Coronavirus and domestic abuse

This afternoon, when my wife brought my kids back from visiting [redacted] in spite of the lockdown, my two-year-old asked me to leave the lounge and go into my office – she didn’t want me in the room while she watched Paw Patrol. I’m pretty sure she learned this behaviour from her sister, my four-year-old, who in addition to wanting me out of the room most of the time, has also made it clear she wants me to sleep downstairs from now on.

Why do my kids want me out of the way? Because they’re being poisoned against me.

And there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

This blog post is a confessional. I didn’t want to reveal the full extent of what’s been going on out of respect for the parties involved. Now, I don’t care anymore. Domestic abuse is wrong, whatever form it takes. I might be a man, with a beard and a few extra stones around my middle, but that doesn’t make me any less a victim.

In order to keep it on point, because it’s long, I’m only going to focus on the lockdown. Stuff that happened before – siphoning money from the bills account into her own, for example, or all the times she’s taken a swing at me – is water under the bridge at this point.

As I’ve mentioned before, as soon as the lockdown started, I became Public Enemy Number One to my wife and [redacted]. When the Prime Minister told us to stay at home and not visit anyone who didn’t live in the same household, I took that as it was meant. My wife, on the other hand, took it to mean ‘keep visiting [redacted] despite living in three separate households’.

As someone who believes in doing what’s right, I was adamant we’d respect the lockdown. I was therefore horrified when [redacted] turned up on my doorstep a couple of days later. When I didn’t let her in, much shouting and crying ensued, in which I was made out to be the bad guy. To my children, I was being mean and upsetting mummy and [redacted]; to my wife and [redacted], I was being unreasonable and irrational.

The following day, my wife took the children out for ‘exercise’. When I asked to go with them, she became defensive and aggressive, so I dropped the matter because I didn’t want to argue in front of the kids. However, it was obvious she was really going to visit [redacted].

A couple of days after this, [redacted] demanded my wife and I stop having support sessions – the very support that is allowed under government guidelines and without which our family would fall apart. [Redacted] said it would be my fault if they caught coronavirus from my children – not their fault for breaking the lockdown rules!

I let it go until a few days later, when my eldest said she was seeing [redacted], but she wasn’t meant to tell me or they’ll all get in trouble. I had it out with my wife after that. I told her I knew she was visiting [redacted], and I wanted her to stop, but that as she was an adult, I couldn’t physically stop her. I asked her to stop lying, stop getting the kids to lie to me, and at the very least to stay two metres apart, which she agreed to do.

I then emailed [redacted] and told them the same – that I’d like them to support me and not come between me and my wife, but that if they were going to meet up, they were all adults and there was no need to sneak around and ask my kids to lie to me. It was, I thought, a reasonable request to make.

Their response was to call me a hypocrite who didn’t need support, and accused me of deliberately misinterpreting the guidelines.

I replied in a manner that was far more polite than I felt. I provided a link to the government guidelines that spelled out in black and white that I was following the rules. Regarding not needing support, I pointed out that I have autism and depression, while my wife has autism and a personality disorder, and I have spent four years protecting my family from Social Services, who have said that if I wasn’t around, they’d have grave concerns about my wife’s fitness as a mother. I said that this has taken a toll on my mental health, given my wife’s multiple behavioural explosions in front of support workers, including shouting, swearing, throwing things, storming off, slamming doors, making threats, raising her fists to hit me, and totally losing all connection with reality. I said that without support, my marriage wouldn’t survive.

Well. I don’t know why I expected understanding, because none was forthcoming. They tore me a new one. How dare I threaten them with Social Services, they said. How dare I label my wife (it was actually the psychiatrists who labelled her). And they said that if my wife shouted at me, swore at me, threw things at me, threatened me and raised her fists to strike me, they could understand why. That’s right, it’s my fault if she attacks me!

They said they’ll never forgive me for putting them through this ‘ordeal’, that I should be grateful to them, and that I’m a terrible father and husband who might be able to hide his true temperament from others, but they can see right through me. And they don’t want to speak to me ever again, so I didn’t even get the chance to defend myself.

I’m not entirely sure what ‘ordeal’ I’ve put them through. I asked my wife not to visit [redacted]; she ignored me. That’s it. Hardly an ordeal.

From that point on, my wife took the kids to see [redacted] every day, even though she knew I didn’t approve. When my kids told me they’d been hugging [redacted], my wife denied it and called them liars, before admitting that okay, yes they had, and she wasn’t going to stop him, so mind your own business. And when she told me she hadn’t seen [redacted], it turned out she had.

Our care manager came out to talk to her, and point out how awful it was to ask the children to lie to me. ‘What happens when the man down the street wants to play a game with them, but they can’t tell mummy or daddy or they’ll all get into trouble?’ she said. ‘You’ve trained your children that that’s normal.’ I reiterated that she’s an adult and can make her own decisions and doesn’t need to lie to me, so she agreed to be honest with me from then on.

Two days later, I caught her lying again and coercing the children into lying.

Given what my wife said in the meeting with our care manager, and from hints in [redacted]’s emails, I know they’re trying to set me up as some kind of monster. I caught her filming me in secret, trying to get evidence against me for God-knows-what, and [redacted] has told her to keep a secret diary in which to record all my misdeeds, whatever on earth these might be. I honestly don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing wrong.

I took legal advice from a specialist in family law, who told me that I’m in quite the predicament. You see, the house I live in is co-owned between my wife and [redacted]. If my wife owned it, if our relationship fell apart I would have the right to remain in the house until our divorce; because it’s co-owned, they can kick me out any time they want.

