Dear Dave

Friday 31 October 2008

Choosing a nanny

Dear Dave,

We'd reached the last nanny of the day.

I sat with Steve and Deborah at one side of their kitchen table and Potential Nanny Number 6 sat at the opposite side, giving a standard list of answers to our standard list of questions. It was beginning to feel like we were going through the motions and I'd lost track of which applicant was which. Had Potential Nanny 3 been the one with the draconian views on discipline or had that been PN4? I checked my notes. It had been PN2. PN3 had believed that discipline was an out-moded concept of a defunct patriarchal worldview. This made her the candidate most likely to be eaten by small children, and put her quite low on my list of choices. Still higher than PN2, admittedly, but not by much.

I sighed. It wasn't going well. Why on earth had I agreed to help Useless Dad and his wife select someone to look after their kids while they were at work?

As if in answer, Deborah deftly cut another slice of cake and slid it over to me without taking her eyes off PN6. I wolfed it down thankfully, the extra calories restoring my energy and renewing my resolve. We were almost at the end of the interview. I took the longest blink I thought I could get away with, breathed deeply and tried to stay awake. There was only Steve's bonus round left to go.

"If you were a squirrel with a paperclip," asked Steve, "what would you do?"

This wasn't on the online list we'd found of standard questions to ask potential nannies. Deborah and I had allowed it, however, on the basis that any successful candidate was going to have to deal with Steve on occasion. They needed to be able to cope.

"Trade it with a magpie for an acorn?" PN6 said hesitantly.

"Only one acorn?" queried Steve. "You don't sound very certain."

PN6 recovered quickly. "I'd have to check the current exchange rates."

"Hmmm..." said Steve, nodding, and looked over his notes. "Your CV is very strong. Decent academic record, a wide range of experience and glowing references. It couldn't be better." He paused. "Which really does beg the question of why on earth you want to look after other people's children all day for this kind of money?"

This was off script but it was an interesting point. Deborah and I let the question stand.

PN6 thought for a moment. "Kids are fun."

The three of us in the room who were parents all looked unconvinced.

PN6 hurried to add some qualification. "Mostly. Looking after them can be dull and repetitive sometimes, I guess, but, you know, I get to go home at night and turn up with fresh enthusiasm for Snap in the morning. I'm not going to be a nanny forever or anything - I'm thinking of applying to be a primary teacher next year - but I'm enjoying it for now. It's great making an impact on kids' lives and watching them mature."

There was a brief interlude as Steve, Deborah and I scribbled this down and ticked a whole load of boxes on the sheets in front of us. Sure, it was a hodge-podge of approved responses from the same website we'd used to get the questions but at least it showed some application. Besides, being able to answer awkward inquiries on-the-fly is an important childcare skill in itself.

"Thank you very much," said Deborah. "That's the end of the interview unless you have anything further you want to ask us."

PN6 had a few queries about hours and duties but they were wrapped up quickly.

"Thanks again," said Deborah. "We'll be in touch."

She managed to hold her smile until the front door was closed and then she came and collapsed, exhausted, in her seat. It was my turn to offer some cake. She took it gratefully. She knew as well as I did that we had a long discussion ahead of us.

On paper, it really wasn't hard. We should have been able to make a selection in a couple minutes. From personality to childcare philosophy, PN6 was the obvious choice.

There was only one small problem...

Steve was never going to hire him.

* * *

"What about PN2?" said Deborah, slightly desperately. We'd been talking round in circles for half an hour and not even approached a decision. The cake was gone. We were all jittery from too much coffee.

"You mean 'Scary Poppins'?" I said. "She'd have your kids cleaning chimneys or working down a mine. If you hire her, I'm never coming round to visit again. She was unpleasant and creepy. I wouldn't be surprised if her house is made of gingerbread."

"Well, who are we going to hire then?" snapped Deborah, exasperation getting the better of her.

"I liked PN1," said Steve wistfully.

"Yes. Rather too much," said Deborah. Potential Nanny Number 1 was young, vivacious, cute and, er... bouncy. I couldn't help noticing that Deborah had violently scribbled out all her notes on PN1 and replaced them with a single word in red biro: STRUMPET. This was somewhat unfair but I didn't fancy my chances of talking Deborah round. PN1 wasn't getting hired.

"How about PN4?" I said.

"Too old," said Steve.

"She wasn't that old," I countered.

"She got out of breath climbing the stairs to the flat," said Deborah. "I don't think she's up to the physical demands of two small children."

"Maybe," I sighed.

"I still say PN3 would be ideal," said Steve.

"In some alternative universe where children always do what they're told and don't have teeth," I said, rolling my eyes. "She was on another planet and had no experience. Your kids would have her tied up, lightly basted and in the oven on Gas Mark 5 by the end of the first morning."

They didn't deny it. Time passed. We all sat silently pondering the options and stared at the empty plate where the cake had been.

"PN5?" I suggested eventually.

"The pregnant one?" asked Steve, rifling through his notes.


"But she was pregnant!"


Steve was dismissive. "If we hire her, we'll have to do this all over again in four months time."

"Chances are that we'll have to do this again in a few months anyway," I said, trying to contain my anger. Having had to live through the consequences of decisions made by various clueless male managers (including Steve himself) when Sarah was pregnant, I'm quite touchy on the subject. "Any of the others could hand in their two weeks notice and be off at any time. A pregnant woman is extremely unlikely to quit unless she really has to. Besides, you can't not hire her simply because she's pregnant - that's illegal."

"She had a squint. Can we not hire her because of that?"

"No," I said and counted to ten under my breath.

Disappointingly, Deborah took Steve's side. "I didn't feel she really fitted in with our family."

"She so did. And your kids loved her. You're finding excuses to discriminate."

"They loved PN6 as well," said Deborah calmly, even though I was losing it.

Steve stiffened. "You were exceptionally keen on him yourself. Making those eyes. I didn't trust him at all. What kind of man looks after children?"

I blinked. "Er, hello? Housedad sitting right here. Heck, you haven't started your new job yet - you're still technically a housedad."

"I didn't choose..."

"I did."


Fortunately, Deborah intervened at that point before things got out of hand. "Time for a break while I go check on the children."

* * *

Ten minutes gave us all a chance to clear our heads.

"OK," I said, tossing my notes aside as we sat back down at the table. "You're looking for someone who isn't too old, too young, too inexperienced, too evil, too male, too cute or too pregnant. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest you're not looking for anyone too ethnically diverse, alternatively oriented or spiritually disparate, either."

Steve looked shifty and Deborah smiled knowingly. They kind of muttered in agreement.

"Right, well, you're stuffed," I said, shrugging. "You're simply going to have to go for someone competent who your kids like, which makes it PN5 or PN6. Personally, I'd go for PN6, but the decision is really up to you guys."

Deborah raised an eyebrow. "That was blunt."

"Well, you did ask for my help," I said. "All we've done so far is find reasons to exclude people. You need to start thinking of reasons why the remaining candidates are worth including in your family."

"OK, PN6, then," said Steve and started putting his pen away.

"Why?" asked Deborah sharply.

"Because you want to hire him," said Steve, obviously surprised the discussion wasn't over.

"And you don't?"

"I'd rather hire Five, to be perfectly honest, even if she is going to double in size and then leave us in the lurch."

Deborah frowned at him. "So why did you say Six?"

"Because... erm..." His mouth flapped as he tried to phrase some suitable excuse... but he was too slow.

