There are a few phrases I never expected to have to say as a parent. I feel that someone really should have warned me they might come up. They include such things as:
'Why are you wearing your brother's socks on your ears?'
'Don't slide down the stairs naked - you'll give yourself carpet burns on your bottom.'
'Where did you find that poo?'
I've also had plenty of unlikely conversations. Only a minute ago, I said to Lewis, "Stop swinging on the banisters, you'll pull them off the wall. How many times do I have to say it?"
Quick as a flash, he replied, "Yes, but you normally say it to Fraser..."
Ho hum. I'm kind of used to the bizarreness of parenthood now, though. Not much throws me. I have to rely on adults for my surprises. Like last Saturday night, when Mike said, "Turn the heat down or you'll burn off all the alcohol."
That simply can't be a common utterance for ministers of religion.
"I haven't added the alcohol yet," I shouted above the surrounding chatter and cheesy Christmas music. "The recipe says I've got to boil the other ingredients for ten minutes before I add the wine. It's still got a little bit to go."
Mike peered suspiciously into the huge pot I had bubbling away on the hob. "It looks like you've put some wine in."
"That's just the dregs from the last batch."
"Ach, it'll be fine. Pour in the plonk. Some of us are waiting."
"OK, OK," I said, unscrewing the tops of three bottles of cheap red and emptying them into the pot. Then I stirred the resulting concoction with a wooden spoon, spices and slices of fruit whirling around. It all certainly smelled like mulled wine, which was most of the battle. I was reasonably hopeful that it would taste like mulled wine too and I tried not to sneeze in it.
I seem to have had one disease after another the last couple of weeks - cold, cough, stomach bug, you name it. What with the end of a long term approaching, all the kids at school are worn down and there are loads of bugs going about. It was so quiet walking along the road the other morning, I was convinced the bell had already gone and we were late. Turned out that we were on time and everyone else had merely decided to stay home, crank up the heating and hide under a blanket.
Wish I'd thought of that plan.
I've been stumbling around, following the normal routine. The man in the corner shop treated me like I was mad when I bought six packets of throat sweets at once. Maybe he was right. I should probably have given up, hidden under a blanket for a couple of days and let the kids run wild. Instead, I've chain-sucked Lockets and risked menthol poisoning in an effort to make sure they make it to all their usual clubs and activities.
At least the kids haven't succumbed to any of the illnesses yet. Doubtless they're saving them for next week but I should have recovered by then.
When we had our annual Christmas party, I was still feeling grotty. Nonetheless, several helpings of hot, spicy wine did improve matters somewhat. Once the contents of the pot had warmed up, I ladled myself another medicinal dose and then filled Mike's cup as well.
"Cheers," he said and we turned our attention back to the room.
All the children present had vanished upstairs to the lounge where they were being mysteriously quiet. I hoped they were happily playing computer games rather than dismantling the furniture but I didn't dare go find out. Judging by the number of adults packing out the kitchen, no one else was too keen to risk breaking the spell either. Friends and neighbours mingled together. Every so often, someone remarked, "The children are being very good." This was a cue for every parent in the room to glance nervously at the ceiling and then mutter something about 'going and checking in a minute' before shiftily returning to their drinks.
Useless Dad and my sister-in-law, Catriona, had found each other and were introducing their spouses in an excited exchange of business cards. My niece, Lisa, was chatting with Kate and cooing over baby Luke. Trevor was showing off his tattoos and shrapnel scars to Ned. Scary Karen had Rob trapped up a corner and was regaling him with the details of the birth of her children. By the look on his face, she'd got to the part with the spatula on the train.
A dozen other people swirled around. Everyone was mingling nicely.
That or the combination of mulled wine and over-the-counter cold remedies was making my vision blur slightly. It was hard to tell.
"So...?" said Mike.
It was that time again.
"So...?" I echoed, playing stupid as always.
"Thought about where you're headed yet?"
"I've got a few days break coming up. Sarah's taking the kids through to her parents before Christmas. I'll get a chance to do some things round the house, like re-grout the shower and clean the carpets, and then I'm going to have a lie down. Just me, the Xbox and some beers."
Mike didn't look impressed. "That's not what I meant."
He shook his head. "It's only another few months now."
"It's nearly a year!" I replied, incredulously.
"It's nearly a year since Marie started nursery," said Mike, not having any of it. "How long does that feel?"
"Like a few months," I sighed.
Mike nodded. "She'll be at school before you can blink. Better be ready." He ladled himself some more mulled wine. "I'm busy enough without coming round here every week to counsel you."
I wasn't entirely sure if he was joking.
"I do think about it," I said and blew my nose. "There really is plenty of time left, though. Once I've had a rest and I'm well again and Christmas is over, I'll maybe have a better idea what I'm going to do."
"And who you're going to be?"
"That's what I meant."
Mike was sceptical. "Are you sure?"
"Uh-huh. You've made the point enough times recently; I've just about grasped it now."
The words came out sounding more irritated than I'd meant.
He was right, of course. I've spent so long as a man in a woman's world, constantly having to explain my existence, that it's come to define me. 'Housedad' isn't merely my job - it's what I am. Looking after the children is my justification for being. There's a chance that I'm going to get to September and feel redundant. I'll lose the place I've made for myself in society and mope around in a haze of self-doubt and imagined social rejection.
"Sorry," I said. "Look, honestly, I'll figure it out but... for now I'm still a housedad. I know there'll be something the other side of that. Something soon. I'm just going to have to make my way barefoot through that darkened room littered with LEGO when I come to it, though. I'm too tired to be prepared."
As if to confirm this, I had a fit of sneezes and sagged against the worktop.
Mike thought for a moment but then took pity on me and decided not to press any further for the time being. The interrogation was over. "You do look like you could do with a rest. Do you want someone to come round and help you with the Xbox and the beer?"
"Forget that," I said. "I'd have to get dressed. I'm planning to loll around in the armchair in my pyjamas... Now, excuse me, I'm going to go rescue Rob before Karen decides it's her turn to show off her scars..."
I squeezed my way through the throng and pulled Rob clear in the nick of time, roping him into handing round mince pies. I set about serving drinks. There was more chatter and laughter and thankfully someone swapped the CD over to Christmas carols. It was all very pleasant.
Eventually, however, I couldn't resist any longer and I had to go and check on the kids. I was hugely pleased to find that four of them were playing on the Wii and the rest were keeping amused with toys I'd scattered about.
There was only one small problem - there were crumbs everywhere. I had to use one of those unexpected parental phrases. "Did it rain crisps in here?" I asked.
Most of the children ignored me but Marie was quick to pipe up. "No," she said, giggling. "Don't be silly. It can't rain crisps. It snows crisps..."
That pretty much answered my question.
Yours in a woman's world,