The Dream

The Dream

Since my other site is pretty-much defunct, I thought I’d share some of my writing here at Aspie Daddy. I wrote this story in late 2015 for a competition on the theme ‘heart’. It was about my fears at becoming a new father. I have submitted it to various places and have received much positive feedback. However, several places have said it is too sad for them. I thought it was too good to leave wasting away on my hard drive as it might actually help people in the same situation. Let me know in the comments what you think.

 

The Dream by Gillan Drew

The new parents looked up as the midwife entered the room, the little bundle in her arms wrapped in a white blanket.

‘Here she is!’ she announced cheerily. ‘Who wants to be the first to hold her?’

‘I’ll have her,’ said Stephanie, over on the bed. She wore a light blue dressing gown over her hospital smock – it made her face, pale from blood loss and the ordeal of the birth, look grey in the strip lighting.

‘Be sure to support her head,’ said the midwife, a broad fifty-something with a Geordie accent.

The girl took her baby, careful to place the little one’s head in the crook of her arm, and looked down into her face.

‘Hello,’ said Stephanie. ‘I’m your mummy.’

‘Do you have a name picked out for her?’ the midwife asked.

‘Yes: Cora.’

‘That’s a lovely name.’

‘Tom chose it, didn’t you, Tom?’

Slumped in a chair in the corner, his face as pale as his wife’s and black bags under his eyes, Tom merely grunted.

‘Do you want to see her?’ the midwife asked.

Tom shook his head. ‘I’m good,’ he said.

‘You’re sure?’

‘Really,’ said Tom.

Stephanie rocked the baby in her arms. ‘How much does she weigh?’

‘Eight pounds,’ said the midwife. ‘A good size.’

‘You hear that?’ the girl said, nuzzling close to her daughter. ‘You’re a good size. No wonder mummy found it so hard to get you out.’

It had been a horrible labour, coming on the end of a horrible pregnancy. Nine months of morning sickness and mood swings had given way to twenty-six hours of agony, which culminated in an injection into Stephanie’s spine, followed by a ventouse suction cup on the baby’s head and, ultimately, forceps. She was still numb below the chest, unable to get off the bed.

Looking over at Tom, Stephanie smiled. ‘She has your nose,’ she said. ‘My good looks, of course. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. You need to come look at her.’

Tom shook his head again.

Unfazed, Stephanie pushed up the woolly pink hat on Cora’s head. ‘Dark hair! Like your daddy.’

‘They normally lose that in the first few months,’ said the midwife. ‘Then it grows back the colour it’s going to be.’

‘What colour are her eyes?’

‘I imagine they’re blue,’ said the midwife. ‘They normally are with newborns. Do you want me to have a look?’

‘No, that’s okay,’ said Stephanie. Reaching inside the blanket, Stephanie pulled out Cora’s hand. ‘Look at those little fingers,’ she said. ‘They’re so perfect.’ She looked over at Tom again. ‘I can’t believe we managed to make something so perfect.’

Tom looked away.

‘Please come and meet her,’ said Stephanie, and for the first time her voice started to crack. ‘Please don’t be like this.’

‘You really should come and hold her,’ the midwife urged.

‘Why?’ Tom asked. ‘What’s the point?’

Stephanie let out a sob.

Sighing, Tom studied his feet for a few moments before his shoulders sagged. ‘Fine,’ he said, standing in one swift movement. His legs ached from all those hours standing by the bedside, flitting between hope and despair.

‘Thank you,’ Stephanie whispered, her eyes glazing with tears.

‘I won’t be holding her long,’ he replied. ‘I’m only doing this for you.’

‘You’re doing it for all of you,’ said the midwife as Stephanie eased the little bundle into Tom’s arms.

‘Careful of her head,’ she said.

‘I know,’ Tom replied. He’d practiced for months on dolls and teddy bears and in his dreams – he knew exactly what to do.

He was struck by how light Cora was. Stephanie had put on almost two stone during the pregnancy, and the baby was only a quarter of that. And she was no bigger than a rugby ball, when Stephanie had been huge – still was, he thought, as though Cora was still inside, still waiting to be born.

There was a tight band about his chest and the lump in his throat burned, but he wasn’t going to cry. They were watching him. They were expecting something of him. So eventually he had to look down, had to engage with this, loathe as he was to do so.

Stephanie was right – his daughter was beautiful. Between the rough white of the hospital blanket under her chin and the pink hat pulled down almost to her eyes, she had the face of an angel. Long, dark eyelashes, full lips, and she did have his nose. Her skin was impossibly smooth, free of the slightest blemish. And her purple fingernails, so delicate, her fingerprints, the little dimples of her knuckles – he could have lost himself contemplating the mysteries of how they’d been able to create something so complex, so pure.

The hands those hands would hold, the fingers that would intertwine with hers. The smiles that would crease those lips. The things she would see, smell, touch, taste. The life she would live – what a life.

The ticking of the clock on the wall, the distant hum of the traffic on the spur road, cut into his thoughts. Years later, he would still be haunted by their indifference.

‘Talk to her,’ the midwife urged.

‘What should I say?’

‘Whatever your heart is telling you to say.’

He turned away from the others, gently squeezed his baby girl, gazed into her cherubic face, half Stephanie’s, half his, and he wet his lips.

‘I would have been your dad,’ he said quietly, rocking her softly from side to side. He puffed out his cheeks, fought back the tears. ‘I would give anything to have been your dad.’

‘You were her dad,’ said the midwife. ‘You are.’

‘I would have been,’ said Tom. He sniffed, tried to compose himself. ‘So what happens now?’

‘Well, I can leave you alone with her, if you’d like. There’s some paperwork to be filled out, I’m afraid, but we can sort all of that out later. For now, take some time as a family.’

Tom nodded and the midwife opened the door. ‘I’ll be back to collect her in a few minutes.’ She hesitated in the doorway. ‘The way to look at it,’ she said, ‘is that she was just born sleeping. That’s all. She was born sleeping.’

‘Do you think that helps?’

‘I do,’ said the midwife, and closed the door.

The look on Stephanie’s face broke Tom’s heart, and it was all he could do not to break down.

‘Is it true?’ she asked. ‘Is she just sleeping?’

