Dear Dave

Monday 30 March 2009

Biscuit wars

Dear Dave,

As the kids get older, it's easy to forget how things used to be. What seemed like an insurmountable problem only a few months ago can be quickly relegated to a hazy memory by fresh challenges and poor sleep.

I'd almost forgotten Marie used to be a world class stropper, for instance. From little over a year, she had the ability to work herself up into a frenzy over nothing, letting rip with a titanic tantrum that caused everyone within five hundred metres to stop and stare, imagining I must be conducting medical experiments in order to produce screams that loud.

Usually I'd only put a hat on her.

One occasion, she went from zero to meltdown in three and a half seconds merely from the sight of a shoe approaching her foot. Since we were in the shoe department of John Lewis and we'd gone specifically to buy her shoes, this was something of a disaster. Matters didn't improve much when she threw herself straight over backwards in protest, banged her head and caused panic in every adult in the vicinity apart from me. I tried to point out that it was the third time that day she'd made a statement by flinging herself headfirst at something hard and that fussing would only encourage her. Nevertheless, a first-aider was summoned and an ice pack was applied. Marie had a fight with the ice pack, batted it away, screamed some more and balled up her toes in order to make shoe fitting impossible. There was nothing to do but leave, all the while followed by a selection of worried looks from the assembled mums and shop assistants.

I couldn't do much else but shrug. These emotional outbursts were a normal feature of my daughter. Sometimes she had several a day, other times they could be a week apart. Once or twice we thought she'd grown out of them but then they came back... until one time they didn't. As is so often the case, though, we barely noticed. Only months later could we look back and realise that the phase was finally over.

Not that she doesn't still have the skills...

A couple of days ago, I had a flashback to how life used to be. I was in the supermarket with Marie and we'd already picked up a few essentials. I turned to my daughter and said, "We need to get a special treat to take to Katie's house when we go round for lunch. Do you want to choose something?"

She pulled a grumpy face. "No."

"How about some biscuits?"

"I don't want to take ANYTHING!"

"Er..." I was slightly stunned by this unexpected resistance but we needed to get something -Katie's mum had brought chocolate the last time they came round to ours and etiquette dictated we reciprocate in some fashion. There was a possibility that we already had a suitable gift back on the top shelf in the kitchen but that's always stacked so high with random books, DVDs, kitchen implements, post and packets of food that have nowhere else to live, I was reluctant to touch it. Every item added or removed is a delicate balancing act that could end in an avalanche of Thomas the Tank Engine and crackers landing on my head. I decided it would be easier persuading Marie. "I'll take some biscuits then," I said.

"No. Nothing!"

This wasn't good. A four-year-old who's refusing sugar is either sickening for something or is already worked up beyond the point of reasoned argument. I grabbed a packet of biscuits and headed to the check-out.

Having lost the fight, Marie felt the need to immediately pick another one in an attempt to exert some control over me. As we left the shop, she started to whine. "I don't want to scoot. You carry my scooter."

This was clearly madness. She loves scooting and her little, pink scooter is pretty much her favourite thing.

"My hands are full with the shopping. You can carry it, or you can scoot, or we can leave the scooter here and someone else can have it."

"You carry it," she said stubbornly.

I headed off along the pavement. "If you don't want to scoot, you'll have to carry it."

"No. I don't want to carry it."

"Well, you'll have to scoot then."

"I don't WANT to SCOOT!"

I was already some distance ahead of her. "Well, I'm not carrying it," I called over my shoulder.

She struggled along, dragging the scooter with her wrist in an effort to take it with her without actually carrying it or scooting. "DADDY! Come back!" "DADDY! COME BACK, DADDY! COOOOOMMMMMEE... BAAAAAAAACCCCK!"

This scenario continued for several minutes. A passing granny nodded at me in sympathy. "Ignoring them's the only way," she said.

"Uh-huh," I muttered.

When we finally reached home, Marie refused to enter the house. "Dry my tears, Daddy!" she yelled.

What she really wanted was for me to come into reach so she could press her scooter into my hands and get me to lift it over the threshold.

"The tissues are in the kitchen," I said, hanging up my coat. "Come in and dry your own tears."

"I want dry tears before I come in."

"Tough." I made myself a coffee, sat down and started watching the lunch-time news.

I wondered about having some chocolate to keep me going but then I remembered it was on the top shelf. I decided not to bother.

Marie stood on the doorstep and screamed for fifteen minutes until it was time to head round to Katie's house. At that point, Marie agreed she'd come inside in order to go to the toilet and, since she'd buried her head in the doormat for some of the tantrum, I washed her face. This removed her tears without drying them as such, thus producing an acceptable compromise.

We went along the road. Katie was desperate to play when we arrived but Marie was rude and grumpy. She sat on my lap and refused to do anything other than hug me.

The situation was a little awkward.

Then I had an idea. "Would a biscuit cheer you up?" I asked.

She grinned and nodded her head. Katie's mum opened the packet we'd brought and handed one over. Marie munched on it happily. Within a few minutes she was laughing and ready for games...

It was all rather traumatic but it did make me thankful I don't have to go through that several times a week anymore. I'm also wondering what stuff I should put less effort into avoiding when I'd be better off focusing on the long-term gain.

Perhaps I ought to go tidy that shelf. There may even be biscuits in there...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 25 March 2009

I love it when a plan comes together

Dear Dave,

The other week, the kids were watching something on TV when the characters suddenly had a limited time to put a complicated plan into action. There ensued a lengthy montage of sawing, hammering, man-trap setting, high-fives and satisfied grins, all to the sound of the A-Team theme tune.

This was the second time in a couple of days that such a thing had happened in one of their programmes. It occurred to me, however, that the only encounter that most children their age have had with The A-Team is Mr T trying to sell them something in low quality adverts. The A-Team theme tune isn't the A-Team theme tune to them - it's simply the music which gets played when Basil Brush and his mates need to do some DIY in a hurry.

