Dear Dave

Friday 26 September 2008

It's not always about meeting in the middle

Dear Dave,

I was glad I had Sarah around to help the other night. She took Marie upstairs for lights out and a disagreement ensued. Marie point-blank refused to go to bed. If I'd been in charge, I'd probably have lost it with her. My patience is usually running low after a twelve hour childcare shift. I'd have insisted she get into bed. Marie would have insisted on not getting in. Everything would have gone downhill from there.

She's stubborn. I would say it was a phase she's going through but she's always been like that. (My only consolation is that she doesn't throw herself head-first backwards any more when she doesn't get her own way.)

We'd have been there for hours.

Sarah, however, let Marie go to sleep on the floor. Everyone's goals were achieved. As far as we were concerned, she was lying down quietly in a place where she wasn't going to disturb us. Having to sleep on the floor even seemed like a rather severe punishment for not doing what she was told. As for her, she was pleased she hadn't had to go to bed.

She was asleep within minutes.

We tried to move her after half an hour but she woke up and screamed that she didn't want to go to bed. We left her be and she rolled over and went back to sleep.

Then, later, when we weren't about, she got into bed herself. She had her feet at the wrong end, just to make a point, but there was no fuss. It certainly beat the pair of us having tantrums.

Sometimes compromise can take unexpected forms.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 24 September 2008

If only

Dear Dave,

Yep, glad to hear Sam's coped well with his first full days at school. Have you managed to coordinate Daisy's naps in such a way as to give yourself some rest? Play your cards right and you could now have several hours a week of extra time to sleep, catch up on the housework, read a book, play the PlayStation or lie around on the sofa in exhaustion, moaning quietly to yourself.

Well, maybe...

Chances are, most days, Daisy will happily demand your undivided attention from the moment the school bell rings until the middle of the afternoon. You'll spend all day crawling around on the floor with her, singing nursery rhymes. She'll doze off in the buggy on the way to collect Sam. Sam will stumble out of school, tired and crotchety, and demand your undivided attention until Daisy wakes up for tea. Then you'll have to deal with two children who have both become used to your undivided attention.

Good luck with that.

Anyway, it's got me to thinking that it's only a year now until Marie is at school the entire day. I'll have three children at school and none at home. I'll have my own undivided attention for six hours at a time. The possibilities are endless. I should begin making plans now.

Other people have certainly started to ask me what I'm going to do with my extra fifteen hours a week (during term-time, when the kids are all well, there isn't a random Monday holiday and, unlike today, the school isn't closed again because of strike action). Surely with a total of twenty-seven hours at my disposal, I must be considering getting a 'proper' job or at the very least have a major project ready to set in motion?

I try to be vague when questioned. I thought getting Marie into nursery would make life very different but the time that that has freed up is always quickly filled. I definitely don't have opportunity to spend my mornings sitting around eating biscuits. (That's what I used to do in the days when I went to parent and toddler, before Marie started nursery.)

Twenty-seven hours seems like a lot but I'll still need to eat lunch, buy groceries and clean the house - things I've previously done with Marie around. I might manage to get my chores done quicker without a small child 'helping' but possibly not. I'll be better able to dawdle. I'll be able to venture into intriguing shops on the way to the supermarket without a little girl tugging at me, complaining she wants to leave, demanding new pink possessions, needing the toilet or being admired by old ladies. When I get back, if the whim takes me, I'll be able to clean stuff that hasn't been cleaned since 1999. Time will fly past. I might even sit down to eat my lunch - that's bound to make it take twice as long.

Don't get me wrong, having them all at school is going to be great. I'm looking forward to it. Life will hopefully be much less rushed. I don't want to spend too much time thinking about it, though, partly because I don't want to set my expectations too high and partly because it will be the last big hurdle for a while.

We've had a constant succession of significant milestones up until now: conceptions, births, crawling, eating, walking, talking, first child out of nappies, first child to nursery, first child to school, final child out of nappies and final child to nursery, among others. We still have the retirement of the buggy to go and Marie needs to learn to wipe her own bottom but after that the pace of change will rapidly slow. Marie will start school and everything will continue on a steady course until Fraser leaves primary school.

Even then, reaching secondary school won't be as momentous as the point where the children are old enough to look after themselves or each other.

In another six years I can go out on my own and leave Fraser in charge... long enough for me to nip to the shops anyway.

Although, now I think about it, I'm not so sure. He can be quite contrary. I'd be nervous about what might happen. He has a tendency to subtly twist any instructions I issue. If I told him to make certain they didn't set fire to the house while I was out, there's a chance I'd return to discover they'd burned down the shed.

Maybe I should send him to the shops while I stay home.


Unfortunately, any time I actually need him to be flexible with orders, he will resolutely stick to the absolute letter of the law. He doesn't like getting things wrong. If I sent him for a dozen free-range eggs and they only had a single carton of six but plenty of battery-farmed eggs, he wouldn't be able to decide what to do. It would short-circuit his mind. He might explode.

OK, eight years until I can leave Lewis in charge.

Except I'd come home to find him sitting obliviously playing Nintendo, surrounded by a pile of rubble. When interrogated over why he hadn't prevented the other two from knocking the house down, he would doubtless argue that he hadn't realised I'd left yet.

So... ten years until Marie's in charge...

She'd enjoy it too much. I'd get back from the shops to find that Fraser had left home permanently in a huge hurry to escape. Lewis, meanwhile, would have been forced to wear a sparkly leotard and paint everything pink.

