Dear Dave

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Being a dad in the house

Dear Dave,

Thanks for the sympathy over the home improvements. The kitchen should be finished any day now, though.


Bear in mind that the foreman who told me this also said he'd have some guys round here first thing last Friday and they didn't show until half-past two. Yesterday he promised to arrive at lunchtime but failed to mention the other two workmen handily scheduled to turn up three hours earlier in the ten minutes I absolutely had to be out of the house in order to take the kids to school.

As such, I'm not exactly going to hold my breath until the work is completed.

In the meantime, we're all surviving being cooped up in the lounge with piles of displaced oven dishes. For now at least. Who will drive who mad first? I think it may actually have become a competition.

What do you call it when you tip out a skip full of uncooked, impoverished entrances?

A poor, raw door pour.

All those words have the same 'or' sound for me. They all rhyme. For Sarah, none of them do. The kids are somewhere in between. Arguing over pronunciation kept us busy for a while.
Yes, we're definitely losing it.

That said, I did get a bit of break on Saturday. Sarah got the kids' breakfast while I slept in and then I took Marie to a birthday party for one of her friends. I got to sit and chat to adults while she amused herself on the softplay. Then, in the afternoon, I put up shelves while Sarah looked after the children. I was still busy at teatime, so we ordered pizza. By the time I was finished, Marie was already in bed.

It was an unusual day. Having the kids around but not being in charge of them (or even really seeing them much) was odd. It was different from the times Sarah has taken the kids away for the weekend in order to give me a rest. Those occasions have been more like a brief return to the days before parenthood and I've slipped happily into the armchair with a beer in one hand and a remote in the other. On Saturday, however, we were all living our normal lives but the children weren't my problem. In ten years of being a housedad, this has almost never happened before. I had to deal with them for half an hour here or there but mostly I got to watch them pass by every so often and overhear their squabbling whenever an album ended on my iPod.

Strangely, I kind of missed them.

I suppose I got a taste of what many dads must experience on a regular basis. I didn't think much of it.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS As I suspected, Marie has succumbed to Lewis' persuasion and decided to become vegetarian too. I wouldn't have cared but she made up her mind during her friend's party. Suddenly she wouldn't eat the cocktail sausages. Half the sandwiches were out of the question too because they contained meat. Then she turned up her nose at the rest of the sandwiches because they had bread in. The nachos were refused for being too crunchy. She wouldn't touch the apple for no other reason I could make out than that she was on a roll by then.

She had to make do with a slice of pizza and some raisins.

Shortly afterwards, one of the helpers at the venue arrived with a tray heaped with bowls of ice-cream. She got the kids to shout how much they wanted it. There was much leaping and screaming from every child but one. For some reason, the helper chose to serve that child first.

"I don't like ice-cream," said Marie grumpily.

The helper tried to give her some anyway.

"Are you sure you don't want any? I'll put it here and..."

"I DON'T LIKE ice-cream."

Marie can be awkward and goes through all sorts of phases and fads but she's not kidding when it comes to ice-cream. She's tried it plenty of times and has always hated it. I had to step in. "She really doesn't like it."

The helper looked blank. Encountering a child who didn't like ice-cream was clearly a first for her. After serving the other kids, she wandered off in a bemused fashion with the spare bowl, muttering to herself.

Thankfully, if there's one thing I can cope with after ten years of being a housedad, it's other peoples' confusion. I just shrugged and ate Marie's sandwiches.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Catering for everyone

Dear Dave,

Yeah, I know how you feel. With children in the house, trying to come up with a menu that keeps everyone happy can be difficult. The only way I think I could manage it would be to serve pizza and fish fingers every day (including for breakfast).

I used to dream of the day I could make one big vat of food, ladle it out onto five little plastic trays and then sit down for a traditional family meal in front of the TV. No fussing over individual dietary foibles, no cooking one meal for the kids and another for the adults, no having to wash up two or three sets of pots. I've given up on the whole idea, though. For starters, Sarah doesn't get home in time to eat with the kids most days. Rather than reheat the childrens' left-overs, I might as well make something fresh when she gets home. That way, we're not restricted to what the kids like. This is quite significant because Fraser won't eat anything with sauce and Marie won't eat anything she hasn't had before. Options that please everyone are limited.

