Dear Dave

Wednesday 30 April 2008

Three words

Dear Dave,

It's amazing how quickly things change when small children are around. They're constantly getting bigger, developing new skills and requiring different care and attention. Just when you think you've got it sussed, they learn a new trick that turns your world upside down. Whether it's rolling over, eating solid food or knackering the lock on the front door so you have to climb in and out a window (been there...), you adapt to their behaviour. Within days, strapping them down, carrying a spoon and hiding your keys are second nature. Shortly after that, it becomes difficult to remember what life was like beforehand. Besides, there's never time to reminisce - you're already having to deal with the next change.

Do you recall what it was like having only one child? I suspect the memories are hazy now that it's been six months or so since Daisy's arrival. (Sorry to hear she's not coping well with teeth, by the way.) As for not having any children at all, that must seem like a half-forgotten dream. Isn't it weird going to visit people and discovering that their cupboards don't require a special trick to open and their kitchen chairs don't have plastic covers? It's like a strange alternate universe where kids aren't in charge. Freaky.

A couple of years ago, when the guys came round to shoot each other in computer games, I always lost because I was permanently distracted. It's not easy keeping a bottle in a baby's mouth when you need both hands to hold a controller. I kept ending up using my chin in some fashion or other but none of the possibilities really did wonders for my aim. Having to frequently leave the room to get more milk or wipes or a fresh nappy didn't help either. I always returned to find Rob grinning and my virtual self replaced by a pair of smoking boots.

Last year, things were different. All the kids were tucked up in bed by the time Mike and Rob arrived. We normally got to shoot each other in peace. I still tended to get blown to bits on a regular basis but it was much more relaxing without having to juggle an infant.

Now, it's all gone and changed again. The other night, we had to wait our turn for the telly. Marie gets to listen to some music at bed-time but she shares a room with Lewis and he doesn't like the music. Somehow he's managed to negotiate to be allowed to sit in the lounge and watch a Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon while her tape is on. We couldn't get going on our game until Dr Robotnik had suffered his usual 'hilarious' comeuppance. Even then, we had to keep relatively quiet so he got to sleep and so that Fraser didn't emerge to complain that we were disturbing his obsessive reading of Harry Potter.

All the interactive fitness gizmos I'd been mucking about with the other day were still lying around, so I thought we'd have a go on those, drink a beer and then see if our scores improved. I was looking forward to watching Steve flail about in front of the EyeToy. (That's another change - Useless Dad is now a regular at our little gatherings. Shockingly, perhaps that name isn't even accurate any more. I think the time has come to acknowledge his hard work and perseverance in the field of childcare, while still recognising his reluctance, insensitivity and lack of initiative. He is hereby promoted to Mostly Useless Dad.)

Things didn't go entirely to plan. We ended up playing Burnout with the music turned off.

"This is harder than it looks," said Rob, as he smacked his gleaming sports car into the front of a bus at a hundred miles an hour. Metal crumpled, other vehicles swerved, an HGV jack-knifed and a wheel bounced off down the street.

"Told you so," I said, steering my own car round the mayhem and claiming the lead.

"What was that thing you did with your chin?"

The race through city streets packed with traffic was moving too fast for me risk taking my eyes off the screen and check how he was doing with feeding baby Luke. The light splatter on the side of my neck suggested that all was not going well, however. Steve, meanwhile, was busy discouraging Josquin from chewing on a dance mat. The poor kid had some teeth coming through and had barely slept for days. (He's eighteen months or so. You've got a long way to go yet. Sorry.)

"He's looking tired," Steve said, prodding Josquin in the hope he'd fall over and pass out from exhaustion. "I think it's working. Drive faster, you two!"

I was already driving at such speed that my eyes were watering from squinting at the blur of polygons in my half of the screen, but I did my best. Engines roared, headlights flashed and obstacles swished past.

Josquin watched the screen. The sights and sounds became mesmerising. His eyelids drooped, the plastic slipped from his mouth and slowly, so very slowly, he keeled over sideways and started snoring.

At the same moment, I took the final corner at supersonic speed, spun out of control and crossed the line going backwards. It wasn't pretty but it was a win, nonetheless. I did a little victory dance - quietly and without moving much. It was more an excited toe-waggle than anything else.

"Luke's nodded off, too," whispered Rob. "Turn the sound down."

"I thought the little horrors were never going to stop crying," said Steve, slumping onto the sofa. He reached for the universal remote before I could stop him and failed completely in his efforts to work it. He proceeded to switch the TV to a repeat of Only Fools and Horses, turn on the surround sound and pump up the volume to maximum.

"You plonker!" yelled me, Rob and Del Boy in unison. A deafening roar of noise shook the walls, the subwoofer sent a seismic ripple through the carpet, Josquin stirred and Luke's eyes opened in shock. I grabbed the remote and pressed my specially-programmed emergency button. The surround sound went off, the VCR spluttered to life, the TV changed channel and the Teletubbies started to splash around in a puddle. We all held our breath. Luke looked at Laa-Laa blearily, smiled and fell back to sleep. Josquin rolled over but didn't wake. We all let out a sigh of relief.

"What did I miss?" said Mike, returning from a trip to the toilet.

"Shhh!" We all made the noise so loudly that it nearly woke the children again.

"Fine," he whispered. "Does this mean we can shoot things now?"

I nodded. "If you get me a beer."

"Right you are," he said and was back before I'd finished setting up the PlayStation. I was the only one drinking. Steve and Rob required their wits about them in case the kids tried anything. Mike had had all he wanted already. Unlike me, he's somehow able to hold a controller and a Guinness at the same time without mishap or impairment. I'd had to hold off because, up until that point, putting a can down would just have been an invitation for Josquin to try and eat it.

We settled to blasting each other with shotguns. I took a big swig of my beer so I could handle what I knew was coming.

