Dear Dave

Friday 27 June 2008

The box of delights

Dear Dave,

Sounds like Daisy isn't enjoying her teeth coming through very much. It's somewhat hard to tell, however, since your last couple of letters have been slightly incoherent and occasionally mildly delusional. You need to get more sleep. If you've tried a selection of milk, cuddles, toothpowder, gum gel, chewy toys and Calpol to get her to settle in the middle of the night and nothing has worked then you're pretty stuffed for a year or so. (Been there, done that.) It's a case of putting Bob the Builder in charge at some point during the day and grabbing a nap on the sofa.

Sometimes a little TV to keep the kids distracted for a while is a life-saver.

But, yeah, as you've pointed out, my kids don't have the TV on just a little. It's on a lot. Marie watches some during the afternoon, the boys watch some before going to bed and they all sit goggle-eyed while eating their tea. The boys also spend a large percentage of their free time playing computer games. In particular, other parents can be surprised by the number of hours Fraser passes in interactive worlds inhabited by Pokémon.

Is the TV on too much?

Unfortunately, defending the amount of computer games my boys play always comes across as a little... defensive. The accepted wisdom is that children would be better off outside on the swings in the fresh air and sunshine, and the onus is on me to argue otherwise. Happily, much of the year there isn't a whole load of sunshine round here, so I get away with it - fresh air, biting rain and darkness conjures up a less idyllic picture of playing on the roundabout. Even on a nice day, though, I'm not hugely convinced.

Define better off.

If I chuck Fraser outside into the fresh air and sunshine, he's miserable. He can cope if there's someone willing to play a game with him but he's never been much good at entertaining himself. The outside is a bit dull, not very comfortable and is frequently too cold, too wet, too bright or too dark. Occasionally, it's too hot. He's not a fan.

When he was younger I used to regularly threaten him with extra time at the swing park if he didn't behave. That worked a treat but got me some odd looks from other adults, so now the removal of computer game privileges is my normal choice of punishment. The problem is, it tends to work out as a punishment for everyone else as well. Without a game to play, he hogs my attention or interferes with what the other children are doing. If we're lucky, he goes off to his room and reads a book. This feels like a step backwards, though. When he's playing games, he's in the same room as the rest of us and frequently holding a conversation at the same time. He's also doing something which requires patience, thought, concentration and skill.

It's not the case that he simply has nothing better to do. He loves videogames. He wanted to play with a computer the moment he saw one. I let him type random letters into WordPad and he didn't want to stop - he was hooked. He could switch on my PC and boot-up a CD-ROM when he was two but he's never much been one for toys. He'll check out how they work but get bored after ten minutes. It's not to do with attention span. He can play games for hours. I can't, though - I have other things to do. If he wasn't playing the Wii, he'd be playing board games against himself (which I remember doing endlessly as a child). Sure, he could play against his brother but they'd end up bickering over the rules and Fraser would always win and it wouldn't be much fun. Lewis would get fed up pretty quickly.

Computer games provide Fraser with the constant stimulation he needs, in a way he enjoys and without driving the rest of us mad.

Lewis plays plenty of computer games too but he's more willing to do other things. Sometimes there's cross-over. He plays games in the playground inspired by his computer games. I've seen him on many occasions leading a pack of little friends off collecting stars for Princess Peach or artifact pieces as Indiana Jones.

I was the same at his age... except I made up my own episodes of Dallas. Frankly, I prefer his source of inspiration.

The TV was on a lot when I was growing up. Even if I wasn't watching it directly, I'd put on whatever I could find to keep me company - usually a black-and-white film involving either John Wayne or Bob Hope. The big difference with my children's viewing habits is in what's on TV. It's all kid's stuff, whether it's cable programmes, a DVD or a computer game. Not only that, there's a vast amount of choice. It's always possible to locate something educational, fun and non-irritating and that doesn't involve Native Americans getting shot or Dorothy Lamour hiding in a wicker basket.

TV has improved since we were small. I'd rather the boys were playing Mario Party than arguing over the dice in Monopoly while I make tea. I'd also rather they were sitting still watching Shoebox Zoo while eating it than dancing about.

The only time I thought the computer games were getting out of hand was the summer before Fraser started school. Marie was nine months old and had begun crying for two hours at 3am every night. I was tired and busy, running after three children under the age of six. Fitting in all the changes and naps and feeds meant getting out and about was difficult. Fraser took the opportunity to plug himself directly into the Matrix while I was distracted. He began to spend the entire day on the sofa.

I had to find reasons to leave the house with them all. I took any excuse to head for the shops and we went to the swing park twice a day, just to break up his gaming sessions. Then, once he was at school, it wasn't an issue any more. These days, between school itself, clubs, grocery shopping, meals, friends visiting and homework, there isn't much free time left in the schedule. Then, when the weekends and holidays roll round, I don't mind if the boys install themselves in front of the TV and collapse. Being with people tires them out. Like me, they need some space and a chance to veg in order to recuperate. We've got trips and expeditions planned for later on but they'll spend the first week of the summer lying about in their pyjamas. (Wouldn't you, given half the chance?)

I, meanwhile, will be outside pushing a bike in the cold and wet. Every child is different. Marie hates being stuck in the house. She doesn't play videogames much and, when she does, they exhaust her. She has to go do some gluing to recover and then bounce on the trampoline. (She'd happily combine these activities if I let her.) She'll spend most of the summer exploring the garden.

I'll have to go with her but hopefully I can get her playing in the sandpit and sneak a quick shot on my DS while she's not looking.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 25 June 2008

Leading by example

Dear Dave,

The boys are negotiating again.

This could take a while...

It's always interesting listening to them work out who has control of the TV. There's usually a lengthy, complicated discussion of who chose what to watch or play the last few times and how long those sessions were. This recap can stretch back over several days. It may involve disagreement. Only once their viewing history is agreed, however, can they determine whose turn it is.

Then they have to work out how long that turn should be.