Worse, because of coronavirus, all the hotels, B&Bs and shelters are closed. With my wife being so unstable, if our relationship breaks down during the lockdown and the home situation becomes untenable, Social Services will have nowhere for me and the kids to go so would put the children into foster care until the end of the lockdown. If, on the other hand, it all became too much for me and I walked out and left the kids, I would be deemed to have abandoned them in an unsafe situation and would lose any right to them. Meanwhile, because of my wife’s instability, without me around Social Services would take the kids and put them into foster care permanently.

So, to recap – if I stay and the relationship becomes unworkable, my kids go into foster care; if I leave, the kids go into foster care. Therefore, the only way to keep my kids out of foster care is to stay and make the relationship work until the end of the lockdown, which is what I resolved to do.

A couple of days later, a police car pulled into the close and flashed its lights for a minute, the message being a clear STAY-AT-HOME. My wife waited ten minutes before heading to [redacted]’s again, but she was nervous about being stopped and asked what she should say if the police pulled her over, so she knows it’s wrong. I told her that if she’s decided to break the rules, she has to come up with her own excuses.

She didn’t get stopped, and as usual the kids came home with chocolate smeared all over their faces and didn’t want to eat the meal I cooked for them. I’ve told my wife before that I don’t approve of the way [redacted] buys their affection with chocolate (if he tells them off and they cry, he immediately gives them chocolate in case they stop liking him). I don’t think they should be eating Creme Eggs every day anyway, in addition to other chocolate, biscuits and sweets, and he knows this. So, what do you make of the fact that every day my wife doesn’t visit, an ice-cream tub full of chocolate appears on my garden wall?

It’s awful. I’ll finally manage to prevail upon my wife not to visit him for a day, I’ll take the girls on their scooters around the block, and every time I get back, a box of chocolate has been delivered in my absence. As soon as the girls see it, they scream in excitement, and if I tell them they can’t eat the chocolate, I’m the bad guy again. I’m trying not to be paranoid, but it comes across as a massive fuck you – it seems to say, ‘even when your wife doesn’t come to visit me, I can still get to your kids’.

I told my wife she was breaking my heart and betraying our marriage, and she decided to gaslight me in response. She told me I had it it all wrong, that she loved and respected me and was 100% committed to our marriage, and that’s why she hasn’t been visiting [redacted]. She said she goes to [redacted]’s house every day to exercise, and if he just happens to be there at his house when she visits, along with [redacted] who lives fifteen miles away, it’s coincidence. And if he chooses to cook them all a meal, or kiss them and cuddle them, there’s nothing she can do about that, is there? And the reason she lies to me and tells the kids to lie, is because she doesn’t want to upset me. But if I’d just look the other way it wouldn’t bother me so much. So really, I’m the one with the problem. And I’m not actually a very good husband and father anyway, and she only lies to me because I don’t trust her, and I should be grateful to her and [redacted] for taking the kids off my hands for a couple of hours a day. And anyway, she isn’t doing anything wrong and everyone knows I’m the crazy one and if anyone’s ruining our marriage, it’s me.

But that didn’t stop her from lying to me again last week. She said she’d only [redacted] through the car window leaving as my wife arrived, but my eldest said, ‘Mum, shush, remember what [redacted] said? We’re not supposed to tell him,’ to which my wife said to my four-year-old, ‘Shut up and stop lying, we didn’t see her, she’s lying! Liar!’

Later, my daughter told me they’d had a whale of a time with [redacted], who’d been chasing them with a hose, but [redacted] had told them not to tell daddy or they’d get in trouble because daddy’s very naughty. And she said, ‘But it’s okay, we didn’t have a cuddle with her.’

‘I did,’ said my two-year-old.

‘Well, okay, we both did,’ said my four-year-old, ‘but I’m not meant to tell you.’

No wonder they don’t like me. They’ve been told I’m being mean to [redacted] and they’re too young to understand any different.

Even worse is that the bedtime routine has been completely thrown out of whack, making my wife the hero and me the enemy. I put the kids to bed every night, and I’ve done that all their lives because after 7pm, my wife switches off as a parent. The handful of times she’s tried to put them to bed have been utter disasters that she’s abandoned halfway through because it’s hard and her job is to be the ‘fun’ parent.

Anyway, the past month my wife has been going up to bed at 8pm. What’s actually been happening is that, after I’ve put the kids to bed at 7pm, my wife’s been getting them up again and playing with them and telling them to keep quiet or daddy will come up and ruin their fun. Twice in the past two weeks, I’ve come up to bed to find my eldest camped on our bedroom floor because ‘mummy said I can sleep in here.’ Once she was in our bed itself, my wife fast asleep, so I sent her back to her own bed. This has turned me into the bad guy, and my daughter keeps asking me to sleep downstairs because she knows that if it’s just mummy upstairs, she can do whatever she wants. Consequently, discipline and respect have fallen apart.

Two weeks ago I put the kids to bed, waited fifteen minutes to make sure they were settled, then took the dog out for a walk. When I got back, my wife was in their room putting up a play tent and telling them they could sleep in it! I asked her what the hell she was doing, it was far too small, and said the kids had to sleep in their beds. It took me another 90 minutes to settle them again.

The next night she decided that from now on, she’s going to take over bedtimes. I told her this wasn’t a good idea because the girls see her as a playmate and not an authority figure, and now is not the time to disrupt their routine, but my wife had already told the kids she was doing it, and that was that. Again, I didn’t want to argue in front of the kids so I let it be.

After an hour of her screaming and shouting and the kids screaming and shouting, I went up to intervene and she closed the bedroom door in my face and wouldn’t let me in. I left it another half an hour before I’d decided that enough was enough. By this time, my eldest was crying uncontrollably while my youngest was screaming, hyperventilating and so agitated she was biting everything within reach. Walking into that room with my kids in such a state of distress, I was horrified.

I took them downstairs, and it was thirty minutes of holding my two-year-old tight to me before her breathing calmed down and she stopped sobbing. From there, it was another hour to get them to sleep.