That said, I couldn't think of any modern alternative. Is there any trashy TV drama currently around which is likely to be so universal, iconic and enduring?

Back in our youth, it was possible to make jokes about Star Trek, The A-Team and Dr Who and everyone knew what you were talking about. With only three TV channels and no internet, there was never a problem finding someone to talk with about the best bits of The Muppets. The difficulty was more trying to find someone who hadn't seen it, so you could tell them the jokes.

These days, Fraser is so surprised when a classmate has watched the same episode of the same show as him, it's exciting news he has to tell me as soon as he gets out of school.

When the kids were younger, all their friends had at least heard of Teletubbies and Tweenies. There was a common bond - not just for them but for us. I could write to you about Bob the Builder and be confident you knew where I was coming from. Now there's less certainty. I've missed out on High School Musical so far and avoided much of the Strictly Celebrity Pop Factor on Ice phenomenon. Maybe you haven't seen the new Dr Who and have never heard of Ben 10. What's left to talk about apart from the funny things our kids have said recently and Harry Potter?

Ho well, perhaps popular culture isn't as popular as it used to be. Pretty soon, the only shared reference points that everyone will be able to rely on (besides the Teletubbies) will be hazy memories of primary school projects on dinosaurs and the Romans. Even the most basic cultural allusions are becoming corrupted:

"Come upstairs for my puppet show," said Marie yesterday, dragging me out of the kitchen and to the lounge. She'd got the little theatre set up on the floor and scattered the finger-puppets around it.

I sat down and waited expectantly, hopeful I was about to experience a special parenting moment as by four-year-old daughter put on an imaginative and creative extravaganza for me.

I was disappointed.

"You tell it," said Marie, handing me some puppets. "It's Goldilocks."

"I thought you were going to do the story. I'm sure you can do it better than me."

She shook her head. "No."

"OK," I sighed and wished I'd stayed downstairs and finished the washing-up. I stuck puppets of a blonde girl and a grey-haired lady on my fingers. "One day, Goldilocks' mum told her to go into the forest and pick some flowers..."

"That's not right," complained Marie, frowning deeply.

"That's Little Red Riding Hood," said Lewis, without taking his eyes off the DS he was playing on the sofa.

"No, it's not," I muttered.

Fraser shouted from another room. "Yes, it is."

"Goldilocks starts with the three bears making porridge," said Marie, as if I was stupid.

"Right, just testing," I conceded, changing puppets. That did sound kind of familiar. "Once upon a time in a cottage in the woods, three bears were making porridge..."

I'd barely started and the heckling had already begun. More than that, I was also beginning to realise the difficulties of putting on a finger-puppet show when the 'stage' is only five centimetres above the floor. I had to bend my hands in all kinds of unnatural ways. By the time the blonde-haired puppet was having breakfast, I was pretty uncomfortable.

"Goldilocks tasted the first bowl of porridge but it was too..." I paused for Marie to finish the sentence.

"Hot!" she shouted in delight.

"So Goldilocks tried the second bowl of porridge but it was too..."



"It was too spitty."

"O... K..." My hands were complaining and I didn't feel entirely in control of the narrative. As the story progressed, I began to lose it. "...After breaking Little Bear's chair, Goldilocks dropped all pretence of respect for the property of others and skipped upstairs to try the beds as if she owned the place. Breaking and entering, petty theft and vandalism had tired her out..."

In due course, the bears returned home and there were plenty of 'Who's been sitting in my chair?' type questions in various pitches and tones of distress. The Crime Scene Investigators turned up briefly but quickly disappeared off to run DNA analysis on the spitty porridge. Then it was finally discovered that the culprit had been sleeping in Baby Bear's bed and was, in fact, still there. It was time for the conclusion.

That was when my real difficulties set in.

"Er," I said. "How does it end?"

"At nursery," said Marie, "Goldilocks wakes up and sees that Baby Bear is the same size as her teddy bear at home and gives him a big hug."

Still continuing to shoot aliens, Lewis disagreed. "When we did it at school, Goldilocks screamed and the bears chased her away."

"There are three endings!" came a disembodied shout from elsewhere. "There's another one where she says sorry, helps clear up and they all make friends."

The first option was too twee, the second wasn't going to go down well with Marie and the third was too obvious and moralising. (Also, I couldn't help suspecting that the clearing up would need to have the A-Team theme tune as background music.) In an effort to keep the peace, I went for a fourth option - one where Baby Bear and Goldilocks run off together and get married in the Bahamas.

The children didn't really notice. They were too busy arguing amongst themselves and I left them to it.

As I rubbed circulation back into my fingers, and returned to the washing-up, I wondered about increasing the kids' exposure to trashy entertainment just to give them a hope of some common ground with the people they meet. I considered going and finding the most in-demand item on YouTube suitable for family viewing and then forcing them to watch it, before subjecting them to a dose of reality TV.

I couldn't face it, though. I'm sure popular culture is still around; I'm simply too old for it. It's certainly not something I can teach my children - they're far more likely to teach it to me. From now on, I'll be forced to blink in mild incomprehension as they bring home the latest craze of spangly knee-pads and wax-lyrical about alien robot vampire superheroes.


Resigned to my fate, I sat down with a coffee and flicked through the cable channels looking to see if Knight Rider was on...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 20 March 2009

Trying not to breathe on the sandwiches

Dear Dave,

Lewis was seven yesterday.

He was also dizzy, disoriented, tired and running a fever. This was a shame for the poor boy. He did cheer up somewhat, however, when he got to stay home and lie around playing his new computer games all day.

This morning, he's still off school but feeling much better. I, meanwhile, am feeling dizzy, disoriented and tired. It's possibly the start of whatever he has or perhaps it's simply the on-going symptoms of parenthood. Who can tell?