I could be wrong. Their personalities, interests and temperaments may alter and grow over time. Maybe there will come a point when I'll be able to leave the house with them inside and not feel slightly worried about what I'll encounter upon my return.



Nope. I can't imagine it. OK, fifteen years until they will all have moved out...

Of course, that will merely leave me plenty of free time to sit around in an empty house, worrying about what they're up to elsewhere...

As I said, I try to be vague when people ask what I'm going to do when Marie starts school. It would be all too easy to get sucked into a game of If only. 'If only Marie were at school, I could get so much more done!' 'If only Fraser were old enough to look after the others, I could go out more often!' 'If only they all left home, I could wander round the house naked the whole day, playing the harmonica!'

Wouldn't the world be great then?

Maybe; maybe not. Who knows? Marie starting school will be great but there's no point wishing their lives away. I'm happy with my couple of hours of peace while she's at nursery. And when she's home, that can be fun, too.

Enjoy the crawling and nursery rhymes. Next year will bring something different. It may well be better. Doesn't mean what you have now isn't good.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Being a housedad has its perks. How many other jobs provide you with a personal, trampoline-based fan club complete with flag and streamers?

Marie on a trampoline, holding pink streamers and a huge flag with the word 'JOY' on it.

Not many, that's my guess.

Friday 19 September 2008

A picture of ill

Dear Dave,

Hope your family is doing well and you're enjoying having Sam at school all day now. Don't get used to it, though. There's always something. For example, my kids had a random holiday at the beginning of the week and Marie's not been feeling too good the last couple of days:

Marie looking pensive while wearing a fluffy robe with pink flowers.
The phlegm is strong in you, young Jedi... but... are you sure that robe is entirely regulation?

It's rather put a hold on getting anything done.

Ho well, maybe in 2010 next week.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 17 September 2008

Maths & Maturity

Dear Dave,

I've forgotten more maths than most people ever learn.

Once upon a time, I could utilise vector calculus, execute Fourier transforms and do all kinds of wizardry armed only with a pencil, paper and a selection of Greek letters. Using the four years of knowledge I accumulated studying for my physics degree, I could prove any number of theorems involving everything from electro-magnetism to the motion of stars. Some of these calculations involved assuming that the Earth is flat, others that it's a perfect sphere and a select few required both assumptions, a steady hand and a touch of dark magic.

Happily, my physics skillz were such that I didn't get confused and accidentally make time run backwards or anything unfortunate like that. (That happened down the corridor once. Three of my mates lost a minus sign somewhere, found themselves in 1985, nearly erased their own existences by convincing their younger selves to get trendy haircuts and unwittingly ended up inventing Back to the Future. It was messy.)

That was a long time ago. Now my maths is a little rusty. Basic trigonometry is a struggle.

"That's a right angle," I said, pointing to one corner of a tangle of straight lines in my nephew Ned's homework book. He was sitting at our kitchen table, his head in his hands, trying to solve the problem by sheer force of squinting at it.

Somewhere else in the house, there was a shriek and a thud.

"Everyone OK?" I called up the stairs to the lounge.

"Yes!" called back Lewis, as if surprised I was asking. "Yes," sighed Fraser, seemingly bored by having to give even that much of an answer.

There was a pause. "No," whimpered Marie. "The sofa was bad. It made me fall over."

"Er..." I said, contemplating going to check on them. "Are you all right, though?"

"Yes," she groaned. "I'll put the stool back now."

"Good," I said, deciding it was best not to know what she was talking about. "Be careful. I'll be up in a few minutes."

"OK," muttered Lewis and Marie in unison. Fraser didn't reply. Since this was a better response rate than normal, I left them to it and went back to the kitchen.

"I don't get it," said Ned, now squinting so hard it had to be making his forehead hurt. "How's it a right angle?"

I picked up a pencil and added a couple more lines to the tangle. "Does that help?"

He leant in close to the page, staring at the diagram, his nose almost touching the paper. "No," he said.

"Ah," I said, resisting the urge to yell, "It's totally obviously a right angle. Are you blind?" I felt that might not be too helpful. Besides, if he concentrated any harder, his eyes would clamp shut and his brain would shoot out his ears. I pointed elsewhere on the diagram. "It's a right angle because this is a right angle."

"How's that?" he said, one eye closing as he peered where I'd indicated.

I stood behind him with a couple of mugs, ready to catch any grey matter that tried to abandon ship. "It says so in the question. Those lines are perpendicular."

"What's that mean?"

"That it's a right angle."


It was slow going but we persevered. Ned has rather strong motivation in that his dad's going to pack him off to a remote, military-style boarding school if his science grades don't improve. They'll make him take a cold shower and then force him to do algebra while being chased over the moors by a pack of Alsatians. Having me tutor him might be painful but it has to be better than that. He's not stupid. He simply can't seem to get to grips with equations.

We finished the question and took a break while I checked on the kids. The boys were playing computer games; the girl was filling a Little Mermaid sleeping bag with balloons while wearing two dozen items of pink, sparkly jewellery. I made a mental note to talk to them about gender stereotypes later and then sneaked back downstairs before they noticed I was there.

"What's the point of maths?" said Ned when I returned. He'd found the biscuit tin and was busy emptying it.

I grabbed a chocolate digestive while there was still time and considered the question. At a certain level, maths is vital to understanding the working of the universe. I couldn't really see Ned ever reaching that level, however. At another level, it's the basis of engineering, construction and making Lara Croft wobble in a pleasing fashion. I felt Ned could appreciate these applications but, again, they were likely to always be beyond him. He wasn't so much asking about the uses of maths, he was wondering what any of them had to do with him.