A convoluted planning process ensues, taking into account the proximity of the next meal, the time of the day, the amount of homework they have and the likelihood of me asking them to do something inconvenient like leave the house ever or give their sister a turn. This allows them to divide up the rest of the day (or sometimes the week) in a fair manner.

After this, some swapping can take place. For instance, it might be Fraser's turn but he wants to watch a recording that's half an hour long and there's only twenty minutes until lunch-time. This leads to ten minutes of further negotiation resulting in Lewis getting a quick shot of one of his games before lunch in return for Fraser getting an extended lease of the TV later.

It's very involved. Goodness knows what it's going to be like if Marie stops bouncing on the trampoline all day and starts demanding her right to slob on the sofa. We may have to draw up an actual rota.

We already have one for TV privileges at the kids' tea-time. The choice of programmes is up to Marie one day, Lewis the next, Fraser the following day and back to Marie the day after that in endless rotation. This settles most arguments, although Fraser is beginning to notice that some tea-times are longer than others. He's started angling to swap his turn if it falls on his bath night to make sure he doesn't get short-changed.

That way lies madness.

Once they start swapping, I'll need to keep track of how many turns they've each had, how long they were and who's owed what. Paperwork will be involved. I can't be doing with that. Nope, we'll stick with the current system - they grumble sometimes but they're willing to accept its simple fairness. (Although all Hell breaks loose if the football's on and I suggest that it's Daddy's turn. That's apparently not fair at all because 'it's always a child that gets to choose at tea-time. That's the rule!'.)

The problem with swapping is keeping it balanced. We've tried hard to teach them that a trade should be equal. Unfortunately, this frequently manifests in demands for what they're due rather than a compassionate desire not to cheat other people. They won't stop arguing if they think they've been hard done by.

I suppose things might go better if I was able to set an example but I'm not very good at it. As it stands, if someone does me a favour, I feel I have to do them a slightly bigger favour in return simply to make sure I'm 'not in their debt'. It doesn't matter whether they're in a stronger position than me to be dishing out favours - that never seems relevant to the equation.

This makes life awkward. If a friend comes round to babysit but doesn't have at least three children of their own, how am I supposed to pay them back? If they do have three or more children, however, the chances of them being available to babysit are slim.

We end up staying in a lot.

On the other hand, when I'm out shopping I'm always on the hunt for a bargain. I buy clothes that are unfeasibly cheap. Someone somewhere is not getting a good deal. I ease my conscience by buying Fair Trade bananas if I see them but I don't actually go out of my way.

None of this probably makes it any easier for the kids to work out what constitutes a just exchange. It also makes me wonder what else I tell the kids to do but disregard myself.

Er, pretty much everything, now I think about it:

Stop before crossing the road. That just gives time for a car to come along. Besides, I'm getting old - I might seize up and never move again.

Don't get dressed at the top of the stairs. Again, it's an age problem - I have to sit on the top step to get my socks on. Once I'm there, I might as well hop around the landing getting my trousers on and then wander about with a t-shirt over my head. What's the worst that could happen?

Don't touch the oven. If only...

Sit down while you're eating. Like I have time for that.

Wear suncream. I hate any kind of skin cream. I put moisturiser on my hands and then immediately feel the need to go wash the oiliness off. Fortunately, a little suncream on the back of my neck on the first sunny day of the year is enough to stop me burning and then I go gently brown over the rest of the summer. Coming from a long line of Norfolk farmers is good for something, it seems. Shame Marie and Fraser haven't inherited my ability to tan. One ray of sun and they turn bright pink and smoulder. I have to cover them with an inch of mud before we can go into the garden. Once I've done that and put a dab of suncream on Lewis' cheeks, I'm too tired to do myself.

Don't talk with your mouth full. Let's face it, I normally say this with my mouth full.

Don't talk while we're crossing a road. Guess where I usually am when I say this.

Hey! Don't tell Lewis off in a grumpy fashion, Fraser! It's not your job, it's mine...

Eat your fruit and veg. I'm very careful to make certain the kids have a balanced diet. I, meanwhile, live on cheese sandwiches and crisps. It saves me having to go to the shops so often to buy fresh fruit and vegetables and I don't have to touch the oven.

Take a coat - it might rain. I spent many years carting round a changing bag, a selection of snacks, a cool-bag with milk, all the kids' coats, a bag of groceries and a cuddly toy. I got used to insufficient luggage capacity for my own rainwear. I now find that I can't always be bothered to take any with me even though I can. I live in Scotland. This maybe isn't such a good plan.

You can only have one packet of crisps a day. Ha, ha, ha! Yeah, right. I'd starve.

Use a plate. Take off your shoes. Don't leave stuff lying around. These go together. I can ignore them all because I'm the one who has to clean up. I'm allowed to give myself extra work. (Anyone else who tries it is in trouble!)

Look where you're going. I'm too busy looking where the kids are going.

Don't fart and pretend it was Marie. Again, that's my job...

Yep, no wonder the kids argue whenever I tell them to do anything. I could go and arbitrate for a fair deal in their latest TV scheduling debate but maybe they'd take me more seriously if I sat down and ate a salad from a plate without telling them off with my mouth full and spitting it on them.

Or maybe it would teach them to be more thankful for what they have if I went and confiscated the remote and then ate some crisps while watching the tennis. I'm pretty sure that would get them working together in a hurry.

I probably shouldn't, though...


Er, do you happen to know if Maria Sharapova is playing?

Yours in woman's world,


Friday 20 June 2008

If I'm lucky, the mice are eating it

Dear Dave,

I did some extra cleaning on Monday. I had to tidy the lounge - there was no avoiding it. I started by folding the blankets the kids use to keep warm while watching TV in the morning. Then I returned various games to the proper bedroom shelves, put all the toys in a cupboard and found a home for lots of the other junk. After that, I got serious. I moved the furniture and hoovered under it and I even opened up the sofa bed and removed all the crumbs.

