Snatched seconds of happiness…

Chicken

“You’ll never guess what, Daddy: I’m going to be in a play at school. AND…it’s all about Bethany Hen.”

So began a rushed conversation with my 4-year-old earlier this week, amidst the 6.45am madness of simultaneously ironing a shirt, boiling an egg for the eldest, and explaining to the youngest why it really, honestly wasn’t unreasonable of me to have put her Peppa Pig dress in the washing machine.

“Bethany Hen?”

“YES, Daddy,” came the world-weary reply, eyebrows raised in exasperation at my failure to understand what this was all about.

“Oh, that’s nice. Anyway…HAS ANYONE SEEN MY SHOES?”

And after that, I didn’t give Bethany Hen any further thought. Amidst the early morning madness, this all seemed fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things and, although I wondered why my daughter’s class was doing some kind of farmyard play at this time of year, I never bothered to enquire further. I was already running late, I had a train to catch, and I presumed that a quick pat on my daughter’s head – accompanied by a smile that was vaguely directed at her – would suffice.

Fast forward on to this morning. Our house once again resembled some kind of modern art installation (think an even more messy but slightly less disturbing version of Tracey Emin’s bed, mixed with a Banksy-esque mural being drawn on the wall by a toddler). My daughter was now attempting to discuss Bethany Hen in further detail, this time skillfully choosing a time when I wasn’t attempting to do 14 things at once.

“You know I told you about my school play, Daddy?”

“Yes, I remember,” came my reply, as I deliberately made eye contact – this time hopefully giving the impression that I was actually listening.

“Well,” she said, with a suitably dramatic pause. “I’ve got some exciting news about Bethany Hen…”

By this point, I was genuinely intrigued.

“I’m going to be Mary, Daddy!”

At that moment, as she beamed with pride and looked to me for a mixture of surprise, approval and encouragement, I finally realised what this was all about. Far from being a play about chickens, my little girl had simply become slightly confused about the word Bethlehem.

Thankfully, I had a couple of minutes to spare before needing to leave the house. As I brushed my teeth, this 4-year-old Virgin Mary-to-be sat at my feet telling me all about why her news was so special. She had evidently remembered the entire casting process, and happily reeled off the various roles her friends will be playing (apparently, Dylan is genuinely over the moon to have been chosen as the camel). It was still a whirlwind of activity – but for an all-too-brief period, I was able to share my daughter’s excitement about what is, in her world, something momentous.

Although it’s only November, I’ve already decided on one of my new year’s resolutions: find a time, each morning, to give my children my full attention, as I listen to one thing they want to share. When the demands of the workplace are never more than an iPhone-tap away, and we feel exhausted before the day has even begun, it can be so easy to forget to enjoy and appreciate those snatched seconds of happiness.

And my priority for before this year is out? To make sure I book a morning off work and witness my little Mary in action, on the road to Bethany Hen.

When three becomes four…

March 30th

Earlier this year, I wrote a book about being a dad.  At the time, I was very conscious that I’d be committing various revelations to print, and that I should do so with caution.  Some of the chapters of Diary of a Desperate Dad – No Sex, Please, We’re Parents, for example – were therefore read and re-read a multitude of times (after all, once you’ve shared the story of ‘the trim’ with thousands of other people, there’s no turning back. For the full account of that sorry tale, you’ll have to buy the book).

Anyway, one of the things I was absolutely certain I wouldn’t regret was my comment about never having any more children.  I felt sure that, with three children under six at the time, our family was complete and that we would remain the Jackson Five forevermore.  As it is, I genuinely struggle to remember my children’s dates of birth (bear in mind: when our GP once asked me for my son’s, I panicked and gave him the date of my wedding – which led to considerable confusion all round) so the thought of having a fourth was never one I entertained.  Which only goes to show how futile it is to make assumptions about how life is going to turn out.

It always amazes me how frequently people will ask those of my generation about when they’re planning to start a family, as if it’s a done deal that everyone wants children, or that they’re able to have them.  I’m acutely aware that so many people would love to have kids but are unable to – and in that context, the concept of having a fourth child is something you can almost feel guilty about.