A practical demonstration was in order.

I reached into the pile of our recent mail and pulled out a credit card bill, intending to hand it over and ask, "Why do we pay this off in full each month rather than making the minimum payment?" Then I realised that:
  • (a) It had my credit card number on it.
  • (b) It listed a large purchase from HMV which he was bound to query.
The former was too much temptation to put in the way of a fifteen-year-old boy. There was a chance he'd make for Mexico and I'd never see him again. The latter might lead him to discover I was hiding ten series of Stargate SG-1 in the cleaning cupboard. If he found those, I might never be able to get him to leave. Neither of these scenarios was ideal (nor easy to explain to my wife).

I played it safe and gave him a mortgage statement instead. "Why are we paying this over fifteen years rather than twenty-five, even though the monthly payments are much larger that way?" I asked.

Ned screwed up his face. "'Cos it's done quicker?"

"Yeah... and?"


"That's the point of maths," I said, circling some relevant numbers. "Try and figure out how much it costs in total interest over the different lengths of time."

Glumly, Ned set to work.

I suddenly felt horribly mature. I was forcing him to learn about mortgages. Normally we talk about computer games or films or I listen to him complain about his parents. We're close to being equals in those conversations. I'm nearly twenty years older than him but I'm more than ten years younger than his dad, Chris. I can often relate to Ned more easily than my sister-in-law's husband. Frankly, I usually choose too. I like to think of myself as the not-totally-uncool uncle.

Discussing compound interest didn't sit well with this image. I may wear the same style of clothes I wore in 1997 and they may, in a few instances, even be the same clothes, but it's becoming harder to disguise the fact I'm getting old.

I wonder how Ned actually sees me?

In first year at university, I did a theology course out of a mix of interest and a need to fill a gap in my timetable. It was full of mature students - middle-aged people who'd gone back to university to expand their minds and change the direction of their lives. (This was in contrast to the rest of us who were there to have a good time for four years while putting off giving our lives direction.) As such, they did all kinds of annoying things like read books, prepare for seminars and complain that the word limit for essays was too small.

The physics department didn't have many mature students. Maths is enlightening, beautiful and important. Unfortunately, it's also hard to follow and full of Greek letters. It's not ideal for discussing while drinking coffee in street cafés. (When mathematicians try it, waiters berate them about the diagrams sketched on the table with marker pen and natives of Bohemia laugh at their poor dress sense and ignorance of social conventions.) Few people get to a certain age, decide they don't like the way they're headed and think to themselves, 'Yes, I see it now! My life simply doesn't contain enough maths...'

In fact, we had just the one older student. He had a sign taped to the door of his room which read, 'Within lies the difference between age and maturity.' In general, he blended in with the eighteen-year-olds around him. Only the wrinkles and a touch of sense gave him away.

Another month and I'll be thirty-five, which is roughly the age he was at the time. I don't imagine I'd blend quite so well, however. The kids have blown it for me. On the one hand, I'd be telling the teenagers to look where they were going and to eat their food nicely. On the other, I'd be intimidated by their energy and confidence.

In some ways, I feel less mature than I did when I was a teenager. After Fraser arrived, I was sent a handbook on being a parent. I'm still waiting for the one on being an adult.

As we did sums, I thought about asking Ned his opinion of me but I didn't dare. I preferred to hang onto my not-totally-uncool illusions. That level of communication is probably beyond him for now, anyway. He'd have grunted something non-committal and then hoped for a change of subject. If I'd forced him to come up with a proper answer, the squinting would have caused permanent damage to his eyebrows and I'd definitely have needed those mugs.

We struggled with the mortgage calculations. They were harder than I was expecting and I'm not sure we got them right. Nevertheless they gave some idea of the huge pile of cash that my bank won't be getting. Ned was impressed by the number but he still wasn't convinced about his need for maths. Somehow, he knew that we'd have been much quicker logging on to a financial services website and using one of their widgets.

"Isn't this on the internet?" he said.

I was tired and my patience was wearing thin. (I've become crotchety in my old age.) "Yes," I snapped, "but someone has to write the internet, other people need to be able to point out their mistakes in great detail, someone else needs to blame the government, yet more people need to blame immigrants, someone needs to correct their grammar, others need to blame the government for immigrants and you need to know why they're all wrong and escape before the Star Trek fans arrive."


I took a deep breath. We'd made some progress but there was no point pushing it. "Biscuit?" I said, finding another packet. It was time to call it a day. "Played any good games recently?"

Before he could reply, there was another shriek and thump from upstairs. "The sofa's being bad again, Daddy!" yelled Marie. "Come and tell it to stop."

I headed to investigate, nonchalantly shoving an entire chocolate digestive in my mouth in one go as I went. Ned looked on in awe - there's no way his dad would ever do anything like that. It may not have been exactly cool but it wasn't totally uncool either. His reaction gave me hope that I can come across as mature without merely seeming old.

I didn't let on that the only reason I hadn't eaten the biscuit normally was to avoid making crumbs.

Still, maybe I haven't entirely turned into a grumpy, shrivelled husk yet. Maybe I can keep the balance between age and maturity for another year, and hold off on a mid-life crisis until Marie's at school. With the rest I'll get then, I might be able to avoid one altogether.

This would be for the best. Who knows what might happen otherwise?

With my luck, I might decide my life simply doesn't contain enough maths.