"There's some sport coming on the television, isn't there?" said Deborah, her lips pursed. "You just want to get this over with."

Steve was confused. "You want to hire Six. What's the difficulty here?"

"I need to know why you want to."

"I don't want to."

"I know," said Deborah with patience born of dealing with small children. "But why might you want to?"

"Er..." said Steve, entirely out of his depth.

"That's what Ed wants us to talk about," said Deborah.

"Are you sure? Ed, what...? Oh..."

I'd already sneaked off. I left them to it and went through to watch the football on their big telly while pretending to keep an eye on their children. Around about half-time, they phoned PN5 to give her the job.

The selection process was over and Steve and Deborah had a couple of weeks breathing space before their new employee started and they had to make the decision work. Steve offered me a glass of wine to celebrate but I had to decline since it was time to go home and rescue Sarah from childcare duties. Deborah did line my pockets with cakes before I left, however - I wasn't going to say no to that.

I'm sure their newly-promoted Actual Nanny Number 1 will be fine and, if not, at least they made the choice together in their own mysterious fashion. Still, as I walked home in the chilly twilight, I was heartily thankful that I have the opportunity to look after my own children.

It's almost as good as having a coat stuffed full of warm blueberry muffins...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 29 October 2008

Stereotype confusion

Dear Dave,

I think our correspondence has affected me.

After years of sitting around at parent and toddler listening to mums share about their childbirth experiences, clueless partners and babies with sharp teeth, I'd got used to being the only man in the room. I'd learnt to blend. I knew when to interject with heartfelt opinions on child-wrangling and when to keep quiet and hide behind my cup of tea. This allowed me to fit in, even though I stood out. I was an honorary mum. I hadn't quite reached the stage of getting confused and referring to Sarah as 'my husband', but it was close.

Our letters have changed my outlook, however. It's been a relief to discuss computer games, gadgets, children and everything else from a properly male perspective; to talk about being a man in this woman's world with someone who understands.

Unfortunately, I've got a little too used to it.

Now the kids are older and I'm not at parent and toddler three times a week, I'm no longer constantly reminded that we're pretty much the only two housedads out there. People ask me what my job is, I tell them I look after my three kids and then I'm surprised when they do a double-take and start acting like they've chanced upon some bizarre combination of madman, Jedi and dodo. Fear and awe compete for control of their faces before being overcome by mild bewilderment. A housedad? Really?

You'd imagine I'd be used to this response but, after a year and a half of these letters, I've got to the point of thinking that housedads are commonplace.

I was reading a newspaper article about childcare last week and was totally thrown at the end of the second paragraph when the writer started talking about her husband. I'd totally assumed the piece had been written by a man. When I realised my mistake, I was momentarily astonished.

Honestly, who leaves a woman in charge of children? What next? Male doctors? It's just not right...

Upon returning to reality, I began to wonder in what other ways I've become confused.

The same day, I got sent some publicity material about a game called Baby Life that's coming out on the DS for Christmas. Players get to create their own baby and then help it grow up from 9 to 15 months, encouraging her/him to speak, move and behave.

My initial reaction, having had to help three children grow from 9 to 15 months in real life, was to experience nasty flashbacks to sleep deprivation and being covered in porridge. Why would anyone go through that for fun? Once the trauma had passed, though, I realised that the DS doesn't have smell-o-vision (or, indeed, splat-o-vision) and can be switched off at night. Hopefully this means the game gives the opportunity to feed a child unhealthy food, disrupt their sleep patterns and teach them bad habits without having to live through the consequences. (You know, like being a grandparent.) Even if not, it might be fun to experience the smiles and giggles without the nappies.

On consideration, I thought Marie might actually quite enjoy the game in a year or two...

Then I stopped the thought. Why had I assumed the boys wouldn't be interested? They're much more into computer games than Marie and they've already had practice nurturing animated pets - they spent days earning enough rings in some Sonic game in order to buy a little bird-creature its own TV. They didn't even mind too much when the bird-creature almost totally ignored the TV. They're natural parents.

Despite being a housedad myself, I'd jumped to the conclusion that a game about babies is for girls. Maybe this was because the publishers are aiming it at girls. Maybe it was because (despite my best efforts) my little girl is such a little girl, complete with an entirely pink wardrobe, nail varnish, sparkling jewellery, a love of art-and-craft and an obsession with princesses. Maybe it was simply plain old gender stereotyping.

I don't know. It did make me stop to consider how all three of my children might experience the game, though:

Fraser would teach the baby tricks but eventually become fed up with the lack of challenges and complain that there wasn't a Boss Baby to fight. Lewis, meanwhile, could become quite attached to his virtual offspring. He'd call her Splungewobble, care for her incessantly and insist I set a place for her at the kitchen table.

All in all, it's Marie who would play the game in the scariest way. She'd make a big fuss of understanding her baby's needs but then conduct experiments on him. ('He's hungry. Isn't he cute? I'll turn him upside down and put the porridge in his nappy. That will teach him to say please.')

Worryingly, she wants to be a doctor when she grows up.

I'm not going to try and work out how my kids would react to the accompanying Horse Life game. Between my stereotype confusion and their unwillingness to be pigeon-holed, there's little chance of guesswork and reality coinciding. I suppose I'll just have to put my preconceptions behind me and see what happens...

You never know, when the kids are older, things may have moved on to the point where men and women are able to fit in, whatever career or role they choose. Housedads will become commonplace and this whole topic will be academic.

Er... Probably best not to count on that, however.

We should let the kids know that society's expectations of them may differ from what they've experienced in our role-reversed households. Good luck explaining to Sam that not all men get to send a woman out to work while they stay home and play with LEGO.

If my boys are anything to go by, it may be a while before the poor little guy believes you.

Yours in a woman's world (still),


Thursday 23 October 2008

A little housedad luxury

Dear Dave,

With the world financial system collapsing around our ears, the media has been full of ways to cut back and economise. The problem is, after having had the breadwinner in the family on maternity leave three times in the last eight years and working part-time at some points in between, we've done most of the economising we can already. We don't have a car, we buy own-brand food, we've cleared our debt and we're on the one-from-bottom cable package.

The only obvious thing we haven't done, I suppose, is change energy supplier. This would probably save a little money in the short-term but we'd need to be prepared to swap again every few months to make a big difference on an on-going basis. Unfortunately, the chance of even one transfer going smoothly is pretty slim. I'd be trying to co-ordinate the efforts of the call-centres of two large companies. It would be bound to end in tears. Both companies would charge us for gas and neither would charge us for electricity, they'd send us lots of threatening letters, ignore our phone calls and then two teams of opposing engineers would turn up at the same time to cut off the power supply. They would fight it out in the driveway for the right to disconnect us, their cable pliers held aloft, gleaming in the dawn light, and their battle-cries waking the neighbours.

It's just not worth the hassle (nor the pile of wounded tradesmen outside the front door).

Nope, I really can't be bothered changing energy supplier, so that doesn't leave many new options for saving money. We'd have to start rationing chocolate biscuits or cancel the kids' swimming lessons.

Fortunately we're not at that stage yet. If anything, without any maternity-enforced penury recently, we're feeling more flush than we have for some time. While the rest of the world is suddenly counting pennies, we've emerged from the financial strains of small children but haven't yet reached the difficulties of designer trainers, expensive trips and university fees. We have the opportunity to splash out.

Kind of.

The last few weeks, while Marie has been in her gymnastics class, I've bought myself coffee.

