Dear Dave

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...

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