F*$k off Sunday Times

F*$k off Sunday Times

A couple of weeks ago – yes, I’m a bit late and, yes, I’m still angry enough to write about it – The Sunday Times published an article entitled Test Your Dad Skills. In it, a male journalist called Ben Machell gives a rundown of the various abilities required to “pull off” life as a father of two.

Now, as most of you well know, I’m no superdad. And I’m always willing to learn how to do it better from other people. So, I started reading. But with caution.

What exactly were these mysterious fathering skills worthy of a multi-page article in a national newspaper? What would Ben add to the long list of mental, physical and emotional capabilities any parent needs to survive?

Apparently ‘handle a sleepover’ was one, as was ‘make pasta and pesto’ and ’look good in a papoose’. The latter, in particular, is a key consideration for any new dad. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure it was my first question during antenatal classes with Laura before our first son Dylan arrived.

Similarly, ‘how to read a bedtime story’ – another of the mighty challenges Ben addressed. Useful stuff. I’ve always wondered why, night after night, Dylan and Nathan are so disappointed when I recite the book’s title, open the pages and then leave their bedroom without further word.

In truth, the article was not about being a dad at all. Well, not in any real sense anyway. It was an opportunity for Ben, presumably at his editor’s behest, to present himself as some sort of inept buffoon, blindly (and, admittedly, comically) bluffing his way through the day-to-day challenges of fatherhood.

Simple things were presented as a curious mix of impossible and unnatural for a tiny male brain to compute, let alone measure up on when compared to our vastly superior wives and girlfriends. Because, you know, really us dads are just subbing in for the ladies. The people who are meant to quit work and raise kids while we go to work and bring home the bacon.

Er…

Anyone who knows Laura also knows she’s brilliant – professionally, personally and as a mother to the boys. Likewise my own mum is a wonderful, capable and successful woman. But what the hell? Who on earth sanctioned this ridiculous downplaying of men’s ability to fulfil that most innately human of tasks: namely raise a child?

It’s like a bad joke – but it’s not.

This is certainly not a rant against feminism. The likes of MeToo and Time’s Up are so right and so important. But this article didn’t do anything for their message of gender equality and mutual respect. It didn’t redress the balance or promote a progressive, modern agenda. It skewed things off wildly in the other direction.

I mean, imagine the (entirely appropriate) outcry were a newspaper to publish an article in which a female journalist returning to work after maternity leave was presented as some kind of office clown, desperately trying to reply to emails, use the coffee machine and locate the toilets.

Maybe I’ve completely misinterpreted their reasons behind this piece – in which case, apologies, my bad. But for me, it strikes a nerve. Like millions of parents, I work really hard to balance professional and family life – and do both of them half decently (mostly). Seeing that effort belittled by some idiot with a baby carrier in a national newspaper is really annoying.

Equality, as I see it, is about helping every parent balance their work and home lives as best they can (if they choose to). It’s not a competition. Women don’t have to succeed or be happy and fulfilled at men’s expense, nor vice versa. And we all (well, unless we’re Donald Trump) want a fair, compassionate, meritocratic future for our kids.

Man or woman, mum or dad, clichéd, bullshit articles like this send us all crashing back in time.

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Eat Up. Headphone Up. Shut Up.

Eat Up. Headphone Up. Shut Up.

Last month was my wife’s birthday, which coincided with a family holiday to Italy. Not only that, our hotel had a two Michelin starred restaurant on the top floor. How perfect, I thought. What a lovely treat for Laura, not to mention an apt way to spend the final night of our trip.

Then I remembered we couldn’t just leave our six and four year old sons alone in a hotel room while we spent three hours pretending to know what Spelt pasta is and convincing ourselves that hazelnut tastes SO much better as an espume.

Nor was babysitting an option. Not because the hotel didn’t offer it (providing you were willing to sell a kidney first) but because the chances of Dylan and Nathan responding positively to the bedtime arrival of a stranger in a strange place were about as high as them eating an Italian-style ice cream without needing a jet wash afterwards.

That left just one outcome on the table: the boys were coming with us and I would have no choice but to despise myself as a result.