"So, Ed," said Mike, "have you worked out who you are since last time?"

"Not really," I replied. You'll recall that Mike is concerned about me and how I'm adjusting to my ever-increasing obsolescence now the kids are getting older. As my friend, he's taken it upon himself to make me think a little harder about where I'm headed. Since he's also the minister at our church, he's been trained to a professional level of persistence that's wearing down my defenses. This was his third or fourth attempt to get me to talk in a couple of months. Pretty soon, I'm actually going to have to do it. "I'm still a housedad..."

Even as I said it, it felt unlike it had ever done before. Things have changed. I looked over at Steve, who had the pasty, grey complexion of a dad who really knew the meaning of full-time. He had dozed off himself, doubled over and with his controller acting as a makeshift pillow on his knees. The analogue sticks were creating little dents in his forehead. Every so often, the controller gave a faint rumble in a hopeless attempt to wake him.

Seeing him, I realised that describing myself as a housedad means a very different thing from what it did a couple of years ago. Even being a dad has changed:

Rob was still cradling Luke, afraid to put him down and cause another bout of screaming. The constant shifting about to maintain grip, avoid over-heating and stay comfortable was affecting his aim. I, however, had the kids in bed until morning. I was missing out on a stack of cuddles but I had the freedom to have a drink (or maybe two!) and relax for whole hours at a time.

Theoretically, anyway. After years of rushing round all day and being on call all night, it's hard to relax. I keep thinking, 'Time to myself and some semblance of energy to go with it - I must get things done!' Marie's started nursery but I feel like I'm getting less rest than I did before. Maybe it's good that I've got enthusiasm for other projects or maybe it's avoidance of Mike's question. I don't know.

"What three words would you use to describe yourself as a dad?" said Mike, pressing me further.

Since the kind of dad you are is really just an extension of who you are, that was simply another way of getting me to describe myself. Unfortunately, there was only one answer I could think of straight off. "Efficient," I said. "There's food in the fridge, the kids are ready for school on time and the house gets cleaned on schedule."

"Sounds fun," said Rob.

"I try to be fun as well," I said hurriedly. 'Efficient' - was that the best I could do? "And, er, sympathetic. I like to think I'm sympathetic."

"Are you?" asked Mike.

"I'm more sympathetic than I am fun, to be honest. Sarah's the fun parent. She's the one who comes home and plays with them before bed and takes them on trips at the weekend. I'm the one who has to make sure they get dressed on time, do what they're told and eat their vegetables."

"So you get things done and it's dull but you listen when the kids complain?" said Rob.

"That's not what I said."

"What did you say?" asked Mike.

"Hey! Stop ganging up on me!" Mike was serious but Rob was merely trying to distract me while he crept up behind me with a bazooka. I let him have it with a very large gun.

Before I could say anything else, Fraser appeared at the door. He was almost crying. "I've had a bad dream," he said.

I frowned. "Your light's only been out for ten minutes. You can't have been asleep."

"OK," he sniffed, "bad thoughts then."

"That was very sympathetic," muttered Rob.

"All right, all right," I said. "Back into bed Fraser. I'll come through and talk to you."

Once we were in his room, I asked him what the problem was.

Through tears, he said, "I was thinking about when we die and go to Heaven and we're with God. It'll go on forever and it'll never stop and that will be bad."

"Er, why?"

"Because we won't die and it will just go on forever," he said. Considering he has an aversion to change that stretches as far as never wanting the laminate floor in the kitchen replaced, this fear of eternity was perplexing.

"Not exactly," I said. "God is outside time and space and without time there can't be forever. Yes, Heaven won't end but that's not the same as..." I trailed off. Fraser was looking at me blankly. I cursed my natural propensity to mix physics and theology. I decided to go for a different approach. "We don't know what Heaven's going to be like. It's going to be so different from here that it's hard to describe, but Jesus promised that it will be good. Do you think he keeps his promises?"

Fraser smiled and nodded.

"Right, then don't worry about it. Lie down, close your eyes and think about Pokémon." I gave him a hug and he nestled back under his duvet. I returned to the lounge.

"Everything OK?" asked Mike, as I took my seat.

"Yes..." I said. I'd dealt with the issue sympathetically and efficiently and I'd managed to raise a smile in the process. It was a pleasing outcome. Maybe my self-analysis had been accurate after all. It was certainly something to think about.

"Good," said Mike. "Rob shot you fifteen times while you were gone."

Rob grinned. "It was an accident - honest."

"That's fine," I said. "I'm guessing from the smell that you're going to have to leave the room soon to change a nappy. I'll take the opportunity to be careless with a sniper rifle."

"Hey!" said Rob. "No fair!"

"You started it..."

"I suppose." He began to get up but the movement caused Steve to tip forwards and land kneeling on the floor, his face buried in the carpet. He continued to snore. "What do you reckon? Should we wake him up?"

"Let him sleep while he can," said Mike.

Rob sniggered as an idea struck him. "How about we shave off one of his eyebrows?"

It was tempting but I shook my head. "A couple of years ago, that was me. Another few months and it could be you. Leave him be. Go change that nappy and bring me another beer on the way back."

"As long as you don't shoot me while I'm gone."

"In your dreams."

"All right," he said, "as long as you don't shoot me much while I'm gone."


And so it was. The rest of the evening passed quite pleasantly...

* * *

Good luck coping with whatever the kids throw at you this week. It will probably be unexpected. It may well be pointy. It will almost certainly be different from last week.

That's part of the fun.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 25 April 2008

Living without Wii Fit

Dear Dave,

I forgot to pre-order Wii Fit. I will probably be the only person in the country not spending the weekend hopping on top of a white plastic tea-tray in the vain hope that a videogame can make them slim and athletic.

