Out the mouths of babes

There’s this idea out there that children, because they aren’t tainted by the vices and peculiarities of society, are possessed of a special kind of wisdom that we lose as we age. They haven’t yet learned to lie, so their utterances are factual, and honest, and tap into a purer, more innocent state of being. If you want to hear truth, so the logic goes, ask a child – they’ll tell it to you straight, without sugar-coating or prevarication. People have even written books about how we can learn to live a fuller, happier life simply by listening to the instinctive wisdom of our children and incorporating it into our daily lives.

What a load of bollocks.

I’m not saying that kids don’t have their moments, but I’m really not sure we should be taking life advice from people who think it’s okay to scratch their arseholes in front of mixed company.

While it’s true that children can be very honest and address subjects normally taboo in polite society, that doesn’t mean they’re right – and they’re normally pretty far from it. It’s not because they’re stupid, but because they just don’t have the experience. Like tonight, when my two-year-old delighted in telling me that ‘Mummy’s got really big nipples’ – given she’s only ever seen three other pairs (mine, hers, and her baby sister’s), she has nothing to compare them to. Honesty is therefore not a measure of truth or reality – it’s just a two-year-old’s very unqualified opinion about something she knows nothing about. (For the record, my extensive knowledge of slightly more than three sets of nipples suggests they’re pretty-much average-sized, not ‘really big’ at all).

Likewise, innocence doesn’t show us a purer way to live – it just shows us ignorance. Like when my daughter tries to play hide-and-seek in the car, pulls her T-shirt up over her face, and cries, ‘Where am I, daddy? You can’t see me! Me hiding.’ Or when after clearing the dinner plate because I tell her eating it will make her grow up big and strong, she stands on tiptoes, reaches to the sky, and says, ‘Me bigger now?’ Or when she tells me that she’s not old enough to be a boy yet, but will be one day – although, to be fair, given the current predilection for transgenderism, she may well be right on that one.

Even so, you can’t trust a child’s judgement because the way they think is just too weird and unpolished. Over dinner this evening, my daughter leaned over towards me and said, ‘Me hope you fart,’ and then went straight back to eating. And she will not stop stripping all her dolls from her Sylvanian Families playsets because, ‘Me like them naked.’ And a few days ago she said, ‘Me not like you paint my nose. Me not like bogies.’ I’m not entirely sure what ‘wisdom’ I’m supposed to glean from these little pearls.

She can be snarky too. My wife was busy today so I took the little one to swimming lessons. Since I’ve not done it in a while, I said to her, ‘You’ll have to tell me what to do.’

From the back of the car, this sarcastic little voice replied, ‘You get in the water…and then you swim.’

Gee, thanks.

She can also be rather creepy at times. The other day she came up to me and, out of the blue, said, ‘Daddy, please may me have a knife?’

‘What on earth do you want a knife for?’

‘Nothing. Me have one?’

She’s two, for God’s sake!

Just as bad was when we were out driving. She suddenly said, ‘Daddy, me wearing pants or a nappy?’

‘Pants.’

‘Oh. Okay.’

And then an ominous silence.

‘Do you need the toilet?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she replied. That was one uncomfortable car journey, I can tell you!

But then, I guess there was one positive thing she did this week. For the umpteenth time while bathing my daughter, my wife asked for help putting the baby to bed, so I snapped, ‘For crying out loud, just give her her dummy like I’ve said fifteen times already.’

My daughter looked up at me, subdued, and whispered, ‘You mean to mummy.’

‘No, I wasn’t being mean, I was…okay, maybe I was being a little mean.’

‘You say sorry to mummy.’

And she wouldn’t let it rest until I had apologised. And she was right.

So maybe we can learn some things from our children. As a general rule, however, I think I’ll be happier not taking guidance on how to live my life from someone who, this evening while sitting on the toilet, was sobbing because, ‘Me not like poo coming out of my bottom!’

Not exactly worthy of the Dalai Lama, is it?