Admittedly, it's not proper coffee - it's only the kind that costs 40 pence from a vending machine - but if you'll remember, I'm a guy who will walk a couple of miles in the rain to save a pound on the bus fare. Buying coffee goes against my nature. Every week I guiltily stick a couple of coins in the machine and then sit down and relax, free from children and unable to do chores, and I sip the coffee, delighting in the frivolous luxury and smiling to myself.

Some weeks the smile has a touch of grimace mixed in because the machine has failed to dissolve the granules in the hot water properly and left me chewing on raw coffee but it's still a pleasure.

You never know, maybe one day I'll buy myself a second pair of shoes...

Yours in a woman's world,


Tuesday 21 October 2008


Dear Dave,

You're right - it is amazing how many crumbs one breadstick can make. Somehow small children can turn a single snack the size of your little finger into an environmental disaster that requires three hoover bags, a nappy change and a haircut to entirely clean up. It's one of the unexpected joys of housedadhood.

Personally, I'm always surprised by how much of my life I spend clipping nails. By the time I've worked through all twenty digits on each of my three children, the first one has drunk four pints of milk and swallowed a piece of chalk, causing another complete set of claws to shoot out in need of pruning. It's never-ending. Oh, and as I've discovered, trimming the nails on a squirming little girl is made even harder when she's got sparkling pink varnish all over them, since it's difficult to know exactly how long they are. Trim then polish - that's my advice to you when Daisy's older.

Yep, when I signed up to be a housedad it really didn't cross my mind that I'd need manicure skills...

I suppose there have been plenty of other revelations along the way:
  • Babies can pee, poo, vomit and feed while asleep, thus freeing up their every waking moment to demand attention for no real reason at all.

  • Toddlers are quite happy to fall asleep face down in their food but...

  • ...they don't like waking up in the bath.

  • Teachers are nicer than I expected.

  • Then again, there's no school on Friday afternoons and there's a holiday every few weeks - no wonder they're smiling.

  • Braiding hair is as hard as it looks.

  • Learning to ride a bike is harder than I remember.

  • And, when whacked in my face, a Wii controller is just plain hard.
One lesson I keep forgetting, however, is that things don't always get easier as time goes on. It's natural to anticipate children becoming more able and independent as they get older. Babies lie around, then they learn to roll over, sit up, crawl, stand, walk, run, leap and cartwheel. There are always brief hiccups in the process as they fall on their nose but, in general, it feels like it should be a steady progression. Over a number of years, they go from being carried around to propelling themselves around at high speed.

Theoretically, anyway.

In reality, at some point in their development they discover sofas and return to lying around again, unwilling to move without large amounts of coercion. All they seem able to do is absent-mindedly roll over, fall off and land on their nose.

This lack of 'progress' has been recently brought to my attention once more with the issue of bedtimes. When the boys were babies, bedtime was whenever we could finally get them to sleep. Then, a little before Marie was born, we managed to train them both to go to bed at around 7:30. This was fantastic. We had the entire evening to ourselves. We had time to relax and get stuff done.

Lovely as she is, Marie scuppered that big time. It was another couple of years before we got them all in bed by eight o'clock. Except, of course, the boys weren't needing so much sleep by then. They were both lying awake for ages. We allowed Fraser to read in bed and Lewis got story tapes to listen to.

Eventually we ran out of story tapes. Lewis got to stay up and watch kid's TV instead. Depending on what he was watching, Fraser was keen to stay up too and then read afterwards. At some point during the summer, we got to the stage where Marie was having stories until 8:15, Lewis was wanting stories or TV until 8:30 and Fraser was lurking in the lounge with a book until 9:30.

We hoped they'd need more sleep once term started again but that's not the case. Lewis has been lying awake again. As of this week, both boys are now allowed to play until 8:30 and watch (suitable) TV until 9:00. Fraser can read for a bit after that but he has to go to his room.

Scarily, this feels like an improvement on how things were before. Nonetheless, in terms of space to ourselves, we apparently passed the peak four years ago and it's all downhill from here. There will come a point when the kids stay up later than me and then spend the whole weekend lying around in bed, only stirring to check their text messages, demand food and fall out onto their noses.

My role as a parent is changing. It used to be an on/off experience. The kids were either awake and demanding my full attention or they were asleep and I could totally ignore them. Now they're much better at entertaining and looking after themselves, so they don't need my full attention so much, but there's less opportunity to completely switch off. I'm 'on call' the whole day.

I might have enough time to sneak off and do something or I might be faced with a request to play a game or read a story at any moment. There's no way of knowing. It's almost a return to when Fraser was small and he used to dose off randomly for anywhere between ten minutes and three hours. Rather than looking forward to bedtime at the end of the day, it's a case of grabbing peace where I can. The trick is finding a balance between getting stuff done, having a rest and interacting with the kids.

I'm not used to it yet. Next year, when all three of them are at school, it will be easier.

At least, I'll be surprised if it isn't...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 17 October 2008

Getting younger

Dear Dave,

It's that time of year again...

I've got older.

Yes, technically I get older at the same rate all the year round but psychologically aging is restricted to annual updates every autumn, complete with candles and bad singing.

Actually, this time, I haven't got older. I've officially got old:

The library wanted me to fill in a questionnaire about their new checkout system. It's highly impressive. There's a barcode scanner for your library card and everything. Using a touchscreen display, you tell it whether you want to return books, borrow them or renew them. Then you just put the books on a little shelf and it knows which ones they are. By magic. One by one, the titles come up on the screen as tiny Librarian Pixies frantically do their job. The thing even prints out a receipt.

Of course, with all the button pressing and scanning, it's not really any quicker than the old system of a human librarian stamping the books. More often than not, one book in the stack won't register, requiring a careful analysis of the receipt to work out which it is. Sometimes the system thinks a book is already out when you try to borrow it or already in when you try to return it. This means searching out a librarian anyway.

When the machine gets it right, though, it's very, very cool.

Still, the first question on the feedback form scared me. It wanted to know my age and had a selection of age ranges to choose from. I realised that by the next time I intended to return to the library, I would no longer be grouped together with 25-year-olds - I would be consigned to the same dark tick-box as those who were only a day short of 45. (You know, the kind of people who might be in awe of an automatic book detector and describe it as 'cool'.)

I made sure to make a special trip to hand in the form before my birthday. Being 35 apparently puts me in an entirely different age bracket and I'm not sure I'm ready for that.

Happily, there is some leeway in where the division lies and not everyone puts it in the same place. I got sent a brochure yesterday from an organisation that runs Christian courses and retreats and they had a few specially developed for 18 to 35-year-olds. I was so flattered to be lumped in with school-leavers, I nearly signed up, despite most of the options involving travelling a long distance to sit in silence for AN ENTIRE MONTH.

Then I remembered the weekend on spirituality and creative arts I went to a few years ago which put me on the organisation's mailing list in the first place. It was an interesting course but I was surprised when I turned up and found the hall packed full of middle-aged women. They were all very welcoming and pleasant but got mildly confused whenever I mentioned my kids. Turned out that the course had a heavy Catholic slant and they'd assumed I was a trainee priest.

They were plain-clothes nuns.

All of them.

Much as thirty days of peace and contemplation surrounded by young women sounds tempting, I'm not sure I'm ready for that either.