Things have actually got a little more tricky in the last few days, thanks to a computer game called Harvest Moon which Lewis has been playing. In it, he gets to own a little patch of land, cultivate it, raise livestock and generally work hard in order to own a slightly bigger patch of land. I thought it would appeal to his latent farmer genes from my side of the family and help him understand his heritage. I expected him to learn the cardinal rules of agriculture:
  1. Nothing tastes right without a sprinkling of pesticide.
  2. Anything can be fixed with a combination of duct tape and binder twine.
  3. Never stand directly behind a cow. Ever.
This hasn't come to pass, however. In the game, the creatures are cute and fluffy. The sheep produce wool, the cows output milk and the chickens lay eggs. There's no mention of hotpot, steak or drumsticks. Having his own menagerie of farmyard animals has turned him vegetarian.

Eating bacon in the house has become something of an ordeal. It's much harder to enjoy it with a mournful eight-year-old looking on, sorrowfully muttering, "Poor pig..."

This now means there's rather a wide range of attitudes to meat in the family. Lewis is at one end of the scale but Sarah has already drastically cut down on her intake in order to reduce her carbon footprint. Marie, meanwhile, has never really liked meat much anyway. She'll eat sausages and the odd bit of sliced ham but that's about it. I, on the other hand, grew up on a cattle farm. I don't eat as much meat as I used to but I'm not going to say no if I'm offered something succulent - even if I once knew its name and used to watch it walk past the lounge window on a regular basis. Lastly, Fraser will eat pretty much any dead animal as long as it's roasted and I tell him it's chicken.

The chances of me finding anything that everyone in my family will eat actually seem to be going down. Often, I have to make five different variations of a meal. Otherwise, we'd end up living on nothing but fresh fruit, pizza and cheese sandwiches. (Although I should point out, Sarah's cheese sandwich would include salad, Fraser's would have the cheese on the outside and Marie's wouldn't have cheese at all. For myself, I'd be left with the crusts and whatever was in the fridge that needed using up. Yogurt butties, anyone?)

Never mind. At least everyone still eats fish fingers. Apparently they don't really count as meat...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 14 May 2010

The lift game

Dear Dave,

On occasion, Sarah and I pass the time by playing The Lift Game. This involves discussing which of our children we would least like to be trapped with in an elevator for an extended period of time.

Clearly, being confined at length with any of them in such a small space would not be ideal but they each have their own individual traits and habits which might add just a little more 'fun' to the experience. Marie would whine the whole time, Lewis would witter and Fraser would argue. Or maybe Fraser would witter, Marie would argue and Lewis would sulk. Then again, perhaps Fraser would burp, Lewis would fart and Marie would suddenly need to go to the toilet. Before long, it would be me doing the whining...

Which of them would create the worst ordeal is open to debate, however. The answer changes regularly, based on the kids' moods, their levels of tiredness and how long it is since they've each had a bath. That said, attempting to come up with something definitive helps to distract our attention and maintain sanity when one of our offspring is being particularly trying. It's always an intriguing thought experiment.

Of course, what with the kitchen being done and most of the house out of bounds or full of junk, things have become somewhat less theoretical. We've been stuck in six foot square of lounge for much of the last fortnight. That's bigger than a typical lift, admittedly, but it's been ALL THREE CHILDREN at the same time.

Ho well. I suppose, it's not been that bad really. We've managed to figure out solutions to most of the inconveniences and we're getting by. Friends and neighbours have kindly volunteered to help with cooking and childcare but I haven't wanted to take them up on their offers very much. Preparing the kids' food and keeping them in line is something I'm used to doing in all kinds of circumstances already - it's dealing with tradesmen that's the hard part. There's so much negotiation and uncertainty involved with that, I'm happier to keep control of my own destiny as far as stuff like meals and bedtimes are concerned.