Lies, cunning and manipulation, toddler-style

I was having a bath late last night, the whole house closed up and asleep, when I heard little footsteps padding across the carpet in my toddler’s room. I sat up and stared at her bedroom door, watched as the handle slowly lowered, careful to avoid the squeak, until it was fully down. There was a moment’s pause, and then the door started to move, inching open, achingly slow. A rod of darkness appeared, became a column, and wider still, right up until the moment my gruff daddy voice broke the spell with ‘What’s the matter, Izzie?’

Silence. Nothing moved.

The handle was still down, so she was just on the other side of the door in the dark, frozen in silence. I waited, and neither of us breathed. I wondered what she was thinking – you could practically hear the cogs whirring around inside her head.

And then slowly, achingly slow, the door started to close again. Little by little the column became the rod again, and less. I watched as it pressed quietly up against the jamb, the handle edging upwards past the squeak until it was once more horizontal, and she was gone without a word, if ever she was there in the first place. It was as though I’d been visited by a ghost in the night.

Or maybe, she was just pissed it was me in the bath and not her mummy.

Watching a two-and-a-half year old working out how the world works, and her place within it, is a fascinating experience. Whether it’s cause and effect, strategic planning, or human social relationships, she approaches them sometimes with an awareness bordering on prodigy status, and sometimes like a donkey trying to pin a tail on itself.

She has a good understanding of the hierarchy in our house. Nowadays, her mother is pretty-much a playmate who lets her stay up late at night, draw on her face, and get away with almost anything, while I’m the authority figure who puts her to bed, straps her into the car seat and makes her finish her cereal before she can have yoghurt – hence why when she heard it was me in the bath and not her mother, she crept back into bed instead of continuing out onto the landing.

So, since she recognises me as the highest authority, she goes to her mummy for a yes, and me only when that fails. Like the other day when she went up to her mother and said, ‘Me have choc-choc biscuit?’ and when my wife said no, she came and asked me.

‘No,’ my wife repeated, whereupon my daughter turned to her and said, ‘Shush, mummy, me talking to daddy. Daddy, me have some?’

But acknowledging I’m in charge doesn’t stop her trying it on, however. Like when I was bathing her the other night, and asked my wife to watch her a moment when I settled the baby. That done, I returned to the bathroom, my wife left, and I said to my daughter, ‘Right, let’s get you out and ready for bed.’

‘But mummy said ten minutes.’

‘Did she, now? Mummy!’ I shouted. ‘Did you tell her she could stay in the bath another ten minutes?’

‘No, I said she’d be getting out as soon as you got back.’

‘Righty-ho.’

It’s not exactly difficult to see through her, especially when she says, ‘But you said…’ and I know damn well that I didn’t.

Her new strategy is just as transparent. If I’m in the kitchen and she’s in the lounge and I tell her not to do something, she comes up to me and says, ‘Me close the door, you not see,’ pushes it closed, and goes right back to what she was doing, as though out of sight is out of mind. She doesn’t yet understand that if I can’t see something, it doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s there.

But that’s not to say she’s not a good strategist – on the contrary, she shows impressive forward planning. The other day, when I was in the baby’s room trying to get her to sleep, I saw my toddler’s door swing open and a pillow fly out over the stair gate onto the landing. The sounds of struggling within, and then a foot appeared over the top of the gate, a pair of hands, a little head.

‘What are you doing?’ I barked, striding onto the landing, and she froze halfway. She’d got her suitcase out of the cupboard, dragged it over to the door, propped it against the stair gate and climbed on top of it…but not before dropping down a pillow to soften her landing.

She said nothing, just slowly drew her foot back over, climbed down off the suitcase, dragged it inwards, and closed the door behind her. If she’d been a cartoon villain, she’d have clicked her fingers and said, ‘Foiled. And I’d have made it, too, if it hadn’t been for my pesky dad.’

She never came back to claim the pillow.