Why is all this relevant?  Well, yesterday I sat in a small room at our local hospital, looking up at an amazing image of a new life on the screen in front of me.  All being well, this little boy will make his entrance into the world at some point towards the end of March.  I felt an overwhelming range of emotions – awe, excitement and, yes, that strange sense of guilt – but overall, I couldn’t be happier.  Life can throw so many challenges our way, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have three happy, healthy children, with another on the way.  I’ve no idea what twists and turns our lives will take over the years ahead; all I do know is that I’m very thankful for what I have, and for the way in which my little family has grown.

When we had our scan, we bumped into a lady my wife knew from the school gate.  She was expecting her seventh child.  Even though it was perhaps unwise to rule out a fourth child in my book, I’d like to make it abundantly clear right now that we’re certainly not going to be following in her footsteps.  I’d also like to rule out having five children – but I’m not going to do that, just in case I find myself writing a very similar blog post to this one, in a few years’ time…

Ready, steady, ride…

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 22.00.19

I wonder what your very first memory is. Various moments of my early life are there in my mind, albeit rather vaguely: I remember visiting Mrs Bell’s sweet shop at the end of our road when I was a toddler, and shouting “bananas!” really loudly with my grandmother when we walked under the railway bridge on the way to the park.  But the one, single moment that really sticks out is the day we moved house, when I was three, to the place where my parents have now lived for nearly 30 years.

It was there that I grew up, climbing the apple tree, playing football (very badly) and exploring in the woods. And it was just outside that house that I vividly remember learning to ride my bike without stabilisers. I can recall the smell, the sights, the reassuring presence of my dad by my side, as if it were yesterday. There he was, pretending to hold the back of the saddle until that moment when I realised that, yes, I was indeed riding on my own – all the way to the gate at the bottom of the lane.

This week, my children are staying with my mum and dad, while my wife and I are at opposite ends of the country. Today, in the very same summer sunshine that accompanied my first ever bike ride in 1988, and with the same man by his side, my little boy also rode free for the first time.

Somehow, nearly 30 years have passed since my dad jogged by my side, encouraging me with his enthusiastic words – and ensuring I didn’t career head-first into a hedge. He’s now speaking those same words of encouragement to his grandson, and my son will no doubt grow up with this memory etched firmly on his mind, just like his dad did.

Looking at my boy beaming with pride as he realises what he’s achieved, it’s only natural to feel that our kids really do grow up too fast. But sometimes, it also feels like we do, too.

The passage of time…

photo

“You do realise there are only 21 weeks until we start playing Christmas carols on the radio, don’t you?” So said a colleague of mine other day, much to the consternation of everyone else in the office.

The passage of time is something I’ve been reflecting on recently: next week, I’ll have been working at my company for ten years – and shortly after, it’s my ninth wedding anniversary (mental note to self: your dad’s decision to buy your mum a bumper roll of cling film as a gift is not an example that should ever be followed). But the thing that’s really made me feel old is the fact that tomorrow, my son celebrates his sixth birthday.

Exactly six years ago to the minute, my wife and I were sitting in our little one-bedroomed flat, trying to decide whether or not to go into hospital again. Mrs J had already been in labour for about twelve hours; we’d made a trip to St. George’s in Tooting once already but instead of being told to push, my wife was instructed simply to go back home and have a bath. Nearly 24 hours after that, our son finally arrived into the world; a tiny, fragile, beautiful little baby whose existence changed the shape of our family forever.

Fast forward on to today, and this little bundle of vulnerability has become a football-playing, practical joke-making, inquisitive boy, who recently wrote on his school report that his target for next year is “to persevere with difficult things a bit more” (I don’t think I could even spell persevere correctly until I was doing my GCSEs). My son is closer to being in double figures than he is to the day of his birth – and, without wanting to wish his childhood away, I’d imagine his teenage years will be here quicker than you can say “it’s SO unfair, Dad” and slam the door behind you in a fit of misunderstood angst.

I hope I get the privilege of seeing my boy celebrate a great many more birthdays. But no matter how old he gets, there’ll always be a part of me that still thinks of him as that 8-pounds-and-12-ounces new creation, blinking at his first experience of daylight and calmly lying on his mum’s chest, starting to take stock of the world around him.