I'd quite like to lie around playing computer games all day. Instead, I've got to do the catering for a score of seven-year-olds who are turning up to a birthday party tomorrow.


Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 18 March 2009

Sex, cake and direction of travel

Dear Dave,

I was thinking the other day that it must be time to have another rant about a survey to do with parenting. I didn't have a particular survey in mind but, you know, it's been a while. I considered hunting around for one, then I decided not to bother. Poorly reported pieces of research are like health scares - there's bound to be one before long.

Sure enough, three have been brought to my attention in the last week or so. At least one of them is also a health scare. Yeh!

I had to laugh when I saw a tagline asking 'Is there too much sex in videogames?' because sex barely features in games at all. On investigation, I found the related article cites a recent YouGov survey as finding 74% of parents are worried about sexual content in games. It then goes on to list the ten most sexually explicit games ever in an effort to show that, really, there's not much to worry about. Sadly, that's all very well, but the survey actually found that 74% of parents are concerned about the content in general of some videogames. To be honest, this is only right and proper - there are plenty of games out there that children shouldn't have access to. Parents ought to be keeping an eye on what they're kids are playing. Even the game companies are quick to encourage this, since parents exerting more control over their childrens' habits is really the only way to stop the kids encountering inappropriate material. The big news here is, in fact, that 26% of parents don't know or don't care about the content of any videogames. Let's just hope their kids don't play them...

Meanwhile, in England, the government is running a health campaign trying to persuade parents that getting their kids to do some exercise and eat healthier food is good for them and will help them live longer. Allegedly, feeding children cake the whole time simply isn't good parenting:

Obvious? Er, yeah. Unfortunately, the games industry hasn't been too pleased with some of the adverts:

There have been loud rumblings that it's unfair to single out computer games, since there's no definitive evidence linking them with obesity and surely everything from books to cars are blame. What about the exercise people get from playing the Wii? How dare the government denigrate such an important and creative industry!? Sony should sue!

Unfortunately, this makes games industry spokespeople sound like tobacco execs from the 1970s. Clearly, sitting around playing computer games every day while eating cakes isn't going to do wonders for anyone's health. Better to admit it and move on. Computer games aren't being singled out as an easy target, they're simply top of the list of sedentary pastimes favoured by kids. The adverts aren't claiming computer games are evil, they're encouraging parents to exert more control over their kids' habits to make sure they get some exercise. This is exactly the same kind of control the games industry is constantly trying to encourage in an effort to shift onto parents the responsibility for controlling access to violent games. Videogames already have age restrictions and scary warnings about taking regular breaks in order to avoid photosensitive seizures. Including some suggestions to go and play outside every so often to avoid turning into a tub of lard wouldn't be hard.

Of course, it should be noted that parents can get too concerned about controlling what experiences their children encounter. I stumbled across the whole forwards/backwards buggy thing again this week as well. The University of Dundee did some research into whether it makes a difference which way toddlers face while riding around. Apparently, those facing the world tend to have a slightly higher heart rate, while those facing their parent get talked to more, laugh more, cry more and are more likely to fall asleep. Somewhere along the line these results got interpreted by the papers to show that forward-facing buggies produce stressed kids with poor communication skills. This certainly isn't a justified conclusion, however. Kids facing out-the-way see lots of stuff to get excited about and those facing in-the-way get more of a chat. Who knows which is 'better' in the long-run?

Although I frequently had my kids in our forward-facing buggy for a couple of hours a day when they were small, there were only three normal scenarios:

  • They were asleep, so chatting wouldn't have been hugely worthwhile.
  • I was trying to get them to sleep, so I was avoiding chatting to them.
  • I was desperately trying to keep them awake, so I was chatting to them for all I was worth or getting them to do the actions to a rousing chorus of If you're happy and you know it as we manoeuvred round Tesco.
With a rear-facing buggy I wouldn't have had to shout and I might have frightened fewer little old ladies at the shops with my singing but that would have been the only major difference. It's probably safe to say that any child with a parent concerned enough for their well-being to be worried about the effects of buggy-facing, isn't going to be lacking in attention or stimulation, whichever option is eventually picked. If I ever have to buy another buggy, it will be easily reclinable and foldable, and come with high enough handles, a wipe-clean cover and good storage space underneath. Only after dealing with these issues will I think about whether I want the vomit, coughs and sneezes to travel towards or away from me...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 13 March 2009

Geeks before their time

Dear Dave,

Glad to hear Daisy's over the chickenpox and Sam's recovered from the stomach bug.

It's obviously a shame that Sam's now covered in spots and Daisy's started throwing up but, honestly, you were probably expecting this eventuality. (I know I was.) Good luck. Another year or two and you'll be able to look back and laugh...

Would you believe that someone told me recently that parenting only gets harder as the children get older?

It really wasn't what I wanted to hear.

Apparently, the amount of physical labour required in caring for them goes down but the other stuff becomes more difficult. Sometimes they behave like adults and they can be dealt with as equals; other times, though, it has to be remembered that they're still children and they don't have the experience or sense to make good decisions themselves. Finding the balance is not so much treading a fine line, it's more like battling through a constantly shifting war zone.

On learning this, my only consolation was that I don't have to worry about it for a few years yet...

Then again, what do I know? When Fraser got stuck in one of his DS games last week, I told him I'd 'look the answer up on the computer'. I didn't go into any of the details and I spared him words such as 'online' and 'internet', so as not to overtax his young mind. I fully expected him to be thrilled when I obtained the information he required and to act like I'd produced it with the wave of a wand.

More fool me.

He took it all in his stride and barely remembered to say thank you. Then, three days later, he came out of school and said, "What do you think I looked up on Google Images today?"