I told my wife that from now on, she leaves bedtime alone. We can’t have this disruption. Once I’ve put the kids to bed, they stay in bed. They’re tired out and overstimulated. They’re being damaged and I need her support, because they’re the most important thing.

When the next day I told my support worker what had happened, she was equally horrified, and said she would have to report it, and in all likelihood it would be passed up the chain to Social Services. I figured the decision had been taken out of my hands. Whatever happened was no longer my responsibility – I had lost my kids.

This was a Friday, and I spent the whole weekend on tenterhooks, waiting for Children’s Services to come with a  van and take away my kids. I felt awful because since I’d clamped down on bedtime, things had improved. Worse, my wife was being nice to me, and I was racked with guilt over what this would do to her.

Nothing happened. Monday, nothing. Tuesday, nothing. Wednesday, I saw my support worker and she told me that her manager wouldn’t be passing it to Social Services because they’re my children and they’ll support me in keeping them, whatever it takes. It felt good to have that support.

Alas, it was the calm before the storm.

During my support session, my wife was home-schooling my eldest. Badly. Even though we were in a different room with the door closed, it was impossible not to hear the shouting and the crying. It was clear my wife wasn’t coping. So my support worker asked me why I wasn’t teaching my daughter.

I explained that from the start, my wife has elbowed me out of different aspects of the girls’ lives – birthdays, Christmas, days out, and in particular, schooling. When we were getting my daughter ready for school, I wanted to be involved but my wife kept pushing me out, going out to buy uniforms, pencil cases and suchlike with [redacted] instead of with me. She even wanted to take her to her first day at school by herself, without me.

I insisted I go too, but my wife conveniently ‘forgot’ to bring something vital and sent me home to get it. I asked her to wait and not go in without me, but of course, by the time I got back, she’d gone in, so I missed walking my daughter into her first day of school.

Anyway, my wife has always been incredibly territorial over our daughter’s homework, and I don’t get a look-in, and she’s the same with the home-schooling. So my support worker reminded me that she’s my daughter too, and if I want to be involved in her education, that’s my right as her father.

She had a point. My wife and I had been getting on for days, and that afternoon when she got back from visiting [redacted], we spent a very pleasant hour in the garden as a family. It was all fun and games so I thought it was a fair moment to broach the subject. I said I wanted to be more involved with the teaching, so could I have the login details for the school portal with all the lesson plans and resources she uses?

Everything changed. No, she said, no way. How dare I? Why did I have to ruin everything? No, I couldn’t have access to my daughter’s schooling – she would never give me access. She stormed inside and disappeared for thirty minutes, and when she reappeared, she looked at me like I was the dogshit she’d stepped in.

‘What have I done wrong?’ I asked, and she exploded with this whole rant about how I’d stolen bedtimes and bathtimes from her and there was no way she’d let me steal this. I said I didn’t think what I was asking was unreasonable; I wasn’t trying to steal anything, I just wanted to take a turn with the home-schooling. She replied with how I was selfish and nasty, and she stormed inside again.

But when the kids tried to follow, she told them to leave her alone, slammed the door in their faces and then locked us out in the garden! My kids burst into tears, I had to calm them down and it was five minutes of knocking before she let us in, while telling us she wouldn’t talk to any of us ever again, which again upset the kids.

I kept my head down and tried to keep the kids buoyant, but I was absolutely gutted, because things had been fine for a few days and suddenly it had all gone wrong.

Eventually, she started talking to the kids again. And then, with the kids sitting on her and glaring across at me, she said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m putting the girls to bed tonight and there’s nothing you can do about it.’

I repeated what I’d said about routine and disruption, and I didn’t think it was a good idea, but she shot that down in a heartbeat, so again not wanting to argue in front of the kids, I went outside and wrote a long email to my care manager about the situation, before I had to hurry upstairs because my kids were screaming and crying again and bedtime was yet another disaster.

Later that night, I asked her why she was trying to push me out of my children’s lives – why she won’t let me have anything to do with education, why she’s just spent £200 on a children’s entertainer for my eldest’s fifth birthday without telling me, why she keeps arranging holidays and trips out with [redacted] and the kids but not me. She again told me she’d never let me steal this from her, and threatened to hit me if I said one more word on the matter.

Later that night, she texted me the login details, and the following day she told me not to change password and lock her out, like I’ve ‘done with everything else’. I knew immediately what she was talking about. The previous week, her account had been locked because she’d accidentally bought 17 lids for her inflatable hot tub (essential, I know), so she’d asked for my bank card so she could go shopping. When I pointed out we had plenty of food in the house and a menu plan covering the entire next week, she flipped out, so I thought it prudent to change the password on my Sainsbury’s (supermarket) account. Clearly I was right to do so, because she must have tried to get into it.

Anyway, I reassured her I wasn’t going to change the password and lock her out, nor did I want to take over or steal the home-schooling from her – I just wanted to be involved. And I asked her why she’d ever think it was okay to lock us out. ‘I was just joking,’ she said, like every abuser in history.

My care manager responded to my email and said she was very concerned about my wife’s increasingly unstable behaviour, particularly as it was damaging the kids and their relationship with me, and said that now was the time to bring in Social Services and get this resolved, and how did I feel about that?

I did a lot of soul-searching that day, but eventually I conceded that yes, the time had come. My children would be damaged by going into foster care, but they’re being damaged anyway. Things couldn’t go on as they were as it wasn’t healthy for any of us. It’s what’s in the best interests of the kids, after all.

This was a massive thing for me to do, because I knew it would spell the end of my marriage, but there needed to be resolution of some sort, whatever that was.