Still, there's been rather a lot of whining, arguing, sulking and burping in a limited space.

I guess maybe this is what owning a car would be like...

Yours in a woman's world,


At least our magic dish drainer is proving its worth yet again:

Washing up in the lounge.
Doing the washing up in the lounge isn't as bad as it sounds. No, really...

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Nature vs Nurture vs Irony

Dear Dave,

As I've said before, sometimes we get the kids we deserve...

Last week, I spent plenty of time explaining to my children about the election and talking them through my decision-making process as I worked out who to vote for. I wanted to encourage them to discuss the important issues involved and to think things through for themselves.

I began simply, explaining about the reds and blues and yellows. Then I realised that the kids have got quite a lot older since the last election and I could use longer words. By Thursday morning, we were valiantly able to analyse the possible roles of the Liberal Democrats within a hung parliament.

I took the children with me to the polling booth, showed them what I was doing and made them feel part of it. I believed I was promoting independent thought - the kind of independent thought that makes my own parents chuckle nervously. I was pleased with myself.

Then, later, as we walked down the street, Marie pointed to a succession of signs. "Why do those say, 'Vote Green'?"

"They're to persuade people who go past to vote for the green party," I said. Then I remembered that I was supposed to be using the parties' proper names rather than referring to them by colour and opened my mouth to correct myself. "They're... They're... Er... They're actually called the Green Party."

"Did we vote for them?" asked Fraser.

"Well we didn't vote. I voted... but I didn't vote for them. You can when you're older, if you like."

Marie laughed. "I'll vote for who you vote for."

The boys nodded agreement.

This wasn't the response I was expecting. It normally takes lengthy negotiation to get my children to agree to put their shoes on. Consensus is unheard of. Suddenly they were willing to disenfranchise themselves without a second thought. "You don't have to," I said with a nervous chuckle. "I don't vote the same way as Granny and Grandad, for instance."

"Yes," said Marie patiently, "but I'll vote the way you do."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Honestly, the greens are actually quite good. You might want to vote for them."

"I won't vote for them if you don't."

My head hurt. "But they want to look after the planet. It's just that they're not going to win round here. Maybe when you're older, the voting system will be different and it'll be worth you voting for them. I might vote for them myself."

"Then I will, too," said Marie, smiling and skipping off. "They'll get two votes."


Oh, how my folks are going to laugh when they hear about this...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 5 May 2010

Responsible carpentry

Dear Dave,

Bang, bang, bang... Whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr...

Bang, bang.

Mutter, mutter, curse, mutter...


This is the sound-track to my life at the moment as tradesmen struggle to fit new electrical sockets into the walls of the kitchen. They keep encountering the random bits of metal hidden in the plaster. Perhaps the original builders thought these little surprises would add structural integrity somehow or the previous owners imagined lining the house with ferrous material would prevent aliens from scanning their minds. Who knows? The main outcome, however, seems to be that drilling a hole in our house is like a crazy carnival game of skill and chance (involving power tools). Will the bit tear three inches through plaster and brick? Or will it mysteriously stop after a centimetre and a half with a tortured screeching sound?

It's always an entertaining pastime but it's particularly fun when trying to anchor something using multiple screws. Like as not, everything will go fine until you've drilled enough holes to absolutely confirm the positioning of the curtain rail or cupboard but not enough to actually ensure it stays up. After that, it's iron-cladding all the way.

It's a great game. The electricians downstairs are really enjoying it...

Ho well, at least they're here and they seem reasonably competent. That's all I really look for these days. I've long since realised that tradesmen (and they do all seem to be men) regard acceptable customer service as putting stuff together in such a way that it works, is safe and doesn't fall apart. Good customer service involves also making it look nice. Turning up on time, listening carefully to requirements, keeping the customer informed and providing accurate estimates and invoices aren't really anything to do with it. These are occasionally necessary evils required to stop the customer phoning up five times a day.