Happy birthday, lad. You’re going to have a great time being six, and I’m going to keep on having even more fun being your dad. Just don’t get any older too quickly.

Waiting for my Wotsits…

Peter Rabbit

Here’s a universal truth about parenting, which I was reminded of last night: when you have young children and you’re in a rush, your kids will nearly always choose that moment to ask you seemingly inane questions, complain that they need the toilet, or find some other way of making you late for whatever you were planning to do. But the other thing that was also brought home to me yesterday is this: the experience of being delayed by young children should be cherished, even if it drives you completely mad at the time.

Last night, I arrived home with rather a lot on my mind. This weekend is my busiest time of the year at work (if one more person asks me what I’m doing for the “Easter break”, I think I might hit them) and although I was really pleased to see my three kids before they went to bed, I was also tired, hungry and, let’s be honest, a little bit irritable. As I walked through the door, my eldest two greeted me like I’d just returned from fighting a war, which immediately improved my mood; but still, I was quite keen to crack on with their bedtime routine and get them off to sleep quickly.

While my wife was settling our youngest, I set about reading a story to the other two. I rattled through it fairly quickly, even missing out some of the pages without the kids noticing. After all, I figured, we’d read Fireman Sam’s Christmas Adventure hundreds of times before – and I’m so bored of it now. Then came the time to tuck them both in. As far as I was concerned, I’d be downstairs within a few minutes, cracking open a beer and munching my way through the half-eaten packet of Wotsits I’d spied when I arrived home. The reality, however, was rather different.

In recent months, my five-year-old son has developed an evermore complex bedtime routine. At the tender age of three, the only teddy he ever wanted to take to bed with him was Rabs (our rather ‘street’ name for Peter Rabbit). Now, however, there’s a whole extended family of fluffy toys that have to be individually put in his bed, tucked in, and kissed goodnight. As he placed each teddy in a very exacting and meticulous way, so I became increasingly infuriated about how long it was taking.

I internalised my frustration as best I could – but when, after 10 minutes of this charade, it then transpired that Rabs was missing, I felt a completely disproportionate sense of annoyance. Thankfully, I still managed to keep this mainly hidden from view, all the time reminding myself that it really wasn’t a big issue to wait another 10 minutes for my bottle of Peroni and slightly stale crisps.

Eventually, it was time to give my son and daughter a kiss goodnight, and turn out the light. As I leant over his bunk bed, my little boy gave me a huge hug, looked me in the eyes and asked with absolute sincerity: “Dad, will you still love me – even when I’m a grown up?”

At that moment, I was very powerfully reminded of the fact that our kids’ childhoods really are very precious. I should treasure the innocence of my five-year-old – a boy who is only content at bedtime when he knows his teddies are happy, and who quizzically wonders whether his dad will stop loving him the minute he turns 18 (I’m sure there’ll be moments in his teenage years when I’ll want to momentarily imprison him, but my love for him will always remain constant). In a few short years, the teddies will be discarded, the goodnight kiss will be replaced by a mumbled “night”, and Fireman Sam’s Christmas Adventure won’t even make it off the bookshelf in December. So, for now, I need to remember to take life at my children’s pace, and not wish away their early years.

The only thing I am going to insist on, though, is that no one ever buys any of my children another teddy or cuddly toy. From my perspective, Rabs and his mates are more than enough to contend with already – and in future, I really don’t want to have to wait any longer for my Wotsits.

World “AARGH, how do you make a prince costume?” Day

World Book Day

Last week, I made a new discovery: as a parent, there are few things that can strike fear into your inner being so much as the phrase “World Book Day”.  All across the land, dads and mums were busy trying to enact minor miracles with old bed sheets, charity shop discoveries and PVA glue, as the dreaded day loomed.

For a five-year-old, going to school dressed as your favourite character is a lovely idea.  In theory, that is.  With us parents, though, it’s an entirely different story: when you’ve been at work all day and you’re still up at midnight piecing together a Gruffalo costume, the appeal of World Book Day is far from obvious.