Tom clenched his jaw. The lump in his throat was choking him. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘She’s just sleeping. We’d best not wake her.’

Taking a deep breath, he placed Cora on the bed alongside her mother, watched as she gazed lovingly down at the little baby and gently stroked her cheek.

‘You’re so small,’ she said. ‘So beautiful. And mummy loves you very much. I’ll be here when you wake. I’ll be waiting for you forever.’ She looked at Tom. ‘Tell her you love her.’

Wiping his eyes, he managed to say, ‘I love you, sweetheart.’

‘And you’ll be there for her when she wakes up.’

‘My heart will be waiting forever for you to wake,’ he said, before, overcome, he buried his head in Stephanie’s belly, as he’d done a thousand times since they found out they were expecting.

When his sobs had finally subsided, he felt her fingers in his hair. ‘What do you think she’s dreaming of?’ Stephanie asked, so softly he almost didn’t hear her.

He looked at Cora through his tears, so peaceful, so serene. ‘I think she’s dreaming of us,’ he said. ‘She’s dreaming of all the love we’re going to give her, all the things she’s going to experience. We’re digging a sandcastle and she’s decorating it with shells. She’s playing with her toys and laughing because I’m making funny faces, and she’s cuddling her mummy and smiling because she knows she’s safe. She’s dreaming of castles and mountains and forests, horses running across the plains, and we’re always with her. Her heart is full, fit to burst with the love we share.’

He felt exhausted, battling to get the words out against the pain searing in his neck and chest.

‘Her heart is full,’ he repeated.

Stephanie continued to stroke Cora’s cheek. ‘It’s a good dream,’ she said.

‘She’s safe there, and happy, and she never has to grow up.’

Stephanie smiled, though there were tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘Then maybe it’s okay if she never wakes up. She can live forever in her dream.’

‘Yes,’ said Tom. ‘And she can visit us in ours.’

‘Then I’ll never want to wake up.’

‘Me neither,’ said Tom, and lying down on the bed beside his wife and daughter, he closed his eyes to sleep.

THE END

Copyright, Gillan Drew, 2015.

My Daddy-Obsessed Daughter Rosie

My daughter is killing me.

I don’t mean that figuratively. I’m pretty sure that each day that passes, she’s shaving a bit off my life expectancy. I was going to reach a hundred. I’m down to eighty-nine. Keep this up, and I won’t be seeing fifty. Sometimes I think I’ll be lucky to see tomorrow.

Allow me to explain.

Over the past year, while I’ve repeatedly mentioned my three-year-old daughter Izzie on this blog, I’ve rarely referred to her sixteen-month-old sister Rosie. This has not been a deliberate decision, but come about as a result of the fact that, as Izzie continues to break new ground and present me with new challenges as a father, she gives me new things to write about. Rosie, on the other hand, as the second child, walks in her older sister’s footsteps as far as growing up goes, and as such gives me less new subject matter to work with.

As in the world of blogging, so in the world itself. My daughter is in the unfortunate position of being younger sister to the shining star that is my Izzie. While Rosie is no less delightful, no less adorable, no less loveable and intelligent and playful and lovely, she has been cursed to be born two years after her sister arrived. Had Rosie arrived first, I have no doubt she would be the world’s darling, but, through no fault of her own, she did not, and the consequence is to not only follow in her sister’s footsteps, but to be in her shadow.

Rosie is my forgotten sweetheart. It breaks my heart to see her so neglected by the very people who ought to be the most attentive. The family loved Izzie as she was the first daughter, grandchild, niece, whatever. They organised one day a week they’d look after her; two evenings a week they’d cook for her; booked her into classes; got memberships so they could visit zoos and soft play centres and adventure parks with her. When Rosie came along, these things were already in place, and they couldn’t possibly look after two children at once, so they simply stuck with the one. Meaning they were already so invested in Izzie they didn’t have the room or the inclination to integrate Rosie into their lives.

The long and the short of it is that for the past year, Rosie has mostly stayed at home with her daddy while Izzie has been gallivanting about the countryside with the extended family. Our household has become two separate teams – mummy going out with Izzie, and daddy staying at home with Rosie. This might be okay in families whose division of labour within the home is roughly equal, but since I do the lion’s share of the childcare – I get them up in the morning, get them breakfast, lunch and dinner, change all the nappies, wipe all the bottoms, do all the baths and put them both to bed every night – it means that while Izzie gets attention from both of us, Rosie only has me. And this has a significant effect on our relationship.

For a long time, Rosie has been a daddy’s girl. If I left the room she started to grizzle. If she felt unsure, unsafe, it was daddy to whom she fled. I thought it was rather cute, at first.

Then it started to concern me. Izzie would come and give me a hug, and Rosie would scream and try to pull her off me. Sibling rivalry, they said. Perfectly normal, they said.

About a month ago, I was lying on the sofa and my wife came over, got on her knees and placed her head on my chest. In a flash, Rosie had my wife’s hair entwined around her fingers and was dragging her away from me. And then, mission accomplished, she climbed up onto my chest and sat there like the king of the castle. Mine, she was almost saying. He’s mine.

Ouch. You can imagine what that does to a mother’s self-esteem.

Worse comes at night. She will only fall asleep with daddy, which means when I try to walk away, she morphs into a snarling, spitting, screaming creature that I barely recognise as human. I’m seriously waiting for her head to rotate 360-degrees as she projectile vomits pea soup. I’ve even found two sixes on her scalp – one more and we’ll know her true name (joking! But she does have an unusual birthmark on the back of her head…).

It’s a horrible life I seem to have carved out for myself. I advised in a previous post that you shouldn’t get into a place where your child will only fall asleep on you, but I unfortunately didn’t follow my own advice.

It’s my own fault. With the first baby, I went upstairs with her every night, rocked her in my arms, sang her to sleep or else read her a chapter of a book. With the second, I didn’t have the energy. I’d put the first to bed and, instead of rocking the second for hours, I figured it’d be easier just to lie on the sofa with her till she fell asleep naturally.

Big mistake.

The plan for the new year is to distance myself from my youngest. It sounds mean, sure, but she needs a far wider base of support than I can give her – especially if she wants me around in future years. Because, as much as I love her, I wish my little Rosie didn’t love me quite so much!