This left the room in an almost unheard of state of neatness. Don't worry, though, I haven't gone mad with domestic pride.

It's just that the mice are back.

It started on Sunday night as I was sitting playing the Wii. I heard scratching noises and passed them off as excessive disc accessing in the game. I had a nagging feeling the sounds were behind me while the console was in front of me but I put it down to peculiar acoustics. Shortly afterwards, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. When I looked directly, there was nothing there. Perhaps, I thought, it had been a shadow as I flicked my wrist. It had been the wrong side of the light source and a second or so after I'd moved but, hey, maybe it was a shadow that had bounced off somewhere else and was running late. Er, maybe...

I became nervous.

I heard more scratching. It wasn't the disc. Then, after a minute, I saw it - a rodent crouched by the armchair, staring at the Indiana Jones LEGO on the floor, deciding whether the miniature Cate Blanchett looked tasty.

I screamed in a very manly fashion. The mouse bolted behind a chest of drawers. I went to find a torch and something blunt and heavy. I spent the rest of the evening with a wiimote in one hand, a giant souvenir pencil in the other and my feet up on the sofa beside me.

Monday morning, I felt the need to clean. I found the edge of the carpet chewed above a gap in the floorboards. I'd filled the gap with wire-wool last time but there was a tiny hole between the wall and the spiky strip to grip the carpet. I went crazy with prickly padding and then systematically cleared up.

Of course, I may have trapped the creature in the lounge but I doubt it. Our lounge is upstairs, remember. There is no food. There was no reason for it to have stuck around. Although, having said that, I did find an inch of breadstick on the landing that hadn't been there the night before. We haven't had breadsticks in the house for months. We hardly ever have food upstairs. Where did it come from?

The mice are bringing their own snacks.

That's just cheating.

Ho hum. I've put more poison and traps down. I'm not taking prisoners this time.

In the evening, when the kids were asleep, Sarah surveyed my efforts with appreciation. Then she had a thought. "Next time you're cleaning, could you take a damp cloth and wipe the inside edge of the guard rails of the boys' bunks?"


"They keep picking their noses and putting the stuff there. It's sometimes sticky when I lean over to kiss them good night."

"What!?" I felt the need to rush and clean the beds, and maybe the kids... and possibly myself... "Ewwww!"

"Fraser's bunk might not be too bad. I told him to stop doing it a few weeks ago."

"O... K...." I didn't enquire whether she'd told him to stop picking his nose or to stop sticking the snot to the bed. It's not like he will have managed the former. This merely begs the question, 'Where is he putting it now?'

I think I'll go get some disinfectant. A housedad's work is never done...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS I suppose it's not as bad as when Marie bends over to pull her pants down and sticks her hair in the toilet.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Nursery sports day

Dear Dave,

Have you had your nursery sports day yet? If not, I should fill you in on what they're like, seeing as this is your first year and everything. Ours was yesterday and involved all the parents heading along to the local park and watching their offspring run backwards and forwards for a couple of hours. It made a nice change from having to run backwards and forwards myself while being watched by my offspring which is the way life seems to work most of the time.

Fortunately, conditions were ideal - it was reasonably warm but not sunny enough to turn all the children into lobsters. I handed Marie over to Miss Nolan and went to sit down on the grass. Two hours struck me as rather a while to have three-year-olds running about. Despite it being the fourth or fifth nursery sports that I'd attended, I couldn't remember what filled the time. I had a nagging suspicion that I'd forgotten something.

The kids were divided into three teams, arranged into lines and made to wear bibs in their team colour.

You cannot imagine how long this took.

Small children wandered about, stood in the wrong place, forgot their own names, tangled themselves up in brightly coloured, elasticated cloth and then fell over. The teachers patiently put them right but it was a lengthy process before they were finally able to start. The first race entailed the child at the front of their team line throwing a beanbag into a bucket, running to a cone, running back again, picking up the beanbag and handing it to the next child. They were all given the instructions, told to try hard and then they were off!


That's to say, all three lead children looked blankly at their beanbags and had to be told the instructions again. Then they took a few attempts to hit the target and had to be gently guided towards the correct cone (i.e. the one straight in front of them in their team colour) before running back and failing to give the beanbag to the next team member. Of course, even once the following three had their beanbags, they still needed the instructions given to them again...

It was slow going but then who knows what they'd have been like if they hadn't practised every morning for the past fortnight? I realised that it was a good book that I'd forgotten to bring.

Any form of actual competition was out the window. The teams weren't racing against each other so much as facing the challenge together. I recall that this felt odd at the first nursery sports I went to. The sports days of my youth had cheering parents, thunderous clapping and ribbons for a podium finish. Then again, they weren't much fun for those who couldn't run very well. It's better the modern way where the kids all get a shot, they don't get compared with others and they're encouraged merely for taking part. They're more likely to see sport as enjoyable when they're older. (Just as long as they aren't encouraged to think they're excellent athletes simply because they didn't get lost dawdling twenty feet to a cone and back. To become good, they're going to need to put some effort in. Telling them they're good already is liable to lead to disappointment and poor motivation.)

Nonetheless, I find nursery sports strangely quiet. I got to shout, 'Come on, Marie. You can do it!' every ten minutes or so when it was her turn, and then I was able to lie down for a nap in between. The other parents mostly stood around chatting.

Sadly, Scary Karen hadn't been sent the memo.

My dozing was constantly disturbed by her yelling at her son and the rest of the red team to get a move on and crush the opposition. Most of them entirely ignored her, however, and continued to wander about in a dream. A couple stopped to stare as she jumped around waving her pom-poms. It didn't make much difference - no one was keeping score and, besides, the yellow team had blatantly edged ten feet forward, ensuring they always finished first.

I gave up on sleeping altogether when Marie noticed my eyes were closed and started shouting, "Wake up, Daddy!" to pass the time as she waited her turn.