But she has one sure fire weapon in her arsenal that she uses on a daily basis – the need to do a wee. It’s amazing how often she needs a wee when she is sitting on the naughty step, wants to get down from the dinner table, or has just been told to tidy up her toys. I guess she knows that letting her sit there and wet herself, getting it all over the chairs and carpet, is something we won’t risk, because we can’t tell whether it’s genuine or a ruse. It’s the only tool she has to get her own way, and it works.

So imagine her surprise next time, when she discovers we won’t let her get her own way. We can’t let her think the threat of wetting yourself is a good strategy for life – you’re not going to get that promotion if you walk into your boss’s office and say, ‘Give me the job, or I’ll make a little puddle in this chair.’ And if she does wet herself? Well – there’s always soap and water for that.

Debating a two-year-old

Why have you emptied the cupboard onto the kitchen floor? No, don’t walk away. Come back. Don’t hide in that cupboard. Are you listening to me? Izzie? Come out of there. Come out or you’re on the naughty step.

‘Okay, daddy.’

Right. Good. Why are you sticking out your bottom lip? That’s better. Now, come here, I want to talk to you.

Leave the water bottle alone. I said leave it alone.

This broken.

It’s not broken.

This broken, daddy.

Don’t change the subject. Come here. The count of three. One, two…

Good. Stop sticking out your bottom lip. Now, why did you empty all the baking tins out of the cupboard when mummy told you not to?

‘Mffmffjmmmt.’

You have to open your mouth when you speak.

‘Mffmffjmmmt.’

No, you have to open your mouth. I know you’re capable of talking because you’ve been doing it all day. So tell me why you emptied the cupboard, and this time, open your mouth when you talk.

Muh huh bluh muh nuh juh bluh.’

That isn’t any better. Think about what you want to say and then say it. Why did you empty the cupboard when mummy told you not to?

‘Me sit in my chair.’

Fine, sit in your chair. Then tell me why there are baking tins all over the floor. No, look at me. Why are you sticking out your bottom lip again? That’s better. Now. Why did you disobey your mummy?

‘Mmf luff juh buh muh Daisy.’

Only one word of that was in English. What about Daisy?

My friend Daisy.’

I know she’s your friend. What’s that got to do with this?

‘Mmf luff juh buh tell me.’

Daisy told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

When did she tell you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yesterday.’

You haven’t seen Daisy for a week. Are you lying to me?

‘No.’

Lying is naughty.

‘Me lying.’

So Daisy didn’t tell you to empty it?

‘No.’

Then why did you empty it?

‘Mummy tell me.’

Your mummy told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

The person who told you not to empty the cupboard told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

Are you lying to me again?

‘Yes.’

So why did you empty the cupboard all over the floor? Suck in that bottom lip. Do you know why you emptied the cupboard?

‘No, me not know why.’

Well, at least you’re honest. When mummy tells you not to do something, don’t do it, okay?

‘Okay, daddy. Me go in my playroom now?’

No, let’s pick these all up off the floor and put them back in the cupboard, please.

‘Daddy do it.’

No, you made the mess so you can tidy it up.

‘Me want daddy do it.’

And me want holiday, but we don’t always get what we want.

‘Me not want holiday.’

Then you’re in luck. Now, please put all of these baking tins back in the cupboard.

‘Mummy do it.’

No, mummy’s not going to do it. Where’s this bottom lip thing come from?

‘Me need a toilet.’

Do you really need the toilet or are you trying to get out of clearing up?

‘Me need a wee-wee. Me not wear a nappy, me not wee-wee in my pants.’

Fine. Come on, let’s go sit on the potty.

‘You not look at my wee-wee.’

I won’t look at your wee-wee. Come on, take your trousers down, and your pants, there you go.

‘You not listen, daddy.’

I won’t listen. There. Are you doing anything?

‘No. Me not need a toilet.’

Goddamnit. Okay, stand up then. That’s it. Pull your pants up, and your trousers. There, all done.