How to get a baby to sleep

When people ask me how I am these days, I tend to answer the same way. I point at my fourteen-month-old and say, ‘For the past two months, this one has been staying up till at least midnight every night, often till two or three in the morning, and I have no idea how to get her to sleep. All she does is scream and scream. I’ve not had a single night off in over a year and I’m physically and emotionally wrecked.’

I figured that response was fine, since it was true. However, since I can hear like a bat, I’ve started noticing people talking about me in other rooms – family and friends and whatnot – saying how I’m always moaning, I’m never happy, I’m always going on about how tired I am, etc., etc. Yes, I have become ‘that guy’. Sucks to be me.

But it’s a real problem nonetheless. She’s too young to be disciplined, threatened, bribed or reasoned with; too old to cry herself to sleep because she can stand up – and special as she is, stand-sleeping is beyond her.

Since I’m clearly not allowed to be honest, and my family, friends and whatnot don’t have the insight to realise my moaning is a cry for help, I thought I would offer the pearls of my wisdom to other parents who find themselves in a similar position: stuck with a screaming child that won’t sleep, and clinging to the end of their rope by a single breaking fingernail.

Here are the tactics and the techniques I’ve tried, considered and/or been recommended to get my daughter to sleep. Use them wisely and with a pinch of salt.

1. Don’t let her nap during the day.

Upsides: It makes her tired.

Downsides: By ‘tired’ I mean ‘cranky’. You get no down time during the day, and now she’s too irritable to sleep.

Overall verdict: Counterintuitively, kids need to be less tired to sleep, so a baby who has regular naps and is well rested goes to bed easier than one who is exhausted. The more you know.

2. Move her bedtime back a couple of hours.

Upsides: You defer the problem till later.

Downsides: You defer the problem till later.

Overall verdict: You still have to face the horrors of bedtime, only now your kid is even more tired and irritable

3. Let her stay up till she goes to sleep naturally.

Upsides: You don’t have to do anything.

Downsides: Where the hell is my evening?

Overall verdict: Who’s the parent here anyway?

4. Give her a bath.

Upsides: It’s fun!

Downsides: It’s too much fun. She’s more awake when she gets out than when she got in.

Overall verdict: A great way to kill an hour. Not a great way to get her to sleep.

5. Leave her to ‘cry it out’.

Upsides: None.

Downsides: It wakes up the rest of the household and makes you want to die. After ten minutes, she’s choking and hyperventilating and it then takes you thirty minutes to calm her down, which makes it counterproductive anyway.

Overall verdict: Might work with earplugs and sociopaths, but painful for all concerned.

6. Shout and scream right back.

Upsides: It feels good.

Downsides: It doesn’t help get her to sleep.

Overall verdict: The only people you should be shouting at are reality TV stars and politicians. Or when they’re both.

7. Take her for a drive.

Upsides: You get to see interesting places, people and wildlife, and avoid watching teleshopping.

Downsides: When you get home after an hour speeding around the countryside, she’s more awake than you are.

Overall verdict: Save your petrol money, pay for a nanny.

8. Take her for a walk.

On these mean streets? In the dark? You must be joking.

9. Give her Calpol.

Upsides: When she’s ill, it soothes her enough to sleep.

Downsides: Unless she’s ill, why are you giving your kid painkillers, you psycho? It’s not a freaking sedative!

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable, you’re at the top of a slippery slope that leads to sprinkling benzos on their breakfast cereal and fixing their ouchies with ketamine.

10. Spike her evening milk with rum/gin/whisky.

Upsides: Your elderly relatives will respect you for following their advice.

Downsides: Are you freaking kidding me?

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable…

11. Cuddle her on the sofa.

Upsides: It’s nice, she goes to sleep, and you get to catch up on a box set..

Downsides: It is physically impossible to get her from the sofa to her cot without her waking up and starting to scream.

Overall verdict: It’s great for killing time on the long evenings when she just won’t settle, but you’re simply deferring the problem till later. And worse, now she’s slept for a few minutes, she uses it as a springboard to propel her past midnight and into the early hours. Depends how much you want to catch up on Game of Thrones, I suppose.

12. Rock her in your arms.

Upsides: Really effective and gives you biceps like Dwayne Johnson.

Downsides: Cramp, boredom, and you’re still left with the problem of transferring her into the cot.

Overall verdict: Can work if she’s really tired, but if she’s not, get ready for her eyes to pop open and her lungs to fill during the transition.

13. Sing to her.

Upsides: You get to practice your aria with an uncritical listener.

Downsides: Pretty hard to get the right pitch and intonation when someone’s screaming at you.

Overall verdict: It can work, but you’d better keep singing because the second you stop, she’s going to give you feedback, and you probably won’t like what you hear.

14. Read to her.

Upsides: You get to do something interesting and she gets to work on her grammar.

Downsides: You have to have the light on. And even if she does fall asleep, you face the awkward prospect of having to get up and creep across the creaky floorboards without waking her up.

Overall verdict: quite good, but it can take a long, long, LONG time.

15. Stay in the room with her.

Upsides: You get to sit there and completely ignore her. You have the power!

Downsides: If she’s anything like my kid, she starts off quiet, then starts talking, then starts shouting, crying, screaming, choking, hyperventilating and then dying, until you have to sort her out. End result: she wins.

Overall verdict: She wins.

16. Bring her into your bed for the start of the night.

Upsides: She goes to sleep happily and easily.

Downsides: You still have to transfer her back to the cot, and since she’s been so happy and comfortable, it makes her doubly angry when she wakes up mid-transition and even less likely to settle.

Overall verdict: It’s better to avoid the aggro.

17. Bring her into your bed for the whole night.

Upsides: The easiest technique of all.

Downsides: Where do I begin? You have the same bedtime as a baby; you’re going to get kicked in the nuts and punched in the neck half of the night; babies are a real passion-killer; you’re paranoid you’re going to roll over and squash her.

Overall verdict: Don’t. Do. It. Once you’ve started, how and when do you stop? It might seem like the easy option in the short term, but do you really want your ten-year-old still sharing a bed with you because she never learnt to sleep by herself? Jesus, cut the apron strings.

18. Give her a relaxing massage.

Upsides: A great way to bond with your child.

Downsides: She giggles the entire time like it’s the funniest thing ever, which isn’t relaxing at all.