Our son was very clear about what he wanted to be: a “really cool prince”, complete with a red sash.  Relatively simple – or so we thought.  However, we hadn’t bargained on the fact that this outfit apparently needed to be a carbon copy of the one worn by “the prince at school” – who, after considerable interrogation, turned out to be a character in a cartoon his class had watched recently.  Our little boy was very exacting in his demands, and we were left in no doubt that if we created something sub-standard, it would be an unmitigated disaster.

My wife set about making the costume in question: the sewing machine was duly brought down from the loft (we have a sewing machine?  Who knew?), various items of clothing were cut into pieces, and in the early hours of the morning the task was finished.  Or so we thought.

As we wandered up to bed, it was time for that lovely nightly ritual of tucking the kids in and giving them a kiss goodnight.  It’s always my favourite time of the day: even if bathtime and bedtime have been a disastrous combination of misbehaviour, tears and tantrums, when my children are asleep they cannot fail to look anything other than absolutely angelic.  As I rearranged our eldest daughter’s duvet and snuggled her up with her teddies, so my wife tucked our son in and whispered “love you; night night”.  All was calm, all was still – until he sat bolt upright in his bed, looked her straight in the eyes and exclaimed: “is my costume done?  You know, REALLY done, with a sword and everything?”

A sword?  We hadn’t realised he needed a sword.  So, the following morning, having set the alarm extra-early, I found myself at our kitchen table surrounded by various cereal boxes, a roll of tin foil and some Sellotape which would only come off in tiny strands.  The pressure I felt was nothing short of immense: never mind the meeting with four senior colleagues at work later that morning; this was the moment that really mattered.  I kept calm, though, and before long had managed to create this:

Costume

My son went out the door very happily, and loved every minute of this special day.  His school was relatively relaxed about it, too: I’m personally relieved that our son’s teacher refuses to give out a Best Dressed Child award for World Book Day.  It’s stressful enough as it is, without the added pressure of having to create something prizewinning.

As for next year, I’m already gearing myself up for a challenge.  Upon seeing her brother in all his finery, our three-year-old – who starts school in September – declared: “when I’m in Year R, I’m going to dress up as James and the Giant Peach.”  Looks like we might be keeping that sewing machine out for the long-term…

Diary of a Desperate Dad: The Book

New year's resolutions

I’ve never been one to go in for new year’s resolutions: primarily because I’m quite lazy, but also because I like the idea of doing good things on impulse, rather than setting a series of annual challenges which will almost certainly result in despondency by 1st February.  At the end of 2012, however, I broke with tradition and wrote myself a list of targets I wanted to achieve during the following 12 months.  It read like this:

  1. Join gym (might be too expensive?  If so, go for a run once a week)
  2. Cook more stuff from scratch (N.B. fresh stuff with veg)
  3. Write a book?

I’ve utterly failed with Number 1: we’ve now lived in our village for well over two years and I still haven’t unpacked the box with my trainers in.  Number 2 has been an ever-so-slight success, if you can count the time I made a really weird vegetable soup with a mixture of parsnips, green beans and parsley.  And as for Number 3, well, against all the odds, I’m astonished to say that over a year after setting myself the goal of writing a book, I’ve actually gone and done it.

The question mark surrounding this particular resolution was included because ironically, I thought it would be the least achievable one.  But over a glass of wine with a publisher friend of mine one evening, I found myself discussing parenting books – specifically, the fact that the only ‘dad books’ I’d ever read all came from the ‘Woah! Your missus is pregnant and you’re going to have a child and now you can’t get bladdered!’ perspective.  Pretty tedious, given that most dads-to-be aren’t like that at all.  Her response?  “You should try writing the book you wish had been around when you were about to become a dad.”  So, never one to disobey orders, I did exactly that.

Fast forward on to today, and I’m both surprised and delighted that this is now a reality:

Book

Diary of a Desperate Dad, published by Elliott and Thompson, documents what it’s really like to be a parent to three little people.  There are absolutely no expert tips here; after all, I’m blagging my way through this crazy parenting journey just as much as everyone else.  And anyway, the idea of ‘parenting experts’ is a slightly dubious one: do you know of anyone who would describe their mum or dad as an ‘expert parent’?