Aside from the sheer ludicrousness of taking kids to a Michelin starred restaurant, some of you may remember a post I wrote a while back about dining out with them. Though it’s fair to say things have improved somewhat since then, the prospect of combining hungry, tired, overexcited boys with the height of gastronomic elegance was cause for trepidation.

Would Dylan loudly announce he needed a poo before marching to the toilet like the evacuation could begin at any minute? Would Nathan jam a burnt butter breadstick up his own nose? Would a subtle under the table pinch escalate quickly into a full-scale brawl amidst (and possibly involving) the carefully chosen tableware? And would our fellow diners insist we were forcibly removed from the restaurant before we got our main course?

Actually, none of the above. In fact, aside from the 100 Euros they charged us for the boys’ fish and chips followed by ice cream, the most shocking thing was that Dylan and Nathan did us proud. They were polite, kept their voices at an appropriate volume (mostly) and avoided smashing each other in the face with a pepper mill. They even ate neatly.

Of course, we owe a heavy debt of gratitude to technology. Having smugly congratulated ourselves on keeping all meals iPad and phone free during the rest of the holiday, everything went out the window, replaced by a new approach entitled ‘Eat Up. Headphone Up. Shut Up.’

As soon as each boy had swallowed his final 4 Euro chip, out came the iPads. There was even a cosy nook behind our table where they could sit on the floor. Claimed reason: to ensure they wouldn’t disturb other diners. Real reason: so people couldn’t see what shit parents we are.

And thus the meal passed. The food was excellent, the ambience lovely (occasional bellowed goal celebration from Dylan and panicked ‘Shush’ from us aside) and Laura’s birthday was fittingly celebrated.

Which really left only one problem. I took my kids to a Michelin starred restaurant before either had reached their seventh birthday. This obnoxiously pretentious act is something I must live with for the rest of my life.

Fortunately, just as we were getting the bill and I was having an existential crisis, another family arrived. Like us, they had brought their children: four of them ranging from a similar age to Dylan up to what I’d guess was about 15. The three boys were dressed in the same cream chinos and blue shirt combo as their father. The girl sported a matching floral dress to her mother.

As they sat down and we paid up, the dad caught my eye. I smiled. Not an empathetic, isn’t-this-a-brave-but-lovely-thing to do with our children smile. A thank you smile. Because no matter how much I hated myself for doing this, I hated them even more.

 

Note: This is the first thing I’ve written since having eye surgery, so it was done with at best 50% vision and in several separate stints. Forgive me if it’s even more crap than normal.

Sibling rivalry

Sibling rivalry

Is poo flammable?

That was the question my 6 year old son, Dylan, suddenly fired at me the other day. And one I spectacularly failed to answer without the help of a good friend called Google. It is, by the way – worth knowing if your BBQ won’t light over the next few months.

Having congratulated myself on dissuading Dylan from conducting a live test, what I wasn’t prepared for was the onslaught of competitiveness this revelation would uncork. My poo’s more flammable than yours, Nathan! Dylan was quick to point out to his younger brother. Furious at this slur, Nathan responded with a bellowed No, it isn’t! and a breadstick jammed roughly into Dylan’s ear.

As for why either of them gave a shit (boom boom), I have no idea. Is having to struggle with the matches for a few less seconds when trying to ignite the cable you just laid really something to brag and/or get angry about?!

Yet, while the subject matter on this occasion was a little leftfield, the argument itself is increasingly typical. As the boys get older, the nearly three year gap between them seems to be closing all the time. And that’s bringing lots of benefits, especially when it comes to playing together and agreeing upon what to watch on the TV.

But the other side-effect is a rapidly intensifying sense of competition with each other. On EVERYTHING. My biscuit’s bigger than yours! No, mine’s bigger than yours! Isn’t it, daddy? (Whisper) Yes, Nath, that’s right. (Turn to Dylan, whisper). Yours is biggest really, Dylan.

I was better at football than you are when I was 3. My Chelsea dinner mat is better than your Ninjago one. You’re cheating. I’m taller. I’m better behaved. My sweetie lasted longer. That joke wasn’t as funny as mine. I want the big half. My cuddly is more precious than yours. The oneupmanship never stops.

