Dear Dave

Wednesday 31 March 2010

The knowing nod

Dear Dave,

The weather is finally improving.

Er... Well, it was last week. (You know, before it started snowing again.) We had a few days of sunshine and relative warmth. As a result, when I walked past the swing-park during the day, there were several children there rather than one well-wrapped toddler forlornly swaying on a kiddie swing in the rain while his gran had a quick smoke.

Peering over the railings, I smiled and prepared to wave at familiar faces. Then I realised that I didn't recognise anyone. It was an odd feeling.

Once upon a time, I could almost guarantee that a trip to the park on a sunny day would lead to encountering several acquaintances. Some I knew from parent and toddler, others from nursery, a few from the kids' clubs and a surprising number simply from visiting the park on sunny days often enough. I didn't necessarily know the names of these people but we'd exchange pleasantries and chat about our latest parental disasters adventures.

That's the way things still are if I take the kids to the park after school. During the day, though, is a different matter. There are kids there taking their first steps whose older siblings weren't even born the last time I was at parent and toddler. I haven't run into them anywhere else either - I'm not loitering outside nursery anymore or having to be so readily on-hand at activities or the park. These children and their adults are complete strangers to me.

The other morning, I went straight from school to the shops and found myself having to go round the swing-park rather than into it. I got stuck. I stood at the corner and couldn't work out whether I'd be quicker going left or right. Trying to plot a course which didn't involve heading through the gate and then watching a small child on the helter-skelter for half an hour was beyond me. I spent a minute trying to work out which way might be ten seconds quicker and then gave up and tossed a coin.

I almost considered wandering through the park for the sake of it anyway but I decided against it. I'm no longer part of the club. I used to be able to smile at parents with young children and strike up a conversation based on mutual understanding. Now I just seem creepy.

It's a shame. I've lost a support network that I barely realised I had. I miss being able to share the secret signs and rituals reserved for parents with small children, such as the knowing nod of two buggy-pushers passing on a narrow pavement or a sympathetic shrug to reassure a tired mum struggling with belligerent offspring. People shepherding young kids exchange a hundred little gestures designed to show solidarity in the face of whatever life may throw at them (especially banana porridge). It doesn't seem like much but it can make all the difference when attempting to survive a cataclysmic combination of tantrum and nappy leak in the frozen food aisle at Tesco.

Now my children are bigger, parents with toddlers no longer give me a grin as I approach with my brood. They see a mob of scooters and hoodies barrelling towards them and quickly steer their little ones into cover behind the nearest wheelie-bin. Given enough warning, they hide their valuables and cross the street.

This doesn't have quite the same heartening effect.

I suppose it's just another example of how I need to stop relying on my children for my own social life. For so long, lack of time and energy meant I didn't have much choice, and now I'm kind of used to it. It won't work for much longer, though. As my kids become more and more independent, I'll see less and less of their friends' parents unless I make an effort to maintain contact.

I should probably go phone someone and organise coffee. The only question is, will I be able to think of anything to talk about other than children? Let's see: the World Cup, the Never-Ending Edinburgh Tram Project of Doom (and Road Works), the weather, children... er, no, hang on...


Yours in a woman's world,


PS The swing-park was painted the other week. On the plus side, it's no longer a tetanus shot waiting to happen. Unfortunately, the new graffiti which has since been added by some genius with a marker pen stands out really well.

As Marie's reading skills are coming on rapidly, I may need to sneak out in the middle of the night and make some alterations. These will incriminate anyone in the area called BUCK but it's for the greater good...

Thursday 25 March 2010

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Wednesday 24 March 2010

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...

Dear Dave,

Being a housedad doesn't bring fame, fortune or exotic trips. It's not really something to enter into for the pension plan or the lengthy holidays. It's mainly an efficient way to combine receiving hugs and playing with cool toys while catching a cold.

Adulation and praise from my children is always a bonus, however. It was wonderful yesterday when Marie came out of school full of smiles and delighted to see me. She climbed onto my lap as I sat on a bench and she told me about her day and how much she loves me. Then she danced off happily to play while we waited for Lewis.