Overall verdict: If laughter makes you sleepy, go right ahead. If you’re normal, might be best to skip this one.

19. Give her a slap.

Upsides: I’m not even going there.

Downsides: If you want her to stop screaming, slapping her probably won’t achieve that. Well, I guess it depends how hard you slap…

Overall verdict: Not an effective tool for bedtime, or daytime, or any time, actually, unless you like the look of prison.

20. Knock yourself unconscious.

Upsides: You sleep.

Downsides: She doesn’t.

Overall verdict: Doesn’t solve the problem.

21. Put her on her back in the cot, slip your arm through the slats, place your hand on her chest and pin her to the mattress.

Upsides: You’re in the room with her; you’re in physical contact with her; she can hold onto your hand; she’s reassured that she’s not been left alone; she’s lying down and can’t stand up; when she whines you can rock her gently; you can sing to her at the same time; and eventually when she goes to sleep, you don’t have to transfer her because she’s already asleep in her cot. Job done!

Downsides: This can take up to forty-five minutes; depending on the size of your forearms and the gap between the bars, your arm will probably ache after three; once she’s asleep you’re faced with slowly removing your hand from her chest without waking her and you still have to get out of the room; and if she isn’t tired after all, you’ve just wasted three-quarters of an hour.

Overall verdict: It works. It’s time-consuming and labour intensive, but my God, it works. Most of the time. And it’s the only way I’ve figured out to get her to sleep these days. You might as well try it – what have you got to lose?

When parenting gets weird (the owls are coming!)

Parenting a three-year-old and a ten-month-old is, by itself, far outside the norm – I mean, how often do non-parents have to explain over the breakfast table that a noo-noo doesn’t spontaneously turn into a willy on your fourth birthday? – but some days are weirder than others. Last Monday, for example: what started as Parenthood quickly descended into Twin Peaks territory…and not the recent disappointing reboot.

After a long day at Peppa Pig World – and if you’ve ever been to Peppa Pig World, you’ll know just how long a day that can be – I cooked some dinner and then tried to get my youngest, Rosie, down to bed. Three-and-a-half hours later, my wife, who has no religious leanings whatsoever, stormed into the nursery, informed me that our daughter is demon-possessed, and demanded I remove her from the house/exorcise her (depending on my mood) since the incessant screaming was driving her mad. This I duly did, strapping her into the car seat and heading off into the vast emptiness of the New Forest.

That’s when things got strange.

It was down a dark, narrow road in the middle of nowhere, the trees meeting overhead and obscuring the stars, that out of the corner of my eye I suddenly caught a glimpse of a round face, big black eyes, brown feathers flecked with black, and – CRACK! – an owl flew smack into my windscreen, with a report like a gunshot going off.

My heart thumping against my ribs, I drove on a quarter of a mile, found somewhere to turn around and drove back to where my headlights illuminated a large brown form lying sprawled across the road like an old burlap sack. Clearly a tawny owl, clearly not moving. The speed at which I’d hit it – 35mph or so – didn’t bode well. Crap, I thought – what are the superstitions about owls? What happens if you kill one? Have I opened a door into the underworld, or something?

I considered my options. I had neither my phone nor my wallet with me, and no torch either. At the very least, if it was dead I could move it off the road; if somehow still alive, I could take it to the local owl sanctuary, though I doubted there’d be anyone there at this time of night. In any event, I had to do something.

I climbed out onto the pitch-dark roadside, and in that moment a deer leapt out of the bushes and landed on the road beside me. I don’t know which of us was more startled, but the deer looked at me, freaked, and threw itself back into the bushes, crashing away through the undergrowth into the night. By this point, I was thoroughly unnerved, but I had to check on the fallen owl.

When I turned back to it, the dead owl was now standing in the middle of the road, staring right at me, its big black eyes shining like obsidian in my headlights. It was only a few feet away and the forest had gone unnaturally quiet. It was horribly eerie, like I’d awakened whatever demonic soul inhabited its avian body.

Nonetheless, I held out my hands and spoke to it in a soft voice. ‘It’s okay, I’m a friend, I just need to check that you’re okay.’

I took a step towards it and it took a step away. I took another step; so did it. And then it skipped, spread its wings and flew into the air. I felt a rush of relief as I watched it go, relief that turned to horror as it shot over the top of my car and then – SMACK! – it flew right into a tree.

As it crashed down through the leaves, making one hell of a ruckus, it managed to grab hold of a branch and ended up hanging upside-down, its wings held out to the sides like something you’d see crouching on a cathedral. Worse, it was now directly above a stream that ran under the road, and if it fell it would surely drown.

But still it stared at me.

It was further from the car, directly to the side so outside the arc of my headlights, but I could just about make it out in the dark. I felt incredible responsibility for this creature, this fellow traveller that I had collided with on life’s highway – literally. There was a steep bank down into the water, overgrown with nettles and thorns, and I thought if it fell I would have to leap into the stream to rescue it.

But then I thought of the baby still refusing to sleep in the back of the car. I thought of the darkness all around, and of the stream that slid silent and black through the Stygian gloom. I had no idea how deep it was, or if getting in I’d even be able to get out. If the owl, in its panic or its malice, would claw me with its talons and tear at me with its beak. If my car would be found in the morning at the roadside, empty, no trace of any of us – just the dusty outline of an owl upon the windscreen.

Such are the thoughts that come to you deep in a forest late at night.

I tried to shoo it away, clapped my hands at it, just to get it to a safer place – it simply stared at me. It let go with one foot, stretched out its leg, flexed its toes, then swapped over, but refused to move. And just. Kept. Staring.

Eventually, I decided there was nothing more I could do. I bid the owl farewell, got back in the car and drove on. But a couple of minutes down the road, I felt an irresistible urge to turn back – I had to see this through to the end.

When I got to the tree, the branch was empty and my heart dropped. I checked the stream but couldn’t see anything. The unknown swirled around me. In the less than five minutes I’d been gone, something had happened. Whether it had burst forth to new life, or fallen into death, I couldn’t know.

I was about to leave when there was a sudden rustle above my head, and looking up I found myself staring into those same black eyes. It was higher in the same tree, on top of a branch now, its wings tucked neatly away as its eyes bored into mine.

