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:

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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?

Fear not, Aspie Daddy fans

Regular readers of this blog might have been a little concerned by my absence over the past couple of months, particularly when my last post suggested you stay tuned for Part 2.

The truth is, I have been going through an incredibly trying time in my personal life. Far from being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it was too dark to find the bloody tunnel in the first place. I have been groping around blind, and not in the appropriate headspace to write about family life and parenting at a time when both were in question.

Now, we have finally turned a corner. I’ve found the tunnel and I can see enough to locate my surroundings. The light might be way off – might always be beyond my reach – but I once more believe it is there, and that is enough to keep going. These experiences might form the basis of another post one day, but for now I am going to embrace this fragile sense of security and move on.

So rest assured, I will be updating this blog again. And to start with, I’ll share some good news: a few weeks ago, over two nights mostly after midnight, in between nappy changes, bottle feeds and lullabies, I managed to write a short story in time to meet the deadline of the Writers’ Bureau Short Story Competition 2018. Reading it back, there were typos and grammatical errors and bits that make me cringe, but it amazingly won fourth prize and has been published on their website. So here is The Embrace of the Sea, and I will see you again soon.

Partners in the Marriage Business; or, what the hell happened to my sex life?

There’s a line in the Robin Williams movie RV: Runaway Vacation that really resonates with me. It’s not a great movie by any stretch, with the trite message that spending time with your family is more important than spending time at work, but it has a certain clumsy charm that makes it far more likeable than it ought to be.

Towards the end of the movie, when the family is at its lowest ebb, the wife opens up to a delightfully happy hippy couple about how when you first get together, it’s all romance and fun and affection, but then before you know it you’ve become ‘partners in the marriage business’ – this one needs taking to school, that one to football practice, you need to get the shopping on the way home from work, who’s paying the rent this month? – and somewhere along the way, you forget what it was that drew you together in the first place.

My wife and I have become partners in the marriage business.

Our relationship is entirely about who is cooking tonight, let’s get take-out, are we made of money, you need to pay the swimming teacher, I’d rather pay the pizza boy, do we have enough nappies, we’ve run out of wipes, why is there ink all over the carpet, you’ve shrunk my shirt, no you’re just fat, have you seen her dummy, where’s the lid to this bottle, I’ve lost the TV remote, well if the house was tidy we wouldn’t keep losing everything, so tidy it then, someone needs to get petrol, by someone you must mean me, you’ve spent how much on Christmas presents, no I haven’t even thought about it yet, can we please turn off Peppa Pig, I appear to be sitting in a wet patch, did you feed the cat, it’s your turn to change the nappy, I changed the last one, there’s poo on your jumper, I’m tired, I’m hormonal, how come we don’t connect any more, how can we possibly connect when we’ve got two kids, I hate my life, I hate your life too, oh God why’s she crying again, I don’t know I’m not a mind reader, really I thought you knew everything, oh go to hell, I’m already there, that’s because you’re the devil…and so on, and so forth.

Yes, the marriage business.

We’re so disconnected that the toddler has started calling them ‘mummy’s sofa’ and ‘daddy’s sofa’, and calling us ‘cheeky monkeys’ if we dare to swap. When we kiss or cuddle, as we’re trying to do to rekindle something of the spark we once had, the toddler shouts, ‘No fighting!’ because little signs of affection are so rare, she thinks we’re attacking each other.

It’s a little worse at the moment because my baby has a cold, my wife has a cough and a cold, and my toddler has a cough and a cold and conjunctivitis. In addition, we haven’t had an oven for three weeks as a two-day kitchen makeover has dragged on exponentially. And currently, the kids are tag-teaming me.

When they’re not screaming at the same time, they’re taking it in turns. Either way, there’s no respite. Two days ago I got up at 4.30 in the morning and didn’t get to bed until 2.30 am yesterday, which by my reckoning is a 22-hour day. Not even Amazon makes people work that hard.

So, as our marriage is on the rocks, and we’re aware of that, we decided we needed to reconnect physically, because everyone knows that if you solve the problems in the bedroom, everything else falls into place (yeah, I know it’s meant to be the opposite, but what else can we do, talk to each other?).