When she returned, I was rubbing my eyes. "You look like a goblin without your glasses on," she said.

I put them back into place. "So I look better like this?"

She screwed up her face and stared at me intently. "Yes... but you still look a bit like a goblin."

"Oh, cheers. In what way?"

"Your nose... It's very big."

Before I could respond, she went into a meltdown because her backpack was suddenly too heavy and she didn't want to carry it home. My little princess had returned to normal service. She probably coughed on me as well.

Never mind. The pleasantness was nice while it lasted. Nonetheless, if she's not careful, she's going to end up relocated to a deep, dark forest with a new career as scullery maid to seven diminutive miners...

That'll teach her.

Yours in a woman's world,


Just this once

Dear Dave,

Jen over at Following the Road tagged me with a meme. I don't normally bother with these things but since she's my Official Internet Friend, I thought I'd give it a shot. It's about writing. Actual, on paper, writing.

How does this pen thing work again?

The Rules:
write the following
1) Your name/blog name.
2) Right-handed, left-handed, or ambidextrous?
3) Favorite letters to write.
4) Least favorite letters to write.
5) Write “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
6) Write the following words in capital letters:
7) Write your favorite song lyric.
8) Tag people!
9) Any special note or picture.

The bit at the end says,'When I write fast, it looks like this!' You should see 'very fast'...

Yours with a sore hand and inky fingers,


Friday 19 March 2010

Never start a land war in Asia

Dear Dave,

When dealing with my children, I learnt long ago to pick my battles. Sometimes it's worth letting bedtime slide by five minutes in order to avoid twenty minutes of tantrums and screaming. On the other hand, when it's time for school, it's time for school - anyone dawdling is going to get an earful.

I'm sure this comes across as inconsistent and capricious on occasion but in general it makes life more pleasant. The kids get to feel they have some control over their own lives despite the fact that, when it really matters, they don't. They win minor victories but we get where we need to be without too much of a fight. We all stay sane. Hooray!

What I didn't realise until examining Marie's fingernails the other day is that my inconsistency runs deeper than I thought. It turns out that I pick different battles with different children.

When Fraser was younger, he used to pick at his fingernails. When I went to clip them, I'd discover half of them ragged and maybe even bleeding. I was constantly having a go at him to leave them alone. It took months for me to achieve success and finally get him to stop. It was a slog.

In contrast, I haven't clipped any of Marie's nails in more than a year and a half. I assume they're still growing but I don't know what happens to them and I don't ask. Every so often, I remind her not to pick at them, she mutters to herself and we leave it at that.

Why? Why did I make a fuss with Fraser but not with her?

I suppose, for starters, she's a better DIY manicurist than he was. She hardly ever makes a hash of things and makes herself sore. On top of that, I guess I'm more tired than I was when Fraser was small. There's less fight in me, so I need to choose my conflicts even more carefully.

Most of all, though, I know I'd lose. Since neat fingernails are a relatively inconsequential issue in the grand scheme of things, that's really as good a reason as any to leave things be.

I'm saving my energy for when she's a teenager and wants a tongue stud.

Yours in a woman's world,


Tuesday 16 March 2010

Nintendo - not so stupid after all

Dear Dave,

I picked up a secondhand Nintendo DSi the other day. We had two DSs already but Marie has suddenly taken quite an interest in Mario and the investment was worth it in order to ensure peace on our next long train journey. Four hundred miles of my three children taking it in turns to whine, 'Is it my turn yet?' doesn't sound like fun. Now they can all play Mario Party together wirelessly and I can have a nap. Fantastic.

Before I told the kids about the DSi, I got them to decide how much they'd be willing to pay towards a hypothetical one from their Christmas cash reserves. I was quite surprised how enthusiastic they were about the whole idea. After a little negotiating, I even managed to turn a small profit...