The next day, Adult Social Services rang and said I could have an extra couple hours of support each week. Not hugely helpful, but a start. But Children’s Services didn’t ring, so I waited for them to turn up and take my kids for a second weekend in a row.

Nothing.

Over the weekend, my wife has decided that [redacted] will now read the girls their bedtime story on a video call, despite me doing it for four years and it being one of the few fun things I have left to do with them. The girls told me they don’t want me putting them to bed anymore and want me to sleep downstairs from now on. As a father, that’s not pleasant to hear.

I spent the weekend doing everything an abused spouse does, like prevaricating, like making excuses for my partner’s behaviour, like wondering if I was the one in the wrong.

Finally yesterday (Monday) they rang. They told me they’d heard my wife had locked us out of the house and to tell them what was going on. So I did. I told them everything of the above. The lying, the undermining, visiting [redacted], poisoning my children against me, disrupting bedtime, shouting and swearing in front of them, all of it. Like I said – time for a resolution.

Well. Don’t believe what people say about Children’s Services wanting to take your kids away. They couldn’t care less. They said that if my wife decides to visit [redacted], so be it, it’s already done so there’s no point intervening. They said they can offer us some Early Years Support to teach us how to ‘cooperate better’ with each other, but not until after lockdown.

They asked to speak to my wife and said it wasn’t good to ask the children to lie to me, so she said ‘Okay, I’ll stop,’ and the person on the phone said that that was now all sorted, and if there was nothing else, thanks for calling.

I quickly asked her about the possibility of my eldest going back to school, just to get her away from the toxic atmosphere in the house, and she said she could perhaps ring the school and see if they’d take her for a couple of days, but she wouldn’t be able to do this until later in the week.

And that was that. To say I felt like somebody had ripped out my insides is an understatement. Children’s Services weren’t helpful, they were positively harmful. Why? Because they’ve essentially just told my wife that everything she’s done is perfectly acceptable and the only consequence of her actions is to maybe attend a voluntary parenting course. So of course, last night when they should’ve been in bed, she painted their toenails and let them camp on the floor, because there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

So, in summary, apparently you can:

  • Shout and swear in front of your kids;
  • Slam the door in your children’s faces;
  • Lock your husband and kids outside;
  • Take your children to visit family members during a pandemic despite it being against the government guidelines;
  • Undermine your husband with his children;
  • Tell the children to lie to him;
  • Call them liars when they tell him the truth;
  • Tell them daddy is the one being naughty;
  • Tell them that if they get caught, daddy will punish them;
  • Disrupt the bedtime routine in a way that makes the children frantic and distressed;
  • Refuse to give your partner access to your children’s lives;
  • Force your partner out of the fun stuff;
  • Not support your husband when the kids no longer want him in the same room as them or even sleeping on the same floor;
  • Use your children as weapons in some sort of twisted power game against your partner;

And Social Services will do nothing about it.

My care manager was utterly shocked by their response. She feels I’ve been badly let down by the system. While you’re in the house, she said, those children are not deemed to be ‘at risk’, so Children’s Services will sit on their hands until you leave, and then they’ll be in like a shot. Instead of preventing a crisis, they’ll wait until it becomes a crisis before intervening.

No wonder Baby P fell through the cracks.

My children have been poisoned against me, and will go on being poisoned against me.

And apparently there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

 

Such a sensitive child

I am what is called a sensitive soul – I feel things deeply. As a child I was called a ‘cry baby’ because of my frequent lapses into fits of tears. Anything could set me off weeping, and anything did.

I couldn’t watch nature shows because I couldn’t bear to see animals get hurt – even to this day, the sound of David Attenborough’s voice turns my stomach, presaging death and dismemberment.

When I was eight, while my brother was prodding my dad about his inheritance, I was sobbing in my bedroom about the fact my dad would one day die. When I was ten, my dad and brother decided to have an insult contest, and of course I was in floods of tears within a minute. It was like my nerves were always exposed, susceptible to be hit at any moment.

As I grew up, I had to toughen my shell, encase my heart in ice simply to survive. But even as an adult, I have a few weak spots.

I can’t bear to see anything suffer; obituaries break my heart; and if I see a child’s grave I go to pieces.

And movies – movies get through.

I’m not just talking about widely-acknowledged tearjerkers like My Girl, Marley and Me, The Notebook, or Legends of the Fall. Nor do I mean those that are kind of understandable, like Toy Story 3, Forrest Gump, Inside Out or Lone Survivor.

I cried at Return of the Jedi. I cried at Independence Day. I cried at It.

I’ve had a four-decade conversation with my mother about whether being sensitive is a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, experiencing emotions beyond what people normally feel is a great pathway to sympathy, empathy and compassion; on the other, it’s a painful, debilitating, irrational punishment that makes you suffer things that never happened to you.

Is it good? I think the answer depends on whether it’s you yourself, or somebody else.

For me, it’s part of who I am and I wouldn’t be me without it. As a parent, I hate seeing it in my eldest.

Since this lockdown started, we’ve been watching movies, and we are yet to watch one that doesn’t make my four-year-old sob her little heart out. Barely five minutes goes by without me glancing at her to find her wide eyes glistening and big fat tears rolling down her cheeks.

And I’m not showing her anything particularly sad. Babe was ninety minutes of misery. Paddington. Matilda. Nanny McPhee. Happy Feet. Even Frozen.

So I decided to go old school. The Wizard of Oz was a bucket-fest; Annie might as well have been Saw; Dumbo was torture porn and even the original Doctor Doolittle had her gushing.

So today I tried Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and even fast forwarding through the scary-ass boat ride, it was an ordeal. There were tears when Charley didn’t get a golden ticket; tears when he did; tears when Wonka shouted at him; tears when he gave him the factory. Happy tears, sad tears, excited tears, frightened tears. And in between? A chocolate river more tears.