We watched each other several moments, the aggressor and the aggrieved, with something like mutual respect – for a short time, though being of different species, our fates had become entangled and we had shared a connection that transcended the limitations of our bodies. I saluted the owl, and I could swear that he nodded at me in return. Our time together was at an end.

And what was more, the baby had finally fallen asleep. I turned for home.

I spent the next ten minutes carefully making my way past ponies and cows and foxes in the forest, my nerves on edge as the darkness pressed in around me. I only had to get home. It was barely a few miles away. I was safe.

But safety is an illusion. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement, and slamming on my brakes I caught a glimpse of a round face, big black eyes, brown feathers with black trim and – WHOOSH! – a great big tawny owl flew right across my windscreen. I must have missed it by a foot.

It couldn’t have been the same owl. Couldn’t have been. But my nerves now shot to pieces, I crawled home, hoping beyond hope I didn’t hit anything else.

Maybe it cursed me. Maybe some supernatural power in the depths of its being decided that I should suffer. For worse was yet to come.

I got home, put the baby to bed, and crept into the bedroom. There was my wife lying fast asleep in bed, a thin sheet draped over the curves of her naked form. I wanted nothing more than the peace of climbing into bed beside her and cuddling away the nightmare of the forest.

Slowly, carefully, I eased myself onto the memory foam mattress and – CRACK! – my knee snapped one of the wooden slats clean in half!

‘What the hell did you just do?’ my wife cried, jerking awake. ‘You’ve broken the bed, you’ve broken it! You’re too fat, you’ve broken the bloody bed!’

What I wouldn’t have given to be back out in the forest with that owl…

Holidays (with children)

A holiday to North Devon in a heatwave. What could be better? I imagined it as an opportunity to reconnect with my wife to the backdrop of glorious sunsets and a soundtrack of tinkling wine glasses. Something like this, in fact:

DSCF4410
Heaven.

Alas, that’s not us. That’s some random childless couple we found while driving around at 21.45 trying to get the kids to fall asleep (without much success, I hasten to add).

The reality of holidaying with children couldn’t be further from the above image. I know that sounds kind of obvious, but my God, I had no idea the true horror of spending seven days in a static caravan with a nine-month old, a three-year old, and a wife. Dante’s Inferno is nothing next to this.

It’s not just the whining and the crying, the constant distraction, having to watch this one nearly drowning in the pool while wiping the other one’s nose, remembering to apply the suncream, saying no to the third ice-cream of the day and enduring the tantrum, taking this one to the toilet after that one has just pissed all over your lap – it’s the fact that the sun doesn’t set until half-nine, the van is like a furnace inside, and they don’t go to bed until midnight even if you start trying at six. Far from reconnecting with my wife, there was no time to do ANYTHING without the kids. And I mean anything.

I haven’t had a pee or poop for a week without an attentive audience.

It’s not as though we didn’t cram the days with activities to wear them out. I’ll take one day as an example, the day of the above photo. It started at the Valley of the Rocks in the morning, where we did a 3-mile round trip along the cliff path, with me pushing the double buggy while carrying a heavy backpack loaded with water, milk, biscuits, nappies, wipes, suncream, hats, spare clothing, maps, plasters, painkillers, dolls, rattles, camera…

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My daddy, the hero.

…while my wife carried herself. We then went to Lynton and rode the railway down to Lynmouth, explored and ate ice-cream, and I took some beautiful pictures of the harbour.

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Pretty.

After riding back up again, we drove to Heddon Valley, where there’s a track to Heddon’s Mouth that’s ‘suitable for all-terrain pushchairs’.

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My arse.

After struggling a mile down a rough, rocky track with a double-buggy and heavy backpack, we made it to a pebble beach where my eldest threw stones into the sea while I fed the little one…

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All right, wait for it!

…and then I struggled the mile back UP the rough, rocky track with the double pushchair and the heavy backpack, now loaded with stones my wife thought looked pretty, while she continued to carry herself. And did I mention the temperature was 30-degrees-plus? I must have lost a gallon of sweat.

After a bite to eat, we headed back to the campsite and went for a swim, and then tried to put the children to bed.

Well, you already know how that one ended. At midnight. With me exhausted, dehydrated, and just about ready to undo the brakes and watch the caravan roll down the hill into the sea, kids, wife and all.

In fact, instead of improving my relationship with my wife, this holiday gave it a bloody battering. I don’t recall ever having bickered quite so much. Where’s this, where’s that, why did you do that, why can’t you ever…? Oh for goodness sake, for crying out loud, what the hell, oh come on, and on and on. As an illustration of how innocent I was, I packed a book to read and a DVD for my wife and I to watch one evening. Ha! Read a book? Watch a DVD? Are you freaking kidding me?

But at least it wasn’t just us. One night, I put the kids in the puschair and walked down the hill, and from inside every caravan I passed I heard a similar tale of woe – crying, screaming, bickering, shouting. I wonder if anybody enjoys going on holiday with young children.

I think it would have been easier if I’d realised, going in, that it would be full-on as a daddy and zero-on as a husband or even an individual. Perhaps when they’re a little older, things will be different, but at this age, holidays are all about the kids.

But don’t ever make the mistake of thinking this will make them happy, or grateful, or even pleasant to be around. It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent seven hours with them in the swimming pool, or taken them to the amusements to blow a fortune on 2p machines, or carried them strapped to your back or chest up and down mountains, or gone to an interesting castle only to spend the whole time in a playpark, or read to them a million stories – the next time they’re hungry, or hot, or tired, or just irritable, it will be your fault and they will make you pay.

So why go on holiday? Why indeed. I mean, you’re still doing all the crap you do at home, only it’s far harder because the routine has gone out of the window and the kids are overstimulated so they’re harder to handle. But then, perhaps this sign I saw in Clovelly can explain it better than me:

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The best things in life are the people we love, the places we’ve been, and the memories we’ve made along the way.

And while changing a nappy is always changing a nappy, when you’re doing it in a place that looks like this…

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…it can’t be all bad, can it?

Babies: it’s a numbers game

It’s funny how numbers change depending on your age. When you’re eighteen, getting up three times a night means you’re a superstar. When you’re sixty, getting up three times a night means something completely different.

I’m thirty-eight. For me, getting up three times a night simply means I have a baby to look after.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I have a baby and a toddler to look after. And last night, it wasn’t three times.