I had a little secret play on it before handing it over (for research purposes, of course). After the Wii, I'm a little suspicious of Nintendo's hardware output. The pointing and motion controls of a wiimote seem to be harder for small children to get to grips with than the sticks and buttons of a normal control pad. Even for adults, the experience can often be fiddly and intrusive. Only a handful of games wouldn't work just as well (if not better) on the GameCube. Half of that handful have involved me buying extra gizmos and attachments. All in all, the Wii has been hype over substance.

The DS is different, though. The combination of touch screen and normal buttons make it in many ways a superior games machine than either the PlayStation Portable or iPod Touch. This fact has just been rather obscured by a deluge of low-budget brain training software, cartoon tie-ins and pony simulators.

The DSi plays DS games and has some interesting but inessential extra features - internet browsing over wi-fi, game downloads, MP3 playback, two cameras and some photo manipulation software. These are fun but the machine doesn't do much which I haven't got two gadgets capable of doing already. It wouldn't have been worth upgrading from a DS but seeing as we needed an extra one...

I couldn't help noticing a couple of design flaws, however. The lack of a slot for Game Boy Advance games is something of a loss, for instance. That said, the biggest problem is that although the thing is compatible with WPA wi-fi encryption, the DS games it plays are not - they still only work with WEP. This sounds technical and dull and it is. You can't really imagine exactly how technical, dull and frustrating it actually is unless you have a Pokémon-mad nine-year-old who wants to trade virtual creatures with strangers in Puerto Rico but can't do so without you re-configuring your entire home network in a security-compromising fashion... Gah.

I also discovered that however low you set the console's volume, it still makes a lound whirr-click noise when a photo is taken. I shook my head at this, envisioning the irritation and embarrassment this is liable to cause me everywhere we go. There are plenty of places that I'd prefer we didn't draw attention to ourselves. Four hundred miles of whirr-click could easily surround us with irate fellow passenger. Not only that but they're all going to be aware that my kids are taking photos of them, merging their faces together and then defacing them with technicolour beards. This could severely hamper my napping.

The morning after the children got their hands on the DSi, however, I began to understand some of Nintendo's reasoning a little better. As I wandered the house, I heard the kids giggling close by. They were clearly up to something but I almost didn't investigate. It was early, I didn't have my glasses on and I wasn't sure I wanted to know what they were waving around in my general direction.

Since the DSi can post photos directly to Facebook and I was only wearing a towel, I was quite glad of a whirr-click noise to let me know what was going on...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 12 March 2010

Leaving them alone to be together

Dear Dave,

When, despite the busy schedule of clubs, baths, school and homework, one of the children does somehow manage to have a friend round, life is often easier for me. Rather than being extra work, having another child in the house is enough to keep all the others occupied. Older children find a quiet corner to hide from young visitors; younger children sit and gaze in awe at bigger guests. I stay out of the way and have a cup of coffee.

I used to hang around in the same general location, keeping an eye on things. I was there to explain any house rules the guest was unaware of, to confiscate any contraband they might have smuggled in with them and to make sure Fraser actually gave them a shot on the GameCube.

This last part quickly became frustrating, however. No sooner had he handed the controller over than he would grab it back. Unfamiliar with thumbsticks, power-ups and (in at least one case) TVs, his friends struggled to go more than a few seconds without virtual death but he never let them experiment for long enough to get a clue. He'd just shout stuff like, 'Jump up and ground-pound the Goomba. Watch out for the Bullet Bill!' Never mind that they didn't know the buttons or what a Goomba was - in the context, half of them literally didn't know which way was up. They merely let him wrest control from their limp fingers and then sat mesmerised as the shiny things bounced around on screen.

After a while, they left him to it and wandered off to see if they could find some LEGO.

I tried cajoling him to act differently and be more inclusive but it never seemed to do any good. I just ended up telling him off in front of his friends. The time he made a long list of what he was going to do when Brandon came round, I gave up. 'Ask Brandon what he wants to do' was at number 23.

After a point, it's up to my kids to make and keep friends themselves. There's only so much I can do. It's not like I'm around during playtime at school to supervise their social skills anyway.

