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 my dad,’ 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 my dad.’

‘They can and they have.’

‘He didn’t mean I can’t see my dad.’

‘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 her mum 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 for the umpteenth time is not very sporting.

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

‘That’s not entirely true,’ I said, and she screamed at me and called me a liar, and her mum said she doesn’t see any reason why my wife can’t visit her dad (because clearly the rules don’t apply to my wife’s family), 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 her dad 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 her dad.

‘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 my dad, 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.

Day One of Home-Schooling: cosmic yoga, maths and biology

I was cooking dinner today while my wife was ‘teaching’ my four-year-old in the lounge. The teacher has given us homework to do, one of which involves watching the yoga videos they use in class.

Seems okay, I said. Helps you stretch and tone your body, teaches you how to breathe. Daddy used to do yoga.

‘It’s cosmic yoga,’ said my daughter.

Oh. You don’t sing Kumbaya and sit in a circle knitting beanie hats, do you?

‘What?’

Never mind, I’m sure it’s all fine.

Back in the kitchen cooking, a few minutes later I heard something on the TV and stuck my head round the door.

Did I hear that right? Did she really just say, ‘Be the pond’?

‘It’s wonderful being the pond,’ said the TV, ‘because you can watch all of your different feelings just swimming by.’

What the shit is this?!

‘Every feeling is welcome. You be the pond and let the fish be the fish.’

I couldn’t help bursting out laughing at the seriousness with which this was being said.

This isn’t like any yoga I’ve ever done.

‘Shhh,’ said my daughter.

‘Except sometimes,’ the TV continued, ‘we might stop being the pond and find we’ve become a fish, like the angry fish, and when that happens we might find ourselves saying or doing something that hurts other people.’

Ah, I see. It all makes sense now. I’m an angry fish when I should be the pond!

‘Be the pond.’

‘Be the pond,’ said my daughter roboticly.

Kill the Malaysian Prime Minister.

‘What?’

Never mind. I had no idea this is the kind of stuff you do at school.

‘Just say to yourself: be the pond.’

‘Be the pond,’ my daughter chanted again.

Wow. This is some Manchurian Candidate level bullshit right here.

‘Go and cook,’ said my wife, and I left them to it.

Okay. I’m all for mindfulness – live in the moment, notice what’s going on around you, try and detach from your thoughts and feelings, if that’s even possible – but is this really the kind of stuff they foist on our kids in mainstream education? This isn’t yoga, a westernized form of exercise mostly stripped of its esoteric underpinnings, this is mindfulness meditation, an esoteric eastern religious philosophy inseparable from Buddhist tradition. She even talks about the Zen Den, for crying out loud. What next? Ending every sentence with ‘namaste’?

I’m not sure how I feel about this. As someone who isn’t religious, if I discovered the school was making my kids go to confession, I’d have something to say on the matter; same as if they were practising Wudu (Muslim ablutions), or Transcendental Meditation; so why does Buddhism get a free pass?

Maybe I’m just a rube, out of step with modern cosmopolitanism. Or maybe I’d prefer more scientifically-minded programming like the proper way to wash your hands over airy-fairy feelgood fads. Watch it and judge for yourself by clicking this link.

Of course, a few minutes later my wife pushed it out of my mind when she shouted through to kitchen, ‘We’re doing maths and I’m having a mind blank. What’s 0 + 1?’

Are you sure it’s a mind blank and not a stroke? I replied. They tend to present the same.

And then my two-year-old burst into the kitchen, pointed an accusatory finger at me, and said, ‘You got a belly-button!’ before storming out.

How many more months of this do we have?