A Christmas Parenting Problem

My daughter is a very boisterous child. She’s happiest when she’s falling off things and engaging in rough and tumble. She climbs up shelving units, jumps off the arms of sofas, spins in circles until she loses balance and crashes into the nest tables, runs until she trips and crashes down on grass, carpet, wood or concrete, and very rarely cries as a result of these semi-deliberate ‘accidents’. I’m sure she’s in training to be a stuntwoman. Her legs are a patchwork quilt of bruises and grazes and cuts, which she pokes and fusses over like they’re curiosities or badges of honour.

She’s a double-hard bastard, is what I’m trying to say. Despite being 17-months-old, her preferred playmates are kids aged 4-7 with whom she can wrestle, dance, and generally get up to mischief. She’s pretty much fearless. I get very concerned when she plays with kids her own age because she’s so excitable, energetic and rough that someone always seem to get hurt – and by ‘someone’, I mean whomever else happens to be playing with her. She’s a happy, confident and very contented child.

Which is why it’s all the more unexpected that she’s terrified of Santa.

She saw him a fortnight ago and screamed herself hoarse. She saw him last week and screamed herself hoarse. She saw a cut out of him on the wall of her soft play and pointed at it, shook her head and said, ‘Bad man’ (or she thinks Batman has really let himself go). She won’t go near the Christmas tree because it’s got a four-inch knitted Santa on it. She saw him on Peppa Pig and backed up ten feet until she was up against the wall, never once taking her eyes from the screen. She even went through a stack of CDs, came upon a picture of an elderly Brahms, and burst into tears. Clearly, overweight men with white beards are some kind of trigger to her – I’d better try not to let myself go (any further than I already have).

All of this would be a minor problem were I not married to a person who thinks that rather than peace, love and goodwill to all men, Christmas is actually all about trees, tinsel, markets, carol concerts, and a rather rotund gentleman with a penchant for dishing out presents from his sack. Indeed, my wife clung to a belief in Santa Claus far longer than would be considered rational, and I often have arguments with her over the existence or otherwise of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic (statements such as, ‘But how do you know they’re not real?’ and ‘What evidence is there that they don’t exist?’ show exactly where she believes the burden of proof should lie!).

Unfortunately we have two upcoming appointments with St Nick – prebooked, prepaid and non-refundable – and my wife’s love of Yuletide being what it is, there is no way in hell I can persuade her to cancel. The first is innocuous enough: a garden centre. We walk down a tunnel filled with twinkly lights, fake snow and geographically mismatched wildlife (I can accept flying reindeer, but polar bears mixing with penguins? Forget about it!), and we meet Santa in a little room at the end. If she screams, vomits or has any kind of adverse reaction, we can simply head for the nearest exit. Simple.

The other encounter I’m less optimistic about: it’s on a train.

The thought of sitting next to a screaming toddler while Santa enters the front of the carriage and slowly makes his way from the front to the back, stopping to greet and cuddle and provide gifts to every child along the way, fills me with dread. Not to mention the fact that I really don’t take any pleasure from exposing the little one to a situation that upsets, terrifies and traumatises her.

So, the past two weeks I’ve been trying everything I can to convince her that Santa is actually a very affable, non-threatening, child-friendly individual – albeit one who sneaks into your room at night while you’re asleep, hoping you won’t wake up, so he can steal your milk and cookies. Alas, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Still, it could be worse, I suppose. If she develops a phobia of thirty-something men with neatly-trimmed ginger beards tinged with an increasing amount of grey – well, then we’d really have problems!

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The Pain, the Pain!

When you’re a father, pain becomes a fairly common part of your life. Receiving pain is a given – Izzie stabbed me in the eye with a plastic knife yesterday, and has taken to ramming the corners of her hardback books into my throat, temples and ears. She also bites down on my fingers whenever I try to get something out of her mouth that shouldn’t be there, pulls my beard, grabs my bottom lip and twists it, jams her fingers up my nostrils, headbutts my nose, kicks me in the nuts (repeatedly), yanks on my ears, and occasionally jumps up and down on my stomach. Thank God I don’t have hair. This is before we mention the aches and strains of picking her up, carrying her, leaning down to hold her hand while we walk, and the million-and-one other repetitive actions of parenting.

But as I said, that’s a given – I’m a dad. Until she learns self-control, cause and effect, and appropriate social behaviour, these things are going to happen.