Since everyone at Nintendo is currently buried under an ever-increasing mountain of cash and it will take a while to dig them out, there may not be any more stock for some time. What am I going to do? I was relying on this game to make exercise fun and enticing. What better way to lose weight and increase muscle tone than by jumping up and down on a plastic slab in front of the TV in the comfort of my own living room? I've been chain-eating biscuits in nervous anticipation.

Now I'm going to have to go outside and run around or something...

Wait! Surely I must be able to avoid that. Let's see... Hmm... How about...? Yes... These things should do it:

A dance mat, various controllers and a trampoline.

Bear with me while I try a quick work-out...


gasp... wheeze...

... ... irk... gasp...

... boing... ...

ouch... wheeze... ... ...

... twiddle... Argh!


Ooh... thud...





OK, well, that wasn't so bad. It transpires that I already have enough interactive entertainment to get myself leaping about in an aerobic fashion. I could have been slim and athletic years ago. If only switching the stuff on and putting the right disc in didn't seem like such an effort...

I started my work-out with a shot on Sony's EyeToy, the motion-detecting camera for the PlayStation 2. Once I'd blown the dust off it and booted up one of the many minigame collections, I spent quite a while waving my arms about frantically to wash windows, set off fireworks and slap ninjas. Getting the lighting right was tricky and navigating the menus was a pain but I'd forgotten how much fun the thing is. The maraca-wielding antics of Sega Superstars are particularly invigorating. As with all the most energetic EyeToy games, however, it made my arms sore pretty quick but didn't really utilise the rest of my muscles. (At least I didn't put my back out this time, though.)

In an attempt to mimic the full Wii Fit experience and exercise my entire body, I played EyeToy while hopping up and down on one leg. This worked great for the five seconds until I fell over. Then I tried it on the trampoline. This was maybe a little ambitious - my scoring went out the window. It was nearly followed by me.

I moved on to Wii Sports, the collection of sporting simulations which comes bundled with the Wii. You know you're out of shape when pretending to hit a baseball thirty times brings you out in a sweat. I switched to tennis and spent a couple of minutes leaping round the room like a loon, trying to smash a backhand winner past my cartoon opponent. Then I remembered that sitting down and flicking my wrist every so often would work just as well. It wasn't as much fun or exercise but I was getting tired and I didn't care.

I took a breather and did some bowling. After a while, this made my elbow twinge, so I opted for Mario and Sonic at the Olympics (also on Wii). There was something deeply surreal about waggling my arms really fast in an attempt to get Bowser to win a gold medal. I broke some world records, got sore shoulders and was hugely glad that I don't yet have man-boobs big enough to require a sports bra. I quickly changed games to Link's Crossbow Training and started shooting targets with the Wii Zapper. My arms started to complain almost instantly once more and, again, the trampoline didn't do wonders for my high score.

Last up was the dance mat. This was a bit more like it in terms of getting my whole body moving. At least it would have been, if only I had rhythm and coordination. The good feeling from the exercise was counteracted by the frustration of being rubbish at stepping on the correct pad in time to the beat. It was like a Twister-related torture device. I collapsed in a contorted heap of limbs and gimmicky videogame controllers.

I crawled off to play Tomb Raider. I knew I needed to do some stretching as a warm down but I was too tired. I decided to watch Lara do some instead. Unfortunately, this somehow made me lose track of time and I forgot about going to collect Marie from nursery. I had to sprint along the road in order to avoid being overdue and getting a telling off from the teachers. This was easily a harder work-out than everything else put together. I did look rather a sight as I panted and perspired my way into the cloakroom, though.

The only conclusion I can draw from all this is that being late for things results in more effective exercise than videogames. It's cheaper, too. The videogames just ensure there are fewer witnesses. So, if you have managed to get your own copy of Wii Fit, the best way to maximise its potential is to close the curtains before you switch it on and then hide all your clocks. (You know it makes sense.)

Now... I'm going to go have a lie down.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 23 April 2008

Give them an inch...

Dear Dave,

What constitutes a last shot?

That's a tricky question. It's all very well yelling, 'We're going home! Time for one last go!' when you want to leave the swing park but what do you actually mean? Is it one go on everything or a single shot on one thing? What if one child wants a turn on the swings and the other wants to go down the slide? A turn on the swings probably has to be a couple of minutes long to be worth it, so the kid on the slide should be allowed four or five shots to fill the time. Then again, four or five last shots is quite a lot. The kid on the swings is bound to complain that they're only getting one. And that's before they both start wanting a quick spin on the roundabout...

If the weather is nice and you're not desperate for a coffee or the toilet, you may be inclined to humour them but, if thunderclouds or vultures are circling, you may decide to hurry them up. Either way, it's liable to end in tears. Even if you do give them another five goes on the slide, a lengthy shot on the swing and enough time to turn themselves green on the roundabout, there's still a high probability they're going to throw a tantrum as soon as you mention leaving again. Sometimes it's best just to bite the bullet, tell them it's time to go and then go. If you're going to have to carry them off kicking and screaming, you might as well do it before it's started to rain.

Trying to ease through a transition can just prolong the pain. Sometimes a clearly defined and definite decision is the only way. If you're in any doubt, look out the window and try and estimate the distance to the end of the street.

Since, like me, you went to primary school in Britain in the Seventies, I'm guessing you have absolutely no idea how far that is. You're probably not even sure whether to answer in yards or metres. More than that, you know your height in feet but measure things in centimetres. You buy cheese in grams but weigh yourself in stone. Milk comes in pints, petrol comes in gallons and Coke comes in litres.

This is a mess. As far as I can work out, Britain tried to change from imperial to metric units at some point, got halfway through and then everyone who'd grown up with imperial complained that they couldn't be bothered to learn the new system. Concessions were made. We got stuck using both. With all the confusion, I didn't really get taught either.