Now I keep clear when one of the children has a visitor. Everyone seems to have more fun. I usually only have to intervene when one of my other kids tries hijacking the guest's attention. The miscreant then gets whisked away to the kitchen to do something exciting, creative and educational with me. If I'm lucky, just the threat of this is often enough to stop them interfering.

Sometimes they even go and hide under their bed covers.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Harriet came round to see Marie the other day and they rushed off for a shot on the Wii. I checked on them after an hour and the poor girl was playing intently but not doing too well. It may have had something to do with the fact she was holding the controller upside down. I turned it round and went away. When I returned five minutes later, she had it upside down again. She didn't seem to mind it wasn't working properly and it was apparently comfier to hold that way.

I went and hid under my bed covers.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Making a date with a diary

Dear Dave,

I need to start carrying a diary.

It's not that I have any social engagements of my own to record, it's just that coordinating all the kids' clubs and activities is becoming more than my brain can handle. One of the children asks if they can have a friend round after school and I end up running through the following mental checklist:
  1. What day is it? By this, I mean which day of the week is it? If by some fluke I should happen to recall the actual date, it's no good to me. My life is run on a weekly basis. Monday is Fraser's drama class, Tuesday is Marie's Art Club, Wednesday is football for Lewis AND dance for Marie, etc.
  2. What are the kids signed up for? Knowing the day of the week is a start, knowing what that means is the secret knowledge of a primary carer.

    Me: How was work, dear?
    Sarah: Fine. Did Marie have fun at football today?
    Me: She had art.
    Sarah: I thought she did football on a Wednesday.
    Me: That was last term. Lewis does football on a Wednesday now.
    Sarah: Not Monday then?
    Me: That was before the summer, back when Fraser had Science Club.
    Sarah: Science Club has finished? He liked that.
    Me: There's still Maths Challenge - that's every other Friday.
    Sarah: What about Junior Explorers?
    Me: That's the third Thursday of any month with five Tuesdays.
    Sarah: Oh... Right...

    Not that anyone other than the primary carer needs to know this information, of course. In fact, it's probably safer if they don't. The strain of keeping track of it all addles the brain:

    Sarah: So did Marie enjoy the art then?
    Me: Seemed to. She painted a picture of a rainbow dustbin and wants you to have it to put up at the office.
    Sarah: That's sweet. It's only going to make Tracy more broody, though.
    Me: Tracy?
    Sarah: Tracy. You know Tracy - I've been working with her for two years.
    Me: I've lost track. Which one exactly...?
    Sarah: I was talking about her yesterday.
    Me: Er...
    Sarah: She came to our Christmas party.
    Me: I don't quite recall...
    Sarah (sighing): She dropped a mince pie and lost it in her cleavage.
    Me: Oh, yeah, following you now...
  3. Is there anything special on? Sometimes the weekly plan isn't enough. Annual, monthly and one-off events crop up on occasion. This is where most people would resort to a standard calendar. Since I've been known to struggle with dating cheques even on my own birthday, I tend to opt for a more ecclesiastical format. In my head, I don't pencil in Fraser's Boys' Brigade trip as the 27th - it becomes The Second Sunday after Lewis' Birthday. Marie's school show is the morning of The Third Friday of Swimming Lessons.

    Getting the dentist to write something like The Last Wednesday before the Endless Expanse of the Summer Holidays on my appointment card is always hard work, however.
  4. What do I need to do? I don't really need to know what clubs the kids are at. I just have to remember when they need to be where and what equipment they have to have with them. Remembering to collect them is also advantageous (although, if you believe their siblings, not necessarily essential.)
Deciding whether a visitor can be fitted into the timetable can be taxing. It usually involves several seconds of staring at the ceiling while making thoughtful noises. And that's just to remember the checklist.