‘Me play in my playroom now?’

No, you’re going to tidy up first.

‘Why?’

Because I said so. No, don’t sigh at me.

‘Me not want to tidy things, daddy.’

Why not?

‘Me naughty.’

Well, don’t be naughty.

Why?’

Because it’s not nice.

‘Me not want to tidy.’

Look, how about this – if you put the baking tins away, I’ll come in your playroom with you.

‘Okay.’

Thank God. Okay, that’s one. No, leave the water bottle alone.

‘This broken.’

It’s not broken, it’s meant to be like that. Now, put the baking tins away before I scream.

‘Daddy sad?’

No, daddy isn’t sad.

‘Daddy cry?’

No, daddy isn’t going to cry.

‘Daddy cry. Do it. Do it now.’

Wait, you want daddy to cry?

‘Yes. On my birthday and mummy’s birthday.’

Why would you want me to cry on your birthday?

‘You always do.’

What? You’ve completely lost me now.

‘Me play in my playroom with daddy?’

Put them away, and then I’ll play with you. I said don’t sigh at me.

‘Why?’

Because…oh for crying out loud, I’ll put one away and you put one away, how’s that? Okay?

‘Okay, daddy.’

Okay, good. Here, that’s one. Now it’s your turn. It’s your turn. Pick that one up. That one right there. Where I’m pointing. Where I’m pointing, look.

‘Me not see it.’

Okay, now you’re just mucking me about.

‘Me not see anything.’

Right, that’s it. Straight to bed with no supper. Come on, up to bed.

‘No, me not go to bed. Me not tired. Me busy.’

With what?

‘Me got to put things in the cupboard.’

I know. I know you do. I told you to do it. Ten minutes ago. Ten minutes. You’re driving me insane, child, insane. Do you understand?

‘Daddy want a cuddle?’

Aaaaaaaawaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It never actually happened.

Fifty things you should NEVER say to a parent…

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

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

A New Man for a New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What?’

‘Willy bustle,’ she repeated.

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

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

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

And so:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am reclaiming my masculinity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My daughter proceeded to add more lipstick to my face.

‘Really special, daddy.’

And that seems just as bad.

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

‘Me in charge,’ she replied.

‘No, I’m in charge.’

‘No, me.’

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

‘No,’ she giggled. ‘It’s my way.’

I think the road ahead might be bumpy.

Where’d my toddler learn THAT!?!

The other day I was sitting on the sofa when, out of the blue, my toddler came up to me and said, ‘Daddy, c+nt.’

As you can imagine, I looked at her in shock. ‘What did you just call me?’ I gasped.

‘Daddy, c+nt.’

I got down on her level and looked her in the eye. ‘If you ever say that to me again -‘

‘Daddy c+nt, me hide.’

She wanted to play hide-and-seek. Thank God.

The way kids learn to talk is nothing like the way you learn a language at school. There, it’s hideously formulaic. Nuance? Nah. Emotion? Hell no! But can you ask directions to the train station where you’ll buy a return ticket to an A-ha concert? You bet I can! (This was already a dated reference even when I was at school – we’d moved on to New Kids On the Block by then).

The way to truly learn a language is to do it the way kids do it: by immersing yourself in it, listening to the way it’s spoken, the way it’s used, and experimenting with it to find ways of expressing your thoughts and ideas that are unique to you. Sure, you’re going to make plenty of mistakes along the way, but it’s the only way to become fluent. And it’s damned entertaining for the rest of us.

My two-year-old is at this stage now, and it is a daily dose of fascinating. Except that, as she attends nursery, mother-toddler groups, play dates and the houses of family members, I’m not always in control of the influences she’s exposed to.

Like the other night when I was hurrying her up to bed. ‘Come on, get a move on,’ I said, halfway up the stairs.

She turned to me, slowly took out her dummy, and in the manner of a person around thirteen years older said, ‘What’s the rush?’