Golly gosh, I wish she wasn’t so like me. Not because there’s anything wrong with being me, but because I know what’s ahead of her. Life is full of pain and suffering – beauty too, and majesty, and joy – but the lot of this life is often to be drawn-out on a rack of despair, and it’s better not to feel the thorns and blades as they cut you, than feel them all too keenly.

The grossest of the gross

Something happened last night that almost made me vomit. Something utterly disgusting. Something that means I will never look at my dog the same way again.

The kids had finished playing in the garden, so I sent them inside, telling them to get their mother to shower the dirt off their legs and feet before bedtime. I then gathered up all the toys they’d left scattered about the lawn and went in.

The smell hit me immediately. My two-year-old is doing wonderfully well at her potty training, but she holds onto her poop for days, so when it comes it’s like an elephant has been passing through.

From five feet away, I could see the mound of yuck marinating in a yellow soup. She’d clearly done it before heading up to the shower.

Hurrying upstairs, I congratulated my daughter for using the potty, but told her she must tell us when she’s pooped so we can wipe her bottom. I then left my wife to shower them off as I headed back down to empty the potty.

Astute readers will already have guessed the next part. I stared down into a potty that now contained only urine, and immediately shouted, ‘Ozzy!’

The dog darted under the dining table and stared out at me with a guilty expression on his canine face – but he still had the audacity to lick his lips.

Eurgh! Eurgh!

‘Get outside! Get outside!’

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to cuddle him again!

Spare a thought for the broken hearted

Spare a thought for the broken hearted, those whose marriages have fallen apart; those for whom there is nowhere to go, and nothing to say, until this lockdown’s over.

Spare a thought for those pretending that everything’s okay when everything’s not; those who smile to hide the hurt inside. Waiting.

Spare a thought for those sitting at a table that’s no longer theirs, in a chair where they used to belong; a guest where once they were host. Toiling in a garden that’s now someone else’s; walking a dog of whom they’re not master any more; mocked by the happy family photos on the walls.

Spare a thought for those who wrap their children in the comforts of their home, knowing that this innocence will soon be wrenched away from them; who talk of a future now out of reach; who tell them the forecast’s fine when a storm’s edging over the horizon.

When will it come? Who knows? Weeks, months, it’s all the same.

Spare a thought for the lied-to lovers, those who see the truth but cannot speak it; those who know that their love just wasn’t enough.

Spare a thought for the broken hearted.

It’s too early for this…

‘Daddy, daddy, I can see willies!’

What?

‘Outside, there are two men with willies!’

I leapt out of bed and ran to my daughters’ room, to find them sitting on the windowsill staring up the street.

‘Where?’ I said. ‘Show me!’

And they pointed at two men walking up the road.

Wellies,‘ I said. ‘They’re called wellies.

‘That’s what I said.’

‘It really isn’t.’

A few minutes later I was in the toilet, standing up, ready to do my business when I heard a noise behind me. Glancing over my shoulder, there were my two daughters standing about a foot behind me, peering between my legs with big grins on their faces like it was present time on Christmas morning.

What the hell are you doing?

‘We’re going to watch you wee.’

‘Why on earth would you do that?’

‘Because it’s fun,’ they said, giggling.

‘That’s just so creepy.’

‘Go on, wee. Be a good boy.’

‘For crying out loud, get out of here and leave me alone!’

Then at breakfast, I asked what they’d dreamed about.

‘I dreamed that I went for a walk through the woods to my Granny’s house,’ said my eldest. ‘I met a wolf and told him I was going to Granny’s and he went there and he gobbled Granny up into his belly.’

‘Don’t just tell me Little Red Riding Hood.’

‘No, this is what I dreamed.’

‘This is Little Red Riding Hood.’

‘But it ends different.’

‘So skip to the end.’

‘Okay. I had to get into the house, so the woodpecker -‘

-cutter.

‘The woodpecker-cutter chopped a hole in the roof and then he cut the wolf open and cut off his head and cut up his tummy and cut off his arms and then Granny came out and she was all covered in poo.’

It’s not even nine o’clock yet.

Coronavirus and my four-year-old’s fear of death

Every night when I put my kids to bed, I read them a story, kiss them, cuddle them, tell them they’re loved, turn out the light and then sit in my bedroom next door for ten minutes in case of problems. It’s a relaxing time of listening to their childish conversations drifting down the hallway while I read a book, though it can be abused, like last night when my four-year-old came into my room 90 seconds after I’d left, saying she’d had a bad dream.

‘In a minute-and-a-half, you already fell asleep, had a bad dream, woke up, climbed out of your bunk bed and came in here?’

‘Yes.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Well, it wasn’t an asleep dream, I had my eyes open.’

‘Oh. So, not a dream.’

‘Can I stay in here with you?’

Normally I’d send her back to bed with a flea in her ear, but at a time like this, I figure I have to bend the rules a bit. ‘Go on. But only for a few minutes.’

‘What are you reading?’

War and Peace. There’s no better time than right now.’

‘Can you read it to me?’

‘Not really, sweetie.’

Then my two-year-old came in and refused to leave, so last night saw me and my daughters cuddled up on the bed as I pretended to read them Tolstoy, but instead made up a story about a magic horse and the girl he befriended. I bet they can’t wait till they get to read ‘grown-up’ books now. How disappointed they’ll be!

But it was much better than the night before when things took a decidedly more morbid tone.

I was listening to their conversation as usual when the little one told the big one to go to bed. The big one must have misheard, because she said, ‘I don’t want to be dead, because when I’m dead, I won’t be alive anymore, and that’s sad.’

Nothing followed this, so I turned back to my book.

About a minute later, she appeared in my doorway her fists balled in her eyes, and sobbed, ‘I don’t want to be dead because then I won’t see you or mummy anymore!’