I did a double-take for two reasons:
  1. I hardly dared imagine what he'd managed to find on Google Images.
  2. I didn't know my eight-year-old had heard of Google, let alone been let loose on it.
As it turned out, he'd merely been ogling Pokémon cards but I remained concerned. Even assuming the school has all kinds of blocks and filters set up to protect pupils from unsuitable material (and that's a BIG assumption), we don't have any in place at home. I realised I was suddenly in a world of parental locks and warnings about dodgy chatrooms - a world that I hadn't expected to encounter for several more years.

I felt the need to check I'd heard right. "You've been using Google at school?" I queried.

The children ignored me as always. Lewis turned to Fraser and said, "The last time I used Google, I looked up the National Museum of Flight."

My brain exploded. He's six.

Then the pair of them had an argument over whether it's easier to Google by going through Internet Explorer or Firefox.

Needless to say, I found this all deeply troubling in so many different ways...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Marie wanted to wear her Santa outfit to nursery today. Since March isn't a particularly traditional time of year for Santa outfits, I was somewhat reluctant. Nevertheless, she was adamant. For once, I decided to be a spontaneous, fun-loving parent and not worry about it. She skipped happily into the playroom and I shrugged off the confused looks from the staff.

It was only later I remembered that today is photo day...

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Time to hang up the changing bag?

Dear Dave,

I was outclassed.

There wasn't any point competing. I would have had to have resorted to outlandish promises and blatant bribery. Even then, I think my kids would still rather have spent the afternoon with him.

Settling down on a bench, I merely watched with astonishment and envy, and tried to remember what it was like to be young, motivated and full of energy. Except I've never had that much energy. The guy wasn't entertaining just my kids - he was managing to include the two children he was supposed to be looking after as well. As they all played Chase around a waxwork of a Neanderthal, I closed my eyes, attempted to rest and hoped no attendants would pass by and shout at us for making too much noise in the museum. I definitely didn't have the energy for that.

"Woh! Time-out!" laughed Jake breathlessly as five children bundled through a maze of display cases and grabbed his legs. "You got me! You got me! Well done! Has anyone seen these spear heads yet!?"

Jake grabbed Josquin and lifted him up effortlessly to peer into the case beside them. The other children crowded round. The top of the display was waist-high for an adult and Marie and Ophelia had to stand on tip-toes to see in. Jake pointed to the most interesting items on show, explained how they were made and then acted out hunting a mammoth.

Then, by popular demand, he did it again...

I realised my eyes had re-opened of their own accord. As much as I wanted to blank the scene, I couldn't help paying attention - the guy was full of bounce and he spoke with more enthusiasm than a children's TV presenter. "Let's do the piggy-back race some more!" he exclaimed.

Oh, for goodness sake, let's not... The thought was loud in my head but all that escaped my mouth was a dull groan. I wasn't sure I'd recovered enough from the previous occasion to stand up, let alone sprint to the sabre-toothed tiger and back while carrying a nearly-seven-year-old.

Not that the nearly-seven-year-old in question wanted me to carry him. Lewis grabbed Jake's hand and jumped up and down. "I want to go on you!"

This prompted the other kids into even greater excitement. "No! I do! I do!" they all shouted.

"One at a time!" said Jake, hoisting Lewis onto his back. Seeing I hadn't moved to take up position as a rival mount, he got the rest to race him on foot. It was chaos. Nevertheless, he kept smiling. Only carrying Fraser caused him to slow down. Fraser's so big now, though, I wouldn't have so much as attempted lifting him myself.

There was much running about and then they all veered off to look at some model pyramids and a carving of a jackal. I got to my feet slowly and hobbled after them, my bottom having seized up from sitting on the hard bench. I was grumpy and decrepit.

Meanwhile, Jake was providing more exercise, education and fun for my kids than I'd managed all week.

I really hoped he'd wake up in the morning with muscle ache and a stomach bug. It would only have been fair...

* * *

The children are all out of school by half twelve on a Friday and I'd planned to spend the afternoon playing Snakes and Ladders with Marie, while fruitlessly encouraging the boys to turn off the Wii and go and run around outside. Often in these circumstances, I can sneak away to the toilet after a bit and then mysteriously not return for an hour or so, leaving them to entertain themselves while I surf the internet or have a lie down.

Last week, however, Jake phoned at lunch-time.

I didn't have a clue who he was. I thought he was trying to get me to change gas supplier. Fortunately, just before I hung up, he mentioned about Ophelia being desperate to see Marie and I identified him as Useless Dad's new nanny. He remembered me because I helped interview candidates when Steve and Deborah were first hunting for someone to look after their kids.

Thanks to Christmas, various illnesses and several months of close proximity to my three offspring, my memory was somewhat more hazy. A different nanny had already come and gone. I vaguely recalled Jake had seemed competent and enthusiastic, and that was about it.

He suggested that we have a joint trip to the museum.


Unprepared with excuses, I agreed.

* * *

I'd been all for him at the interview. He has good qualifications, glowing references and a winning smile. He also has a way with children, and kids love him. What's not to like?

Of course, Steve had had his doubts about a male nanny. He'd been worried Deborah might take too much of a shine to Jake (even though he couldn't quite see why she might be reluctant to have a young, attractive female nanny around). That hadn't been my concern, however. It was up to them to work out who they'd get on with; I simply tried to select the candidate I thought would cope best with the children.

It never occurred to me that I'd be the one in competition with him:

From the moment we met up on the front steps of the museum, Jake was a shining beacon of childcare. He showed proper respect to me by asking my opinion on what we should do and checking what rules my kids had to obey, but he was the one with the vigour and initiative. I tagged along behind, herding the stragglers, as he sought out forgotten corridors and mysterious exhibits and led us on an adventure through time and space. The kids followed him and hung on his every word. I pushed Josquin's buggy and kept reminding the others not to get lost. If Jake was Dr Who, I was the useless robot dog.