In the book, there’s a chapter on how to prepare for fatherhood, as well as one on what to do when your partner goes into labour.  After that, you’ll find a section focusing on the kinds of things you can expect from your newborn in those early days.  This isn’t just a book about pregnancy and childbirth, though: there are chapters on The Daily Grind (how do you cope with life now that it’s impossible to go to the toilet on your own, and your shoulder permanently smells of baby sick?), another called I’m Going to Count to Three (what’s the deal with disciplining children?), and then the one my wife is particularly delighted I’ve written: No Sex Please, We’re Parents.

The book is based on this blog – and if you have a few quid to spare you can pre-order it in all the usual places, or read more about it here:

http://eandtbooks.com/news/diary-desperate-dad-top-london-blog-1392810615

It’s a (hopefully) uplifting, realistic and honest guide to life as a dad by someone who, just like you, is muddling on through, hasn’t had a proper night’s sleep since about 1984, and still can’t get the buggy to steer in the right direction when he’s in a hurry.

Which century are we in exactly?

Cinderella

With the exception of the rail replacement bus service that greeted my return to work, I had quite a good day today.  I left the house with a spring in my step, actually enjoyed being back in the office, and was treated to a hero’s welcome from my three kids when I eventually made it home tonight.  But since then, everything’s gone downhill – and it’s all thanks to the discovery of this:

Sports Direct

What you see there, ladies and gentlemen, is an item that, according to The Sun’s Deputy Political Editor, Steve Hawkes (@steve_hawkes), is apparently on sale in Sports Direct.  Because as we all know, in 21st century Britain it’s entirely appropriate to tell our daughters that a dustpan and brush is for girls.  It would be be silly to dream that my two daughters might one day become actors, or doctors, or butchers or bakers or candlestick makers if that’s really what they had their hearts set upon.  Instead, I should just take them down to Sports Direct, point at what’s on display, and explain that, you know, dreams are all very well for boys, but the best they can hope for is to one day reach the lofty status of a modern-day Cinderella.

I can already hear the cries of “you’re overreacting” – but am I?  In a world where we already know that girls are so often at a disadvantage, and that boys’ views of them are tainted by all sorts of unhelpful imagery and everyday sexism, why on earth are some people buying this stuff?

The myth of a ‘perfect family Christmas’…

Keep calm

“Snow is falling, all around us.”  Well, it’s not, is it?  Let’s be honest: it never, EVER snows at Christmas.

“Children playing, having fun.”  Really?  Two of mine have spent this week being sick, and the other one is fretting about the fact that he might not remember his lines in the school nativity play tomorrow.

“Tis the season, for love and understanding.”  Or, to be more accurate, the season for being in the office till late, wondering how on earth you’re going to get everything finished.  And when it comes to ‘understanding’ within a family, that’s easier said than done.  I’m still not convinced my gran has forgiven me for failing to pay in the £10 cheque she sent me in June.

The more Christmas looms, the more I realise my own inadequacies as a parent.  Every film, TV programme and advert paints an idyllic picture of family life – but behind closed doors, there’s a baby trying to climb inside the dishwasher, a 3-year-old who thinks it would be a great idea to draw a Christmas tree on the kitchen cupboard, and a 5-year-old who’s so worried about delivering the line “We’re going to Bethlehem”, you’d think he was auditioning for RADA (to be fair, he’s obviously VERY talented, having beaten every other boy in his class to the role of Joseph.  And no, I’m not competitive at all).

This is our first Christmas with three children – and to be honest, if we can get to the big day without having some kind of meltdown, it’ll be a miracle on a par with the virgin birth.  In a moment of madness, no doubt brought about by a sleepless night, we thought it would be a good idea to host ten adults on Christmas Day.  We’d just about got our heads round what we were cooking (answer: turkey, and lots of it) when my dad phoned with a classic question:

“I’ve been thinking…”, he rather ominously announced.  “Are we having turkey on Christmas Day?”

I confirmed his suspicions.

“Do you think we should have duck as well?”

Clearly not.

“I’d quite like duck.”

That’s nice.  But you’re not having duck.  We don’t have room in the oven for a duck.

“No problem.  Tell you what, I’ll just part-cook it at home, then we can finish it off in your oven when we arrive.  Everyone else can have turkey, and I’ll have my own little plate of duck.”