‘Come here,’ I said, and gave her a big cuddle. ‘Why are you thinking about dying? Is it because of the virus?’

‘Because I might get ill,’ she cried. ‘And when Aunty Sue got ill, she died and it was sad.’

‘Oh sweetheart. I’ve told you before, this virus doesn’t really affect children. The youngest person who’s died from it was a teenager. You don’t need to worry about dying because it’s not going to happen for a very long time.’

‘But what if you and mummy die? Who’ll look after me?’

‘That’s why we live in families,’ I said. ‘There’ll always be aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews and friends around when we’re gone.’

‘But I won’t have a mummy and daddy anymore.’

‘No, you won’t. But by the time that happens, you might already be a mummy yourself.’

Then came the really awkward question: ‘Where do you go when you die?’

‘Where do you think we go?’

‘My friend at school, her grandpa went up into the sky. He was ill so he went there to get better, but he can’t come back.’

‘I think that’s as good an answer as any,’ I said. ‘Nobody really knows what happens when we die. Lots of people think we go to a place called heaven, a nice place above the clouds where everything’s great. Others think that when we die, we’re born again as babies with no real memory of our former lives.’

‘What do you think happens?’

‘I really don’t know,’ I said. ‘I quite like the idea of a family of souls. Every time someone in a family dies, they’re born back into that family somewhere down the line. So if I die, and then you have a baby, I’m that baby. Which makes me my own grandfather.’

‘But you can’t be my baby! You’re my daddy!’

‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ I said. ‘Whatever happens, nobody’s ever really gone. I’ll always be part of you, in your thoughts, your memories, your DNA. I will live on through you, and you will live on through your children. Dying is nothing to be afraid of. It’s sad, but it’s normal. It’s okay to be upset, and it’s okay to miss people, but we have to accept it and let them go. Life is for the living.’

Then my two-year-old came in and, completely failing to read the room, pointed at my man-boobs and said, ‘Bluebell and Buttercup.’

Bluebell and Buttercup are our guinea pigs.

My eldest is worried about death. My youngest thinks I have breasts like a South American rodent. Those parenting classes never prepared me for this!

Day Five of Home-Schooling: teachers, you are busted!

I saw a lovely thing on Facebook last night from a school up in Surrey. It told its parents that what we’re doing right now isn’t home-schooling. Home-schooling is a choice where you considered things, planned for it, and were ready – this is more like distance-learning. But in reality, it’s trying to stop the spread of coronavirus.

It said that parents have always always been the child’s primary educator, but are not trained teachers, and that if you feel it’s better for your family to play in the garden, bake, or watch TV, that’s your right and there’s nothing to feel guilty about, because these are exceptional circumstances.

And it said that it’s impossible to facilitate distance-learning with a primary-aged child and work from home at the same time, so if you’re doing that, stop. Your primary focus is your job and your survival. You’re not a superhero. They’re not expecting miracles.

I thought it was great. Very insightful and reassuring.

Then I got an email from the headteacher of my school down here in Dorset sharing some of her thoughts. She said that home-schooling is a choice, whereas this is more a necessity. She said that parents have always always been the child’s primary educator, and that if you feel it’s better for your family to play in the dirt, bake, or watch TV, that’s your right and there’s nothing to feel guilty about. And she said that if you’re working from home and juggling home learning at the same time, STOP – you’re not superheroes. Your focus should be your job and survival.

Sound familiar?

Looking on Facebook, it appears that many headteachers up and down the country have had the exact same thoughts as each other at exactly the same time. How weird!

You know when every kid in the class copies from the same book and they put it in their own words so they don’t get accused of plagiarism? Teachers, you are busted!

Now, I don’t mind that they’re all copying from the same source. It’s a good message and it deserves to be spread far and wide. But don’t pretend as though it’s something that just occurred to you. And perhaps next time, don’t use many of the exact same words!

My kids have broken the Naughty Step!

A while back, I wrote a three-part guide to disciplining your children. In the first part, Understanding your toddler, I explained a child’s understanding of the world. In the second, The Fundamentals, I explained the theories underpinning different forms of discipline. And in the third, The Naughty Step; or, How smug am I?, I explained why I’m the king of infant behaviour modification.

Actually, not quite. I wrote the first two thinking I was doing really well at this parenting thing and I could share these techniques with other people. And then life happened, and the nice, obedient little girl I was looking after turned into a massive arsehole that I was incapable of controlling, and I didn’t really feel like finishing a series that would make me a fraud.

The Naughty Step has remained my principal means of disciplining my kids, however, and I stand by it’s utility, even if at times it doesn’t feel like it’s working.

The theory is pretty simple – the best form of discipline is a combination of love withdrawal (punishment) and induction (guilt), and the Naughty Step fulfils both criteria. You first get down on their level, get their attention, and warn them that if a particular behaviour continues, you’ll put them on the Naughty Step. If they then do the behaviour, for example hitting their sister, you put them on the Naughty Step and say, ‘I am putting you on the Naughty Step for X-number of minutes [equal to their age] because you hit your sister.’ Then you turn around and walk away.

You ignore all the crying, shouting and screaming. Every time they get off the Naughty Step, you put them back on it without a word or eye-contact, and restart the timer. This is very difficult at first – when I started it with my eldest, I had to put her back more than sixty times. After a few days, she no longer got off that step.

After the allotted time has elapsed, you get back down to their level and repeat the reason they’re there: ‘I put you on the Naughty Step because you hit your sister. We don’t hit people. Okay?’

Then you get them to say sorry, hug and kiss, draw a line under the incident and move on. No lingering nastiness, no lasting discomfort – crime, punishment, atonement, forgiveness, restoration, all in the space of a few minutes. It’s a remarkably effective tool and just the threat of the Naughty Step is normally enough to prevent behaviour escalating to inappropriate levels.