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

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 12 September 2008


Dear Dave,

I stopped asking my dad for help with homework when I was nine. I was struggling to come to terms with basic algebra and I got him to solve an equation for me. As I said, I was nine, so it couldn't have been too tough. Nevertheless, when the teacher marked my jotter, that particular answer came back with a big, red cross next to it.

I wasn't impressed. All dads should be able to do Primary 5 level maths. It's the law.

The failure set me to thinking: if he couldn't manage that, what else was he capable of getting wrong? It occurred to me that he might not be able to decline French verbs properly or be able to put the apostrophe in the correct place when referring to the possessions of multiple princesses.

This was a shocking possibility which I couldn't face and I kept my homework to myself after that day. Maybe I thought I might as well make my own mistakes or maybe I simply didn't want to know that he was fallible. Either way, one mistake and I gave up on him...

I was hoping - indeed expecting - to do better myself, aiding the children with their learning until at least secondary school. To my dismay, Fraser's homework has blind-sided me three times already this academic year and we've had merely a fortnight of term.

He's only eight.

It started with the very first piece of written work after the holidays - he had to name the seven continents. I was pretty sure I could do this until I discovered one of them began with 'O'. That's not one of the seven continents I learnt at school. In fact, I was taught there were FIVE continents.

I was forced to consult Wikipedia.

Apparently, Antarctica has had a promotion, America has been divided and no one can quite agree what to call the part of the world that's mainly Australia. I was taught to call it Australasia, some people call it Oceania and, technically, it should really be Australasia & Oceania. We put down Oceania because that seemed to be the answer Fraser's teacher was looking for.

Then we had to name a country on each continent. This went fine until we got to Antarctica again...

The next lot of homework was about weather. Fraser had to watch a weather forecast and draw some of the symbols used and explain them. This didn't go so well either. I found a weather forecast for us to watch but it showed computer generated rain moving over a 3D map of the UK. There were no symbols.


I had to call up a weather map using the interactive digital on the TV.

Now he's brought a reading book home that contains a number of Greek myths. The first page we had to read included the names Acrisius, Danaë, Polydectes and Seriphos. I could pronounce Perseus at least but we then had a bizarre argument over how to say Medusa. Considering the page only had about 150 words on it in total, it was rather heavy going.

All else being equal, I'd teach him my patented method of dealing with this kind of problem. Having once had to read chapter 8 of the book of Ezra* out in church, I know that being able to pronounce unfamiliar words correctly isn't as important as speaking them loudly and confidently and without batting an eyelid. Sound like you know what you're talking about and people will normally nod and smile and go along with you. (NB It doesn't just work with names - this technique applies in a surprisingly large number of fields...)

He's less likely to get away with it at school, however, since there it's the teacher's job to be loud, confident and unblinking. This being the case, I tried hard to come up with plausible pronunciations. All I can do is hope for the best.

What's he going to present me with next week? I've survived the homework challenges so far but the situation isn't looking good. That's twice I've been saved by technology my own father didn't have and once I've had to rely on crossing my fingers. I think it's the princesses' dresses but what am I going to do when he starts learning French?

I'm in trouble here. It may not be long before I'm abandoned as a lost cause...

Oh, and to top it all, I'm supposed to be helping my fifteen-year-old nephew Ned with his Standard Grade maths next week.

I suspect I need to do some revision...

Yours in a woman's world,


* Verse 4 is my favourite. It doesn't start so bad... Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. (...but then gets quickly out of hand.) Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, (Oh, come on!) Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; (Phew! Thank goodness that's over.) and on his left (Uh-oh...) were Pedaiah, Mishael, ('re kidding...) Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, (!??!!!) Zechariah and Meshullam. (And breathe... Survived. Could have been worse, I suppose - it's not as if a whole load of Levites called things like Sherebiah and Shabbethai are going to turn up as well in another couple of verses and... ... ... Oh, for goodness sake...)

Wednesday 10 September 2008

No dice required

Dear Dave,

Occasionally, people ask me what being a housedad is like. I usually reply with my well-worn response:

'The hours are long, the holidays are rubbish, the pay's a joke and there's heavy exposure to toxic biological waste. On the plus side, there's plenty of fresh air and exercise, a steady supply of hugs, relatively little stress, strong job satisfaction and an army of amusing minions. You also get to play Hungry Hippos and call it work.'

I'm beginning to think that maybe this isn't in-depth enough, though. Everyone has a vague idea of what a career as a nurse or a police officer or an airport supervisor entails from watching reality TV programmes. As far as I'm aware, there hasn't been one for housedads. There have been a few shows where some clueless dad has been unexpectedly left to deal with his offspring for a few days despite no training or experience but that's not really the same. A typical housedad day doesn't normally have so much opportunity for disaster...

It's time to redress the balance but I don't have the resources for my own docu-drama, unfortunately. I've had to opt for something slightly lower budget. Welcome to

Choose your own housedad adventure!

Yes, you too can experience the highs and lows of looking after three small-ish children as you herd two boys (8 & 6) and a girl (3) around town and attempt to survive one day of the summer holidays! Gird your loins, eat some medicinal chocolate and prepare yourself for a quest to end all others...

You start at Paragraph 1 with a stamina of 10 and no gold stars. Your stamina has a maximum value of 14 and no gain can take it above this. Should your stamina ever fall to zero, then turn immediately to Paragraph 29.

1 - You open your eyes. It is dark. There are noises from elsewhere in the house. It sounds peculiarly like a squabble over a tub of LEGO is taking place on a trampoline. What do you do?

Check the time on your alarm clock (Go to Paragraph 2), get up (Paragraph 3) or roll over and go back to sleep (Paragraph 4).