I've grown used to this and now accept it as the way of the world. In fact, when the haulage firm telephoned a week in advance to confirm delivery of the new kitchen units I was quite surprised because they'd already posted the information. When they phoned again the day before arriving, then again on the delivery morning and twice more after that to keep me appraised of delays, I began to think they were stalking me.

In contrast, we had to get the suppliers to goad their trained fitters into finally turning up to do the detailed measuring. Then we had to repeat the procedure to get the fitters to provide an estimate of installation costs. We eventually got a terse email briefly listing the work required and with a number at the bottom. There was no break down and it was the night before we needed to confirm the order. We replied with details of which parts of the work we wanted done and asking for a revised estimate.

The fitters didn't respond.


When Monday rolled round, we weren't even entirely sure they were going to turn up. It wouldn't have been the first time we'd prepared at length for the arrival of a crack team of tradesmen subcontracted by a national company and then had them fail to show. When we had the insurance work done after our flood, I had to phone the repair firm's secretary so often to chase up AWOL tradesmen, I'd have been quicker friending her on Facebook and simply having been done with it.

It's weird. Plumbers and joiners and electricians seem unaware that it doesn't matter how good a job they eventually manage, if they don't do what they say they're going to do, on the day they say they're going to do it, I'm not going to be keen to recommend them. Perhaps they all have so much work to do anyway, they don't care, but it's still a little mystifying.

The excuse is usually that there was a communications mix up or that a previous job overran. If I'm lucky, I get a small apology but that's not guaranteed. I'm given the impression I'm meant to accept these explanations in a similar fashion to volcanic eruptions or an inopportune downpour of sharks - acts of God completely beyond a tradesman's control. They weren't taking a sneaky holiday and they didn't actively plan to leave my life in wet, collapsing chaos, so they aren't at fault.

It's mad. Now I think about it, however, it does sound kind of familiar...

The age of criminal responsibility is going to go up from eight to twelve in Scotland and there are calls for it to be raised in England and Wales as well (where it's currently ten). At first glance, this doesn't seem like a good idea. Lewis is eight and I'm fairly sure he has a decent grasp on right and wrong. He knows full well not to hurt other people, to set fire to stuff or steal things. In Fraser's class, meanwhile, I suspect there are a number of nine and ten year-olds who would quite like to do these things if they thought they could get away with it. It's reassuring they're legally responsible for their actions.

Thinking about it more carefully, though, maybe the issue isn't knowing the difference between right and wrong. Certainly, with my kids, it's the difference between right and careless that's the problem. It doesn't matter whether they're hitting each other, destroying the house or getting in my way, when my children are told off, they'll almost invariably cry, "I didn't mean to do it!"

I'm forced to respond, "You didn't try not to do it, either."

There isn't anything inherently anti-social about walking backwards or playing a handheld games console or eating a chocolate bar or using stairs. Doing all these things at the same time, however, is not the best plan. Neither is getting in the culprit's way and trying to wrestle the console from them because it's not their turn anymore. Standing at the bottom of the stairs and watching, meanwhile, is maybe less of a culpable act but it's not as good as going and finding a responsible adult to break up the fight. It's also stupid and liable to end in bruising.

And what reply do I get when I reiterate the rules?

"I forgot."

This is said as if reporting an unavoidable natural catastrophe on a par with a meteor strike or a sudden outbreak of badgers - something unforeseeable and beyond their control.

I can only shake my head for the thousandth time. "You have to try not to forget."

So, yeah, perhaps kids shouldn't be tried as criminals. It's a bit much to expect children to grasp concepts that many adults clearly struggle with. My only concern is that there have to be proper alternatives and some humane way of dealing with repeat offenders. We need something that will enlighten them but be so dull that they'll want to avoid going back. We need something that will make the world a better place whatever they go on to do in later life, whether tradesman or housedad, lawyer or doctor, banker or MP.

I'm thinking they should all be sent on a customer service course...

Yours in a woman's world,