Unfortunately, intimate time when you’re married with a toddler and a baby is easier said than done. When I was up to my middle knuckles in shit the other day, trying to extract my baby from three layers of yellow-stained clothing and fighting to wipe peanut butter off her ankles, knees, belly button and nipples (no, I’m not joking, it was a bad one), my wife looked at me with a wink and a nod, and mouthed the word, ‘Later.’

I’m on a promise, I thought. Yay! But I wasn’t entirely convinced.

I’ve been on a promise for a fortnight now.

What tends to happen is, ‘Sex tonight?’

‘Yep, definitely.’

I put the toddler to bed around 7.30, and my wife goes to bed at nine with another hint of things to come: ‘don’t be long’, she says, seductively drawing her fingers across my shoulder as she leaves.

Whereupon the baby does her nightly cluster-feed, keeping me up till around midnight when she falls asleep in my arms. I go upstairs, put her in the Moses basket, rock her back to sleep since she always wakes up during the transfer. And then I look down at my wife in the bed.

Snoring away in a ball of misery and discontentment, wrapped up to the eyeballs in the least-flattering pyjamas she can find. Which, to be honest, is a relief.

I can’t afford the time or energy it takes to have sex. My kids climb over me all day so by the time I go to bed, I don’t want even the slightest trace of physical contact. Added to which, I’m knackered and I just want to sleep, knowing either of them could wake up any second and demand my attention.

But I figure I’d better go through the motions anyway and continue with the charade.

Nudging my wife with my knee, I say, ‘You still up for sex?’

‘Too tired,’ she mumbles without even waking up.

‘Thank God,’ I mutter, and collapse into bed.

We’re partners in the marriage business, and it doesn’t look like that’s changing any time soon.

It got worse!

A night with a couple of hours of broken sleep is normal when you’re a parent, and while unpleasant, more than bearable.

What’s slightly harder is when that night of broken sleep is followed by a day of doctors and hospitals, a night with no sleep, a day helping prepare for the wedding, another night of no sleep, and another day preparing for the wedding, and then a wedding rehearsal.

This evening, after bathing the baby at Lizzie’s dad’s farm, I had to get someone to take the baby off me before I collapsed. Possibly because, looking after Izzie around the clock for four days, trying to get her to eat, keep her fluids up and soothe her, I was not only in desperate need of sleep, I had neglected eating or drinking myself.

Lizzie, of course, has been understandably preoccupied with arrangements for Saturday, leaving the brunt to unfortunately fall upon me. Izzie is very grizzly, has a fluctuating temperature, and chronic diarrhoea – all a result of her gastroenteritis. Worse, since Wednesday’s stint in the Children’s Unit, she has developed a phobia of syringes. Every dose of Calpol or Ibuprofen or gripe water is met with stubborn resistance and followed by two hours of misery.

As a result of the experience of hospitals, she has become remarkably clingy. I have never been hugged so hard. If I so much as lean forward an inch, this vice-like grip tightens around my shoulders and she starts to scream.

So she will only sleep on me.

That’s great if you’re able to sleep with a baby snoring on your chest. If you can’t, after a few days it seems to result in a spinning head, pink eyes, trembling hands, a stiff neck, an aching back, a sore chest, intermittent breathlessness, and a face that twitches as though attached to a whole mesh of electrical wire. All I need now is a rash that doesn’t disappear when a glass is pressed over it, and I’ll be really worried!

Tonight, for the second night in a year, I am sans baby. The night before my wedding. I was always meant to spend it alone, but after my near-fainting episode, they sent me home early. And instead of luxuriating in my aloneness or living it up, or at the very least working on my speech, I can’t open my left eye, my head feels like someone is sawing through it with a spoon, and no matter how hard I try, I’m too tired to fall asleep!

In all honesty, I’m a tad worried about my little one. But there are fifteen people there, including her mum, aunt, great-aunt, grandmother and grandfather. It’s an important lesson to learn: I’m not invincible and I can’t do it all alone, despite how much I think I can. I guess that’s what marriage is all about.

And on that note, I’d better at least try to get some sleep, or they’ll have to Photoshop my eyes open in the pictures!