It was forty-two.

I can imagine what you’re thinking: how on earth can you get up forty-two times to tend to your baby? Why didn’t you just stay up? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure myself. It’s all a bit of a blur – I was only semi-conscious for most of it. But some part of me was counting each and every time, so I know that, for some reason, I got up more than three dozen times to tend to little Rosie.

The best I can do is liken it to the snooze button on your alarm. She cried; I got up, went into the nursery, stuck her dummy back in her mouth, and settled her; then I crawled back into bed. Three or four minutes later, we repeated this charade, all because I was too knackered to get up, take her downstairs and give her milk, and because I was hoping beyond hope that this time – this time – she’d actually settle and go back to sleep for real.

In my defence, she wasn’t actually awake for most of this – she was in the same soporific stupor that I couldn’t climb out of. She’s taken to sleeping on her side in the cot, which means as she reaches full sleep, her dummy drops out and she starts to cry, without fully waking up. So every time I went in there I rolled her onto her back, put her dummy in, rubbed her nose and stroked her forehead, made cooing sounds, waited until she seemed to be asleep, and left. Four minutes later, when I went back, she’d be on her side again, her eyes still closed, but her whining mouth gasping for her missing dummy. Time after time after time.

After ninety minutes of this, I finally summoned the wherewithal to pick her up, take her downstairs and give her some milk.

Trouble is, she didn’t want it! She only wanted her dummy, and then fell promptly asleep in my arms.

After watching half-an-hour of Lone Survivor at silly o’clock in the morning, I took little Rosie back to bed and crawled back into my own, assuming she was finally gone. And then five minutes later…

This went on till about five, when she finally shut up. Just in time for my toddler to wake up coughing, and then demand I lie in her bed with her to settle her, which, exhausted as I was, I duly did. And after an hour of cuddling a fidgety jackrabbit, I got up to empty the nappy bin, change the cat litter, put the bins out and make breakfast for us all. Just another Monday morning in my household!

So, numbers, and how they change with age: I used to think that a twenty-year-old having a baby was way too young. Even a year ago, I’d look at some spring chicken pushing a baby in a buggy and think, ‘It’s a baby pushing a baby! How can they possibly cope?’ Now when I see them I think: ‘Damn, I wish I’d had kids at that age!’

At twenty I bounced back from things so much better than I do at thirty-eight. I could spend 48 hours locked in an editing suite working on my student film and then go to a lecture on psychoanalysis without any problems. I could run and jump and play without being stiff and sore in the morning. If I’d had a baby at twenty, I’d have had energy to spare.

Of course, if I’d had a child at twenty I know I’d have spent an incredibly frustrating decade feeling bitter about missing out on all the fantastic things life had to offer. As a thirty-eight year old, I can look back and say my twenties were awful, so I might as well have had a baby then, and I wouldn’t have missed out on anything.

On the other hand, I’m far wiser now, and can impart that wisdom to my children far better than I would have at twenty. And if I did have children at twenty, they wouldn’t be the children I have now, and that would be a tragedy as these are the best kids I could ever have hoped for. So there’s no point wishing to alter a life already lived. It happened for a reason – to make you the person you are today.

I just wish I wasn’t so tired all the time. Especially as my toddler said to me this evening, ‘Daddy, me going to cry tonight in bed.’

‘What?’ I said. ‘Why would you do that?’

‘Then Daddy have to sleep in my bed.’

Yikes. If she’s this manipulative at two-and-a-half, what’s she going to be like at seven?

Unshockingly shockable

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m writing this while wearing my third pair of trousers today.

By the time your second baby comes around, you’re pretty sure you’re unshockable. The first introduced you to diarrhoea so explosive it went up the walls, poo so gravity-defying it could somehow climb from the nappy up and out the neck of a sleepsuit, and vomit so pungent it melted the clothes from off your body. I’ve had piss on my nipples, shit on my neck and puke on my toes. The second child? A breeze.

And it has been. My four-month-old Rosie has been much easier, as far as that sort of thing goes, than her sister. She’s always snotty – my clothes are held together by snail-trails at the moment – but she isn’t particularly poopy or pukey. Indeed, other than a poo that jumped into my lap like a rocket-propelled sausage when I was changing her at about four weeks, she hasn’t grossed me out once.

And then today happened.

I was sitting on the sofa with my baby on my lap, happily cooing and gurgling and squawking to herself, as she does from half-five every morning. The Olympics was on the TV, my toddler was playing with a colouring book, and all of a sudden I noticed my testicles were getting incredibly warm.

Weird, I thought – my baby’s sitting on my thighs so it’s not her. But now my butthole is getting hot, too. It’s like I’m lowering myself into a lovely relaxing bath. What the hell is going on?

I lifted up my baby and discovered the awful truth – her sleepsuit was sopping wet. It was dripping down between my legs onto the sofa cushion, and then soaking up into my jeans and boxers. And yes, my nether regions were now swimming in baby piss.

It’s amazing how quickly urine goes cold. I stood up and as my boxer shorts tightened against my balls, I couldn’t keep a look of horror from crossing my face. You know the one – the look that comes over you when a pleasant, refreshing fart in a restaurant turns out to be something a little more than gas.

Screaming at the utter horribleness of it all, I handed the baby to my wife and hobbled upstairs looking like John Wayne after riding a stallion for twelve hours. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

Stripping off, I washed my junk in the sink, relieved to be free of the curse, and changed into fresh underwear and jeans. I went downstairs, to where my wife was changing the baby, and sat down on the sofa to watch.

Why does my butthole still feel wet, I wondered to myself. And then I realised I’d sat down in the puddle of urine still soaking into the cushion, and my newly-sterile groin was covered in baby pies again!

Poo from your face to your feet? No problem. Puke from my nipples to my nuts? Unpleasant, but I’ve got it in the bag. But white wine on my wedding tackle? You can get the hell out of my house.

I guess I’m still shockable after all.

Between a Baby and a Little Girl: The Joys of Ageing

As the father of a four-month-old and a two-year-old, I’m currently caught between two extremes. I have a child who needs carrying everywhere, feeding, dressing, changing, soothing, nurturing and supporting, and a child who is Miss Independent, insisting she walk everywhere, feed herself, dress herself, use the big toilet, and do whatever she wants, whenever she wants, without parental supervision. Unfortunately, I’m only talking about one child: my eldest daughter Izzie.