And if you ever dare give one of them a compliment or praise for something, you can set your watch by the indignant and inevitable And me! from the other.

It’s kind of irritating but also kind of entertaining.

On the one hand, the incessant bickering and battle to outdo each other can be exhausting, especially as it invariably escalates to a point where either I or my wife, Laura, has to intervene and discreetly lie to both boys that they somehow came out on top or remind them there are no prizes on offer for who can stuff their finger furthest up their nose anyway.

But I also get it. As one of two brothers myself, I know there’s simply nothing better than beating your sibling – a feeling that seems to be supercharged when you’re both the same gender. In fact, I still cherish the day my brother handed over £1,000 of Monopoly money to me while crying like a newborn. Happy times – although probably not for my mum who had to deal with the aftermath!

More importantly, competing with my brother certainly helped (helps) spur me on to be better at stuff, which can only be a good thing. Besides, just like me and him, I know it’s all part of growing up and that Dylan and Nathan have got each other’s backs when it really matters.

So, I guess despite the antagonism it sometimes causes, what I’m saying is: long live the sibling rivalry. Providing, of course, it’s done in the right spirit and just as long as we never find out whose poo really is the most flammable.

#RollingBackTheYears. Yeah, right.

#RollingBackTheYears. Yeah, right.

We all do it. Remember our pre-kids life as if it was some unendingly hedonistic cycle of spontaneous nights out, lavish meals and alcohol/erotica-fuelled holidays. And even though, for me at least, that would be a gross overestimation of both my inventiveness and staying power, it’s nearly impossible to resist a glimpse through rose-tinted specs every now and then.

To a time when going for a meal out didn’t involve a bulging rucksack of distractions and the human equivalent of a carwash afterwards. When holidays actually meant returning home more relaxed than when you left. When a night out didn’t entail weeks of negotiation, pre-planning and clock-watching as the babysitter’s fee ticks up beyond the cost of the evening itself. And when a Saturday morning hangover started once your body decided you’d had enough sleep to get through it, not when some miniature idiot buries his bony knee in your testicles at 6.30am.

Thus, when I went away skiing with three mates a couple of weeks ago, the plan was to set things straight. A triumphant, albeit temporary, recreation of those youthful, halcyon days. Yes, we’d make sure we maximised our time on the slopes, but what really mattered was taking on the post-piste drinking like the legends we knew were still there,  lying latent beneath our middle-aged spreading.

We even had a hashtag: #RollingBackTheYears. That’s how Millennial we were planning to be. This was on.

Then reality arrived – about as softly as the good morning knee I mentioned earlier. Two litres of gin exuberantly purchased at the airport resulted in an unplanned gift for the cleaners on departure. One crate of beer between four turned out to be enough. We cooked, averagely. And even our ‘big night out’ saw at least one of our party (no names) tucked up in bed by 10pm, with the rest of us only a couple of beers behind.

That’s not to say it wasn’t great fun. In fact, it was a brilliant trip. But to claim we delivered against our hashtag would be pushing it.

In fact, if anything, it was more a glimpse of the future. One where enthusiasm and intent are ever more distant friends of capability. Where waking up on your terms is as much a treat as going out in the first place. Where ‘getting a table’ is more critical to a successful night than how much you drink. And where a ‘white out’ doesn’t just apply to the mountain weather anymore, but to the thick fog in your 38-year-old brain when you drink Stella.

Maybe I’ve learned my lesson. Perhaps I’ve realised that I can’t keep blaming the kids for my partying failures. I mean, I even just used the word ‘partying’ for Christ’s sake. But, really, I have little doubt I’ll be donning those same rose-tinted specs again next time the opportunity arises. And if I’m honest, I’ll be glad to. After all, what’s life without hope and misplaced self-belief? For most of us, those traits are exactly how we ended up as parents in the first place.

In the meantime, it’s time for my wife Laura to take a similar trip this weekend. Maybe she’ll get on better than I did at pretending she’s still got it, although I hope not. Now, that really would be hard to accept.