So here I stand, teetering on the precipice of middle-age, wondering whether to jump before I'm pushed. The funny thing is, though, I actually feel significantly younger than I did a couple of years ago. I'm getting unbroken sleep. I can bounce along the pavement unencumbered by buggies, toddlers and changing bags. I don't feel the need to live on chocolate bars and biscuits. I'm not coming down with a cold or stomach bug every other week. Best of all, people have finally stopped being surprised by how young I am. This doesn't necessarily sound like a good thing but what it really means is that I'm no longer looking old for my age. Result!

If this youthful trend continues, there might be life after children yet.

Wouldn't that be great?

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 15 October 2008

Housedad cake torture

Dear Dave,

The cake was a lie.

As I sat on a wicker armchair in the large bay window of Useless Dad's flat, I could really have done with some sugary sustenance to calm my nerves but the cake I had been promised wasn't there. I shifted around in the seat, trying to find a patch which wasn't hard and knobbly. I couldn't lean back without sliding deep into the chair's embrace, my feet sticking out in front of me as I sank down into a dark realm of loose change and forgotten trinkets. The chair was very obviously designed to be festooned with cushions but they were missing. I sat uncomfortably on the edge and hid behind my drink.

Rather than coffee, I had been given fruit tea. It appeared not to contain caffeine, rendering it effectively pointless. I sipped at it because it was there but my heart wasn't really in it.

Across the table from me, Deborah drank her own tea. As always, she was confident and pretty but she seemed taller and more imposing than normal, thanks to the vast number of cushions piled high beneath her. She frowned at me with a mixture of annoyance, disappointment and despair as she ate her cake. Once she'd finished it, she dabbed at her lips with a napkin and then sat back, arching her fingers together in front of her, contemplating me. She raised one immaculately-shaped eyebrow and waited for me to explain myself.

I sipped some more tea, playing for time.

It was still half an hour before I needed to leave to collect Marie from nursery, though. The boys were at school, as was Deborah's eldest, Ophelia. Her toddler, Josquin, was at playgroup with his dad. There were no little people to distract or intervene, no children to protect me. I was alone.

"It wasn't me," I squeaked.

"What wasn't you?"

"Er..." Truth be told, I wasn't entirely sure what I was supposed to have done wrong but I had to guess it was something to do with her husband, Steve. More specifically it was almost certainly related to the fact he'd given up on being a housedad and got himself a job with non-family-friendly hours and inflexible working conditions without considering the implications for childcare. That he hadn't consulted Deborah at all probably wasn't helping her mood.

Nonetheless, it wasn't my fault. I hadn't talked him into it. I'd told him not to do it. Why was I in trouble? What had I done to deserve being denied cake?

Wordlessly, Deborah held up a sheet of paper.

Oh... That...

"Did you write this?" she asked.

"Yes," I squeaked again.

She began to read.
Dear Sir,

In answer to your query, I do not hesitate in recommending Steve as a management consultant in your organisation. Having read your brochure, I believe his skills and level of knowledge of the business environment are a perfect match for your firm. Steve has a knack for locating logistical minefields in any process and kicking them to the top of the agenda. In so doing, he highlights the critical nature of these issues, forcing those around him to take ownership of the problem. By stepping back, he allows others to find their own solutions, thus empowering them to move forwards, clearing a path to success. The results are nothing short of explosive, blowing away accepted wisdom and replacing it with brave new ideas for a brave new world.

Over the eighteen months I have known him, Steve has often demonstrated a remarkable level of ability in adapting to fresh situations and different roles. He can answer his phone while performing almost any other task, negotiate with multiple underlings at the same time and, in an emergency, make a decent cup of coffee. On the golf course, Steve is dedicated, punctual and willing to go the extra mile. He can also use Danish pastries very persuasively.

He would make an incalculable addition to any team.
Deborah stopped reading and looked at me once more, saying nothing but her eyebrow burning into my soul in search of answers. The silence was even more uncomfortable than my chair. I felt the need to explain myself. Somehow, I was compelled to speak.

"I didn't actually lie," I said. "I maybe portrayed his accomplishments in a flattering light but I didn't actually lie. What was I supposed to do? He insisted on checking it over, made sure I signed my real name and then faxed it for me. If I'd written the whole truth, he'd only have hunted down someone else. He'd have started with Sarah and then gone after Mike and Rob. Who knows what kind of glowing reference Rob would have given him for a laugh? At least with mine there was a chance the company would read between the lines and offer someone else the position. And this way, my wife and friends didn't get hassled by..."

Deborah held up a hand to cut off my desperate grovelling. "He bribed you with doughnuts, didn't he?" she said.

The game was up. "Yes," I whimpered. "They had icing and sprinkles."

Her eyebrow raised another notch, the movement wrenching further confessions out of my mouth. "He came round with them after he'd heard the children had given me a disturbed night. I was tired. I didn't know what I was doing. I needed sugar. I'm sorry..."

Deborah pondered this information for a time, slowly tapping highly-manicured nails on the table. Then her demeanour softened slightly. "I'm surprised he was so cunning. He must have put a great deal of planning into it." She drank her tea and sighed. "He really does want this job, doesn't he?"

I nodded. "I've done my best to train him but he's survived being a housedad rather than appreciated it. He's much closer to the kids and he'll always be more use looking after them than he was but deep down he wants to chair pointless meetings and send self-important memos. It's who he is."

Deborah thought about this some more and then seemed to accept it. "Yes, I suppose so," she said. "The question is: what are we to do now?"

We? What was she expecting me to do? "Erm..." I said, holding my cup nervously.

As if from nowhere, she produced a small bone-china plate and a pastry fork. On the plate was some...

"Cake?" she asked.

She slid the plate across to the middle of the table. I eyed it suspiciously. I hadn't done anything to deserve cake. Well, not yet...

"What do you want me to do?" I asked miserably.

"We have a problem," she said. "I don't have enough hours in the week to run my business AND look after my children. When Steve starts this job, he will also be short on time. He may have to choose between the children and golf."

"Good luck with that," I said, my eyes fixed on the cake.


I was close to drooling but I still didn't see where this was going. "You could put Josquin into nursery and sign Ophelia up for after-school club."

"My workload varies from week to week and sometimes I have to travel. A flexible solution would be more appropriate. Perhaps a nanny is the way forward..."

"Yep, worth looking into," I said, my cheek twitching as I attempted to will the cake towards me with the power of my mind.

"I suspect, however, that my opinion of the qualities required in a suitable candidate will differ from Steve's opinion."

"Probably true," I said and reached towards the cake. She couldn't expect me to be their nanny, so I was off the hook. It appeared there was such a thing as free cake after all.

"We will need a third opinion," said Deborah sweetly.

My hand stopped halfway to the pastry fork. "You want me to help you find a nanny?"

"And arbitrate over the hiring process."

I hesitated. "That's not really where my skills lie."

"Agreed but Steve and I both trust you. What do you say?" She rested her fingers on the edge of the plate. It was unclear whether she intended to pull the cake back or slide it further towards me. I guessed that the direction of travel might depend on my answer.

"Erm," I said, swithering, but then I noticed the cake had nuts in. I was sold. "Yeah, OK."

Deborah smiled and pushed the plate towards me. "Good. I'll fetch a pen and paper and we can begin working on criteria. Would you like some coffee?"

I grunted enthusiastically, my mouth already full of cake.

While she was out of the room, I grabbed some cushions for myself and devoured the rest of my snack. I was relieved I'd got away so lightly. Sure, I had some work to do but it was interviewing nannies - how badly could it go?