It stopped me in my tracks. Where the hell did that come from?

Possibly the same place as her accent. My wife and I were both raised in the south, so we speak Estuary English with just a touch of West Country. I therefore have no idea why my daughter has started to speak as though she’s from the West Midlands.

It’s not a train but a ‘trine’, not a table but a ‘tie-bull’. We get on a ‘boose’ and wave ‘boy-boy’, and when mummy brushes my little one’s hair, she doesn’t ‘loik’ it. It’s like having a miniature Frank Skinner running round the house – every vowel sound is everso slightly off.

She also has no idea about social niceties – that just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. I asked her to describe someone to test her communication skills. Is he tall or short? ‘Short.’ Is he thin or fat? ‘Fat, like daddy.’

Out the mouths of babes…

And that’s before we mention the profanities. The other day I got cut up at a junction and snapped, ‘Asshole.’ Driving on down the road, I suddenly heard this little voice from the back going, ‘Ash-hole. Ash-hole.’ My wife made the mistake of laughing, and lo, we now have a potty-mouthed toddler whose favourite word is going to get us banned from the church playgroup.

Her storytelling is a bit bizarre at the moment too, focusing on the trivialities and glossing over the important stuff. After a whole day with granny on Monday, she summed it up with, ‘Natasha came to see granny, and Barry came to see my tongue.’

I have no idea what that means.

Still, if you really listen, sometimes she gives you pearls of wisdom. When she noticed the dog had a sore foot, she asked me what was wrong, and I told her to ask the dog. This she did, waited for an answer, then said to me, ‘Dog food needs butter.’ Problem solved.

But for me, the funniest thing was when I was putting her to bed the other night. My wife made a clatter in the kitchen and my daughter said, ‘Mummy noise.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Mummy made a noise.’

‘Mummy upstairs?’

‘No, she’s downstairs in the kitchen. It’s right below us.’

‘Kitchen?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, pointing. ‘It’s below, right here.’

Pushing back her covers, she climbed out of bed, got on her hands and knees and blew on the carpet.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked.

‘Kitchen,’ she replied.

‘Yes, it’s below here.’

And she bent forward and blew on the carpet again.

‘Why are you -?’ I started, and the penny dropped.

You forget that kids can’t always differentiate your words.

I can’t imagine why she thought daddy was pointing at the floor and saying, ‘Blow here.’

 

How my toddler made me cry

My two-year-old daughter made me cry the other night.

It came as a bit of a surprise, because I’m not really that emotional a person. Over the years I’ve built up a thick skin – it’s the only way to survive being a square peg in a world of round holes. My moods tend to vary between melancholy, discontentment and ennui, so I rarely reach the extremes of feeling that lead to tears, good or bad. Funerals? Nothing. Weddings? Nothing. The birth of my kids? Meh.

But then, there is a chink in my armour. Toy Story 3 made me weep in the cinema, My Girl just kills me, and who doesn’t cry at Marley & Me (besides cat lovers)? I can’t walk past a child’s gravestone without welling up, and last year I even cried at a book, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, in a scene where a chimpanzee begs to be allowed to go home. All of which goes to show, give me the bittersweet juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow, and you can pierce right to the heart of me.

I first noticed this weakness about twenty years ago, at Land’s End in Cornwall. A little boy was running with his brand new toy sword from the gift shop when he tripped and fell and – SNAP! – the blade broke at the hilt. The look on that boy’s face – the dawning realisation of what had happened, the switch from innocent joy to infinite sorrow as life’s hard truths hit home, and then the tears of impotent despair at the discovery that some things once broken cannot be fixed – it broke my heart.

I mean, sure, it was just a plastic sword costing a couple of quid and his parents could have bought him another one in a heartbeat – hardly a life-or-death experience. But that boy’s face haunted me for weeks after, because in the innocent, uncontrolled emotional state of a child, unable to weigh up comparative value or process cause, effect and consequence, and living solely in the moment, it is life-or-death. Children and animals, their simplicity of thought and emotion, their purity – when they suffer, when they’re sad, when they’re in pain and when they die, it cuts through every barrier I put up to protect myself.