Given the choice, I'd go for metric. Metric units are a great deal easier to work with than imperial units. I had to do a semester of high school physics in the States and I simply couldn't believe I had to use feet and pounds. It was a nightmare. Still, if I'd been brought up using the system exclusively it would have been second nature and better than the confusing mix I was brought up with. One or the other would have been better than half of each. The Americans did manage to get men to the moon after all.

I, meanwhile, struggle to bake cookies.

Jen over at The Road Less Traveled recently put a picture of some cookies up on her blog. They looked very tasty. She offered to send me some but, worried that Customs would eat them, I asked for the recipe instead. Then, when Fraser had a friend round, I distracted Marie by getting her to make the cookies with me. I imagined an idyllic father-daughter bonding session that had the happy by-product of melt-in-the-mouth chocolate chip goodness. I was prepared for the recipe to be in imperial units. It wasn't an issue. I'm used to chopping and changing between imperial and metric in recipes. 8 oz of flour is roughly 200g. I wasn't expecting to have a problem. I had most of the right ingredients - how badly could it go?

Then I read the recipe and discovered that I didn't need 8 oz of flour. I didn't need 200g... or 300g... or 10 oz... or any other weight. I needed two and a quarter cups.

That's not different units - that's an entire different scheme of measurement. It seems to be standard practice in the States but I didn't know that anyone measured solids by volume (other than Archimedes, of course, and clichéd new neighbours trying to scrounge some sugar).

Under different circumstances, I might have looked up conversion charts online but I already had various potentially laptop-destroying foodstuffs all over the table and an excited child waiting expectantly in an apron. I quickly hunted around and found a measuring vessel marked in cups. Whether these were American or imperial cups, I have no idea, but it was better than nothing. (Americans don't actually use imperial units - they use something closely related but even less wieldy, so all the more credit to them for dominating the world. Having to work in Fahrenheit and fathoms is clearly character building.)

I got Marie to help measure things out. Flour was OK, sugar was easy, but when it came to the butter, well... that wasn't so good. The recipe seemed to acknowledge that measuring butter in a cup wasn't the best plan, however. It happily told me that a cup of butter is equivalent to 'two sticks'. This wasn't all that helpful. I can only assume that a stick of butter is more than a twig and less than a tree but none of this really helped with the cookies. Everything became somewhat less precise at that point. It's hard to imagine anyone doing any lunar exploring using this particular system.

Apollo 13: We've fired the thrusters but we're still off target!
Mission Control: Oh shoot! We figured everything out on the basis you'd be coming back with 513 cups of moon rock. Hang on a minute while we recalculate everything.
Half an hour passes...
Apollo 13: Come on, we're heading to Mars here!
Mission Control: Yeah, yeah, we're working on it. Hey, by the way, do any of you guys know if it's three sticks of basalt per cup or four?

We got there eventually:

Delicious looking cookies.

I think I may have used half a branch of butter rather than two sticks but the cookies were pretty tasty nonetheless. I made some with nuts and some without but all the children then point-blank refused to eat any of the nutty ones.


Munch... Munch, munch...

Anyway, I'm sure it would have been easier if I'd grown up measuring things in cups. Just as I'm sure that my life would have been simpler if some government official in the Seventies had stubbornly decided to ignore the whingers and press on with metrication. If they'd told the European Commission to get lost and gone back to imperial that would have been fine too. Hopefully our kids will only be taught metric but I will probably never know how far it is to the end of the street or be able to estimate how many limbs a bag of Pic'n'Mix is going to cost me before I reach the checkout. ("What do you mean, 'two arms and a leg?' Hang on while I put these Strawberry Laces back...")

Yep, sometimes an easy transition isn't worth it. A clean break is what's needed.

I like to give my children fair warning of where we're going and what we're doing but I've let them wheedle 'another five minutes' or 'one last extra, extra shot' out of me a few too many times. They've come to expect it. Getting them to appreciate that we really have to leave right now is very difficult and tends to involve me having to shout. I've started being much firmer. There's still some shouting involved at present but, if they can learn that when it's time to go, it's time to go, life will be less difficult in the long run. There'll be fewer tears and we'll get soaked less often. Hey, you never know, there may even be more cookies...

Oh, no, my mistake, I've eaten them all. Mmmmmm...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 18 April 2008

The other thing I can't do

Dear Dave,

Marie is a girl.

Obviously, I've been aware of this for a while. From the moment she was born, I was prepared for her to be a little different from the boys. I expected that perhaps she might be more creative or chatty or, let's face it, awkward, and, indeed, she is all these things. I've done my best to treat her the same as the boys but it's happened anyway. What I wasn't expecting was the way she's turned out to be such a... well, such a girl. She covets pink clothes and sparkly jewellery. She names her toys and knows when they're sad. She carries a handbag, likes her nails painted and enters into a rapturous trance when eating chocolate. It's scary.

Mention going shopping to the boys and they instantly complain and grab hold of furniture to avoid being dragged out of the house. Mention a trip to the shops - any shops - to Marie and she bounces up and down in excitement.

If we do make it to a store, the boys fight each other, grab stuff off shelves and then hand it to me, loudly proclaiming, "I want that. Can you pay for it?"

Marie, meanwhile, fondles merchandise lovingly and says, "I really like this sparkly, pink thing. It's really lovely. Best-daddy-in-the-world-ever, please could you buy it for me? I would really like that. It would make me happy." She even pulls her face into a forlorn pout.

She doesn't always get her way but her success rate is pretty high - much higher than the boys. I need to work on hardening my heart before she's a teenager or I'm going to be in real trouble.

For now, I'm trying to fill a different gap in my parenting skills:

A cartoon featuring Ed making disastrous attempts to brush Marie's hair before forcing her to wear a hat.

Hopefully I'll get the hang of it eventually. At least I'm good at coordinating her wardrobe:

Marie wearing clothes in various shades of clashing pink.


Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 16 April 2008

Different priorities

Dear Dave,

Good to hear the routine is settling down and you're managing to get out of the house before half past ten in the morning. Shame you need to be back by eleven in order to give Daisy her third breakfast and change her nappy... before heading back out to collect Sam from nursery... only to hurry home for an early lunch... allowing you to go out for a walk to get Daisy to have a nap... so she'll wake up in time for a change and second lunch... before you have to go out again to take Sam to swimming lessons... and then rush back to give Daisy tea promptly... in the hope she'll feel peckish again before Liz gets home ready to burst and requiring a hungry baby to prevent her from exploding in a milky fashion.

It can be quite tricky fitting everything into the day when dealing with young children. Any delays, such as an unscheduled nappy full of evil raisins or a toddler taking exception to the colour of his left trouser leg, is liable to throw things out entirely. You can find yourself needing to be back home before you've left. This isn't too handy when you really need to get to the shops because all that's in the freezer is breast milk.

Lewis didn't finish his lunch, so I've enclosed half a cheese sandwich to keep you going. (Probably best to disinfect it, or something - I think he might have sneezed on it.)

As I said in my last letter, faffing with bottles can slow things down. Not having the handy, take-anywhere baby feeding attachments is certainly a disadvantage that we housedads have compared to our female colleagues. It's one of the obvious ways that life differs in a role-reversed family. Another is that both parents get to be home for the length of maternity leave. As you know, this makes the arrival of a new child easier to cope with but can have serious financial implications. All in all, there are many pros and cons to the way we do things. Even the lack of attachments can turn into an advantage for a housedad at three in the morning. (Don't look too happy about it as you hand over a screaming baby and go back to sleep, though. When Daisy starts teething, you'll be the one blearily watching baseball on Channel 5 for half the night as she cries and tries to eat the remote control.)

Yep, there are plenty of practical issues. You were wondering, however, whether housedads have a different approach to the philosophy of bringing up children than stay-at-home mums? Do we raise children differently through a mixture of genetics and principle?

It's hard to know. Parenting is a complicated business and to pin any particular part of the process down to gender would be a wild generalisation.

Tempted as I am to make wild generalisations anyway, I just can't bring myself to do it. So much of childcare - the rough and tumble, the nurturing, the discipline - is down to role as much as gender. Plus, my sample size of housedads I'm regularly in contact with is somewhat limited to you, so that would be a move beyond generalisation to straight forward invention. The best I can do is suggest that housemums and housedads may have different priorities.

For instance, I was in much less of a hurry to get my kids using cutlery and open cups than most mums at parent and toddler. This was maybe as much to do with Fraser as to do with me. He was so good at spilling drinks when he was small, I continued giving him beakers with spouts until he was nearly four. As for food, he still won't eat anything with sauce and is only just coming round to the idea that hot food can be quite tasty. When a huge proportion of what you eat is sandwiches, fresh fruit and raw vegetables, cutlery really isn't necessary.

That said, I did have to insist on a spoon for breakfast cereal so he stopped scooping up a handful of Rice Crispies and shoving them into his mouth in a way which dropped half of them. I really don't like a crunchy kitchen floor. (He eats his Crispies dry, by the way.) Maybe mums prefer civilised children. I'm just glad when the food goes in their mouths rather than on my socks.

I've also been relatively tardy teaching the boys to pee standing up. They hardly ever need the toilet, so there's no real incentive. The time we would save each day would be more than cancelled out by the time I'd spend doing additional mopping each week. Perhaps if it wasn't my job to clean up after them, then I might feel differently. I might believe that it's some kind of male rite of passage to learn to urinate while vertical and insist that they got the hang of it. Maybe housemums are more eager than me to encourage their sons' aiming skills because they have these kinds of expectations from their partners to placate. I'm just glad when the pee goes in the toilet rather than on my socks.

As for maintaining the balance between stimulation and unstructured play, I tend to leave the kids to their own devices more often than many mums seem too. This is perhaps down to having three children close together, though. I simply wouldn't have had time to sit either of the boys down and teach them to read, for example - I was always too busy chasing after a younger child. As for Marie, she's started teaching herself and she goes around pretending to read things already. The other day, she squinted hard at the instructions on a bottle of soap and said, "It says, 'Put on your hands. Don't put it on your teeth.'" (This was surprisingly accurate.) I suppose I could teach her properly but I'm in no rush. The school can handle it. Some mums attempt to educate their kids at an early age as something to do in order to avoid being driven mad by Teletubbies themselves. I have a high tolerance for boredom, however. I can think about nothing much for hours. I'm just glad... I have clean socks.

So there we have it, I suspect that if there were more housedads, more children would eat with their fingers, pee sitting down and be able to work DVD players themselves. Everyone would have clean socks.

Then again, maybe that's simply me.

Do housedads raise children differently? Never mind that - I think it's probably safe to say that every parent has a different approach to bringing up children. We all have successes and make mistakes. We all screw them up in a unique and interesting fashion. There's nothing to be done about it.

Just love them, do your best and get on with the job. Some priorities may vary but those are the ones we should all have in common.

Hope you get to the shops soon.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Good news if you don't like baseball! The BBC iPlayer now works on Wii. Download the Internet Channel, surf over to the website and voila! You can watch most of the last week of BBC output in jerky, VHS-o-vision from the comfort of your armchair, even in the middle of the night. Better get in there now while you have the chance - it only works in the UK but I still hate to think of the bandwidth usage if it catches on. Can you hear that shrill, almost-silent scream? That's our little corner of the internet dying...

Friday 11 April 2008

Dairy issues

Dear Dave,

Your last letter was very short and covered in interesting stains. It appeared to have been written in a hurry and was barely legible. I take it that life is a little hectic now that Liz has been back at work from maternity leave for a couple of weeks. Nonetheless, the very fact that you managed to write at all implies you're coping marvellously with looking after two children on your own. Reading between the caked blood, sweat and tears, I managed to make out that Liz is continuing to breastfeed Daisy but that it's turned into something of a struggle.