Then I choked on a nut and made fruit tea come out my nose.

I hope that wasn't some kind of sign...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 10 October 2008

Every Democrat's worst nightmare

Dear Dave,

Spiders and snakes make my skin crawl.

I don't know why. It's not like I've ever had a traumatic experience with them. I've never been trapped in a cave with a horde of arachnids nor been chased through the woods by a ten foot serpent. Heck, I've only seen snakes a dozen times in real life and on most of those occasions they were behind thick glass. I just find them creepy. As for spiders, the very idea of them makes me nervous. Especially big ones. Pictures of big spiders make we want to run away.

Actually, merely thinking about pictures of big spiders isn't too comforting. Or even big pictures of little ones. Or...

Excuse me while I go get my shoes to keep my toes safe. (Don't worry, I'll make sure to shake them out before putting them on...)

Maybe it's genetic memory. Maybe sometime way back, my ancestors got hunted by a giant snake, hid in a cave to escape and only then discovered the place was hooching with large, hairy spiders. That might have been a scary enough ordeal for me to vaguely remember it, even five hundred generations down the line.

It would be good if my kids didn't have such irrational fears, however. After all, we live in Scotland - if one of us were to stick our feet out from under the duvet during the night, there's not much chance of a tarantula taking a nibble.

That's what I keep telling myself anyway but, truth be told, I'd rather overheat than take the risk...

If the kids do have some hazy, primal recollection of that cave full of webs and eyes, there's probably nothing I can do to overcome it entirely. I do strive not to exacerbate the problem, though, working hard to conceal my own fear when a spider charges at me from underneath the sofa.

This can be difficult since any creature making a surprise appearance is liable to make me jump, whether it's a spider, a mouse or a small child hiding behind a door. (Be warned: There comes a point where the pathetic attempts of small children to scare you turn into serious attempts to induce a heart attack while making you fall down the stairs.) Still, once the initial panic is over, I endeavour to calmly and nonchalantly deal with whatever critter has attacked me. I find that transforming the whole thing into an educational event helps me regain some of my authority while distracting the kids from the fact that I've recently screamed like a young feminist confronted with some gender stereotyping.

"Hey, guys! Come look at the legs/tail/hockey mask on this!"

I know feigning bravery is worth doing because I've already passed on a touch of my arachnophobia to Sarah. I got so freaked by a couple of spiders early in our marriage, that now she gets freaked if one creeps up on her. This isn't handy. It means I'm the one who ends up having to catch them under a mug and throw them out the window.

Admittedly, my reassuring bravado isn't going to make much difference with Fraser, since he goes into a panic when buzzed by flies, but Lewis is currently quite enamoured by creepy-crawlies and I wouldn't want to put him off. If he finds a woodlouse in the house, he follows it around, studying it. He was inconsolable the other day when someone squished a spider he'd been watching for ten minutes in the school playground. He cried all the way home. He'd practically named the thing.

Marie's not too fussed about bugs either way but she has other fears. Along with a pink water bottle featuring a picture of Stephanie from Lazy Town, there were only a couple of things which she wanted for her birthday. The first was a 'No Smoking' sign to stick to her bedroom door. The second was a 'No Dogs Allowed' sign to stick beside it.

She's very pleased to have them. Now she knows she's safe at night, convinced that approaching dogs will read the signs and leave her alone. This is hard to argue with - true enough, no canines have popped into her room for a quick drag since the signs went up.

No dogs and no smoking signs on Marie's door.

For Christmas, she wants a 'No Crocodiles' sign to put above the bath.

I suppose a fear of dogs isn't very surprising when they're bigger than you are. Hopefully she'll get over it once she's taller. Smokers have already been banished from public places so they're not a big issue. That only leaves a fear of large, toothy reptiles. It shouldn't impact on her daily life too much, as long as she turns down any invites to dubious swamps or experimental theme parks.

All in all, we have an interesting mix of fears and phobias between us. With luck, we won't make each other worse and we'll be able to work together to overcome them.

Well, maybe... Plans don't always turn out quite the way I expect:

Last week, Sarah and I were standing around in the kitchen one evening, catching up on how our days had gone, when Sarah jumped as an ENORMOUS spider scuttled out from under the freezer. I jumped because she jumped and then I looked round wildly, ready for whatever scariness might confront me - a sabre-tooth tiger, a hooded assailant with a scythe, a pension statement or George W Bush pole-dancing. I spotted the spider just as it disappeared under one of the cabinets, heading straight for where I knew a mousetrap to be.

The thing was so LARGE, I was surprised the trap didn't go off. (Seriously, it was T---H---I---S--- ---B---I---G.)

I bent down to have a look. The spider was nowhere to be seen. I was face to face with a dead mouse, though. I leapt backwards, no doubt looking like I'd glimpsed a Republican in a thong.

There may have been some shrieking.

Once I'd calmed down, I dealt with the mouse, we both put slippers on, I poured out some wine to steady our nerves and then we went and cuddled up on the sofa. We watched TV, hoping the spider wouldn't get us.

It was the next evening before I managed to capture it under a glass. It was HUGE. It glared at me, shuffled around a bit and then started impatiently tapping to be let out. I didn't really want to go near it. I suspected Fraser and Sarah wouldn't be too keen either. Marie would have claimed it was a dog and run away.

That only left Lewis. He would have been happy to deal with it. Unfortunately, he would have named it and wanted to keep it.

This was such a scary concept, I was inspired to manfully scoop the spider up and throw it into the neighbour's garden.

I'm not sure what my kids would have thought if they'd seen me. It wasn't perhaps the most fearless example I could have set. Nonetheless, I did my best. My unfortunate, snake-fleeing, cave-exploring ancestors would be proud.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 8 October 2008


Dear Dave,

Happy birthday to Daisy! I can hardly believe she's one already. Doesn't time fly?

Actually, don't answer that. I think we both know that where looking after children is concerned, time can do some very peculiar things. A year can disappear but a wet afternoon can drag on forever. The hour they spend napping can vanish in five minutes, while the five minute trip home with a kid desperate for the toilet can take an hour. The weeks start to whizz past so fast that Monday morning seems to come round every day and yet it's always an agonising wait for that tooth to come through or the tantrum to stop or for the kettle to boil so you can have a cup of coffee. (Or is that last one just me?)

The upshot is that they get older quicker than you expect but, then again, so do you.

I guess you're finally moving beyond the baby stage, though. Daisy is eating finger food and you can give her cow's milk. Sterilising stuff is pointless because she can feed herself breadsticks from under the sofa, dirt and passing spiders. Has she learnt to walk? (Being able to take three steps and then clunk her head on the telly counts.)

She may still be 'your little baby' but sit her next to a new born and you'll be astounded at how far she's come in a year. Another few months and she'll most-definitely be a toddler.

In contrast, now that Marie's turned four, I'm officially past all that. I no longer have a toddler in the house. She's a little girl. I should expect to get to the supermarket and back without a child falling over, wanting carried or complaining they need the toilet.

Of course, this seldom actually happens but at least now I can dream. I folded up the buggy the other day and put it away because I hadn't used it in a fortnight. The boys are capable of performing complex errands with a reasonable chance of success. Fraser even volunteered to carry a useful amount of shopping home recently. They really are all growing up.

This does bring new problems, however - the kind of problems that are much harder to deal with than a grazed knee, tired arms or trainers full of pee. The kind that involve social skills, popularity and fitting in at school.

