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."
"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,