I remember those days. I was constantly washing and sterilising bottles and pumps in order to maintain an adequate supply. The mornings were particularly bad - we needed clean equipment for Sarah to use before she left for work and also some for her to take with her. The first thing I had to do when I got out of bed was go down and switch the steriliser on so that it was finished and cooled the moment breakfast was over. If I ever forgot to press the button until after my shower, I ended up juggling scalding hot beakers round the kitchen in a desperate attempt to get the milking apparatus packed in time for Sarah to leave.

When she came home, I had to estimate how much of the latest batch to keep in the fridge for the next day and how much to stockpile in the freezer. The stuff can stay refrigerated for three days, so I always found it best to keep a little extra handy in order to avoid having to placate a hungry baby while hurriedly trying to thaw out emergency rations.

Ah, the joys of defrosting little plastic bags of frozen milk!

Do you melt the bag containing six fluid ounces and risk some of it going to waste or do you go for the bag holding four fluid ounces and risk running out halfway through the feed?

It's never good having to defrost some more while holding a baby who's indignant that the bottle emptied just as they were drifting off to sleep. They have a tendency to scream, burp all over you and then not actually go to sleep even when they do get the last few mouthfuls they wanted. Eventually the tiredness catches up with them, they pass out face down in their tea and then wake up refreshed just in time for bed.

On the other hand, that's probably a better scenario than having to admit to Liz that you had to pour half a bottle of breast milk down the drain because Daisy drank just enough to contaminate it and then nodded off for three hours. There's so much pumping and sterilising and decanting involved for such tiny amounts, that the stuff quickly develops a status akin to twenty-year-old single malt. Coupled with the limited supply, this makes wasting even a drop seem like failure.

No pressure.

Try not to get too worked up about it. Just remember that any breastfeeding is better than none and you can always add formula feeds if necessary. If you have to go entirely over to formula in order to avoid going mad, then that's what you have to do. Sane parents are going to be better for Daisy's long term health than just about anything else.

Oh, which reminds me, I had a surprise at nursery the other day:

Normally, Sarah takes the kids to school on the way to work but she had to go in early for a meeting, so it was my turn. I dropped the boys off at their respective doors and then walked Marie round the back to the nursery entrance. Getting there on time had been something of a mad rush. I'd made the packed lunches, provided the kids with breakfast and got them ready. Every step of the way, I'd had to goad them all to hurry up. That's always the case, though, and I can pretty much manage it in my sleep now - I certainly don't need to be entirely awake and this was one of those occasions where I was less than fully alert. I was just wanting to get home to have my own breakfast, drink some coffee and check my email. I led Marie inside to the cloakroom on autopilot, and started taking her coat off.

"Ed!" Came a familiar shout from behind me. "How are you? I thought you'd show up."

I was suddenly very awake. It took me a few moments to recover from the shock before I could look round, however. Helpfully, Marie confirmed the identity of the person talking. "It's Karen!" she screeched, grinning. "She's scary!"

"She's not scary," I said, not sure whether to laugh it off or hush Marie up. The indecision resulted in my voice coming out in a strangled croak.

"Yes, she is," began Marie. "You said..."

"So, is Malcolm starting nursery?" I asked, hurriedly talking over my daughter and turning round. Scary Karen was sitting on a row of foot-lockers with her youngest, William, by her side. (He must be nearly two now.) She was, if anything, looking even more top-heavy than usual. Malcolm was nowhere to be seen.

"Oh, yes," said Karen. "I held him back a term. He's such a wee mummy's boy, I didn't have the heart to send him until now. I just hope he'll be OK." Then she wapped out a rippling bosom and shoved it into William's face.

The kid had developed a slight look of wide-eyed fear at this turn of events in the few months since I'd last seen him and he had to keep coming up for air but, other than that, it was just like old times. Karen started telling me about what she and her boyfriend, Trevor, had got up to behind the cheese counter at Tesco.

I developed my own look of wide-eyed fear.

I was stuck. I couldn't get a word in edgeways to make my excuses and beat a retreat. Marie got bored waiting and, in order to get my attention, decided she wanted the toilet. She then proceeded to choose the one cubicle which was in use.

"Malcolm won't be long," said Karen, mercifully breaking off from listing some of the lesser known uses of Brie. "He'll be sorting out his costume. He wanted to dress up for his first day."

"Oh, OK," I said. As if in confirmation, the toilet flushed and then, a few seconds later, the door opened and Malcolm stepped out.

He was wearing a hockey mask and carrying a rubber knife covered in fake blood stains.

"Nice," I said with all the sincerity I could muster and ushered Marie into the cubicle.

She stared at Malcolm and then giggled. "He's got cats on his shoes," she said, pointing at his Pumas and ignoring the costume entirely.

"You're right. Well spotted," I said. I followed her into the cubicle, shut the door and locked it behind us.

I didn't encourage her to hurry up for once.

When we finally emerged, the coast was clear. We washed our hands and I took Marie through to the nursery room. To my dismay, Karen was having an increasingly heated discussion with Miss Nolan and was blocking the doorway.

Miss Nolan is young and pretty and lovely to the children but you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of her. She's the one who tells all of us parents when we've been bad and haven't handed in the correct permission slips. "As I was saying," she said to Scary Karen, "just come back in an hour or so. We've got your mobile number if there's a problem."

Karen didn't budge. "I thought carers sat in on the first day. That's what I did when I helped out with his cousin Dougie."

"The rules have changed," said Miss Nolan. "Some children get on better without their normal adults around."

This was news to me. "When did...?" I began but Miss Nolan shot me a look that made it quite clear that another word would land me in detention removing Play-Doh from the soles of the children's shoes (probably with my tongue). I shut up.

"I'm sure he'll settle well," she continued. "He seems to be making friends already." Malcolm was showing his knife to a handful of other children as they cowered in a corner.