Marie is fine so far. She already has a gaggle of girlfriends who gather round to admire the pinkness of each other's clothing and then swap hugs. Lewis, meanwhile, has a group of like-minded individuals to help him re-enact scenes from Super Mario Galaxy in the playground.

Fraser isn't so lucky. He's a geek in a class full of non-geeks. He's also academic, opinionated and has a lack of tact. Despite only being eight, he probably has as many enemies as he has friends. This rather marks him out as a target.

He generally gets on better with the girls in his class than with the boys but that's just not cool when you're eight. He could do with a couple of mates with big piles of Pokémon cards and an interest in Nintendo. Unfortunately, I can't conjure friends for him out of thin air. School is going to be tough for him on occasion.

I'm keen for it not to be miserable, though.

I was bullied at school. I'm a geek, I'm shy, I'm not adept at a witty put-down, I had glasses from an early age and there is a portion of my genetic code that is part donkey. The only reason I wasn't called 'Big Ears' at school was because everybody was calling me 'Big Nose'. (I'm from Norfolk - I suppose I should feel lucky I'm not part turkey.)

For a few years, I spent a great deal of my existence being embarrassed and/or lonely. The bullying seldom got physical but it was horrible, nonetheless.

I wasn't sporty or popular, so I concentrated on what I could do, which was school work. I strove to excel academically. It was what brought me the most praise and attention from my family. It was what made me special. It was what made me worthwhile. I obsessed about coming top of the class.

This, in itself, didn't win me any friends. Then I became trapped in a situation where when I did well, I got taunted for being a 'swot', and when I didn't do quite as well as normal, I got jeered for 'not being as clever as I thought I was'. The latter was particularly unpleasant because it undermined the shield I'd put up around myself. I only became more stressed about doing well.

I tried fighting back. I tried ignoring the bullies. Neither tactic succeeded. I got contact lenses and stared at my nose from different angles in the mirror. I escaped into computer games and books and pretended I didn't care.

And, over time, I grew to care a lot less.

I realised that if people were going to pick on me, they were going to do it anyway, no matter the size of my nose or the quality of my eyesight or what mark I got in the last test. The people who were calling me names were idiots I didn't want to be friends with anyway.

After that, the bullies had less power over me and found being met with disdain and contempt much more off-putting than any witty retort I could have managed. We all got older and kept out of each other's way.

Sadly, I still feel that my worth is dependent on success. I'm sensitive to criticism, I hate getting things wrong in public and I'm overly keen to make a good impression. I grin like a lunatic when meeting new people. (Please like me! Please...) Whether all these issues are entirely down to the bullying is anybody's guess but the bullying really didn't help. As far as possible, I don't want my kids to have the same trauma.

Quite how to achieve that is the difficult bit...

I suppose the most important thing is to talk to them. We try to get the boys alone every so often (which is surprisingly difficult) and ask how life is going and if they're having any problems. Lewis is usually, "Yeah. Fine. Why are you asking?" but sometimes Fraser will think a little harder and tell us if anything is troubling him. This is a start. I generally kept it all to myself when I was his age.

The times I did confide in people, it didn't go particularly well, which discouraged me from doing it again, so I try to be as sympathetic with Fraser as possible. This alone seems to improve matters.

Working out what to do after that is more difficult. A couple of years ago, Fraser was being harassed by two older children who kept being obnoxious whenever they saw him, asking irritating questions and repeating everything he said. He wanted me to intervene but he only told me about the problem three days before the end of the academic year. I said I'd talk to his teacher if they kept doing it after the summer. They didn't. It all went away. Phew...

More recently, he was being picked on in the playground in the morning. Other boys in his class were lying in wait for him, taunting him to chase them and then acting annoyed if he caught them. To a certain extent, it looked like a game. Fraser kind of liked the attention to begin with but it became more vindictive as the weeks went on. It ceased to be any fun at all when Fraser's friends caved to peer pressure and started joining in.

We told him to ignore the other children and they'd quickly get bored. That didn't work, though. They kept goading him into taking part. Still, it was all relatively mild and confined to the five minutes before school, so we encouraged him to keep trying to sort it out for himself. We thought the eventual outcome would be better that way.

Then, one morning, I was standing at the school door, waiting for Lewis to go in, when I saw Fraser in the distance. He was surrounded by at least eight other boys, a couple of whom weren't even in his class. Two or three of them were making fun of him and Fraser was holding back tears. Another boy shoved him from behind. It looked like it was about to get very ugly.

If I'd seen a similar situation with adults, I'd have called the police.

I would have gone over and got involved myself right then but Marie was holding onto my leg, refusing to go to nursery. It took me a few moments to drag her off and then the bell went. The mob dissolved. The kids disappeared into the school.

There really wasn't any choice but to inform Fraser's teacher. I checked Fraser was happy with that first, however. When I was at school, I was under the distinct impression that telling a teacher about bullying would only make things worse - they'd downplay my story, not believe it or use it to cause humiliation. I thought I might even get into trouble for telling tales. There was certainly no expectation they'd be able to fix the problem and a good chance the bullies would use the whole experience as fresh ammunition.

With hindsight, I now realise that this was maybe exactly what the bullies wanted me to think. If I'd been reasonably careful to pick the right teacher, I'd have been OK. More than that, if I'd talked to my parents and had them backing me up, the situation would definitely have improved. (Teachers are less likely to fob off parents and just having my parents on my side would have been good in itself.)

Bearing this in mind and having been told that schools are much more geared up for discouraging bullying these days, I was optimistic something could be done to help Fraser. Crucially, from what I'd seen of his predicament, getting a teacher involved seemed unlikely to make things worse. I still didn't want to barge in without consulting him, though.

As it turned out, when I spoke to him after school, Fraser was delighted with the idea of me talking to his class teacher about it all. Knowing that he wasn't alone cheered him up. I quizzed him for more details of what had been going on and we both spoke to Mr Campbell at the end of the next day. Mr Campbell was suitably concerned, came up with an action plan and praised Fraser heavily for telling him what was going on.

I didn't hear the details of what happened in class the next day. Fraser didn't want to go into it but he seemed happy enough. Apparently, Mr Campbell had 'sorted it out'. The morning ordeal stopped straight away.

Fraser was also made that week's star pupil in his class - in recognition of 'his sensible decision to talk to people about his problems'. This was possibly a little more attention than I'd have wanted in Fraser's situation but Fraser was too relieved things had been dealt with to care.

Crisis handled... for now.

Fraser is never going to be stunningly popular and there's every likelihood he'll get picked on again in the future. All we can do is keep talking to him and listening. Hopefully he'll learn not to be concerned what other people think of him. That's a lesson I wish I'd picked up earlier and more fully at school.

The one thing I really should have done back then, though, is stuck up for the other victims. If I was going to be unpopular anyway, it might as well have been for doing some good. I had nothing to lose and there's a possibility it would have made school better for everyone.

I'll run that past Fraser sometime soon. I can't see him being too thrilled at the idea but at least I'll have planted the seed...

Ho well, I wonder what else I'm going to have to deal with as the kids get older? How long before it's all sex, drugs and rock'n'roll? One day I'll look back on those trainers full of pee and reminisce about how my problems used to be so simple...

I should be prepared. The way time flies with kids around, that day may well be tomorrow.

Good luck when Daisy brings her first boyfriend home.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 3 October 2008

Sing a song of sixpence

Dear Dave,

There are a number of films, games and books where the main protagonist starts out by waking up in a back alley with no memory of his life or identity. All he has to go on are the contents of his pockets. Usually these consist of a peculiar, unlabelled key, one half of a torn photograph and a bloody knife.