We had the beanbag and spoon race, the twenty metre dash, the sack race and the ten metre hurdle. (Yep, there was only one hurdle but, to compensate, it was nearly five inches high!) They concluded with the hat and scarf race. This was identical to the twenty metre dash except it required competitors to stop halfway through the outward leg and don winter clothing. Despite being disturbed that the accessories didn't coordinate, Marie made sure to put them on very carefully and adjust them to her satisfaction before continuing. She wasn't fast but she looked adorable.

It should be an Olympic sport.

Eventually everyone had taken part and it was time for juice and crisps (but only for the children. Next year: Book and snacks.)

"That was great," said Karen, walking over to me. "Did you see the speed of Malcolm with his sack?"

"He was definitely the fastest," I replied. I decided against mentioning that the other kids had had the sack over their feet rather than their head. I've been acquainted with Karen long enough now to know it's not worth pursuing these things. Arguing seldom makes the conversation any shorter but greatly reduces the chance of survival. I relaxed, went to my happy place and waited for her to fill me in on the details of her life.

Within seconds, I was learning about her recurring nightmare of being trapped in a packet of Quavers. This then led to an extensive monologue on her most recent shopping expedition to buy underwear.

It was like being back at parent and toddler again. Mostly. Something was missing. Well, I suppose plenty of things were missing - the cups of tea, chocolate biscuits and comfy seats, for starters. There was more to it than that, though.

It took me several minutes to realise that I didn't need to be averting my eyes. She wasn't breast-feeding in her normal scary fashion. I chanced looking in her direction. She wasn't breast-feeding at all.

"Where's William?" I asked, wondering what she'd done with her two-year-old.

"I left him with Trevor," she said. "It'll be good for them. They don't get much time together on their own and, now that Trevor's moving in, he's going to be like their dad. They need to get used to seeing him all the time and not just when they walk in on him and me in the middle of..."

"And Trevor's OK with that?" I said, surprised.

"You think he shouldn't be?"

"Er..." Trevor's not hugely comfortable around children. He's built like a truck, has been in the army and can open cans with his teeth but kids make him nervous. I couldn't imagine that having changed in the few months since I'd last seen him. I didn't want to upset Karen, however. "Sudden parenthood might be a shock, that's all," I said.

"He's fine with it. He's been having lots of practice. You should come round and see. Yeah, it's almost the holidays - you could bring Marie round to play with Malcolm when nursery's off for the summer."

I've never been to Karen's house. It's not that I don't like her - over time, I've learnt to appreciate her openness, enthusiasm and disregard for nonsense. If I ever buy a big telly, I'm going to take her along and get her to haggle for me. I will get a bargain. There's no denying she is useful to have around and can be lovely at times. That said, she's still scary. I don't particularly want to enter her lair. "The boys will be off school too," I said, attempting to make my excuses. I wished I had a bag of cheesy potato snacks with me to frighten her off.

"Don't worry about them. Trevor can show them his shrapnel collection."

"That's, er..."

I was saved by Miss Nolan announcing the parent's race.

I hurried over to take my place on the start line and did my best to limber up while checking out the competition. As ever, there were one or two who'd taken it rather seriously and turned up in tracksuits and running shoes. They were bound to win. Most of the other parents looked as out of shape as me, though. I set my sights on a laid-back finish in the middle pack. I've learnt from experience that winning isn't worth the risk of pulling every muscle in my body nor of falling over and being trampled by a horde of mums.

On the other hand, there's not much I won't do for free cakes...

"Bag of doughnuts says I beat you, Ed," shouted Scary Karen from further along the line.

I knew all the dads present could probably out-pace me but I fancied my chances against Karen. I'm a foot taller than her - her determination would keep her going longer than me in an endurance event but I figured I could accelerate past her over the hundred yards to where two of the nursery staff were holding out a rope to mark the finish. "You're on!" I yelled back.

More parents jostled in to join us, Miss Nolan blew a whistle and we stormed off. The grass was quite long and the ground was uneven and I stumbled immediately. Mums pressed in around me. Some of them were carrying toddlers. I couldn't get up speed without barging through them and I was reluctant to do that.

Karen had no such qualms. She charged forward, the panicked throng parting before her.

She had a considerable lead before I had clear space to sprint but I was confident I could still beat her. I dashed forward, quickly gaining ground... Then, out of nowhere, a small child ran across the grass in front of me. I couldn't stop in time. I had to swerve to avoid a collision and my foot caught another divot. I tumbled and sprawled onto the ground. I was trampled by a horde of mums. By the time I picked myself up, I was dead last.

It was Chariots of Fire all over again.

I set off in chase.

Karen looked over her shoulder as the finish neared and slowed down when she saw how far behind I was. She was certain she'd won but I didn't give up. I was convinced I could still beat her.

What she didn't know was that they were going to move the line.

Every year it happens. Just as the parents in tracksuits approach, the two teachers holding the rope leg it another hundred yards across the park.

Sure enough, when Karen turned her eyes forwards again, the finish was rapidly receding from her. She re-doubled her efforts but I was swiftly making up the distance. It was going to be close. Time slowed. My feet hung in the air forever and every rasped breath took an age. The wind swept back our hair, our sweat glistened in the sunshine and the music of Vangelis swelled in our ears. An eternity passed in seconds...

...and then we were there.

I dived forward, straining for the finish. Karen made a desperate lunge at the same moment. My nose and her chest crossed the line together.

It was a photo finish but we didn't have a camera (perhaps luckily).

Once I was certain I wasn't dying, I made to offer a tie but she very magnanimously conceded defeat. "Do you want icing on the doughnuts?" she said.

"Definitely," I wheezed.

"Great. You can have them when you come round and visit and you can share them with the rest of us." Then she presented me with a date and time and very little option to say no. If I'd refused, I'd have been there arguing the rest of the day. "Glad that's all sorted," she said. "Trevor likes icing too," she added wistfully. "He..."

I interrupted her hastily. "We should go get the kids," I said, still gasping for breath. "Good race. See you later." I staggered off to collect Marie. I let her know about the plan to visit Malcolm. She was very excited at the prospect of a new house to explore, especially one with doughnuts. She sang a little song to herself as we walked home. She'd had a good time.