My feelings of inadequacy grew as the trip progressed until I felt compelled to join in the first session of piggy-backs in order to prove my fatherhood.

It wasn't a good idea. By the time we were in the Egyptian section, picking our way through the obelisks and mummified cats, my compacted spine was still complaining and I was desperate for sugar and caffeine.

Mercifully, the trip was almost over.

Jake set the children to rushing round the room to see how many mythical creatures with mismatched heads and bodies they could find, and then sauntered over to me. "Have to take Ophelia and Josquin home soon," he said. "Meeting some friends at the pub and I need to eat first. We're heading to a party and then probably hitting the clubs. Last time, we ended up back at one of my mate's, playing that Rock Band game."

I blinked, the very thought of so much activity making me exhausted.

"Got anything good planned yourself?"

"Kind of," I said. "A can of beer, some crisps, a couple of episodes of CSI from the TiVo and maybe a little Tomb Raider."

"Quiet night then?"

I snorted. "That's me letting my hair down. Tomorrow I'll stick to one episode and skip the crisps. If I really push the boat out, I might do some work as well."

"Thought you looked after your kids. Didn't know you did other work."

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised he understood childcare to be a proper job. I was impressed with his careful choice of words, all the same. He didn't think I 'just' looked after my kids. I hated him a little less. "I do some IT support at a school but I wasn't meaning that. I'm writing a book about how to survive as a housedad before the children completely Swiss cheese my brain and I forget everything."

"Swiss cheese?"

"Full of holes. It's a reference to, er... a TV show you're probably too young to remember. Never mind..." I trailed off into silence. I couldn't escape it - I was old and worn out. I felt in need of retirement.

Jake let out a long breath and visibly sagged. "Don't know how you do it."


"Look after three children all day, every day. This time on a Friday, I'm desperate to hand them back. Couldn't cope with Pop-Up Pirate! all weekend too. And I'm getting paid."

"I'm getting paid in some notional sense, if you figure the household as a partnership. My wife brings in income by going out to work; I reduce expenditure by working in the home. The profits sit briefly in our joint account before being spent frivolously on food and kid's shoes."

"Not sure that would get me out of bed to make them breakfast on a Saturday morning."

"Maybe not," I agreed. "I love them, though, even if they do make me tired. That gets us through most things... Besides, Marie comes and whines in my ear until I pour her some Shreddies." Somehow the thought of knitted cardboard sounded good and this made me appreciate how hungry I was. "Fancy a snack?"

Jake shook his head. "Sorry, used up the snack budget for this week already. But you take your lot to the café if you want. Don't mind us."

I chuckled. "What do you have in your backpack?"

Bizarrely, we had very similar bags. Mine was scuffed and ripped with a broken zip and one of the side pockets falling off. His looked shiny and nearly pristine.

"Nappies, wipes, changes of clothes, cream, plastic bags, more wipes and a list of emergency contact numbers."

"Uh-huh. All my kids are old enough to be properly toilet trained, so mine's stuffed full of..."

I opened the bag with a flourish.

"Raincoats?" said Jake hesitantly.

"Oh, I'd forgotten about those," I said as a whole bunch of wet weather gear fell out, along with a cuddly rabbit, a DS, some crayons, a notebook and, inexplicably, a ladle. "All right, it's stuffed half full of..."

I pulled the last of the junk clear and all five children appeared from nowhere.

"Chocolate!" they screeched.

I was suddenly popular.

I gave cartons of juice to Jake for him to put straws in and then handed round the packet of Penguin bars myself. Unfortunately, that was barely achieved before Marie stepped backwards just as Lewis stepped forwards. She tripped over his foot, sprawled flat on the ground and sent her chocolate flying into the spidery darkness beneath a display case. She burst into tears.

"Daddy!" she wailed plaintively.

I pulled her up and she clung to my legs before climbing onto my lap.

"I need a HUG!" she cried.

I cuddled her, sighed and gave her my own chocolate biscuit. She stopped crying but insisted on staying on my lap while she ate. (I guess I'm good for something.)

Then Lewis showered himself in juice and wanted to know why I hadn't brought any spare clothes with us.

"Would you rather have chocolate or dry trousers?" I countered.

Pondering this kept him busy most of the way home. I may be old and tired but I'm not entirely out of tricks yet.

Still, Jake wants us all to get together again soon. I'm not sure I can cope...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Talking about nannies, as luck would have it, I got an email from a website called Nanny Share this week. They have a database of people wanting to split the hours and costs of a nanny in whatever fashion fits their schedule. You can enter a postcode and find out what arrangements people in that area are looking for. To contact them, or list your own requirements, you have to register, though. (It's currently £20 for a year.)

I'm not needing to try it out myself but it seems like a good idea. It's certainly worth mentioning to anyone you know who's looking for a fraction of a nanny...

Friday 6 March 2009

Stranger in a strange shirt

Dear Dave,

Ooh, that sounds nasty. So let's get this straight: You've got one child with a stomach bug, another with chickenpox and a stinking cold yourself. All I can really say is good luck and I hope you're all feeling better soon. Next time someone with teenagers tells you to enjoy your kids while they're young because they grow up so fast, laugh at them. Then recount the tale of what you and your sofa have been through the last few days. That should get them to leave you alone.

Personally, I like to reply that I'd enjoy the children more if I got a couple of weeks rest first and then I ask if I can come back and collect them a fortnight on Thursday. This is usually enough to induce sufficient flashbacks of sleep deprivation and slime to make whoever I'm talking to remember an important appointment elsewhere...

Maybe I'll think differently in ten years time when my children are getting stroppy because I won't let them stay out till three in the morning getting their tongues pierced. I'll gaze wistfully at their beaming baby photos and recall fond memories of cuddles and games and bouncing, and dream of easier, simpler days.