Karen wasn't having any of it. "He doesn't like new places. I should stay here."

Miss Nolan was half her size but stood resolutely in the way. They glared at each other.

Fearing that I might suffer collateral damage if any wrestling broke out, I decided to intervene. "I'm helping out in the nursery this morning," I said. It wasn't so much a lie, more a subtle attempt to volunteer. "I can keep an eye on him."

Karen stood for a moment, fists on hips, fuming at Miss Nolan, the world in general and even me. Then she relented. "All right," she said. "Just don't let the other kids pick on him. He can be a real softy sometimes."

"Uh-huh," I said, watching him out of the corner of my eye as he played a xylophone by battering it with a teddy bear. I did my best to ignore this, however, and concentrated on reassuring Karen until she eventually left with William. Marie was able to get into the nursery at last.

"Thank you," said Miss Nolan. "I wouldn't normally keep a parent out but..."

"Yeah, I know... What did she do last time?"

Miss Nolan rolled her eyes. "It would be inappropriate for me to tell you the details but we had to dispose of all the jigsaws and the computer still doesn't smell quite the way it should. Now excuse me while I tell Mrs Richards it's safe to come out of the store cupboard."

I nodded and then spent the next hour getting Marie to help me show Malcolm around. I managed to persuade him to take the mask off and put the knife down so the other children didn't run away from him and, after that, things went reasonably well. He's actually a pretty good kid. The only problem came when he tried to drop Karen's taser in the water tray. Still, I caught him quick enough and there was no harm done... The nursery staff made a note to frisk him the next morning.

When the time came, Karen collected him without incident and I finally got to go home and eat my breakfast. I'd hardly recovered before I had to head right back to pick up Marie. It was only later that I realised Malcolm will be in the nursery all morning next week. He'll come out at the same time as Marie.

I'll be there. Scary Karen will be there. I'll get to see her every day.

I'm not sure I'm prepared for that.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS I was sitting in the study last night when Marie came up to me and said, sweetly, "Daddy, you're looking really great!"

It was possibly the most adorable and endearing thing that any of my kids has ever said to me.

"Thank you, Marie," I said. "It's nice of you to say so."

Then she laughed and said, "That was just my funny joke," and skipped away, giggling.

Needless to say, she's out of the will...

Wednesday 9 April 2008

In Bruges

Dear Dave,

Shoot first, sightsee later...

For some reason, as I fought my way along a cobbled pavement through a coach-load of Italian teenagers going in the opposite direction, the tag-line to the film In Bruges kept springing to mind.

With hindsight, it was probably because I was actually in Bruges at the time. Still, it would have been sensible advice in any other over-priced, medieval European city.

With one hand I clasped a waffle and with the other I clung to Lewis as he told me in great, yet unintelligible, detail about level 3-6 of Mario vs Donkey Kong 2. "...and then you jump this way and go up past the thing and then the other thing comes down next to the platform on the other side of the purple bit..." We pressed forward through the other tourists.

The waffle had cost slightly more than half our normal daily family food budget. It was going soggy from the rain.

I gritted my teeth. We were on holiday. We were having a cultural experience. We were going to enjoy it.

"Are we lost?" asked Fraser from somewhere behind us.

"No," I replied. "We know where we are, we... just don't know where we're going."

"We're never going to get back to the holiday house!" said Lewis, sounding genuinely concerned.

"My socks are wet," squealed Marie.

"We'll get back soon," I said, "and we'll get dry and we'll eat our waffles."

"Do we have to go out tomorrow?" asked Fraser.


"Awwww," he moaned. "Why?"

"Because we're on holiday," I snapped. "We haven't travelled hundreds of miles to sit on a sofa with the curtains drawn and play computer games."

"Why not?" said Lewis.

"Er... because we could have done that at home."

"Why didn't we just stay home?" asked Fraser.

I shook my head in despair. I didn't entirely have a good answer for that. "At least we're not being forced to listen to Max Bygraves tapes by a crazy Spanish sea-captain," I muttered to no one in particular.

"What?" said Lewis, Fraser, Sarah, Marie and a handful of fifteen-year-old Italians in unison.

I took a deep breath. "Well," I began, "when I was small, we were on the top deck of a ferry and it started to chuck it down and..." I launched into an account of various family holidays I'd endured as a boy. It kept the children entertained as we plodded on. There was a strange symmetry to distracting my kids from getting soaked in a foreign land by recalling tales of getting soaked in a foreign land as a kid. Deep down, I knew I'd turned into my parents, though. Both of them. What were we doing?

It had all begun several days earlier on a cold, wet beach in Zeebrugge...

We'd taken the ferry overnight from Rosyth and stepped out boldly to explore. We could have caught a coach directly from the ferry port to Bruges but the boys get bus sick very easily so we thought we'd catch a train. This involved exploring Zeebrugge on foot.

We won't be doing that again.

We were travelling remarkably light for a family of five but Sarah and I still had an enormous rucksack each and the boys both had a small backpack. We'd left the buggy behind and so Marie was forced to walk. This made life interesting as we blundered our way along the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway, searching for civilisation while a gale whipped sand and rain into our eyes. The nearest railway station was closed. There were no shops, only a row of job centres and temp agencies. The boys started to complain that 'abroad' was very cold and they didn't like it.

We trudged a mile into town and found another station. The building was being renovated so we had to stand on the platform in the rain to eat our sandwiches. We did manage to get a train, however, and we didn't have to pay for the kids, so that cheered us up a little. We got to Bruges and ate waffles. This cheered us up some more. Then we hunted out the self-catering house we'd rented for the week. The rain bucketed down as we went.