I, meanwhile, woke up this morning to discover that I've pulled every muscle in my body. Even raising my eyebrows is sore.

Those doughnuts had better be fantastic...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 13 June 2008

A father's day

Dear Dave,

What are you doing for Father's Day?

Ooh, déjà vu! Is it really a whole year since I last asked you that question? I suppose it must be (unless the people who make novelty cuff-links, amusing bottle openers and amiably insulting greeting cards have taken over the world and made the event quarterly in order to flog more tack).

Once again, I'm not sure what I want. Computer games or DVDs would seem like the obvious answer but I still have more stuff to entertain me than I have time to fill with entertainment. This year, I'm not even getting left in peace because two of the children have clashing social engagements in different parts of town. Sarah and I will both need to be on escort duty. I'm going to spend the afternoon with a dozen five-year-olds, six trampolines and a bouncy castle. What could possibly go wrong?

Since this Father's Day won't be a chance to relax, maybe it should be a time to reflect on fatherhood. I've been a dad for eight years now. It wouldn't hurt to think about how it's been and what I've learnt.

If nothing more, it would be nice to have some words of wisdom to pass on to any prospective fathers I meet. After all, no one else is much good at preparing them for what to expect. It's a common refrain among parents of young children that nobody warned them about X, where X can be one of any number of things from a list which includes: the broken sleep, the hard work, the endless snot, the constant crying, the tedium, the isolation, the vomit, the penury, the lack of free time, the risk of personal injury, the arguing, the projectile poo, the teletubbies, the reduced opportunity for sex, the loss of sanity, the laundry and the effort involved in putting suncream on a wriggling (and increasingly slippery) toddler.

The newbies have a point. These topics tend to come up at playgroup where everyone has children already but they're much less likely to be mentioned in any detail in other situations. When we announced that Sarah was expecting Fraser, the most people with kids would say was, 'It will change your life.' We should maybe have taken a hint from their nervous laughter and the manic gleam in their eyes but then what did we know? If they had told us the whole truth, I'm not sure what we'd have done differently anyway. We might just have been a little more prepared.

I can't blame them, though. Now I have older children myself, I know that failure to talk about the less pleasant side of parenting isn't dishonesty.

Not exactly.

There's an element of self-preservation for a start. Parents don't want their problems thrown back at them and they quickly learn that those without offspring are seldom awfully sympathetic to their woes - having kids is seen as a lifestyle choice these days. 'Well, you were the ones who wanted to have children...'

There's also a certain amount of accentuating the positive - the smiles, the hugs, the love and the laughter. Lots of parents have made the choice and are thus predisposed to be pleased with the result. Even in those cases where an accident has happened, parenthood is a long-term prospect, so for sanity's sake, it pays to look on the bright side.

That said, the biggest factor in all of this is memory. It's very easy to lose track of how demanding babies can be. Life moves on rapidly with small children around. They get bigger, learn to talk, go to school; the nappies and tantrums and sleep deprivation fade away...

These issues combined make it hard to know what to say to new fathers but here are my thoughts:

Being a dad isn't difficult but it can be very hard. There are whole years that I don't clearly remember and others that I'd rather forget. Then again, I'm thankful I haven't missed out on the experience of being a parent. It's changed my outlook, attitude and priorities. I wouldn't give up my children for the world and I'd protect them with my life. They are part of me. I love them very dearly...

...even if they're totally ungrateful and treat me like a slave.

The tension between the rewards and trials of parenthood is best exemplified by our decision to have Marie. Sarah wasn't entirely well, we had our hands full with two boys under four, I still had depression and we were broke. It wasn't a good time. Nonetheless, our family felt a child short and it was important to us that they were all close together in age. We went ahead but when we revealed she was on the way, people reacted differently than with Fraser and Lewis. They weren't sure whether they were supposed to celebrate with us or commiserate. Almost everyone asked if she was planned.

It was a crazy decision but it was the right thing to do. We're so very glad we have her. She's sweet and funny, awkward and stubborn, and a hundred other things. And she's ours.

I'm looking forward to helping her and the boys grow up. I'm also looking forward to helping them move out. I don't know whether to go play football with them in a minute or go and lie down. I want to pass away surrounded by a horde of grandkids but I'd happily pass up on babysitting them all when they're small. There are days when I wonder what I'm doing; there's never a minute when I can imagine doing anything else. I'm content but just a little bit tired...

It can feel wrong admitting to these conflicting emotions but they're only natural. For all that being a dad is great, it also takes dedication. Perhaps the best advice I can give is that fatherhood can be confusing sometimes... and that's OK.

Hope you get a chance to doze off in front of the telly on Sunday afternoon but whatever you're doing, have a great Father's Day.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Of course, along with this reassurance, I should probably point out that being a dad is fun too. I've learnt all sorts of skills. I can listen to three conversations at once. I can get by on six hours of sleep a night on a regular basis. I can explain almost anything in a way a three-year-old can understand. I can Riverdance along the street, identify cuddly toys in the dark and play Snakes and Ladders without dice. In short, I'm prepared for anything...

Well, mostly anything:

We had to enlist the aid of a new babysitter the other night and Marie kicked up a huge fuss at the thought of someone she didn't know looking after her. Then Tina arrived and Marie was suddenly delighted at the prospect of a fresh victim to show all her possessions and tell all her secrets. She grabbed Tina by the hand and whisked her off for a tour of the house complete with extensive commentary. When I went to check up on them a few minutes later, they were both sitting on Marie's bedroom floor. As I entered the room, Marie was very earnestly informing Tina that, "Some adults don't wear underpants. They have to wash their trousers more often."