I’m constantly reminded of that Britney Spears song, ‘I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.’ For my daughter, it’s more like, ‘I’m not a baby, not yet a girl, because I don’t want to be either, except when I do.’ Which makes parenting her a bit of a nightmare at the moment.

One minute she’s refusing to wear a nappy because ‘me not a baby, daddy,’ bragging to her friends that ‘me wearing Peppa Pig pants!’ and using the toilet because she’s far too grown up for the potty; and the next, she’s screaming because she isn’t wearing a nappy, refuses to wear pants, and won’t go on anything because ‘me not a big girl!’

Four months ago she started to make representational art forms – a wooden brick airplane with wings and a tail – yet one day last week she assured me she didn’t know how to walk. She’s caught in that awful netherworld of identity between the easy, dependent life of an infant and the scarier, independent world of the little girl.

It’s obvious why – she sees her baby sister getting the attention and monopolizing our time and she wants the same for herself, but she also wants to play with her friends, do her own thing, and have some control over her life. Sure, it’d be nice to keep her a baby, but as she gets older it’s inevitable that she’ll have to leave that world behind.

Which her younger sister Rosie is doing right now. The first three months are sometimes called ‘The Fourth Trimester’ because you have a child that is little different from a baby in the womb, only you have to feed it and change it as it doubles in size and keeps you awake at night. But around three months she suddenly started to become interested in the world. She gurgles and snorts, smiles and laughs, and squawks like a cockatoo. Loudly. All blooming day.

And she’s become mobile. She rolls from her front to her back, from her back to her side, and, a couple of days ago, mastered reaching and grabbing hold of objects and steering them into her mouth – my necklace, my glasses, my beard. And that helpless little baby is now well on her way to a P60 and National Insurance payments.

It’s a confusing time. You want to tell them to slow it down, to accept who they are at this stage of their lives. You want to tell them to keep their fear of the dark because life is more exciting that way, and to hang onto their beliefs in a world bereft of magic. You want to tell them to stop wishing it all away.

But I remember being five years old in reception class at school, desperate to be older. I remember feeling powerless and small and longing to be autonomous and as big as the sky. I told the dinner lady, and she said that when I was older, I’d wish to be young again. I didn’t believe her. Who would want to be young? So I know my daughters won’t listen to a word I say, will only see the benefits of getting older and not what they’re leaving behind, even as we parents pine for the youth we lost.

But maybe they’re right after all. As a society, we glamorise youth and villify ageing – innocence and beauty and purity don’t have grey hair and wrinkles and saggy bottoms. We seem to spend our lives longing for some mythical time when we were happier and had it all in front of us. But why do we always define ageing by what we’ve lost instead of by what we’ve gained? Experience, stability, stature. A wealth of knowledge and the wisdom to wield it.

Instead of seeing ageing as decay, why don’t we see it through the eyes of our children, as a natural progression towards the people we want to be? Because each day we are becoming more, not less. Each day we are gaining, not losing. Ageing is not the enemy – it’s our perception of ageing, of what it means, that makes us suffer.

So whatever age you find yourself, embrace it. You are exactly the age you’re meant to be, and the features of that age are beautiful and yours to own – even hair loss and premature ejaculation. And that wonderful time long ago when we were happy to be young?

It never actually happened.

Fifty things you should NEVER say to a parent…

…unless you want your eyes scratched out, especially if you don’t have kids of your own (N.B. these have all been said to me in the last month or so).

  1. She’s quite chunky, isn’t she?
  2. I think she’s had enough milk.
  3. Maybe you should change the formula she’s on.
  4. Well I think the Health Visitor’s wrong.
  5. I don’t trust NHS guidelines at all.
  6. You know dummies are bad for them, don’t you?
  7. Is that how you put her top on?
  8. Let me show you how you’re meant to do it.
  9. This is the way she prefers it.
  10. You should cook all her meals from scratch.
  11. You were up twice in the night? Well that’s not so bad.
  12. If I had kids, I’d be fine with the nights.
  13. Lack of sleep doesn’t bother me.
  14. What’s his name? He is a boy, right? Oh. What’s her name?
  15. I used to have a dog called that.
  16. He was only playing.
  17. He didn’t bite her that hard.
  18. It was her own fault for getting too close to him.
  19. It’s taught her an important lesson.
  20. Let’s not make a fuss about it.
  21. Everyone else’s children are potty-trained by now.
  22. Don’t make it an issue.
  23. She really ought to be potty-trained by now.
  24. It must be nice to sit around at home all day.
  25. Isn’t it about time you got back out to work?
  26. Having kids is no excuse for an untidy house.
  27. Why don’t I take them off your hands for a couple of hours so you can do some housework?
  28. When I have kids, I’m going to set aside an hour every day to clean.
  29. Looks like somebody has some ironing to do.
  30. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
  31. Well, you chose to be a parent.
  32. And you’ll have to keep doing this for the rest of your life.
  33. We’ve all been there, you don’t have to go on about it.
  34. Parents these days have no idea how easy they have it.
  35. When I had my kids I had nobody to help me.
  36. All this modern ‘naughty step’ rubbish.
  37. Smacking never did anyone any harm.
  38. You’re making a rod for your own back.
  39. You shouldn’t cuddle her so much.
  40. Did you see that great programme on TV last night?
  41. You really need to read this book.
  42. You look more tired every time I see you.
  43. I don’t remember you having all that grey in your beard.
  44. Why have you put on so much weight?
  45. It doesn’t get any easier.
  46. If you think this is hard, wait until…
  47. Don’t worry, they’ll be starting school in four years.
  48. You should value this time of your life.
  49. It goes by so quickly.
  50. Remember to enjoy every moment!

A New Man for a New Year

When you become a dad, you have this idea that you’re going to get to be a man. I say ‘get to be’ because manliness and masculinity are somewhat vilified these days. We’re meant to be in touch with our feminine side, have opinions about soft furnishings, sculpt our eyebrows, wax our nut-sacks, and take longer than a supermodel to get ready for a night out. It’s rather telling that the male sex symbols of yesteryear had chiselled jaws, gravelly voices and rugged good looks, while those of today are pubescent boys who can sing like girls and are incapable of growing body hair. There’s no way I can compete with that.