When we eventually dripped our way inside, it was surprisingly nice. Rather too nice, in fact. It was packed with antique furniture that we had to immediately tell the children not to drip on. The owner very proudly told us that Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson had stayed there during the filming of In Bruges. Since I'd only heard of the movie thirty minutes beforehand thanks to a poster in the Tourist Information Centre, I maybe wasn't as impressed as I should have been. Still, I searched the house later for toenail clippings to eBay.

The place was very different from our own home, adding to the adventure of the holiday. The only real issue was the stairs:

No not those stairs. Admittedly they had gaps in the banisters big enough for an adult to fall through, forced me to duck, were slippy and wobbled worryingly but it's the next flight I'm really talking about:

Not the kind of obstacle you want between a three-year-old and the toilet, first thing in the morning.

Marie simply wasn't allowed to go up and down on her own.

The next day, once we'd dried off, we started doing the usual tourist things. We went on a boat trip on the canals and took a horse-drawn carriage ride round the old town, we went for walks, searched out swing-parks and hit the shops. We avoided buying lace souvenirs but we did stock up on chocolate. We only got soaked through a couple more times...

There were a few instances where it was an effort trying to herd the children but everything was so much easier than it would have been even a year ago. Once we'd got the kids down the stairs in the morning, they could amuse themselves while we slept on. We even went a whole week without a buggy or changing bag or a packet of wipes.

Actually, no, we managed without the buggy and a change of clothes for Marie but we only went a day without a packet of wipes before we realised our mistake. The kids had some candy floss at the circus, got it all over themselves and then tried licking it off. For the rest of the afternoon, everything they passed stuck to them - dirt, leaves, small dogs, other people's wallets, historic monuments, buses and each other. It was a disaster. We ended up rolling half the town into a big, sticky ball just trying to get home. The locals weren't pleased. We may be just about done with changing bags and buggies but I suspect that I'll still be carrying around a packet of wipes with me on the day I help Marie transport all her stuff to university. (I'll probably still be telling her not to lose her gloves and to say 'please' and 'thank you' as well, but that's another story.)

In the middle of the week, we took a train to Brussels to have a look round there. We found a decent swing-park, more rain and the hugely ostentatious town square. If there was much else to see, we didn't stumble across it. By that point, I'd run out of first-hand stories of holiday mishaps and was resorting to tales that my grandparents had told me to keep me distracted on cramped, three-day car journeys to Spain. I wandered around saying things like, "Look at that statue and did you know that your great-grandparents once got locked in a church with General Franco?"

We spotted the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier but both the boys thought it was rather a waste using up so much space to bury one person that nobody knew. Then we found a shop selling Pokemon merchandise and they were happy.

On our final day in Bruges, the boys and I sat in the main square while Sarah and Marie went shopping. An old local came over, looking for a chat. He asked where we were from and then told us that the only way Bruges has to make money is to rob tourists blind. He then pointed out that half the ancient-looking buildings around us were erected in the twentieth century. When I mentioned that we'd been to Brussels, he said, "The town square's wonderful but there's nothing else to see."

I suspect that he didn't work for the Belgian Tourist Board.

A different elderly man (I just seem to attract these guys) accosted us the following morning as we were preparing to get off the ferry. He'd been visiting friends in Holland and they'd suggested he cycle from the port. Because of the bad weather, he'd left his bike at home and had attempted to take public transport. He'd apparently ended up following us as we desperately searched for a means of escape from Zeebrugge. He, too, had been glad to make it out alive before nightfall... If he goes back, he's going to catch the bus directly to Bruges and find his way from there.

I nodded sagely. It was the only sensible course of action. I only wished I'd known that a week earlier.

Next time I go anywhere, I'm going to go stand in the queue to leave as soon as I get there and wait for an elderly gentleman to give me the inside scoop on the place. It will save so much time.

We survived. The kids got to see somewhere foreign where the buildings are strange, the money is different and slightly fewer people than normal speak English. They also got to bag a whole heap of Pokemon tack. Could have been worse. Lewis is keen to go back again, despite not wanting to go in the first place and kicking up a fuss every time we tried to leave the house when we were there. Marie's happy because she got to buy a pink, sparkly necklace. Fraser's just pleased that he's no longer the only kid in his class who hasn't been to another country. He was pretty miserable at the start of the holiday, though. He didn't want to go and then acted like it was the end of the world when Lewis accidentally stood on his hand in the soft-play on the ferry.

I took him back to the cabin to put a plaster on his finger and calm him down. He slumped dejectedly on his bunk.

"You don't really want to be here, do you?" I said. "Would you rather have stayed at home?"

He looked sheepish. He clearly wanted to agree but was worried he might get into trouble for telling the truth.

"Do you want to hear a secret?" I asked. "You have to promise not to tell it to anyone. Do you promise?"

He looked interested. "OK."

"Well," I said, "I'd rather have stayed at home too."

"Really?" he said, perking up like a housedad who's just spotted another man entering the room for parent and toddler.

"Yes, but Mummy really wants to go on this holiday and I love Mummy very much, so we're going and we're going to have a good time. Do you understand?"

He nodded.

"Do you love Mummy very much, too?" I asked.

"Yes," said Fraser.

"Then stop being so grumpy, please."

"All right," he said. "Can I play my DS now?"

"When we get back down to the others."

He made as if to complain that he wanted to stay in the cabin but then stopped. We shared a grin and headed downstairs. The holiday went much more smoothly after that. We even had a pretty good time...

Hope everyone's well and that you had an excellent Easter.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Lewis felt sick on the ferry journey home. I told him to hurry to the toilet. Dutifully, he went through, but he'd misunderstood. Rather than stick his head in it and throw up, he sat down to pee.

Then he threw up.

Fraser started feeling ill. I gave him a travel pill. He threw up in the sink. The output was the colour of the travel pill. Marie was delighted. She spent the rest of the day running up to strangers and yelling, "Fraser was sick! It was pink!"


PPS When we finally reached home, I watched the trailer for In Bruges and fell about laughing.