Unfortunately, my toddler is right at that point in her social and emotional development where innocence and sorrow come into contact several times a day.

The evening she made me cry, I picked her up from nursery as usual. It’s always nigh identical to that scene in The Railway Children – she sees me, stops stock still in awe, and then she shouts, ‘Daddy, it’s my daddy!’ and runs towards me, her face filled with elation, leaving me just enough time to drop to one knee before she slams into me and throws her arms around me. So excited to show me what she’s been doing, so proud to show me off to the ladies at nursery – ‘My daddy,’ she says, ‘This my daddy.’

She’s the last to be picked up, after dark, so for half an hour she gets to hang with the grown-ups. I know it makes her feel special. She gets such a look of well-being on her little face as she puts on her school bag like a big girl, waves to the ladies all cocky because she’s heading home to mummy and her little sister. This night was no different but for one thing.

She tripped as she stepped over the threshold, stumbled down the wheelchair ramp and face-planted into the mud.

I stood her up, her hands, coat and face black with dirt. The women from the nursery appeared in the doorway and in the light spilling out past them I saw my little girl’s face – the shock giving way to embarrassment and humiliation as she fought back the tears, struggling to keep control. I told her it’s okay and she’s very brave, but it was all too much and suddenly she was wailing and burying her face in my side so nobody could see her. Ultimate joy to ultimate misery in under ten seconds, her special, sacred moment destroyed. Broke my heart.

But that wasn’t what made me cry.

On the way home, to distract her from her misery, I asked her who had been there today. Turns out it was Tilly, Hugo, Sebastian, Rufus (yes, I know – we’re only a Tarquin away from winning Pretentious-name Bingo), and a new one for me – Jasper.

‘Who’s Jasper?’ I asked.

‘My best friend,’ she replied. Too cute!

Then I asked her what she’d been up to. ‘Me sing Twinkle, Twinkle with my friends.’ Oh my gosh, the sweetest thing ever. But it still didn’t make me cry. No, that came after dinner when I was bathing her.

She was sticking the foam letters to the side of the tub – ‘This mummy,’ she’d say, and ‘This Granny,’ and ‘This Poppa.’ Then she put three together, pointed at the middle one, and said, ‘This daddy.’

‘Who’s this, then?’ I asked, pointing at the figure beside me.

‘This daddy’s friend,’ she replied, and pointed to the other; ‘and this daddy’s friend.’ And then she put another one beside them and said, ‘And this daddy’s best friend.’

And that’s when I cried.

As a master at acting ‘normal’, I hid it well. This is particularly important because my toddler has become very sensitive to other people’s feelings. She’s always asking if mummy’s sad, or if daddy’s sad, and the other night she woke up sobbing because she’d had a dream in which mummy was very sad. So I wiped my eyes, endured that prickly feeling at the top of my nose, and got on with it.

But why did I cry? The juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow.

As somebody with autism, friendship is something I always desperately wanted but was never able to have. I struggle to understand or connect with other people. When someone wants to be my friend, I become paranoid and push them away. When I want someone to be my friend, I approach it so cautiously I miss the opportunity. I don’t know how to make, keep and manage friendships, and I only have the mental energy or focus to sustain one friend or partner at a time. As I’m married, this means I don’t have the social resources to have any friends – no close ones anyway. It’s the way I’m built. It’s one of those things.

But that doesn’t make it any less painful, and it doesn’t mean I’m not desperately lonely.

My daughter has already realised the importance of friendship. Watching her making friends is a wonderful relief, because she is not like me. A bittersweet relief, as one day she’ll learn that daddy doesn’t have any friends, and she won’t understand why, and she’ll be sad, because even though I won’t show it, she’ll know that I’m sad too. Because friendship is important regardless of who you are.