YOU’RE NOT HAVING DUCK.

All this is exacerbated by the fact that in my day job, Christmas is the most manic time of the year.  There are seemingly endless carol concerts to attend and special programmes to make, all of which result in even less time than usual to write cards or buy presents.  Yesterday, we reached the low point of running out of toilet roll – so frankly, I’m not sure how we can be expected to write loving messages to our nearest and dearest when we don’t even have the ability to defecate with dignity.

I’ve decided: in our house, we’re not going to try to live up to some unachievable festive ideal.  Apologies in advance, but we won’t be sending any Christmas cards (except to my gran, to thank her for that ten quid in the summer).  We will see no shame in cooking stuff out of a packet, and if we manage to get out of our pyjamas by midday during the holidays, we’ll consider it a bonus.  And while the world around us insists this coming weekend should be about “feeding the cake” (IT’S NOT A MAMMAL) and making your own Christmas wreath, I’m going to escape to Paris for two nights with my wife, to celebrate her 30th birthday in the presence of ABSOLUTELY NO CHILDREN WHATSOEVER (well, none of our own, at least).

Given that we’re going to Paris, I might even pick up a confit de canard for my dad.  He can have it on Boxing Day.

The truth about cowboys…

The Magnificent Seven

My little boy, who still seems very little to me, is now in Year 1 at school.  I still find this hard to believe: the memory of squeamishly cutting the cord when he was born is there in my mind, ever present, as if it happened only yesterday.  Can he really be five years old already?

As our kids grow up, us parents have to permanently adjust to new situations: there’s the whole ‘THEY CAN EAT SOLIDS!’ and ‘THEY CAN POO IN THE POTTY!’ stuff, which is either deliriously exciting or rather tedious depending on your point of view – and then, when they get a little older, we have to deal with the practice of letting go and allowing other adults to also shape our little ones’ lives and experiences.

I tend to take a fairly relaxed view of this kind of thing, figuring that it’s a good idea for my children to be influenced by other, more responsible adults than me.  Admittedly, when my own dad encouraged my son to light the fireworks on Bonfire Night I was slightly more protective than usual (I know what my own father can be like with his attitude to safety: this was the man who once left the cover off the cesspit, which certainly didn’t amuse my mum when she fell straight into it and was left clinging to the vegetable patch in order to avoid getting completely submerged) but on the whole, I like to see my children learning from other adults.

This is never more the case that when it comes to my son’s experience at school.  It’s been great to hear about the ways in which he’s learning about the world, and to occasionally be able to watch him discovering something completely new myself (although I fear he still hasn’t got over his encounter with Neanderthal Woman at the National History Museum):

NHM

I did, however, have mild cause for concern recently when it came to the subject of his education.  Flicking through what was on television on Sunday afternoon, I came across The Magnificent Seven – a sure-fire hit for a five-year-old boy.  He gleefully watched the cowboys on-screen and, a moment later, some rather evil-looking men appeared, brandishing guns.

 “I know who they are, Dad,” my son confidently declared. 

I let him explain… 

“THEY…are the Catholics.”

I was sure I must have misheard him.  Nope…

“The Catholics, Dad.  They’ve got guns.”

What had his teachers been telling him?  I needed to know more about my five-year-old’s unfounded religious bigotry.  Tempted as I was to call his mum into the room to continue the conversation from hereon in, I thought I should bite the bullet (if you’ll pardon the pun).  

“That’s interesting.  Why do you think they’re Catholics?”

“Because they’ve got guns and they’re going to kill the king.”

After a little more gentle questioning, it transpired that his class had been learning about the Gunpowder Plot at school.  The men on the screen had guns.  Therefore, they must be Catholics.  End of story.  Life really is wonderfully simple when you’re only five years old.

We talked about cowboys for a bit, and about Catholics for a little longer.  My boy now knows they’re not necessarily one and the same.  So, the lady he spends six hours a day with every weekday is not, on closer examination, teaching him anything fundamentally intolerant – which is a relief, to be honest, because we’ve only got 10 minutes with her at parents’ evening next week, and that really wouldn’t be long enough to discuss our son’s spelling test AND her views on inciting religious hatred. 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28 other followers