So it’s nice to have an excuse to release the savage beast.

I’m not talking about boorish lad culture – booze, boobs, birds and balls. I’m talking about what were considered the traditional manly virtues of strength, courage and inventiveness. After all, men built the wheel, crossed oceans on ships made of iron, and tamed the very landscape with the sweat of their brows. In a family, the man used to be the provider, the protector, the lawgiver and the master of all he surveyed. Who wouldn’t want that?

I pictured myself hunting mammoths, fighting off packs of saber-toothed tigers, and decorating my cave with the skulls of my enemies as I bathed in the tears of their women. I am masculinity incarnate, red in tooth and claw. See my chest hair and hear me roar for I am MAN!

When I’m a dad, I thought, I’m going to be a cross between Alan Quartermain and Rambo.

The reality of being a house-husband to two little girls is somewhat different.

I spent most of Christmas sitting cross-legged on the floor sipping pretend tea from a flowery tin tea set, and saying things like, ‘Mmm, lovely,’ and, ‘Thank you, yes, I will have another pink plastic macaroon.’ That’s when I wasn’t watching child-friendly crap like Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s my Donkey? and Frozen, and resisting my daughter’s entreaties to shave off my beard as it’ll make me look ‘very pretty’. Let it go, honey, let it go.

I cooed over little tinkles in the potty, gave her high-fives for eating her crusts, and hugged her through the night as she woke up with bad dreams. I changed nappies in three separate female toilets because despite it being 2018 already, many eating and drinking establishments haven’t yet realised that a man might be the primary carer. And I started to perfect my hair-plaiting skills, which is pretty far from the strong hunter-gatherer I thought I would be.

And then a couple of days back, I found myself sitting very still while my two-year-old got out her toy makeup kit and pretended to do my makeup – lipstick, eye-shadow, blusher, eye-liner and mascara. She even tried to fix a shiny plastic princess tiara in my hair, but failed as I have no hair.

Eventually she sat back to admire her work, nodded, pleased, and said, ‘Willy bustle.’

‘What?’

‘Willy bustle,’ she repeated.

Now, as somebody obsessed with words and their meanings, I rapidly extrapolated the following:

willy – n., British, inf., the male member; penis; symbol of masculinity.

bustle – n. a wooden frame worn under a skirt to puff it out at the back.

And so:

willy bustle – n. a cage beneath a woman’s skirts where she keeps her man’s masculinity imprisoned.

My God, I suddenly realised. She’s absolutely right. I’ve been completely emasculated. Since becoming a stay-at-home dad, my manhood has slowly and surely been removed until I no longer have anything down there. I am a Ken doll – an empty, de-sexualised piece of plastic that other people dress up and play with for their own amusement. I have no power whatsoever.

I don’t get to decide when I get up in the morning or what time I go to bed. I don’t get to decide when I eat, or whether my food will be warm or left to go cold. I don’t get to decide when I make myself a drink or when I go to the toilet. Oftentimes, I don’t even get to decide what clothes I wear – I throw on yesterday’s as I hurry downstairs so as not to disturb my wife’s beauty sleep. My life is a parade of doing things for other people. As a parent, so far, so normal.

But my powerlessness extends far beyond mere parenting: if an Englishman’s home is his castle, I’m clearly no Englishman. My wife and her father bought a house together, and a few years later, I moved in with her, so despite it being our house, it is still seen as hers. I have no say over what comes into the house or what goes out; who comes and when and for how long; where things go; how it’s decorated; what pets we have. I don’t decide where we go for holidays, what activities we partake in, or what car we drive. As my wife is a spendaholic and hoarder, I don’t decide what toys or clothes my kids get, or which ones are given away, no matter how horribly spoiled they’re becoming. I’m not allowed to say what I really think to her family members when they belittle my parenting abilities in my own home. And since my wife doesn’t want to be ‘controlled by a man’, she makes arrangements and goes out without considering me, leaving me at home alone with the baby.

She keeps my manhood locked up in a cage beneath her skirt.

Why don’t you put your foot down? I hear you ask. Simple. If ever I resist, I’m told that it’s her house and I know where the door is, and if I go, she’ll get custody of the kids because ‘the courts are always on the side of the mother.’ So even though we have established that I no longer have a penis, my sex will still be held against me. And that’s just not right.

As a man, I need my power, my respect and my dignity. As a human being, we all need that, but as a man, I need it especially. It doesn’t matter whether you believe gender difference is a social construct or something innate, or as I do somewhere in-between, it is an important part of a person’s identity, psychology and means of understanding their place in the world. It might be unpopular to say it, but I’m going to:

I am reclaiming my masculinity.

I am sick of being told that masculinity is something bad. I’m sick of how it’s totally okay to judge somebody simply because they’re a man. I’m sick of having to hide or suppress my totally normal masculinity because we are creating a society in which you’re meant to be ashamed of being male.

Things are changing. I felt so utterly powerless last week that I shaved my head in protest. And I am growing my beard long so there’s no mistaking that I am no longer going to be anybody’s bitch.

I’ve spent nine years making sacrifices to keep other people happy. I’ve spent nine years pussy-footing around, compromising on my needs, burying my instincts for fear of coming across as old-fashioned and chauvinistic. And where has it got me? Am I respected for being a martyr? Am I appreciated for going without while those around me take, take, take?

No. I’m a new man for a New Year, and I’m not going to take shit from anybody.

Wow, that got dark pretty quickly. So to lighten the mood, back to my willy bustle.

‘Honey,’ I called to my wife, with my pretend mascara and eye-shadow and blusher. ‘Izzie keeps saying willy bustle.’

‘She’s saying “really special”,’ my wife replied.

My daughter proceeded to add more lipstick to my face.

‘Really special, daddy.’

And that seems just as bad.

‘Daddy’s not special,’ I said. ‘Daddy’s manly and dangerous and he has a beard. And I’m in charge.’

‘Me in charge,’ she replied.

‘No, I’m in charge.’

‘No, me.’

‘It’s my way or the highway, kiddo,’ I said.

‘No,’ she giggled. ‘It’s my way.’

I think the road ahead might be bumpy.