2 - You blearily hammer at your alarm clock with your fist until the light comes on. Squinting, you discover it is time to get up. Do you get up (Paragraph 3) or roll over (Paragraph 4)?

3 - You tumble out of bed and sneak into the shower before any of your offspring spot you and demand food, a bottom wipe or a game of Scrabble. Standing in a stream of hot water wakes you up to a point where you remember who you are and where you keep the coffee. (Gain 2 stamina.) You get dressed and head downstairs. (Turn to Paragraph 5).

4 - You turn over and settle yourself back into a dreamworld of sunshine and flowers. The zombies will arrive soon but, as long as you can take your socks to the dry-cleaners before the last smurf dies, everything will be fine... Unfortunately, a giant safe falls from the sky and lands on your head. In your new two-dimensional state, breathing becomes difficult...

You wake to discover a toddler sitting on your head. She is demanding Corn Flakes. With limbs like lead, you drag her off, stumble out of bed and pull on some clothes. (Lose 2 stamina.) Unsure who you are, you stagger to the kitchen. (Turn to Paragraph 5).

5 - A strong cup of coffee helps you come round (Gain 2 stamina) and you make the children breakfast. You shout for them. Two arrive. You go in search of the other one. He made it as far as the landing before becoming distracted by his own toes. You encourage him into the kitchen and sit all three children down at the table, switching on the TV to keep them stationary. Do you give them cereal (Paragraph 6) or chocolate (Paragraph 7)?

6 - There is much deliberation from each child in turn as they decide what to have. You are forced to list the available cereal options three times. They all complain they have the wrong amount of milk. One has too much, one has too little and the third wanted ice-cream. Nonetheless, they empty their bowls (mostly into their mouths). Lose 2 stamina, gain 1 gold star and turn to Paragraph 8.

7 - The children are delighted. They gobble down the sugary goodness and then rush off, leaving you in peace (Gain 2 stamina) to eat your own breakfast...

...for a few minutes before the rush hits, they start enthusiastically re-enacting Indiana Jones and the whole house begins to shake as one of them tries to be a boulder. (Lose 2 stamina.)

You shout at them but it has little effect. (Turn to Paragraph 8).

8 - The sun is shining and it looks like it's going to be a lovely day. You finish a second cup of coffee and decide how to spend the morning. Do you

Go out (Paragraph 9),
Stay at home (Paragraph 10)
Or put off the decision while you eat some biscuits (Paragraph 11)?

9 - You pack a bag with emergency supplies, wipes and raincoats. Then you coax the children into getting their shoes on. They demand to know where they are being taken. Is is the swing park (Paragraph 12) or the soft-play (Paragraph 13)?

10 - The boys play computer games for a while and the girl insists on doing some painting. Just as she finishes, one of the boys wants to paint. She demands the toilet. As you're dealing with them, the other boy informs you that he has Mouse Trap set up ready to go and it's your turn. They all talk at once. (Lose 2 stamina.) Do you

Go out (Paragraph 9),
Stick to the plan and stay at home (Paragraph 15)
Or eat some biscuits (Paragraph 11)?

11 - Mmmmm.... Biscuits.... Your stamina is increased by 2 points but everything has gone oddly quiet elsewhere in the house. The children may be planning something.

Do you

Go out (Paragraph 9),
Stay at home (Paragraph 15)
Or eat some more biscuits (Paragraph 16)?

12 - It's a beautiful day and the swing park is very busy. The children get plenty of fresh air and exercise but so do you. Gain 1 gold star but lose 4 stamina.

You head home for lunch. (Turn to Paragraph 17).

13 - The soft-play is relatively quiet. You shove the kids inside and settle down to read a book. They emerge an hour later, covered in sweat and having had plenty of enjoyable exercise. Gain 2 stamina and 1 gold star.

Do you head back for lunch (Paragraph 17) or
Make sure to tire them out by taking them to the swing park on the way home (Paragraph 12)?

14 - You pull your sword from the dragon's heart and wipe the sweat from your brow. You are exhausted but victory is finally yours. All that remains is to untie the princess and fill your backpack full of gold. (Turn to Paragraph 27).

15 - You play three games of Mouse Trap, read The Gruffalo fifteen times and get Play-Doh stuck to the bottom of your socks. It is a long, long morning. Lose 6 stamina.

Time for lunch. Turn to Paragraph 17.

16 - You finish the entire packet of biscuits just as there is a loud crash from upstairs. Gain 2 stamina but the children can't be ignored any longer. (There are also no more biscuits in the house.)

Are you going to take them outside (Paragraph 9) or
Entertain them at home (Paragraph 15)?

17 - You feed the children a healthy meal including plenty of fruit and vegetables. You enjoy some peace (and coffee!) while they watch Bob the Builder. Gain 2 stamina.

Just as they finish, you notice that it has started to rain outside. There isn't much food left in the house, however. Do you

Stay home (Paragraph 18),
Go to the soft-play (Paragraph 19)
Or go to the supermarket (Paragraph 20)?

18 - Did you stay home all morning? If you did, then turn to Paragraph 21. If you made sure to tire them out, then turn to Paragraph 22. Otherwise turn to Paragraph 23.

19 - Have you been to the soft-play already today? If so, turn to Paragraph 24. Otherwise turn to Paragraph 25.

20 - Did you make sure to tire the children out in the morning? If so, turn to Paragraph 26. Otherwise turn to Paragraph 28.

21 - Are you sure staying in all afternoon as well is a good idea? If so, turn to Paragraph 30. Otherwise turn to Paragraph 31.