Unsurprisingly, it takes him a few days to work out he's a secret agent/terrorist/very unlucky librarian and he can go weeks without remembering he's married and has a wise-cracking teenage child. It's all very unfortunate.

I, however, am much more prepared for this kind of situation. I realised this the other day when I reached into my jacket and pulled out two paintings, a collage and approximately half a birthday cake.

This wasn't an entirely normal haul but it was strangely representative of the items I often find myself carrying around. My numerous (and extremely large) pockets are always crammed with stuff. I wouldn't get to the end of the alley before thinking, "Hmm... I suspect I may have left some children around here somewhere..."

On a typical trip to collect the boys from school, my pockets contain the following:

The contents of my pockets.
About the only thing that isn't here is some rye...

  • Woolly hat and scarf. The scarf is a recent addition for Autumn but the hat stays with me all year - it keeps my head dry in the rain and is less bulky than a poncho or umbrella. In another week or two, I'll need gloves as well.
  • Phone. I always carry this with me in case of emergencies. It usually creates emergencies by distracting me with a text message at inopportune moments. Then the battery dies.
  • Keys. These are unlabelled but the keyring has photos of my children in it. (You know, in case they ever leave me alone for five minutes and I forget what they look like... or which fence I padlocked them to.)
  • Six of Marie's elasticated hair rings. I could have sworn I only had two the other day. They're breeding.
  • Two handkerchiefs - one for me and one for the children. I'm not too fussed about passing a cold round between them but I'd rather not have it myself, thank you very much.
  • Assorted letters from school, nursery, clubs and church, handed to me by small children as they came out. I should really read them. It's on my to-do list. (I think that might be in here somewhere too...)
  • Used bus ticket.
  • Emergency pound coin for use in shopping trolleys and vending machines. Once upon a time it was also enough to get us all home on the bus. Thanks to inflation and the kids getting older, it's now only enough to buy some chocolate to keep us going as we trudge back in the rain.
  • Two pairs of nail clippers - small one for them, large one for me. Do I really need these with me the constantly? Possibly not but it saves searching the house for them whenever one of us gets a hang-nail.
  • Packet of mints. To stave off coffee breath. Also good for keeping the kids quiet while I read my text messages in an emergency.
  • Wallet - bloated with library cards, leisure cards, loyalty cards, money-off vouchers, receipts for fresh fruit and vegetables, a forlorn five pound note and a very tired credit card. Oh and a blood donor card that's been waiting about five years for me to have time, energy and health simultaneously. Speaking of which:
  • Packet of throat sweets. Yep, got a cold again. Think I may have muddled up the handkerchiefs last week.
  • Loose change. Maybe if we scrape together this and all the cash the boys have found on the ground or in the return slots of snack machines, we can catch a bus after all...
  • Empty sweetie wrapper. If there isn't a bin around, the kids simply hand their rubbish to me. Cheers.
  • A reusable carrier bag. I haven't stocked up on fresh fruit, milk and bread since the day before yesterday. Better pop into Tesco on the way home...
  • A small bottle of bubble mixture. The important thing is to make sure the lid is on really tight. (Throat sweets, phones and soapy liquid don't mix well.)
  • A pink, sparkly fairy wand. How did this get here? Ho, well, at least it's not a large, cuddly Teletubby... or a used nappy... or a bag of vomit... Life is getting easier.
Scarily, after emptying my pockets to examine the contents, I found walking involved less effort. Nonetheless, now I don't carry a changing bag with me any more, I'm thinking I need to fit a small packet of wipes in somewhere.

And that's not all... I'm probably never going to wake up in an alley having lost my memory entirely but I am gradually forgetting everything anyway, thanks to a combination of tiredness, age and having my brain filled with information about pokémon, Mario and Angelina Ballerina. Bearing this in mind, carrying a diary and pen might not be a bad idea, too.

I may need more pockets.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS I met Anna from the other week. She offers career and life coaching to mums, enabling them to better juggle and enjoy all they're doing. I'm not quite that in touch with my feminine side yet but she seemed pleasant and to have a clue. I said I'd get you to pass on the link to Liz. (The site has an option to sign up for a newsletter of tips and ideas.)

PPS Now... Where did I leave those children...?

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Black holes and birthday parties

Dear Dave,

"You're late," I said, opening the door and letting Mostly Useless Dad, Steve, into the house.

"Sorry," he replied with a big grin on his face, not seeming sorry at all. "Alistair wanted to talk and I couldn't get away."

I didn't have time to ask who Alistair was or why Steve was wearing a suit. He'd told me he needed me to look after his children because he 'had some things to do'. I'd simply assumed a trip to the shops and a little light DIY. I certainly hadn't expected him to be gone so long.

"You only left one nappy," I said as four-year-old Ophelia ran into the hall to hug him and Josquin (who's almost two now) toddled along behind.

He gave them both a somewhat distracted pat on the head. "You have plenty," he said over their clamouring squeals of 'Daddy!'.

"No, we don't. Marie's four! She hasn't worn nappies for a year and a half."

"Really? She's four?"

I pointed to the big, pink poster above the kitchen door. It read, 'Happy 4th Birthday, Marie!'.

"Yes," I said. "No nappies. I had to sit Josquin in the bath for ten minutes while Sarah nipped along the road and borrowed a couple from neighbours."

"Borrowed!? They want them back?"

"Of course they don't want them back. I mean..." I noticed he was smirking. I suddenly realised that, for a change, he wasn't being completely clueless. "Hang on, that was a joke, wasn't it?" He was in an awfully good mood. "Where have you been? Your mobile was off. I... Never mind. We don't have time right now. Tell me on the way."

In return for looking after his kids all morning, he was giving me a lift to Marie's birthday party. Since there weren't enough seats in the car, Sarah had taken our children on the bus. I, meanwhile, was in charge of the stuff: sandwiches, paper plates, little bottles of juice for the kids, plastic cups and cartons of juice for the adults, cake, candles, matches, knife, chocolate buttons, wipes, CD player, CDs, parcel to be passed, cocktail sausages, crisps, more crisps, a vast assortment of tack to put in party bags, party bags, balloons, grapes, chopped carrot, more chocolate, prizes and two handheld games consoles (to keep the boys quiet).

Steve strapped Josquin and Ophelia in while I loaded my two large laundry tubs of party supplies into the boot. The car noticeably sagged as I did so. I ran back to the house to check I hadn't forgotten anything, then locked up and hurried to climb into the passenger seat. I slammed the door and we were away.

We were hugely behind schedule and I was hoping for a screech of tyres and the smell of burning rubber. Sensibly, however, Steve pulled cautiously away from the kerb and headed off slowly, looking for a place to turn round.

Some loud, piercing birdsong erupted from my pocket.

Steve swerved slightly. "What the...?"

"It's my phone, sorry," I apologised. "It has to be loud enough for me to hear over three children and traffic." I had a text message. It was from Scary Karen. She was worried about the Large Hadron Collider again.

"Anything important?"

"Karen thinks one of her children may have swallowed a miniature black hole," I said, scrolling through the message. "She wants to know whether she should call CERN."

"Er... Is that possible?"

