Hurrah! The good weather is finally here. I can get the boys out of the house without the need to wrestle them into raincoats while they hug the TV and cry at the thought of being parted from it for half an hour. Nope, on occasion, I can now catch them unawares, grab them off the sofa and drop them straight out the window to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine as they bang on the back door demanding to be let back in.
Since Marie loves being outside, her life has changed less dramatically. She pretty much insisted we go to the swing park every day after nursery even during the winter. Our hands went numb and our hats turned soggy. We played in the snow and in the wind and in the rain. We ran home screaming during a hail storm. The main difference the warm weather has brought is that now she has friends to play with on the roundabout.
If only she could agree with them which way to push...
I was sitting on a bench the other day, keeping an eye on her, when Mike sat down beside me. I hadn't seen him enter the swing park but the other parents clearly had. At the sight of his dog-collar, they'd all somehow managed to drift to the other side of the park, well out of range of any searching questions or fatherly wisdom.
I quickly gauged the possibility of joining them but I didn't fancy my chances. Besides, he knows where I live. There was nowhere to hide.
"I was passing and saw you here," he said gruffly. "Thought I'd pop over for a chat." He handed me a cardboard cup.
I peeked under the lid. "And you just happened to have a spare cup of black coffee?"
"Are you complaining?" he asked, sipping at his own cappuccino. He waved a paper bag at me. "Doughnut?"
He shook the bag enticingly. "They have sprinkles."
"I guess if you insist..."
We sat and ate doughnuts for a while. The other parents (and several small children) looked on enviously.
"So...?" said Mike after a bit.
"I wish you'd stop asking me that."
"You keep avoiding giving me an answer."
I sighed in exasperation. "I haven't worked out who I want to be when I grow up yet, if that's what you want to know."
"I'm still working on it." I paused, hoping Mike would give up. He didn't speak, however, and I felt a strange need to fill the silence. His ability to make me talk by not saying much and then looking at me expectantly is infuriating. Unable to help myself, I began to ramble. "One of the checkout assistants at Tesco has started to recognise me because he's impressed I always seem to have made the effort to get my kids out of the house and bring them grocery shopping. I had to point out that I'm a housedad and so I don't have much choice in the matter - they're liable to glue themselves to the fridge or something if I leave them home alone. It felt wrong, though. Technically I'm still a housedad but that doesn't mean anything like it did a couple of years ago. Back when the kids were small, looking after them made me odd and unusual. I had a 7 to 11 job that took all my time and defined me. Everywhere I went, I was The Housedad - a superhero who could look after three children under the age of five while ensuring the washing-up got done and maintaining at least some semblance of a smile. Despite being a man."
Mike nodded but didn't say much beyond an understanding grunt. He looked at me expectantly.
I rubbed my forehead and ploughed on. "It's not like that anymore. Taking care of them involves much more negotiating than grappling these days. I don't have to change nappies or sterilise bottles or carry screaming toddlers around town. I even get a decent amount of sleep. Half the time, I can keep them under control with a shout from another room. Once Marie starts school and I get nearly thirty hours a week without children to entertain, I won't be that different from all the other dads standing around the playground at home time."
"Does that bother you?"
"I was thinking a chance to rest would be great but I'm beginning to dread being asked, 'What are you going to do with yourself?'. I just don't know. I don't even know whether I should find anything to do with myself straight off."
"What about your job doing IT support at that school?" Mike asked, offering me another doughnut.
"I mainly took it to help out my nephew, Ned," I said, rooting around in the bag for something with plenty of jam and icing. "I'll have to decide whether it's worth keeping going after the summer. I certainly wouldn't want to increase my hours - I do need some rest and there's a stack of chores that have been piling up for the past nine years."
"You won't find it difficult filling your time. Just take the chance to stop and think first. It won't be long before your kids are teenagers - you'll need to be certain who you are before you can help them become themselves."
I snorted. "Never mind that, it's going to be hard enough learning to walk down the street without a toddler beside me."
"Perhaps. I'm looking forward to getting used to it again."
My mind boggled. "Wha-?"
"Woh, calm down," Mike chuckled. "Grandchildren. Naomi's expecting. I'm going to be a grandad."
"Oh!" I said, recovering from my brief confusion. "Congratulations! I'll have to give you a refresher course on changing nappies."
"I thought you'd already forgotten how to do that."
"True. I'm sure I can make something up, though..."
It was at that point I noticed the screaming.
It had probably been going on for half a minute but it had only just started to get frantic. The pitch and tone were kind of familiar. I looked round, trying to work out where Marie had got to.
She was dangling almost upside down, stuck halfway as she climbed into a toddler swing. It was one of those ones with something more akin to a bucket than a seat. She'd got one foot through a leg hole but couldn't quite pull herself up on the chains enough to get her other foot over the lip of the bucket and into position. This was causing her to lean further and further backwards and if she let go she was going to land on her head. Realisation of this had obviously dawned on her. She wasn't very happy about it.
I raced over but, as I approached, she made one final desperate flail and clambered in, sliding down to sit securely in the bucket, her legs hanging out the bottom. She sat there crying. "My back is sore," she sobbed. "The swing scratched it."
"You're fine now," I said, lifting the hem of her top worriedly to perform an examination. To my relief, she only had a minor graze that wasn't bleeding. "Well done for climbing in by yourself."
"My back's still sore. It's not even started getting better yet!"
"Do you want me to push you?"
"Yes..." she said forlornly.
"She's fine," I said to a couple of mums who were lurking close by and then I began to swing her backwards and forwards. The mums muttered something to each other in Polish, shook their heads and then went to chase after their own children.
Marie only cheered up when I wiped her tears and gave her my last piece of doughnut. After a couple of minutes on the swing, she demanded help to get out and then ran off to the helter-skelter. I wandered back to Mike.
"I don't know..." I said. "I keep thinking that when the boys were her age, I couldn't follow them around the swing park the whole time because I had a younger child to look after. I mean, when Fraser was four and a half, I had two younger kids to deal with. Marie really should be able to fend for herself a little more. Yet whenever I let her loose, it always seems to end in some sort of disaster."
"Kids can't learn to walk unless their parents learn to let them fall over."
"I know that," I said, rolling my eyes. "Truth is, it probably always ended in disaster for the boys as well but I felt less guilty about it because I was preventing a disaster somewhere else rather than sitting around chatting."
"Uh-huh. Get over it. Do you want the last doughnut?"
I glanced behind me to check on Marie. She was happily scaling the climbing frame and was in no immediate danger. Nonetheless, I suspected that she'd find some way to get into trouble the moment I sat down.
"Let her handle it," said Mike, seeing my indecision. "Leave her be and take some time for yourself." He jiggled the bag. "Come on. It's for her own good."
I peered into the bag. The remaining doughnut was covered in chocolate. "Hmmm..." I said, sitting down and taking a bite. "I suppose if you put it like that..."
Yours in a woman's world,