I can't entirely see it happening, though. By that point, my current housedad life will feel like time spent living in a foreign land.

I was contemplating this yesterday thanks to the Scotland rugby top I was wearing. It was the first time I'd worn it in years. I'm not even sure why I have a Scotland rugby top, seeing as I'm English and not a great fan of rugby. I spent too many school afternoons freezing to death while hoping no one was about to rip my ears off, to be able to really get into the sport now. I take a mild interest in the major tournaments but that's about it.

Still, I happened to notice the shirt lying crumpled at the bottom of my clothes drawer as I was getting dressed and it looked suddenly cosy, so I put it on.

I didn't think any more about it until after lunch, when Marie had her gym class. I had to jog most of the way to the sports centre to keep up with her on her scooter and I was rather warm by the time we got there, so I took off my jumper, revealing the shirt. The place was hooching with a coachload of Scottish fourteen-year-olds, a group of Scottish weight-lifters, several Scottish janitors, a gaggle of Scottish mums and a pack of Scottish pre-schoolers.

At that point I was kind of glad it wasn't an England top I was wearing.

I felt remarkably conspicuous, nevertheless - as if I was wearing a fluffy pink hat with tassels. Though, now I put my mind to it, I quite often wear a fluffy pink hat with tassels and I suppose it wasn't actually anything like that. It was more like wearing a fluffy pink hat with tassels without a four-year-old girl standing next to me getting wound up and demanding her hat back.

I've been living in Scotland for fifteen years now. I have a Scottish wife and Scottish children. I can pronounce Kirkcaldy, use the word dreich when describing the weather, and moan about the English with only the mildest hint of irony. If push comes to shove over independence, I'll probably go for a Scottish passport.

Whether I'd ever describe myself as Scottish is another question. I can look across the border and wonder why the English are so crazy but I can understand the craziness. If I were ever to move back, I would have a different perspective on things but I would also feel at home within days. Deep down, I'm English and I always will be.

So there I was, an English-sounding Englishman with little clue about rugby, standing in a Scottish public place, wearing a Scotland rugby top. I stayed quiet, pretended to be invisible and hoped I'd get away with it.

I guess, in many ways, it was reminiscent of my first visit to parent and toddler. As a housedad with very young children, I was a man in a woman's world. I was happy and managed to blend in eventually but it was occasionally a little strange. I could understand and empathise with everyone else's point of view but, when it came down to it, I was a dad not a mum. There was only so far that shared experiences could go on such topics as breast-feeding, useless husbands and forceps.

Now my kids are older, things are changing. There aren't many housedads about but plenty of other dads work part-time or on shifts, so there are usually quite a number of men waiting in the playground at the end of the school day. I'm not so odd anymore. By the time the children are teenagers and they can mostly fend for themselves, I won't necessarily have a particularly unusual level of interaction with them. I'll no longer be a housedad; I'll simply be a dad.

Thinking about some of the crazy, useless dads I've met over the last few years, that's a scary thought. Then again, I've often understood their craziness. As my role changes, I'll have a different perspective from men who've had a less hands-on experience of fatherhood but it won't take long to feel at home... As I said, looking back to when the kids were young will feel like remembering another country, not just another time. Unlike Scotland, Housedad Land isn't a country I'd want to settle in permanently, however. It's been a fantastic place to visit but it's also been rather tiring and somewhat sticky. Once I've left, I doubt I'll have a strong, nostalgic urge to return.

Small children are hard work. Sure, it's a good idea to enjoy them now, but there's no harm in looking forward to enjoying them later as well.

For myself, I'm particularly looking forward to enjoying them in six months time when they're all finally at school...

Get well soon.

(I suppose, on the bright side, if you're all bunged up with snot, at least you won't be too bothered by the combined aromas of calamine lotion and vomit permeating your lounge at the moment.)

Yours in a woman's world,


PS As for the rugby top, I survived without incident. It is pretty cosy, so I think I'll wear it again. Next time, though, I might accessorise using that fluffy, pink hat with the tassels. I'll be even more conspicuous but it'll be everyone else who is nervous.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

A bedtime story

Dear Dave,

A long time ago in a home far, far away, there lived a housedad and his three children, What, Why and Oopsie.

The oldest of the children, What, was tall and academically gifted but his hearing was rather selective. The middle child, Why, was strong and imaginative, although he rarely agreed to anything unless it had been explained to him several times. The youngest, Oopsie, could climb and jump and smile sweetly. The last of these talents came to her rescue often, since she was also able to make a huge mess from even the most limited resources...

The housedad's name was Ed. His hard-working wife lived in the home too but, as this tale begins, she had set off to work hard in an office far, far and a bus trip away. She can be safely put out of mind until the denouement. (It is worth mentioning, however, that she kept a large axe handy in case of trouble with trolls, wolves, wicked witches, dragons and cute, husband-stealing mermaids.)

On the day in question, the faeries who ran the local school were having a team-building session where expensive consultants encouraged them to believe strongly in each other and to give themselves a round of applause every so often just to be on the safe side. As a result, the children had a day off.

Ed was not hugely pleased. It was only breakfast and the children were already arguing. The eldest, What, was demanding to play Scrabble, Why was wanting someone to watch him play computer games and Oopsie wished to go outside and fall head-first in some mud. (She was technically asking to go outside and play catch but, with her track record, it effectively amounted to the same thing.)

Ed did not find any of these options particularly appealing. He began to rail against his lot, denouncing the shockingly small amount of time the school was open. "When I was your age, education was the preserve of gorgons. They never took the day off and there was none of this finishing in the middle of the afternoon either. We were there the whole day. They gave us plenty of homework, too, and they got angry if we didn't do it. They really knew about discipline - they'd turn you to stone as soon as look at you."