I really should start carrying a diary. This has been the case for a while and the main thing putting me off is that my pockets are already full. Thinking about it, though, how much would it help? For it to work effectively, I'd need to go through filling in events and times and places. What are the chances? In reality, a typical week would look like this:

Monday: Drama
Tuesday: AC
Wednesday: Dance, Football
Thursday: Ella --> here, Rob - lunch (12?)
Friday: AB, RB, no BB
Saturday: Lewis --> Dan (?), Cinema

I'd have to translate the shorthand code, remember the details, figure in Sarah's schedule, try to think if there was anything I'd forgotten to write down and then add in routine items such as school times, bath nights and church.

I might be as quick and accurate asking the kids:

Me: What's happening today?
Fraser: Nothing.
Lewis: There's school.
Fraser: Aw! Why did you tell him?
Me: It's Wednesday. I knew there was school. Anything else happening?
Marie: I'm going to wear a pink hair clip.
Me: Er, I meant, is there anywhere else you guys have to go?
Fraser: No.
Lewis: Yes.
Marie: France! I want to go to France!

Then again, maybe I'll stick to the checklist...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 5 March 2010

Dirty housedad confessions

Dear Dave,

Several years ago, at one of the first parent and toddler sessions I went to, I found myself sitting around discussing housework with a group of mums. Once they were past the usual shock and awe at being in the presence of a man who knew one end of a hoover from another, we had a comradely chat about how none of us was being quite as thorough with the household cleaning as we had been in the era before children. An endless succession of nappies and feeds was sapping our time and energy. Where once we'd scrubbed and polished, we were settling for only a quick wipe. Those places which had previously been fine with only a quick wipe were merely getting an occasional guilty glance.

It was good to share our angst over the dirt that had accumulated in our homes and helped reinforce our mutual relief that the world hadn't ended. We'd all settled on our own new definitions of 'clean' which we could both live with and achieve. To sum it up, one mum said, "I've learnt that skirting boards are self-dusting. Once the piled dust on top reaches a certain level, any more just slides off."

This wasn't as reassuring as she meant it to be, however. My immediate thought was, "Oh, heck! Skirting boards are supposed to be dusted?"

Thankfully, I'd had very little sleep and I barely remembered who I was. I forgot the thought almost instantly and went to find another chocolate biscuit and a refill for my coffee. I had a small child who took stupid amounts of time to look after. The housework was a secondary priority. No soft furnishings had started shambling around of their own accord and that was good enough to be going on with...

Two more children and most of a decade later and I'm finally at the point where a spring clean might be feasible. The thing is, the world still hasn't ended. Apart from having to fight off the odd mutinous cushion with a stick every so often, the gradual descent of hygiene standards hasn't produced any consequences.

Er... Not too many anyway:
  • I used to think that jumpers needed washed about once a year but that was because I had several and I hardly ever wore them. I was forever doing something which required rolling up my sleeves. Washing-up, changing a nappy, bathing a child - you name it, I was doing it. So why bother with sleeves in the first place? I roamed the house in a t-shirt, ready to respond to the next mess or disaster. I was constantly on the move and the heating was turned up, so the jumpers lived in a drawer.

    Now the kids are at school all day, I leave the heating off. Jumpers are my friend. I wear them all the time. It turns out they do need washed more than once a year.

    Febreze only works for so long...

  • I dusted some black and white wedding photos the other day and discovered that they were, in fact, in colour.

  • Some things obviously need cleaned. A light switch which feels sticky isn't pleasant, for instance. On cleaning one recently, though, I noticed that the entire area surrounding it was a much darker shade of beige than the rest of the wall. The lighting in the room hid this fact well but I knew I really had to do something about the grimy paw marks. The problem was, I suspected a large amount of scrubbing might be involved and that was before I took in a couple of other locations in the room which needed similar attention. Luckily, I had some of the original decorating materials handy.

    Nothing shows dirt who's boss faster than painting over it.

  • I used to kick loose crumbs under the fridge. After having had various mouse incursions, I now hoover a lot. And keep all the food in sealed tubs. And keep a lid on the toaster. I hardly every clean inside the fridge but I'm fairly certain they can't get in there. It's not like there's ever anything in the fridge anyway. I go to the shops, buy fresh food, fill the fridge, the kids come home and the fridge is empty. It's very strange.