Where do innocence and sorrow factor into this? Her innocence; my sorrow.

That’s how my toddler made me cry.

My Difficult Baby

Contrary to the uninformed opinion that new born babies are personality-less little blobs, they’re actually all individuals. Take my two, for example. Now that my second baby has been with us for five weeks – long enough to see some of her individuality, not long enough to be numb to it – I figured it was about time I said what she’s like.

She’s an asshole.

Yes, I know, we’re not meant to call our kids that – babies are all moonbeams and unicorns and magic fairy dust. The reality is that some are perfect little bundles of joy who bring light and life to all who see them, like my first daughter was; and some can be whinging, whining, needy little assholes, like my second is now. An asshole with character and spirit, but an asshole nonetheless.

And I love her for it.

I love her for every time I find myself staring into her eyes at four in the morning, saying in an exasperated tone, ‘Why the hell are you so awake? Why won’t you go to sleep?’

I love her for every time I’m bouncing her on my shoulder, crying out, ‘Why are you still screaming!? I’ve fed you, changed you, burped you, cuddled you, massaged your belly, rocked you, taken you for a drive – for God’s sake, what’s the problem?’

And I love her for every time she cries on other people and then immediately stops when they hand her back to me. That’s my girl.

While her sister was a very easy baby and full of the joys of spring, Rosie is demanding, unsettled, noisy and determined. She’s happiest when lying on somebody, and starts to moan the second you try to move her to pram or cot or chair. She’s constantly asking for milk then refuses to drink it, takes the dummy only to spit it across the room, and sleeps only when you’re at your most awake, saving her wakeful times for when your eyes are propped open with matchsticks. She screams on every car journey for the duration of the trip, has a sixth sense for finding and pulling out clumps of your chest hair when you least expect it, and will feed as and when she chooses, even if that’s a single ounce every thirty minutes, thank you very much.

She’s quirky too. From the moment she was born – and I mean literally the moment – she’s been pulling funny faces and making funny noises. She has the Elvis sneer down to a tee and I’m constantly having to check if the cat’s got into the Moses basket, such is the caterwauling she makes – when she’s not snorting like a pig. She just seems to miaow and grunt away to herself while screwing up her mouth and sticking out her tongue, glaring about with one eye wide and the other just a slit like an infant Popeye.

In fact, that’s not such a bad comparison – she’s short and stocky and instead of the feminine grace of her sister, who looks like her mother, Rosie looks like me minus the beard – and I’m hardly a supermodel. That’s not to say she isn’t cute as a button – the other day a lady said she was ‘very bonny for a four-week-old’ – but it’s not an immediately obvious beauty. I mean, I think she’s adorable, but more in the manner of an owl than a falcon – or more like a middleweight boxer than a decathlete. Woe betide anyone who gets in her way when she’s learning to walk!

And that is my baby at five weeks. My adorably difficult, grizzly little bruiser, a perfect little asshole.

I wouldn’t change her for the world.

A New Little Sister

I was regularly told that having two kids wasn’t twice as hard as having one – it was exponentially more difficult. I can’t say that I’ve found this to be true as of yet. Sure, it can be a little tough supporting the baby with one hand, holding the bottle in the second, and then fending off the over-eager attentions of a toddler with the third, but overall I’d put the addition of another member to our family at around 1.5 times more difficult than before – so it’s not all that bad.

Of course, that’s probably because Rosie is four weeks old, so she mostly only sleeps, feeds, poops and cries. When she’s just as mobile, inquisitive and determined as her 28-month-old sister, I imagine I’ll revise that figure upwards, but for now we’re certainly coping.

But that’s not to say it hasn’t been bloody difficult.

When Izzie came to the hospital to meet her little sister, she was so excited that the first thing she did was to slap the bed twice. And then, without missing a beat, she grabbed the nearest bottle of milk and tried to ram it down Rosie’s throat.