At least, it was an effective tool, until today, when my children broke it.

‘You really need to go and tidy your playroom,’ I said.

‘No.’

‘Girls, I’ve asked you three times already to tidy your playroom.’

‘No.’

‘Right. If you don’t tidy your playroom, you’ll both go on the Naughty Step.’

With lots of sighs and moody hand gestures, they turned and left the room.

After a few minutes I thought it was suspiciously quiet, so I went to see what they were doing and found them both sitting on the Naughty Step.

‘Why aren’t you tidying your room?’ I asked.

‘We’ve decided we’d rather sit on the Naughty Step,’ said my four-year-old.

‘Oh,’ I replied. ‘Well, go and tidy your room.’

‘No, we’ll just stay on the Naughty Step.’

‘Go and tidy your room or I’ll, I’ll -‘

‘You’ll put us on the Naughty Step?’

Bugger, I thought, they’ve outsmarted me!

What do you do when your kids aren’t afraid of the Naughty Step anymore!?

Day Four of Home-Schooling: the health risks of spending time with your children

In the same way that suffering through The Best of Frank Sinatra eight hours a day while working in a bookshop ended with me buying the CD when I left, the rather annoying Cosmic Kids Yoga has, after four days, become something I actually look forward to doing. I can even overlook the praying hands ‘namaste’ stuff.

There’s just one problem left: it‘s bloody difficult.

Today, for example, we did the Jungle Safari, and oh my gosh, it races through 13 minutes of poses and stretches so quickly I was out of breath by the end. I had no idea I was this out of shape. There’s my kids pressing their foreheads to their feet; here’s me hunched over like an arthritic octogenarian still nowhere near his knees let alone his ankles. If you think you’re relatively healthy, check it out – it might disabuse you of some misconceptions.

I ache all over. I’ve already pulled muscles in my butt, my groin and both upper thighs. I’m hobbling around groaning like I just ran a marathon, all from writhing about on my lounge carpet. Who’d have thought the living room floor could be so damaging?

Of course, spending all day with your kids also sends your stress levels skyrocketing. We shouldn’t be awarding honours to public officials but to teachers for bearing with our little monsters. Yesterday my four-year-old erupted into one of the year’s worst tantrums – stamping feet, slamming doors, projectile tears, the works – because I took the garden hose off her. Why? She was chasing our 22-year-old cat around the garden, continuously spraying her. Not good.

There’s also the difficulty of the four-year-old being able to read, write, play football, tie shoelaces and construct an imaginative narrative, and the two-year-old wanting to do all those things with her big sister but being incapable of any of them. So either the little one is screaming and crying because she wants to do what she can’t, or the big one is screaming and crying because she wants the little one to leave her alone, or else ‘play properly’ i.e. the way my bossy eldest wants her to.

I had a bittersweet moment last night when I heard the youngest talking to herself in bed. I crept up to the door and spied around the crack. My eldest was fast asleep; my youngest was sitting up with a torch and a book reading the title over and over again, trying to teach herself to read: ‘Me and My Mummy, Me and My Mummy, Me and My Mummy.’

So in the evenings I’ve been getting on the exercise bike as a stress reliever, and I’ve discovered that that is far more dangerous than any other household activity, because I think I might have broken my penis.

It’s something apparently far more common than practically anyone realises, so it’s important to make people aware of the potential damage they can cause their best friend when they put on lycra and climb into the saddle.

No, I didn’t get it caught in the pedals. No, I didn’t ride over it. After about half-an-hour of cycling, I reached down to scratch an itch and, well, there are no words to describe the terror of being able to feel two testicles but nothing in between.

I scrabbled around like someone who’s lost his wallet. ‘Where’s my dick? Where the hell’s my dick?’

A quick inspection revealed it was still there – it was just completely and utterly numb. Entirely free of sensation, like my manhood had been replaced by a rubber sausage. Oh sweet Jesus!

After a panicked hour, I could finally feel it again. And then I started researching, and discovered I wasn’t alone.

When you sit on a chair like a normal person, your weight is distributed between your buttocks; but when you sit on a bike saddle, it puts pressure on your perineum, squashing the nerves and blood vessels that lead to your genitals. Indeed, meta analysis of 62 studies showed between 50% and 91% of cyclists experienced genital numbness and 13% to 24% had erectile dysfunction. This is because, as other studies show a narrow bike seat can cut blood flow to the penis by 66% and even a broad one by 25%. In some cases penile numbness can last up a week (a week! Can you imagine?!).

So, is a rubber manhood just part and parcel of cycling, something to put up with and get used to? Apparently, that’s an emphatic no.

According to cycling health specialist Andy Pruitt, ‘Numbness of any kind or duration should not be tolerated, period…Imagine taking an electrical cord and garden hose and driving over them with your car again and again and again. They may rebound initially, but over time they’ll stay collapsed and won’t function as well.’

Yikes. By the end of this crisis, I’m either going to be a hundred times fitter or else a crippled eunuch!

It’s not meant to be this hard

When your wife has autism and Emotionally Unstable (Impulsive) Personality Disorder, life isn’t going to be easy. I’m pretty sure, however, it’s not meant to be this hard.

When Boris Johnson announced last night that we can only leave our house to go to essential work, buy essential food, look after a vulnerable person or exercise (once a day), and specifically that we should not see friends or family members who don’t live with us, it was a time for couples all over the county to turn to one another and say, ‘It’s okay, we’ll get through this. We’re in it together and we’ll emerge stronger on the other side. With love and mutual support, and a sense of humour, we’ll cherish this time as a family. Nothing can break us apart.’

That didn’t happen in my household. World War 3 broke out in my household.

‘They can’t stop me seeing [redacted],’ was my wife’s response.