22 - The kids are tired and it's wet outside. You all settle down under blankets to watch a Pixar movie. The afternoon passes without incident. You doze happily, dreaming of Mrs Incredible. (Gain 4 stamina.) Turn to Paragraph 32.

23 - You begin the afternoon with a game of Cadoo and the kids are happy and well-behaved. Later, however, they dig out the marble run and persuade you to build a complex, multi-run construction of marble mayhem. While you are engrossed in the design process, they sneak off and mix all the jigsaws together in a big pile in the middle of the lounge.

By the time you've cleared up, they're jumping around and talking very loudly for no reason. (Lose 2 stamina.) Your spider-sense tells you things could quickly get out of hand. Do you

Brazen it out (Paragraph 30),
Buy their obedience with biscuits (Paragraph 33) or
Go to the supermarket (Paragraph 28)?

24 - Rebellion! "But we've been to the soft-play already!" they whine in unison and refuse to go. They grab hold of banisters, pipes and large electrical appliances in order to avoid being dragged from the house.

You are forced to stay in for the time being or to take the fridge with you on your travels.

You decide to stay in.

If you made sure to tire them out in the morning, then turn to Paragraph 22. Otherwise turn to Paragraph 23.

25 - You get pretty wet on the way to the soft-play and it's very busy when you get there. You shove the kids inside and try to find a quiet corner to dry off. The place is a surging maelstrom of damp parents and children, however. (Lose 2 stamina.) You feel grotty but the kids emerge an hour later, covered in sweat and having had plenty of enjoyable exercise. Gain 1 gold star.

You pop into the shops on the way home and buy some food (including biscuits). The children grumble but accept that it might be a good idea to have something more substantial than baked beans for tea. You make it round the supermarket (relatively) unscathed. Lose 2 stamina and turn to Paragraph 32.

26 - Uh-oh. The children drag their feet all the way to the shops. Getting soaked puts everyone in a foul mood. Then, just as you arrive, they gain a new lease of energy.

Evil energy.

They grab a shopping trolley and start their own version of Supermarket Sweep. It's carnage in the aisles. You manage to purchase some groceries in the midst of the mayhem but you forget to buy biscuits and you may have to shop elsewhere for a few weeks until everything blows over.

You head home. The children collapse in front of the TV. You keep out of their way until tea-time. Turn to Paragraph 32.

27 - Your entire day so far has been a dream. Return to Paragraph 1 with your current stamina level but reset your gold stars to zero. (That'll teach you for cheating!)

28 - You head for the shops, the children bouncing along beside you. All seems well. (Apart from the rain, obviously, but there's minimal arguing and everyone looks both ways before crossing the road.) No one steps in dog poo. You reach the supermarket.

It turns out the kids have been conserving their energy in order to demand sweets. They whine and plead and hug the display cabinet.

Do you give in to avoid a scene (Paragraph 36) or insist they find a snack with some semblance of nutrition (Paragraph 37)?

29 - You pass out from exhaustion. You awake to find yourself pinned to the ground by small children. One of them is attempting to insert LEGO up your nose. He is wearing your socks on his ears.

There is no escape. Game over.

30 - Determined not to go out in the rain, you keep the children inside. They insist on playing Mouse Trap but then wander off whenever it's their turn. You have to keep shouting at them for jumping on the sofa. They draw on themselves with indelible marker while you're not looking. Everyone starts going mad. (Lose 4 stamina.) Do you

Eat biscuits (Paragraph 38),
Go to the shops (Paragraph 28) or
Feed the children biscuits (Paragraph 33)?

31 - Smart move. Do you

Go to the soft-play (Paragraph 25)
Or go to the supermarket (Paragraph 28)?

32 - It's tea-time. The end of the day approaches! You rustle up a healthy, balanced meal which the kids eat happily while watching something vaguely educational on the telly. You take the chance to relax while they're occupied. Gain 4 stamina and 1 gold star...

...unless they've recently eaten all the biscuits, you've promised them biscuits and not delivered or you haven't been to the shops. These scenarios mean they can't eat the food, they won't eat the food or there is no food. Not good. Lose 2 stamina in the resulting riot.

Whatever happens, it's bath time. Turn to Paragraph 34.

33 - You promise the children some biscuits if they behave. They immediately fall into line. Ten minutes later they demand biscuits.

Did you eat them all earlier? If not, turn to Paragraph 35. If you did, you have to head to the shops (Paragraph 26).

34 - It's bath-time. Since the children bathe one at a time, this requires about an hour and a half of preparation, supervision, washing and drying. It may involve getting wet. Are you definitely going to bother bathing them all?

Yes (Paragraph 39).
No (Paragraph 40).
Only the ones you can catch (Paragraph 41).

35 - You just manage to get your fingers out of the way in time as the children devour all the biscuits in the house. This keeps them sweet until tea-time. (Gain 2 stamina.) Turn to Paragraph 32.

36 - You give in and buy the children chocolate-coated Sugar Bombs. You then threaten to return the packet to the shelf if any of them misbehave.

The children follow you round the shop on tip-toes and squabble only in hushed whispers. They offer to help carry the shopping. You buy food (including biscuits).

You go home and the children amuse themselves until tea. Turn to Paragraph 32 but remember that they'll have the Sugar Bombs for dessert.

37 - You persuade the children that they'd really prefer yogurts to marshmallows. (Lose 2 stamina. Gain a gold star.)