What I wasn’t quite so prepared for was the necessity to inflict pain upon my daughter – for her own good, of course. Not for discipline, I must point out, but for healthcare/first aid reasons. Unfortunately, when it comes to doing something like that, the job falls to me, and that’s something I baulk at.

Many years ago I started training as a nurse. I didn’t last very long because I just couldn’t get comfortable inflicting pain on others, even if it was to help them. ‘Cruel to be kind’ is a difficult concept in reality when the cruelty is self-evident while the kindness is measured at some indeterminate point in the future – giving injections might eventually make someone feel better somewhere down the line, but when you’re giving them, all you see is the grimace, the wince, the tears, or the blood. And ditto with inserting nasogastric tubes, performing enemas (although the benefits of this intervention were far quicker in coming, if I’m frank), or cleaning infected wounds.

The day I quit nursing was the day I was looking after an old chap with terminal cancer. He was in such pain that he couldn’t even have a bedsheet over him as the pressure on his skin was agonising. When he pooped himself – thick, sticky poop all over his bits – I was tasked with cleaning him up.

Imagine you’re a student nurse trying to wipe tar off the private parts of somebody who is screaming in pain. Imagine trying to do it delicately, knowing you are inflicting horrendous pain, and all the while your mentor is standing over your shoulder telling you to push harder, you need to press harder (and thus inflict more pain) to get him clean. And then she takes over and does it herself, matter-of-factly, calmly, quickly. Cruel to be kind.

He died later that day, and I left, because if my dithering and squeamishness prolongs someone’s pain then I’m in the wrong job. I understand the benefits of ‘cruel to be kind’, that we have to do it or he’ll get sore or infected and suffer even worse, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier for me to inflict pain upon others. If I’d stayed I’d probably have become hardened to it, or else had a breakdown, but it wasn’t to be; and I have never had to inflict pain ever since.

So you can imagine my horror when I was putting my daughter to bed last night and noticed she had a splinter deep under her thumbprint, and another on the side of her palm. Neither of them protruding. Neither accessible with tweezers. And both of them my responsibility to remove.

When I was a child and my dad had to extract a splinter, he would grab a trusty needle, heat it over a flame to sterilise it, and then dig out the splinter with speed and precision. To the crescendo of my screams. Indeed, before he even got near me I’d be screaming – I’m surprised the neighbours never called the police. Given the fact my dad’s a very practical, down-to-earth, matter-of-fact kind of guy, I doubt he ever had any qualms or concerns about it. It needed doing so he did it. That’s what it is to be a guy.

But I am not my dad.

My chest tight, I prepared the needle over the hob and took it up to her room. The little one knew exactly what I was up to. She wouldn’t even let me look at her thumb, let alone hold it or touch it. At least when I was a kid, I sat still, kept my arm still, and screamed. No such luck with Izzie. It’s phenomenal just how much a toddler can squirm, and how strong they can be when they want, particularly when their cold-hearted father is burying the point of a needle in the soft, delicate, tender skin of their fingertip.

For anyone looking for advice, the technique is fairly simple: you scratch the skin along the line of the splinter to open it up, gently insert the point to carefully lift one side of the splinter up out of the wound, and then grab the end with tweezers and pull it out. Much easier if the victim, er, patient is held still and secure. Be prepared for screaming, tears, a red face, eyes that ask you ‘why, dad, why, I’m your daughter, why don’t you love me’, and the feeling that you’re the devil.

On the plus side, she got over it far more quickly than I did.

Post-extraction I searched the internet for easier methods and discovered that most said to soak the affected area for thirty minutes to soften the skin – but not with a wood splinter as that causes it to swell. Given that 99% of the splinters I’ve had in my life have been wood, and I don’t tend to let my daughter near jagged metal, it’s not exactly the most useful advice I’ve come across. Apparently applying magnesium sulphate will eventually draw the splinter to the surface, but when it’s bedtime and she’s already cranky and the splinters are hurting her, again it’s not the most helpful of techniques. Needle it is, then.

So let this be a lesson to all doting dads. I thought I could get away with being a caring, gentle, nurturing father, catering for my daughter’s emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs, but that’s not enough. There are times when you have to be practical, pragmatic and hard-hearted, and do what needs to be done in spite of the tears, the screams, and your own tender sensibilities. But that’s what being a parent is about sometimes, and if you can bring yourself to do it, you’ll be a better parent and be justly proud that you achieved something you never thought you’d be able to.