Initially, when my wife met each new restriction and condition with, ‘They can’t do that,’ I took it literally to mean they can’t do that, so reminded her that yes, they can: they’re the government, the ones with the tanks and the bombs and the soldiers. They can do whatever they want.

On reflection, I decided that when she said, ‘They can’t,’ what she really meant was, ‘I’m scared, I don’t want to do that, this is going to be hard, hold me.’ So I softened my approach to simply supporting her rants.

Last night has made me realise that I was right the first time – she does really think the government literally can’t stop her from doing what she wants to do.

Having Emotionally Unstable (Impulsive) Personality Disorder means you struggle to control your impulses. The desire to do something results in the thing being done, with no consideration for the consequences and probable negative outcomes. And if someone tries to interject between the desire and its gratification, oh boy are they going to get it! Tantrums and behavioural explosions are par for the course, as is the sudden swing from ‘I love you, I need you, I can’t do anything without you’ to ‘How dare you, I fucking hate you, I’m ringing my lawyers in the morning!’

So, as I listened to the Prime Minister asking us to be decent human beings and abide by a few rules so that – God forbid! – we save thousands of lives, while most people might have been thinking of themselves and what it meant for them, all I could think was, ‘Oh hell, get ready for the fireworks.’

And fireworks there were.

‘They can’t stop me seeing [redacted].’

‘They can and they have.’

‘He didn’t mean I can’t see [redacted].’

‘He literally just said you can’t visit family members who aren’t part of your household.’

‘He can’t stop me from seeing my family.’

Everybody is in someone’s family. This doesn’t work if we all make exceptions.’

She looked at me with pure hatred on her face.

‘You can’t stop me.’

And then the screaming and the shouting started, because by stopping her from doing what she wanted, I became the enemy. It’s no longer the fault of the virus or the government, it’s mine. I am truly the devil.

Midway through, she declared she was going to ring [redacted] and tell her what an evil prick I am. I begged, pleaded, demanded that we talk it out between ourselves, that we deal with it as husband and wife, like a family, like adults, like rational human beings. We’re meant to be a team, and inviting someone to interfere in our marriage is not very sporting.

It was all to no avail. She rang [redacted], burst into tears, said I wanted to have her arrested and I wouldn’t let her see [redacted].

‘That’s not entirely true,’ I said, and she screamed at me and called me a liar, and [redacted] said she doesn’t see any reason why my wife can’t visit [redacted] (because clearly the rules don’t apply to them), and I’m being unreasonable, and I should think about the effects of my behaviour on my children, I’m needlessly scaring them and being a bad dad.

I feel so betrayed. We’re married. We’re supposed to support one another. We’re supposed to deal with issues between ourselves. We’re not meant to run to our mummies and tell them the mean man we married isn’t letting us get our own way.

After the phone call, my wife told me she’s going to take the kids and move in with [redacted] for the duration of the coronavirus, and I’m not invited. In no uncertain terms, I told her that would be the end of our marriage.

She insisted she’d keep visiting him, and I said that she’s quite welcome to move in with him by herself if it means that much to her.

We’ve been given rules to follow, and as responsible, socially-conscious, moral, upstanding and good people, the onus is on us to do everything we can to stop the transmission of the virus and thus save lives. I don’t understand what is so difficult to grasp about this. Her dad has multiple underlying health conditions anyway.

So, today she’s done everything she can to punish me for stopping her from seeing [redacted].

‘Come on,’ I said, ‘we’re in this together.’

‘No we’re not, you’re on your own.’

‘We need to support one another.’

‘You can take a run and jump if you think I’m going to support you.’

‘Please, we need to be civil, if not for our sake then at least for the kids.’

‘No. You don’t let me see [redacted], I won’t be civil. I’m divorcing you after this anyway.’

‘So you don’t love me anymore?’

‘No, no I don’t. I hate you. I hate everything about you.’

You know, really mature behaviour from your wife and the mother of your children.

I’m doing my best here. I’ve been trying to keep her calm this entire time; I’ve been trying to look after my family as best I can; but I can’t do it all alone, and I really shouldn’t have to. Not once has she asked me how I’m doing, how feel.

Every time I glance in her direction, she snaps, ‘Don’t look at me!’ So I kept the kids entertained today. We did more yoga, some writing, imaginative play. I took them for a short bike ride. I planned our meals for the next ten days so we don’t need to go out. I played with them in the garden. I cooked lunch. I cooked dinner when she refused to do it.

World War 4 happened this afternoon when she said, ‘I’m just popping out to the shop to get some eggs.’

‘You can’t just “pop out to the shop” anymore. We can’t leave the house except for essentials.’

‘Eggs are essential.’

‘We have enough food for the next ten days, and much longer than that if needs be.’

‘Are you telling me I’m not allowed to go to the shops now?’

‘We’ve been told to avoid shopping except for essentials. Going out to get one item when we don’t need it is hardly essential, is it?’

‘So you won’t let me go and get some eggs?’

‘No, we need to do as we’re told.’

‘For fuck’s sake, for fuck’s sake, you can’t stop me going to the shop! I want eggs! I want to bake!’

‘It’s day one of this – we’re going on be shut in together for at least three weeks, probably more. Please, let’s make it bearable.’

‘No, I’ll do what I want.’

In all honesty, if the coronavirus wasn’t going on right now, I would walk away from this toxic situation. Of course, without coronavirus, perhaps my wife wouldn’t be acting like such a crazy person.

The trouble is, some words once spoken can’t be taken back; some things once broken can’t be repaired; and when someone acts selfishly, unsupportingly, and irresponsibly during a national crisis, and makes it far harder on the people around her than it needs to be, sometimes that changes how you see that person.

We’ll revisit this conversation after the crisis is over. In the meantime, we just have to get through it.