The children grumble but allow you to buy your groceries (including biscuits) without starting a riot. You make it round the supermarket (relatively) unscathed. Lose 2 stamina.

You go home and the children amuse themselves until tea. Turn to Paragraph 32.

38 - Did you eat all the biscuits earlier? If so, then tough. You find a Polo mint at the back of the cupboard and have to console yourself with that.

If you didn't finish off the biscuits earlier, you do so now. Gain 2 stamina.

Either way, you struggle manfully on through the rest of the afternoon, organising a game of Hide-and-seek. As often as possible, you choose hiding places that involve lying down. Lose 2 stamina anyway then turn to Paragraph 32.

39 - You give the children baths. (Lose 3 stamina.) While they are getting clean, one boy chats to you about Harry Potter and the other puts on a show involving a plastic crab, an empty shampoo bottle and an inflatable penguin. The girl unexpectedly asks you if Adam and Eve had belly buttons.

It's all actually quite fun. Gain back 2 stamina. If the kids got sweaty during the day, also gain a gold star. Turn to Paragraph 42.

40 - You let the children play amongst themselves while you clear up in the kitchen and check the news. (Gain 1 stamina.) Turn to Paragraph 42.

41 - If you fed the children Sugar Bombs, then you can't catch any of them (Paragraph 40). Otherwise, you grab the first one you can find and order them into the bath. They grumble and complain but obey. The other two immediately emerge from hiding, feeling left out. They complain that they wanted to have a bath first.

You tell them to form an orderly queue. Turn to Paragraph 39.

42 - The cavalry arrives! Your partner returns home from a hard day standing chatting at the water cooler. She helps get the children ready for bed.

If you have three or more gold stars, turn to Paragraph 43.
If you have less than three gold stars, turn to Paragraph 44.

43 - Your children grumble that they don't want to go to bed yet but each gives you a big hug anyway. Your partner gives you a big kiss and makes sure they settle down while you cook dinner. (Gain 2 stamina.)

Er... You did buy food, didn't you? If not, you'll need to nip to the shops. (Lose 2 stamina unless there are biscuits left to keep you going until you get back.)

You catch up with your partner's day while you're both eating your meal and you give her selected highlights of your own. Then you have some wine and watch CSI together. (Gain 2 stamina.)

She decides to read a book. Do you stay up and watch a film with explosions (Paragraph 45) or go to bed (Paragraph 46)?

44 - It turns out that no one is really keeping score. You survived another day. Job done. Turn to Paragraph 43.

45 - You become lost in a world of improbable car chases and implausible plot twists for a while. Gain 2 stamina. Then you go to bed far too late and fall asleep almost instantly. Turn to Paragraph 47.

46 - You go to bed but your mind is too full of the events of the day and tomorrow's chores for you to get to sleep straight away. You do still get some extra rest, though. (Gain 1 stamina.) Turn to Paragraph 47.

47 - Add the number of gold stars you have to your stamina level. If the total is an odd number, turn to Paragraph 48. If the total is an even number, turn to Paragraph 49.

48 - You are woken in the middle of the night by a small child making demands for no apparent reason. This makes you grumpy and tired. Lose 3 stamina if you stayed up late to watch a film. You quickly get them settled down again, however, and you are thankful you're past the days of nappy changes and milk. You sink happily back into your bed. Turn to Paragraph 50.

49 - You stir briefly in the night as a small child mutters in their sleep about Pokémon. They quickly quieten down, however, and you are thankful you're past the days of nappy changes and milk. You sink happily back into your slumber. Turn to Paragraph 50.

50 - You sleep the deep, reviving sleep of a tired housedad. (Gain 4 stamina.) You are victorious.

Your reward is to go back to Paragraph 1. Keep your current stamina level but reset your gold stars to zero. Enjoy. And don't eat so many biscuits this time...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 5 September 2008

A seat at the table

Dear Dave,

So... Are you thinking of having another one yet?

Yes, yes, I know you're fed up with people asking. I know you're tired of giving vague answers in reply. And I know you've had enough of spending your mornings avoiding going into details on the subject during coffee time at parent and toddler.

I'm still asking anyway.

Remember, though, I'm not asking if you are going to have another one. I'm asking if you're thinking about it... because you should be. If you and Liz decide you're not going to have any more children, then you can surprise the more inquisitive souls at toddler group by off-loading cribs and babygros and goodness knows what else on them while they're holding a hot cup of coffee and can't run away. It will help you clear some serious space in your house.

If, however, you do determine there's an empty slot at your kitchen table, there are plenty of advantages to having your third child sooner rather than later. You're still in the habit of changing nappies, pushing a buggy, sleeping poorly and barely having a moment of peace. In another couple of years, Daisy will be three and you'll hopefully be beyond that. You'll definitely be looking forward to being beyond that. Going back to Nappy 1 will be difficult.

As far as the kids themselves are concerned, there's much more chance of them sticking together and treating each other as equals if their ages are close together. I'm the youngest of four but the nearly-ten-year gap between me and the next one up means I sort of missed out on being part of a big family. I was both a youngest child and an only child, which has doubtless messed with my head in all kinds of interesting ways. In contrast, Fraser and Lewis are merely twenty-two months apart and act like an old married couple, frequently bickering but banding together when threatened and feeling confused when separated for any great length of time. What's more, they're starting to treat Marie less like a pet, so the three of them may soon be able to find stuff to do that they can all enjoy and participate in. I'll be able to set them playing Monopoly and sneak off for a lie down.

Oh, and as a bonus, if you get cracking in the near future, your kids will be grown up and out the door a year or two before you feel compelled to join a bowls club.

