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."
"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?"
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),