You see, to Izzie, Rosie is a doll – a flesh and blood doll she wants to cuddle and kiss and feed and change and do all the things to that a parent does. Which is all well and good, except I’ve seen how Izzie treats her dolls, and Rosie wouldn’t last thirty seconds without a dislocated shoulder or worse. It’s a sobering thought that the greatest threat to my second-born is not the dog, not the cat – it’s my first-born.

It has been difficult convincing the wider family of this basic reality.

‘Well I trust Izzie,’ said one with great pomposity in response to this statement, as though trusting a toddler with a baby is a sign of virtue instead of gross negligence.

‘I think she’s lovely,’ I replied, ‘but you never know what a toddler might do.’

‘Only a child with mental health difficulties would harm a baby,’ this person went on to say, clearly believing toddlers are in complete control of their emotions, have mastered fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and fully understand cause and effect.

There’s no cure for stupid.

So the past month has involved extremely careful supervision alongside the usual aspects of baby care. We’ve had to keep a certain distance between the two girls until Izzie can understand how to be gentle, which has caused plenty of tears and tantrums. Izzie wants to hold Rosie, and rock her, and get in the pram with her, and stuff her dummy in her mouth, and open her eyes when Rosie isn’t awake, none of which we can allow. But we have taken steps to alleviate this tension.

I instituted a rule from the word go that when people come to the house they have to greet and make a fuss of Izzie before allowing her to introduce them to her little sister. Furthermore, we involve Izzie in all aspects of childcare by encouraging her to fetch the changing mat and nappies and wipes, and she sits with us during feeds, and we make sure we spend plenty of time hugging as a group.

It’s had the effect of avoiding any jealousy, giving Izzie some sense of ownership of the situation, and encouraging her to love her little sister.

And, without a doubt, love her she does.

When Rosie cries, Izzie tries to comfort her – well, on those occasions she doesn’t put her finger to her lips and shout, ‘Shush!’

She’s also rather conscientious about keeping Rosie involved, telling us to take Rosie with us, to give her a hat, to give her milk, to change her nappy – which is lovely.

And Rosie responds to Izzie in ways she doesn’t to us. Now that Izzie is finally cottoning on to the fact she’s not allowed to touch the baby, when Rosie lies on the floor or sits in the bouncy chair, Izzie often lies and sits in front of her and tells her stories and sings and giggles, and you can see that Rosie is being stimulated by it. They have a connection to each other, as siblings and as infants, that we don’t seem to have with them as adults.

I mean, there are some teething troubles – Izzie doesn’t want to go to bed because the baby’s still up; she wants to be carried because the baby’s carried; when I’m rocking the baby in my arms I find Izzie clinging to my legs; and whenever Rosie is out of the car seat, Izzie climbs into it and makes it her own – but these are all normal, I think. Other than the clumsy roughness, Izzie is the very model of a doting big sister.

Although tere has been a really weird development: Izzie has become incredibly squeamish about poo.

Every time the baby poops, Izzie says, ‘Me not touch it, daddy, me not touch it.’

‘You don’t have to touch it,’ I reply. ‘Nobody’s making you touch it.’

‘Not touch it, daddy.’

The most hilarious manifestation of this was the first time Izzie held Rosie on her lap. I surrounded her with cushions, including one across her thighs, sat close beside her, and gently placed Rosie down. Izzie looked like the cat that got the cream, the happiest I’ve ever seen her.

And then Rosie did a noisy poop.

I’ve never seen Izzie move so fast. ‘Not touch it!’ she screamed as she somehow slipped out from under the cushions and over the arm of the sofa and off in the blink of an eye.

We think it’s because she went to her mother’s baby shower shortly before Rosie was born where they played a game involving putting strange substances into tiny nappies – peanut butter, chocolate, Marmite – and getting people to sniff and taste it to correctly identify the substance.

And now Izzie is traumatised.

Thanks mummy.