Ed paused, waiting for this to sink in but the children weren't listening. They were too busy finishing their toast and staring at the magic box which entertained them with cartoons filled with fart gags. Ed sighed and then muttered, "I don't believe in faeries..."

He was intending to add 'getting training during term-time' but, at that moment, Oopsie spilt her cup of milk and he had to rush to mop it up. In all the fuss, he failed to hear a shrill scream from the direction of the school.

Eventually, Ed managed to persuade the children to finish eating and get dressed. Nevertheless, they refused to stop bickering. In exasperation, he finally said, "We're going out."

"What?" said What.

"Why?" asked Why.

"Oopsie!" said Oopsie, knocking over her replacement cup of milk.

Ed was determined not to be distracted. Despite having no definite destination in mind, he knew that the only way to avoid insanity was to leave the house. But where to go? He couldn't face another tour of the castle dungeons and What was getting a bit old for the softplay at the gingerbread house (plus it wasn't very hygienic). Ed sighed. He was merely looking forward to a quiet flagon of ale once all the kids were asleep...

Wait! That was it!

"We're going on a quest," he said.

"Not again," moaned What.

"We went on one of those last week," whined Why.

"Can I take my trampoline?" squeaked Oopsie, jumping up and down excitedly.

Ignoring the complaining, and resisting various requests to haul large possessions with them, Ed got the children to put their shoes and coats on and they headed out the door and down the path. The sun shone, the birds sang and the long grass rippled in the breeze. It was a glorious day. The children failed to notice and turned their attention to poking a dead pigeon with a stick.

After much cajoling to get a move on, they all reached a narrow, rickety bridge across a stream. Tradition held that the smallest member of the party should cross the bridge first. Despite his nostalgia for the old days of gorgon-run education, however, Ed wasn't much for tradition. He sent his biggest child thumping over the rotting boards.

When What was halfway across, a deep voice rumbled up from below. "Oo's that walking on my bridge?"


"I said, 'WHO is THAT walking on MY BRIDGE?'"


"I said, 'WHO IS THAT...?' Oh, forget it. I'll eat yer on the way back."

What continued to the other side and Ed sent Why over the bridge. Once again, the troll asked its question. "Oo's that walking on my bridge?"


"'Cos I likes to know 'oo I'm dealing with, 'fore I jump out and eat 'em."


"Well, s'only good sense, ain't it?"


"OK, yer making me head hurt now."


"Look just sling yer hook, all right. I'm feeling a diet coming on."

Why went to join What on the far side of the bridge and Ed sent Oopsie across. Having come prepared, he entrusted her with a hammer which he instructed her to carry very carefully.

"Oo's that walking on my bridge?" muttered the troll, more out of habit than any real hope, as Oopsie reached the middle. The girl leant over the handrail to see who was talking and somehow the hammer slipped from her grasp.


She skipped over and then Ed crossed the bridge. There was no challenge from below, only a dull moan.

Soon after that, they passed the school. A small ambulance was parked outside and a couple of gnome paramedics were clapping urgently over a prone figure that was very pink and sparkly. Experiencing a niggling feeling of unexplained guilt, Ed hurried the children along the road.

There were a number of storybook stereotypes whom Ed thought might be able to help them out in their quest and first up was the elderly lady who lived at the end of the street. Everyone called her Granny. Ed knocked on her door.

"Come in!" shouted Granny gruffly before experiencing a series of hacking coughs and then repeating herself in somewhat unconvincing falsetto. "Er, I mean, come in!"

Ed ushered the children into the darkened single room of the cottage. A kettle was warming in the fireplace but the curtains were drawn and Granny was sitting in bed, blowing her snout. Partially hidden by a straggly, grey wig and thick glasses, she had big eyes, big ears and big teeth and was even more hairy than normal.

"Daddy, why is that wolf wearing Granny's pyjamas?" asked Why.

The wolf grinned. "All the better to hear you wi... Hang on, that's not right, you're supposed to ask me about the size of my ears. Play the game, old chap. I spent hours on this disguise."

"What?" asked What who hadn't yet noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Ed rolled his eyes. "Cough up the old lady," he said.

"I don't know what you mean..." said the wolf but then Oopsie tripped over a rug and banged into the wardrobe, knocking the door open.

"Oopsie," she said as Granny tumbled out, bound and gagged, onto the floor.

"Oh..." said the wolf, looking surprisingly sheepish. There was a pause. "Do any of you happen to have relatives who own murderously sharp axes by any chance?"

Everyone, including Granny, nodded.

"I'll show myself out."

"You do that," said Ed, as the wolf climbed from the bed and sidled towards the door. "You've got two minutes to get far, far, far away before I call the police."

"Two minutes! But..."

Ed shrugged. "If you run past the school and over the bridge, you'll be off the road before they get here."

"You're a gent," said the wolf and scarpered.

After that, the family untied Granny, let some diminutive paramedics with sore hands do their work, gave statements, accepted profuse thanks and consumed a large quantity of tea and cakes. Then it was time to move on. Although Granny was extremely grateful, Ed thought she wasn't entirely in a fit state to help with their quest and decided to let her get some rest. As he and his children left the cottage, she stuffed their pockets with chocolate biscuits.

Next up was the not-quite-so-elderly lady with the multiple skin conditions who lived in the forest. Her home was a dark, dilapidated hovel with a broomstick propped up outside the front door. The net curtains twitched as they approached and the door to the smoky interior swung open ahead of them.

The old lady was busy stirring a vast, bubbling cauldron over the firepit. She continued to add unmentionable parts of woodland creatures to it as she waved Ed and his children over to sit at a rugged table.

"What is it you want, dearie?" croaked the crone.

Ed sat down cautiously. He didn't entirely trust her. "We were wondering if you could help us with our quest?"

