made me aware of some of the pitfalls of the system.

Each game on 360 awards Gamer Points for completing achievements within the game. Every gamer has a cumulative Gamer Score from all the games they've played. There's no purpose to this score apart from bragging rights and a warm glow of satisfaction but, done well, the points are quite addictive. Too many game developers get it dead wrong, though.

Most games hand out points for finishing levels. This is a waste of time since, if the game's good, I'm going to make steady progress through it anyway. If the game's dull, I'm not going to persevere just for a few points.

Some games, however, only award points for stupefyingly idiotic obsessiveness. Kill 100 times as many enemies as you really need to, find every single one of the 593 hidden tokens or complete the whole game without using any of the cool weapons that make the thing fun in the first place. The tasks are too much effort to even contemplate.

Other games reward trying different tactics. This is a good idea but is often poorly implemented. Frequently, points are given for doing something once and then again for doing it fifty times. Once isn't enough to explore the possibilities, however, and fifty times feels like an imposition. That said, this set up is still infinitely better than the games that keep what you need to achieve secret. That doesn't encourage anything but irritation.

There are a handful of games, though, that I've got more enjoyment and value out of simply because the lure of a few Gamer Points drew me along paths I wouldn't normally have considered or directed me towards new skills and understanding. This was accomplished by pitching the reward at the correct level for the amount of work involved and making sure some part of the reward was given at regular intervals. I need to do something similar when dealing with Marie.

I need a well-defined reward scheme to encourage a sustainable amount of effort on a moderately frequent basis. If the scheme could avoid filling up the house with sticker charts or the girl with chocolate buttons, that would be a bonus.

Also, it would be preferable if the whole endeavour involved a minimum of effort on my part.

Hmmm.... Tricky.

Wait a minute, maybe I can reward her with stuff we'd be doing anyway. You know, something along the lines of, 'Keep your pants dry until after lunch, and we'll do some painting.' That's not asking very much for very long and gives her the incentive of getting to do an activity she loves.

Ideally, we'd be doing exciting activities every afternoon as it is, but she's not to know that. It's all a question of spin. Rather than waiting until she has an accident and denying her her normal privileges, it's a case of promising those privileges ahead of time as an incentive against accidents. The results of an accident are the same (i.e. loss of privileges) but hopefully both the experience and outcome will be more positive. And with no extra work for me. Hooray!


I guess that's assuming I normally get round to organising those exciting activities every afternoon, rather than surfing the net while she takes forever to eat her lunch. Which, let's face it, may not entirely be the case. Still, I really would like her to gain full mastery of her bladder. Half a day without another accident would probably be worth the trouble of getting the painting stuff out or of heading to the swing park. It would be a well-defined, adequate reward for the amount of effort involved. I should really sit down and plan some other exciting activities to keep the momentum going. Maybe if I can think of enough then...

Hang on, there's something not quite right here. I suddenly have this strange feeling I'm being manipulated. It's almost as if...

Nah. I'm imagining it. She's only three. She couldn't possibly have planned this.


No way.

Definitely not.



Oh, who am I kidding. I'm in thrall to a diminutive pink princess.

Then again, if she keeps her pants dry, it will all be worth it. Gah! She's a cunning one, that one. I'll just go get the painting stuff out now...

Yours in a woman's world,