There is no advice that can prepare a dad for moments like these.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

A bath to themselves

Dear Dave,

Your Sam is not the only one getting himself into trouble at the swing park. Marie's always been something of a daredevil, learning to climb before she could walk. She spent her toddler years testing my reactions by clambering up to high places and then jumping off, expecting me to catch her whether she gave me warning or not. I thought she was past that but recently she's got bigger and stronger and has been able to reach different locations to throw herself from.

This has brought fresh excitement to both our lives.

Particularly entertaining is her love of the monkey bars. She's worked out how to climb up to the first one, grab hold of it and swing. She's very proud of this feat and makes complete strangers watch. She's also keen that I stay completely out of it, shouting at me until I'm twenty feet away. "You go over there, Daddy! I don't need help!" She launches herself off the top step, oscillates briefly and then dangles, suspended half a metre above the ground. All the while, she keeps shouting, "You stay over there, Daddy! I don't need help!" Then she kicks her feet about a little. After that, her arms begin to get tired and she realises that the only way is down. There's a pause. Then she frantically yells, "Help, Daddy! Come here! I need help!" I have to rush over and rescue her before she plummets to her doom. (Well, in the direction of a sore bottom anyway.)

At least I don't have to shadow her as closely as I used to. She's not as likely as she once was to walk in front of an on-coming swing or to simply tumble out of a climbing frame but I'm struggling to judge exactly how far back I can stand. She needs space to try stuff on her own without me hovering around but she also needs someone on hand to stop the roundabout when she pushes it faster than she can run and then fails to let go. Next summer will be fine. I'll be able to sit on a bench and merely glance up from my book every so often. This year, I'm treading an awkward line between protection and empowerment.

It doesn't help that that's a line which moves about for different children.

I sent Fraser out solo for the first time the other week. It was only to the post-box but it was a nerve-wracking experience. I watched him cross the road and then gazed anxiously along the street for the entire three minutes he was out sight. (He was not quite eight.)

I really shouldn't have worried. He was in absolutely no danger of being knocked down by a car - if he so much as glimpsed one in the distance, he waited until it had gone past. This kept giving enough time for a slowly moving speck to become visible on the horizon in the other direction. When it didn't, he triple-checked just to allow a little more opportunity for some traffic to appear. He was more at risk from attack by a pack of rabid snails than from a collision.

With this experience behind me, Lewis will doubtless get to do the same thing at seven and a half. Marie, meanwhile, will be sky-diving before she reaches Primary 2 and will be allowed to wander the streets until midnight by the time she can read.

Eldest children tend to get worked up about this (even once they've become adults). Younger siblings seem to have greater freedom and get away with so much more.

There's some justification to these complaints. Having been through situations with an older child, parents are wiser, more relaxed and too tired to argue. Then again, as the youngest of four myself, I know there are certain disadvantages to being 'the baby'. These include not being taken seriously and always having someone else answer for you. (Last summer, while visiting my parents' church, I was asked if I was planning on having any more kids. Before I could speak, my mum laughed and replied, "Three children is enough for anyone." She didn't so much as blink at the irony. Cheers...)

Middle children don't get on any better. Between forbidding the eldest to do anything and fretting about the youngest who's out roller-blading past eleven o'clock while juggling knives and wearing a mini-skirt, parents don't necessarily have much attention left for the others.

I try my best to be fair to my children and give them equal opportunities at any given age but it's hard. I simply am wiser, more relaxed and too tired. Beyond that, life has changed - unlike the boys, Marie's options aren't restricted by me having a baby to deal with. Conversely, her afternoons are totally constrained by the need for us to collect her older brothers from school.

The other day, I became aware that there are certain situations where being 'fair' is impossible. Take getting a bath to themselves as an example. Fraser had to share a bath, sometimes with two other children, until he was seven. Then he ceased to fit and he got a bath to himself. Lewis has recently lobbied for solo bathing and got there several months earlier. This is a little unfair but I can justify it for various reasons to do with practicality and child size.

It does, of course, mean that Marie is getting a bath to herself at half the age Fraser did. Unless I start borrowing dirty children from elsewhere, there's no avoiding it. Any attempt at equality is scuppered. Lewis has probably done the best out of it. He's had ample space and company for as long as he wanted. Fraser spent a while being cramped and Marie's now a bit lonely.

Something similar is going to happen with walking to school. Marie will get to skip along the road without constant parental mutterings to hurry up when she reaches Primary 4. Lewis will gain the same freedom at the same time (i.e. when he's in Primary 6) because it's going to be hard for us to accompany Marie without accompanying him as well. Fraser will only get peace in the morning when he starts secondary school. It's a shame for him but that's the way it goes unless he fancies leaving home five minutes ahead of everyone else. (Like that's going to happen...)

There must be countless other scenarios where the amount of freedom or restraint a child receives is as dependent on the age of their siblings as on their own. I have the luxury of letting Marie throw herself off monkey bars because I don't have a younger kid to deal with. You'll have fewer options with Sam because you have Daisy to entertain.

However, since it turns out that 'being fair' is not difficult but actually physically impossible, the pressure is off. No matter how many children you have, they will all bemoan being first, last, in the middle or part of a matching set. No matter what you do, they're all going to have something to whinge about. This means you might as well not worry about it too much and instead balance protection and empowerment in whatever way keeps you sane. If Sam isn't allowed on the climbing frame even though all his friends are, then so be it.

I've said before that every child is different but so are their parents, families and situations. Do what you have to do...

...and in three years time, when his little sister is busy throwing herself off monkey bars and he complains that he was never allowed to do such things, smile in the knowledge that he'd be complaining whatever choices you might have made.

Ignore him entirely and concentrate on catching.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 6 June 2008

They should know about the farmers

Dear Dave,

Nobody tells you anything when you're a kid. Well, I suppose that's not entirely true. They tell you things like, 'Blow your nose!' and then they tell you stuff like, 'No! Blow!' and 'Use a hanky, for crying out loud!' and 'Oh, that's disgusting!' The problem is, they're so busy telling you how to act in a civilised fashion and not drip everywhere, that they forget to tell you other essential information.