"Perhaps, perhaps," she cackled. "What quest is that?"

"Well, we're..."

Why interrupted. "Why is her face green?"

"It just is," Ed said hurriedly, trying to kill this line of conversation as quickly as possible. He had a feeling that it would not end happily ever after.

Unfortunately, What didn't take the hint. "What's that on the end of her nose?"

"More nose."

"Why is it a funny shape?" asked Why.

"It's not a funny shape."

"It is."

"All right, it's an unusual shape," said Ed, attempting a different tactic to get them to be quiet. The crone had stopped stirring and was viewing them through narrowed eyes. "Not a funny shape, as such. You shouldn't describe people's extremities as funny."

"Especially if they're witches," added What helpfully.

The crone had pulled a wand out of the folds of her cloak. She started hobbling towards them. Ed realised that maybe this visit hadn't been such a good idea.

"Yes," he said, "they may not take it well... And, anyway, it's rude calling someone a witch."

What looked confused. "Even if they're a witch?"

Ed nodded, his eyes fixed on the hag as she leant against the side of the table and stretched over to point the wand in his face. He struggled to think of something diplomatic to say. His mind whirred.

Unfortunately, Why got there first.

"Daddy, why does she have a beard?"

The crone leered evilly and gave the wand the slightest twitch.

Just then, Oopsie said, "I'm thirsty," and reached for the jug of water in the middle of the table...

* * *

Ed and the children had to run quite a long distance before they managed to get away from the witch's dying shrieks and it was even further before the delighted, singing munchkins that had suddenly taken a shine to them would leave them alone. By then, they had reached a cavernous hole in the side of a solitary mountain.

"I'm bored," said Why, apparently unphased by their close call. "Can we go home now?"

"One last visit," panted Ed and led them into the cave. A long, wide tunnel reached down into the rock and then opened out into a vast chamber filled with gold and jewels. It was a dazzling sight.

"Don't touch any of the treasure," warned Ed.

"What?" said What, trying on a shiny, golden helmet.

"I said, 'Don't touch any of the treasure.'"

"Oh." What instantly let go of the helmet.

"So take it off and put it back where you found it."

"But you told me not to touch it!"

Ed was becoming exasperated. "You're still touching it."

What shook his helmeted head. "No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are."

"That's not touching," clarified Oopsie, scornfully. "That's wearing."

Ed rolled his eyes. "OK, well, whatever. Just take it off and put it back and don't touch, wear, kick, fondle or slime anything else."

"Why not?" asked Why.

"Because the dragon might eat us."

"What dragon?" asked What.

Ed pointed to the flipping great winged lizard curled round the central pile of treasure. "That big, huge dragon over there with enormous jaws that's thankfully fast asleep or we'd be in..."


"Oopsie!" Ed's youngest child stood next to the clattering remains of a suit of armour. Some of it had fallen back down a well and was still clanging its way into the depths. Somewhere in the heart of the mountain, distant drumbeats began to reverberate.

Oopsie smiled sweetly.

One of the dragon's eyes flicked open. In a sudden panic, What finally decided it was time to take off the helmet. It was stuck. Ed tried to help. He pulled hard as the dragon's other eye opened. Oopsie and Why joined in, tugging on What as Ed pulled the helmet. It wouldn't budge. Smoke puffed out of the dragon's snout and then Ed's fingers slipped, he toppled over backwards and children flew in all directions.

Ed picked himself up from a heap of treasure and dusted himself down. Gold coins trickled from the folds of his clothing in an embarrassing fashion. "Er, got any butter?" he asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

"What are you doing here?" the dragon roared.

"We're on a quest."

"Then you shall meet the same fate as all the others who have come here to slay me and steal my hoard," said the dragon, fire welling up in its throat as it motioned its head towards some vaguely-humanoid soot stains on the cavern wall.

"Oh... Oh! No! We're not on that kind of quest," said Ed in alarm. "We're just looking for a way to get to bedtime."

The dragon sucked the fire back in with a surprised hiccup. "That's your quest?"

"Yep, I'm a housedad and it's an in-service day at the school. What else is there to do?"

"Tell me about it," agreed the creature as three young dragons came bouncing out of a side tunnel, knocked over a heap of gold and then set fire to a tapestry. One of them began bouncing on the older dragon's head. "I don't remember getting this much holiday when I was small and the gorgons were in charge..."

Everything went much more smoothly after that. The children and the young dragons played together for a couple of hours and then it was nearly tea-time which, to Ed's mind, was psychologically close enough to bedtime to claim success in their quest and head home. Ed and the dragon swapped email addresses and agreed to meet up for a shot of Halo some evening when they could persuade their wives to look after the kids. Ed promised to return the helmet then.

The journey back was mercifully short but still marked by children complaining of hunger and tiredness. Ed let them eat the chocolate biscuits to keep them quiet. Luckily, they avoided any more dangerous encounters on the way. As they crossed the bridge, there was no challenge from below, only a loud burp.

"What was that?" asked Ed's eldest.

"Nothing," said Ed, kicking a straggly, grey wig over the side with his foot.

When they got inside at last, Ed prepared the children a meal of fresh fruit and vegetables to make up for their lunch of cake. They ate it while watching cartoons full of fart gags. Then it was time for pyjamas and teeth and stories.

In the midst of it all, Ed's wife returned.

"Can I play with your axe, Mummy?" asked Oopsie.

"Not today, dear."

"Welcome home," said Ed and kissed her.

"I brought something for our supper," she said and slapped a VERY large fishtail down on the table. "Did you have a good day?"

"Not bad," said Ed, taking a flagon out of the cupboard. "We went on a quest."

"Really?" said his wife, raising an eyebrow. "Did you complete it?"

Ed grinned. "Yes... Yes we did."

Then it was bedtime...

and they all lived happily ever after.

Yours in a woman's world,