Of course, there are disadvantages. Having three young children at the same time is a little... tiring. It's almost constant effort. Oddly, though, I do find that having more around can make things 'easier'. As I've already said, they can entertain each other, but when they don't, I have the option of distraction tactics. If Marie is pestering me, I can send her off to find out what Lewis is doing. She'll either end up watching him or wandering after something pink and shiny she passes on the way. I can easily buy myself twenty minutes. If Lewis has been talking for half an hour about his latest Mario game, I can claim any number of legitimate reasons to go check on Marie. Lewis will have gone to harangue Fraser by the time I get back. If Fraser then arrives to complain that Lewis won't stop talking, I can send him to go tell Lewis to find Marie, who will doubtless wonder what's going on and send Lewis to find Fraser to ask why I sent him to tell Lewis to find her. In turn, he will... Well, you get the idea. The possibilities for miscommunication, confusion and endless traipsing around the house become vast at this point.

If I tip-toe into the cupboard under the stairs with a book and a torch, it'll hours before they notice I'm gone.

Three children means there's never any sitting around wondering what to do and I don't get trapped playing Snakes and Ladders all afternoon. There's always something that has to be done, always someone who wants their turn. The times when I only have one to look after are tedious in comparison - there's less challenge, more repetition and little chance of being left alone. They follow me around, demanding to play Mouse Trap. Eventually, I have to give in...

Admittedly, having more kids means less 'quality time' for each child. Three children puts you on the border between involved parenting and crowd control. Stimulation and nurturing give way to organisation and peace-keeping. Four or five family members speaking at once means that conversations cease to have a gentle to-and-fro dynamic like tennis - they end up more like dodgeball. This is stimulating in its own way, certainly, but can be overwhelming (and loud).

I just have to hope that having to share my attentions is teaching the kids self-reliance and patience, while dealing with each other is helping them learn to be considerate and cooperative.


OK, that doesn't appear be happening but I don't care, to be honest. They seem pretty happy to have each other around and we're glad we've got them. That's about as much as we can ask for.

There are plenty of reasons for and against having more children but, truth be told, they're not that important. This isn't necessarily a logical decision. Any biological difficulties aside, it really does come down to how empty that seat looks at the kitchen table.

When we announced Marie was on the way, we had a markedly different response from people than we'd had with the boys. Quite a few checked we were pleased before wishing us congratulations. Life wasn't going hugely well for us at the time and choosing to have another child must have seemed to verge on foolishness.

We definitely felt we were missing one, though. We knew our difficulties would pass eventually and that we wouldn't get another chance to have a little brood of wee ones. With these things in mind, we never felt we were unable to cope. Even when it turned out that Marie was a difficult baby, we were able to keep going.

Having said that, we felt quite stretched for months at a time. We had enough slack in the system to deal with her horrendous sleeping, constant illness and willful craziness but we've maybe reached our limit.

We could manage another one like Lewis. He was very contented as a baby. He smelled terrible but that wasn't so bad. It didn't keep us awake at night, for instance. Marie, meanwhile, refused to eat or sleep. She'd regularly wake up at 3 in the morning to cry for a couple of hours. (She was probably annoyed that she was tired and hungry.)

I can't really be doing with that again.

We might get another Lewis...

...we'd have to be prepared for a Marie.

I love her dearly but our kitchen table is looking pretty full right now.

How about yours?

Yours in a woman's world,


PS We were visiting my parents last year and an old lady at church asked me, "Are you planning any more?"

I laughed nervously at the thought but before I could answer properly, my mum did it for me. "Three children is plenty for anyone," she said.

Hello!? Your fourth child standing right here, mum...


Wednesday 3 September 2008

One down...

Dear Dave,

I hadn't taken that in at all.


Even now, I can't entirely believe it but I guess it must be true. After all, you should know.

Sam's starting school?! Today!?!?

I really thought he had another year of nursery. I'd forgotten the cut-off date is different in England. The end of February is the dividing line here in the Scotland, rather than the beginning of September. Lewis' birthday is in March so he was five and a half before he started Primary 1. Sam's only just turned four! That seems awfully young...

Still, hey, you've got one to school! He probably looks really cute in his little uniform and they'll be gentle with him to begin with. It won't be much different from nursery initially, except you'll actually have to get him there on time. It's in a few weeks, when he has to go for the full day, that it will hit you both. He'll become grumpy as he grasps quite how much of his life school is going to consume for countless years. (Then they'll teach him to count those years and he'll simply go into shock.) You, meanwhile, might get a little peace (if you can time Daisy's naps right).

You'll wander the house, wondering what you should be doing without a small child demanding your attention. Obviously you should be sitting down with a cup of coffee but it may take several days to come to terms with that. Having only one child to look after will seem like a bizarre luxury. Even though caring for Sam when he was small took all your time, looking after Daisy will feel like you're slacking now that your skills have been honed.

Try to enjoy it rather than feeling guilty. Grab a break when you can. Kids are great but they're hard work. It's been a long slog getting this far and it's still over two years before Daisy starts nursery and you get a regular opportunity to relax.

The end of being on call 24/7 is a step closer, however.


Have you considered having any more?

I'll let you ponder that one for a couple of days. (You're probably too busy gibbering to read anything else I have to say on the matter anyway.)

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Don't get too used to Sam being at school, by the way. He might only be in for a two hour introductory session today but that should be plenty long enough for him to acquire three colds and a stomach bug. He'll be sneezing his lunch all over you by the middle of next week.