Not long before I was due to start school, my teenage sister was scandalised to discover that I didn't know my own surname. She ran to report me to my parents. I was bemused. Somehow I was in trouble for not remembering something I hadn't been told. How was I meant to guess I had another name? It's not like I especially thought I needed one.

To this day, my mum occasionally relays to me news of distant relatives that I've been blissfully unaware of up until that point. I nod and smile down the phone. Whenever I've tried for clarification in the past, their relationship to me has usually been explained in terms of their relationship to different, slightly-less-distant, relations that I've been equally blissfully unaware of. Someone should have drawn me a diagram long ago and filled me in on a little family history. As I'm the youngest in my generation by nearly a decade, I'm oblivious to even comparatively recent events. I think people forget I haven't been around as long as the rest of them.

Then again, maybe I have been told some of this stuff. I try to tell my kids about their heritage but they don't always listen. I think the boys have grasped that my brother's a farmer and my dad was a farmer but they maybe don't appreciate that it's farmers all the way back.

I feel they should know that. It might be important. That's a lot of farmers.

Still, if I do manage to get the idea across, I'll almost certainly have forgotten to pass on some other vital snippet of family lore. ('Did I not mention to never go out during the full moon once you hit puberty? Oh well, you'd better get cleaned up - cousin Amelia is coming to stay... You know, Great Aunt Delphine's niece... Oh, never mind, just be polite and hide that sheep somewhere...')

I was made aware of this situation while talking to my nephew Ned the other day.

He's practically living here now. He turns up after school every day and sits in the study and plays my Xbox while listening to music that sounds like two wrestlers beating each other to death with electric guitars while yelling. (He plugs his MP3 player into the console so the cacophonic massacre comes out through the surround speakers for us all to enjoy.)

I've taken to persuading him up to the lounge to join the rest of us and give the neighbours' eardrums a break. Recently, he's been playing Mario Kart with Fraser and LEGO with Lewis. He complains but I think he secretly enjoys it. LEGO Indiana Jones is frequently dismembered by the ingenious selection of traps he's assembled.

That said, Ned wasn't too thrilled when Marie tried to get him to wear a pink tiara and nail polish. He's good at humouring her but that was really a step too far for ANY fourteen-year-old boy. They simply wouldn't have gone with his hoodie.

Yesterday, I left them all to it while I cooked tea in the kitchen but then I got a telephone call. It was Chris, Ned's dad. (You'll remember that, being my wife's brother-in-law, he's the relative I don't have a word for. He also finds my role as a housedad a constant source of amusement.) He didn't sound pleased.

"Is Ned there? He's not answering his mobile."

"Yeah. I'll go get him," I said, heading upstairs with the cordless phone as I spoke.

"Don't trouble yourself - I'll deal with him later. I just wanted to know where he was. He's supposed to be with his maths tutor but it's too late for him to get there now. Tell him the money's coming out of his allowance. If he's not prepared to go, then I'm not prepared to pay. Is he doing his homework?"

I entered the lounge and a little LEGO head sporting stubble and a fedora sailed past my ear. "He's taking a break from studying right now," I said.

"He'd better have it finished before I get home tonight," said Chris.

"I'll see to it."

"Good," said Chris and then seemed to remember I'm a relative and that some pleasantries might be in order. "How are your family?"

"We're fine," I replied. "Chaos as usual. Fraser's birthday party at the bowling went well, though, and it's been nice to get to the swing park in the sunshine. Yourself?"

"Good, good," he chuckled. "Everything's fine. You should all come round for a meal again sometime soon."

"That would be good."

"Excellent," said Chris.



There was a pause. (We're not very close relatives.)

"Good," he said finally. "Thanks for that. I'll leave you to your sewing."

"Uh-huh," I said. "Bye."

He rang off and I blocked Ned's exit as he attempted to sneak past me and out the door. "That was your dad," I said. "Why aren't you at your tutor's?"

Ned scowled and looked at his feet. "Don't like him."

I wasn't sure whether he meant the tutor or his dad. I decided to be equally non-committal. "Why not?"

"Dunno. Just don't."

"Why do you need a maths tutor anyway? You go to a private school. Shouldn't they be teaching you? And, you know, it's maths. You probably haven't even started calculus. How hard can it be?"

He shrugged and didn't say anything. I had to do a lot of coaxing to get the story from him:

It turns out that all his science grades are a disaster. This totally took me by surprise. I'd assumed, since he's an inarticulate teenage boy who likes computer games, that he's a science geek. (I certainly was.) But no, he struggles with basic mental arithmetic and he thinks that if he throws a ball straight up as he walks along that it will fall behind him.

His dad is apparently still toying with the notion of sending him to a scary, remote boarding school to concentrate his mind. They've come to an agreement, however - if Ned's grades improve by Christmas, he gets to stay where he is. Unfortunately, they've actually started going down.

"You need to get your act together," I said, "or you'll be scrubbing toilets somewhere in the Highlands at dawn every day before taking lengthy cross-country runs through thistles."

"I do my homework," Ned muttered.

"Occasionally - if there's a power cut or something. But you definitely need to do it today or your dad's going to go ballistic on both of us. I'll help."

"It's maths," he said, as if this were a problem.

"Yeah. So?"

"It's like... hard."

"Don't worry," I said, genuinely trying to be reassuring. "We'll work it out."

"Whatever." He had a certain air of scepticism about him. It was the one I have when my dad suggests he installs a wireless network despite the fact he can't manage to check his email even with detailed step-by-step instructions. I realised that Ned thought I might be more of a hindrance than a help.

"I have a first class honours degree in physics," I said.

He stared at me like I'd announced that I'd previously had a highly successful career as a pirate and then showed him my parrot.

"No, really," I added.

He was totally incredulous. "But you look after kids."

"I look after my kids. You think your Aunt Sarah doesn't have a good degree, too? We wanted one of us at home with the children and it ended up being me. They haven't always been around. One day they'll all be at secondary school and I'll get to do something else again. I might go back to being a programmer."