"Not really but I already tried explaining the physics to her the other day when she thought she'd got one trapped in the oven. I think I may have gone a little too technical with my explanation of singularities, gravity wells and event horizons because she still wouldn't go near the kitchen. Her family had to live on Pot Noodles for three days until I told her that half an hour on Gas Mark 3 would make the thing safe."

"Uh-huh," said Steve, laughing nervously, unsure exactly how much to believe.

I suspected his knowledge of physics wasn't large. As a quick test, I asked him the standard question, "If you stood on the moon and let go of a pen, would it float where it was, float off or fall to the moon's surface?"

"What? Er... Float off?" he said, frowning and clearly unsure.

I gave him a second chance. "Then why didn't the Apollo astronauts fly away whenever they tried to walk anywhere?"

"Oh," he said, his confidence returning. "They were wearing heavy boots. Everyone knows that." He grinned at me like I was an idiot for asking him something so obvious.

"Hmmm... Yes..." I said, refraining from screaming at him because I knew he was a lost cause. "Your oven is larger than Karen's. You'll need to put it on for an hour if you ever have any concerns."

Steve nodded seriously. "That's good to know."

I texted Karen back, telling her there was nothing to worry about but that I'd check both her boys out at the party to make sure. Then I remembered what I'd really been meaning to ask Steve.

"So... Where were you on a Saturday morning that required a suit and no children?" This simply wasn't normal housedad behaviour.

"I bumped into an old school friend in town a month ago. Hadn't seen each other for ages and arranged to play golf. We got on rather well. Turns out he runs his own business consultancy firm and they're looking for someone new. He offered me an interview."

I was incredulous. "On a Saturday?"

"He's been busy with clients all week. You know how it is - sometimes the work has to be done and everything else takes a backseat."

"We're in the backseat, Daddy!" called Ophelia from behind us.

"That's not what I meant, dear," said Steve, even though, in some sense, it very much was.

"How did it go?" I asked.

"I don't have anything in writing yet but he's as good as given it to me. He wants me to go back on Wednesday and meet the rest of the team. Can you take Josquin over lunch?"

He was probably expecting some form of congratulation but all I could manage was, "Does Deborah know?" I found it hard to imagine she was thrilled. (Deborah's not a fan of putting the kids in childcare but, with her interior design business doing so well, she's not likely to want to go back to being a housemum, either.)

"Haven't had a chance to tell her," said Steve. "She's away at some conference or other. That's why I needed you to watch the children."

"She knew about the interview, though, right?"

Steve looked shifty.

I held my head in my hands. "You took a job that Deborah didn't even know you'd applied for?"

"Well, as I said, I don't have anything in writing yet but..."

"You're a dead man." I felt like a Jedi Master returning home to find my young padawan using the Force to propel cute puppies into space. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and yell, "Have I taught you nothing?"

He was still driving, though, so I decided against it. I merely sighed deeply. It appears that despite his child-wrangling skills having improved greatly in the year since he was made redundant, he really hasn't come to terms with parenthood. He's still a middle-manager in slightly soiled housedad clothing. Put him back in a suit and nothing's changed.

"So, can you take Josquin on Wednesday?" asked Useless Dad.

"I suppose..." I muttered. "But don't think I'm going to take him fifty hours a week so you can pretend to the wife you're carting him to the zoo every day when you're really sloping off to further your career."

As we pulled up at the party venue, Steve looked faintly disappointed.

We were late. I unloaded the stuff and hurried into the building while Steve followed behind with his kids. Sarah gave me a look as we arrived but I merely shrugged and rolled my eyes and shook my head in the direction of Useless Dad and then set to work helping supervise children. We'd booked the use of a small soft-play for an hour. It was a maelstrom of plastic slides, brightly coloured balls and little girls wearing sparkly clothing.

Marie was unwrapping her presents and stacking them on a table by the door. Various parents at nursery had come up to her over the previous week and asked her what kind of things she liked. On every occasion, she had replied, "Pink things." As a result, the pile of gifts was a eclectic mix of fairy costumes, dolls, craft sets and clothing. It was, however, almost uniformly the colour of candy-floss. Marie was delighted. She squealed with pleasure every time she opened a parcel.

This was quite a contrast from Fraser's fourth birthday party. We had to stop him halfway through his presents because of the constant stream of complaining. "I don't like Power Rangers... What's this? I'm not going to play with that... Oh, it's only a jigsaw... Lewis can have these... This is OK but we've got two already... We can sell that..." Lewis was the same. They've had to open their parcels at home ever since...

Marie's friends were having fun in the soft-play. Several parents had stuck around to help out and chat, which was good - it's always useful to have a few extra pairs of hands available to deal with accidents and toilet runs.

The boys grabbed their computer games from me and disappeared up a corner to play. We didn't let them in the soft-play because they're so big now. They'd have squashed Marie's petite associates or, worse, tried to take charge of them. Fraser attempted that at Lewis' party a couple of years ago and the younger children didn't take kindly to being told what to do, ambushing him in the ball-swamp and then sitting on him. It didn't go well.

The hour passed quickly and with little incident. Scary Karen brought her kids over to me and I looked down their throats and gently prodded their tummies before giving them a clean bill of health. Karen didn't seem convinced, so I took a set of magnets that Marie had been given and waved the things around a bit, looked at my watch carefully and scribbled down some calculations. Then I checked her boys' balance by getting them to stand on one leg and hop. I reassured Karen again after that and she was a lot happier. She gave Marie her present.

It was a pink, sparkly garden gnome princess (complete with pink, sparkly beard).

Marie was genuinely ecstatic.

When our session was up in the soft-play, we got to go through to a side room for food and games. While Sarah oversaw Pass the Parcel, Karen and Steve helped me hurriedly fling plates and refreshments and party blowers onto the tables. Then we had half an hour of relative peace during which exhausted children ignored the sandwiches and concentrated on eating chocolate.

Just as the sugar started to kick in, parents began turning up to collect their offspring. We did the cake and finished off with a quick game of Musical Statues while I and my helpers shoveled debris into bin bags. Marie handed party bags around and we were out the door barely in time for the staff to clean up for the next booking. It was all a mad rush in the end. Somehow we blinked and found ourselves in the car park, thankfully waving goodbye to a horde of tired, crotchety, buzzed children.

We could breathe again.

"Ready to go?" asked Steve.

I bundled the stuff into his car but it was Sarah's turn to get a lift. Marie wanted to go with her and, fortunately, I'd brought a spare booster seat to cope with the situation. A great deal of strapping and buckling ensued. I gently broke the news to the boys that we were going to walk home in order to make sure they got some exercise. They weren't happy. I phased out their whinging, though - Steve was looking pensive.

"You're not going to tell Deborah, are you?" he said.

It took me a moment to remember what he was talking about. A couple of hours of children's party had taken its toll.

I shook my head. "I don't need to. You have a daughter who's nearly five. Deborah will know everything within ten minutes of arriving home. You'd be best getting your version in first."

Fear crossed Steve's face as he considered all the things that Ophelia could both understand and say and thus use to incriminate him. It was a lot of things. Strangely, the possibility of independent and reasoned thought by his kids didn't seem to have occurred to him before. "Oh."

"Children are people, too," I said. Then I got another text. It was Karen wanting to know what noises would precede the world being eaten by a black hole, so she'd hear it coming and have a bit of warning to put on clean underwear.

Trying not to ponder that too carefully (for oh so many reasons), I waved Steve and the others goodbye and set off down the road, dragging the boys behind me.

I was very much looking forward to getting home and having a lie down.

Yours in a woman's world,