  • We needed a new oven five years ago but we put off getting one until we were ready to replace the entire kitchen. We needed a new one of those ten years ago. One delay after another has meant we still haven't quite got one yet. Nonetheless, my heart really hasn't been into cleaning the old oven for half a decade. I mean, it gets heated up to a couple of hundred degrees in there on a regular basis. How sentient can that slime in the bottom be?
Ho well. Maybe I'll get round to that spring clean next year. I suppose, in the meantime, at least the toilets are clean.

(Er, usually...)

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 1 March 2010

Shock tactics

Dear Dave,

We've all been there:

"Don't play on the rocks - you'll get hurt."
"Don't throw your toys - they'll break."
"Don't pat the dog - you don't know where it's been."
"Don't write there - we'll get arrested."
"Don't get sauce on your shirt - it'll never come off."
"Don't eat that - you'll get sick."
"Don't touch that - it'll explode!"
"Don't do that - your legs will fall off."
"Don't throw rocks at that dog - it'll eat you... and be sick on my shirt. Then the whole world will explode!"

It's easy to get carried away when stating the possible consequences of whatever mischief the kids are up to. Worst-case scenarios always spring readily to mind. It's not hugely surprising that you attempted to put the fear of hospitals, social services and Santa's naughty list into Sam after his little experiment with the forks. I doubt he's traumatised. Unfortunately, it's far more likely he's ignored you entirely and is already back raiding the cutlery drawer.

If you can hear clinking as you read this, you might want to go and investigate...



See, I told you, he's fine - he wasn't even listening.

I suspect that's why these extravagant prophecies of doom are so easy for us to utter. Lesser threats and warnings have no effect and so we escalate in an effort to get a response. Saying that rough treatment will scratch a new toy doesn't alter the behaviour, so the possibility of breaking the toy is mentioned. Sadly, this is only ever going to stop a child battering an Action Man with a pan long enough to say, "It's not broken. See!"

The concept of 'yet' doesn't come into it.

To be fair, though, it can be the same for adults.

The current fire safety campaign involves emotive scenes of death and destruction, and stern warnings not to leave washing machines on overnight. The accompanying blurb on the website strongly discourages leaving a TV on standby while out at the shops and recommends switching electrical appliances off at the mains when not in use.

This advice is all very well but I can't imagine it's had much effect. I certainly haven't rushed round the house disconnecting things myself. Half the gadgets we own include clocks which reset when the power goes off - they're clearly designed to be left on the whole time. Bearing this in mind, why bother with the other stuff? I'm not switching the kettle off at the mains, for instance. I switch it off once a fortnight when I clean it and that's quite enough. Later in the day, I nearly always end up wondering why it's taking so long to boil...

I'm sure electrical faults happen regularly throughout the country but not regularly enough for me to spend my life fiddling with sockets. Nothing's burst into flames yet. Heck, when I was young, my mum used to get up in the middle of the night especially to switch the washing machine on because the electricity was cheaper.

I can't help thinking the advertising money would be better spent showing smiling, happy people testing their smoke alarms. The slogan could be 'Checked the batteries this week? Superb. You're awesome!'. (They could get Huey to do the voice-over.)

It's the same with those warning ads at the start of DVDs claiming piracy somehow leads to international terrorism. They always seem slightly divorced from everyday experience. Then there are the ones which go on about pirated copies being such low quality that showing one will lose you friends and family. I'm not convinced. I always imagine that if I had a pirated version I wouldn't have to sit through countless unskippable copyright notices. The only time I've taken notice was when a message popped up along the lines of 'Thank you for purchasing this genuine product and helping to support the motion picture industry so we can bring you more great entertainment!' It was a refreshing change from shock tactics.

Being positive about good behaviour can be hard work but I guess it's worth a shot.

Good luck getting the forks out of your neighbour's shrubbery without him noticing. I'm off to check the batteries in the smoke alarms.

Yours in a woman's world,