"You what?" He didn't remember my pre-housedad existence and no one had ever told him about it. He had an exciting thought. "Did you write computer games?"

"No. I, er, used to work for a Large Banking Organisation, producing the kind of software which stores and retrieves financial transaction data."

"Oh." He looked disappointed.

"I can tell you the right combination of buttons to press to make cash machines start playing Tetris, though."

He showed me new respect. "Cool."

We went and did some maths. I needed a little help from the textbook but it all started to come back pretty quickly. It's a long time since I've done any trigonometry. (I'm not going to figure out exactly how long.)

We were finished quickly and I was going to question him to find out what else he didn't know about me when there was a distant cry of a girl shouting, "Best Daddy in the world, I really love you! Come and wipe my bottom!"

Ned took that as his cue to slope off home. I wasn't too fussed - I imagine I'll have another chance to talk to him soon. I headed up the stairs to find Marie. She was sitting on the toilet and delighted by my appearance. "I love you, Daddy. Please would you wipe my bottom? I've done lots and lots and lots of horrible poo!"

She climbed off the toilet and bent over and I duly did as she asked.

Then she stood up, grinned, said, "I don't like you really," and trotted off to wash her hands without a backwards glance.

I wonder if she knows about all the farmers. There are probably any number of things I should have told her already but that I've forgotten to mention. For instance, clearly no one has thought to inform her yet that I wasn't created merely to be her slave. Maybe I should start with that.

Strangely, I suspect she may not listen...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 4 June 2008

Thinking outside the paperclip

Dear Dave,

What uses can you think of for a paperclip?

When I was at university, it was the kind of question we were told got asked in job interviews, along with such gems as: What are your three greatest strengths? If you were a kitchen appliance, what kind would you be? What's your favourite drink? (Top Tip: Don't say, 'Tequila Slammers'.) What's your greatest mistake and what did you learn from it. (Again, no mentioning the tequila.) How would you describe the internet to your grandparents? How would you describe your grandparents to the internet? What's the difference between a duck? Why do you want this job? Are you pregnant? Can you guess what I had for lunch? Do you know anything about taxidermy? What's your favourite colour? What's my favourite colour? Who won Wimbledon in 1978? What was their favourite colour? And how would you use a duck and your grandparents to describe this colour to a kitchen appliance?

Then there's that old conundrum of how to get U2 across a bridge at night before their concert starts when they can only cross two at a time and there's only one flashlight. (The expected answer involves band members toing and froing and arriving knackered, the sensible answers is to postpone the concert for a few minutes, and the realistic answer is to use the flashlight to hunt down and fire whoever was supposed to be in charge of illumination procurement and send the whole band across in the dark, hoping the bridge doesn't collapse and drop them into a boat containing a fox, a chicken, a bag of grain and a very surprised farmer.)

Of course, I've never really been asked any of these questions. I have been asked some pretty bizarre ones, though. My favourite is, 'On a scale of 1 to 10, how honest would you say you are?' It's so simple and yet whole dissertations could be written on the best answer to give. Is it 8 or is 9? Say 10 and they're going to assume you're lying. Maybe it's 5 - that way, they just can't be sure whether you're lying or not. An answer of 1 is never truthful, since anyone that dishonest would be bound to lie about it. (They probably wouldn't plump for 2, either - it's just not much of a stretch. If you ever want to hire a spin-doctor, then go for the person who says 3.)

I also once got asked, 'Does your father keep pigs?' before I even had a chance to sit down. That was quite disconcerting.

Ho well. Back to the paperclip. There must be hundreds of possible uses. Let's see: fishing hook, bookmark, cake tester, balloon burster, nozzle unblocker, cheap nose-ring... The list goes on and that's not even including the originally intended use i.e. poking into a tiny hole to press the reset button on temperamental pieces of electronic equipment.

Unfortunately, the paperclip question isn't the best question to be asking potential employees. It's the wrong way round. It's saying, 'Here's a solution we've developed. Go find some problems to solve with it and then convince me that people want it.'

I mean, what kind of company works like that? It would lead to catalogues and catalogues of stuff that looked good but didn't really work...

The question should maybe be turned on its head, requiring innovative solutions from limited resources. It should present a problem and ask how it could be solved with only the aid of a common household implement. It would be important to include a practical element. It's easy to talk the talk but the real test is in remaining cool when presented with an explosive device, a rapidly decreasing timer and a clothes-peg. Or when asked to alleviate the credit crunch armed with nothing but a spatula.

It might not be a particularly effective screening process, but it would be fun to watch.

Ironically, the two of us have ended up in the one job where these kinds of skills are actually essential and we didn't even get put through an interview. A housedad should never be without a paperclip. It can be used as the weight on the end of a paper aeroplane, as a replacement link for a sparkly, pink necklace or to lever a LEGO brick out of the internal workings of a video player. Paperclips are the best things ever.

Or so I thought...

Now I have a little girl, it transpires that the best things ever are 'hair elastics' - those glorified elastic bands that hold a pony-tail in place. Aside from saving Marie from turning into a yeti when it's windy, they can be used for everything from tying a wayward raincover onto a buggy to replacing a shattered rivet on a clog. In a pinch, they can be utilised as weapons, used as makeshift restraints and employed in emergency medical procedures. Combined with a paperclip... Well, the possibilities are endless.

I never leave home without one. It's part of my standard housedad kit, along with a packet of wipes, a change of clothes for Marie, nail-clippers, return bus-fare, a re-usable shopping bag, two handkerchiefs, some mints and a spare pound coin (for unforeseen encounters with vending machines, fairground rides and supermarket trolleys).

I may not have had a formal interview for the job, but with this selection of stuff, I'm ready - no matter what the day might ask of me.

(Although, an asteroid strike or zombie invasion would push my powers of improvisation somewhat. Still, even in these cases, if I could quickly get my hands on some paperclips and an extra hair elastic, I wouldn't be doing too badly...)

Yours in a woman's world,