It’s getting hot in here…but please put on your clothes

It’s getting hot in here…but please put on your clothes

There are few things more sinister than an 18-stone naked German appearing at the door of a sauna you’re sat in rolling a towel like a horse whip. Of all the things I learnt during our first proper foray into the world of family skiing holidays, this was perhaps the most important but unexpected. The other was never let yourself get caught in an Austrian sauna ritual. And if you do, make sure you don’t sit on the bottom bench.

Clearly neither of these lessons have anything to do with kids nor family holidays, a subject I’ve written about before. This is partly due to how well the boys got on with it, especially Dylan who even returned home with a ski race trophy, partly the kid-friendliness of the hotel we were in and most definitely the fact we had Grampy with us as an extra pair hands.

But it’s mainly down to the depth of trauma my unwitting sauna experience has caused me.

The first thing to note is that in Austria, it turns out, clothes and saunas don’t mix. So, when Laura and I first ventured up to the hotel’s 7th floor spa, we were greeted by a sign telling us that it was not only a kid-free zone, but a ‘textile-free’ one too. At which point, Laura turned to me, stage whispered “does that mean naked?” then “I just saw a penis”, before tightening her dressing gown around her as if a cold wind had suddenly blown through the building and getting straight back in the lift.

I was on my own. Well, sort of.

Stepping inside, I quickly identified three types of people. The rule-breaking prudes steadfastly sweating it out in their one pieces. (Mainly Brits and Americans.) The people rejoicing not just in their own nakedness but in sharing it with dozens of strangers they’d be seeing at the breakfast buffet 12 hours later. (Austrians, Germans, Dutch and fat people.) And, finally, the middle ground that I decided to park myself in: a quick strip, then a towel round the waist to keep things classy.

Towel in place, I made my way into the Finnish sauna…and arrived at a scene resembling the results of turning up the heat in a butcher’s freezer. A moist sea of wrinkled, reddening, drooping flesh. But even I knew opening the door to enter only to re-open it immediately to depart is poor sauna etiquette, so instead I squeezed myself into a corner, taking care to keep my eyes level, hands raised and balance perfect.

It was as I sat down that the man I later discovered to be known as ‘The Master’ appeared at the door brandishing his towel. It’s hard to do this guy justice in words. Just try to picture a cross between Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a fat Dale Winton.

Whereas my reaction to his sudden arrival was to reach for the emergency button, the rest of my naked brethren were enraptured. And as the cheers died down, The Master set to work.

The worst bit was when he forced hot air at everyone individually by flapping his towel at us, having moments earlier removed it from around his own glistening crotch. The other low point (and let’s be clear, there were many) was when, during a third bout of ear-popping heat brought on by him repeatedly drenching the coals in water and swinging his towel like a lasso, the group raised their hands above their heads as if riding a rollercoaster and made sex noises. Body parts wobbled. Sweat flew…then pooled. And my life flashed before my eyes.

Even the blessed end of it wasn’t, well, the end of it. In a naked sauna, the exit is far more treacherous than anything else. Steadfastly tucked into my corner on the bottom bench as The Master’s acolytes made to leave, I was forced to dodge and duck several times to avoid being pistol whipped in the worst way imaginable.

Naturally, on my return to the sanctuary of our room, Laura’s sympathy was minimal. After all, she had been sensible enough to beat a hasty retreat. I, on the other hand, was left trying not to let whole experience cloud an otherwise brilliant week.

And there, in fact, is the bright side. After moaning many times about the frustrations of going away with kids in the past, I have now learned perspective. Compared to naked sauna rituals, family holidays are a doddle.

It’s all gone quiet over here

It’s all gone quiet over here

You may or may not have noticed I haven’t written a blog for a while. More than two months in fact. In the blogging world, that’s apparently a cardinal sin.

Kind of like letting your 2 year old son down several glugs of Diet Coke at a Thomas the Tank Engine show. Or using the word ‘fug’ in front of a toddler who’s learning to speak but can’t hear the difference between a g and a ck .

As for why I’ve been quiet, I could blame Christmas and all the craziness that comes with it. I could blame my own laziness. Or even the fact I’ve been busy at work. But, really, the answer is much simpler. I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say.

Now, admittedly, you may be thinking that hasn’t stopped me before. Fair point. But this time, I really had nothing. When I started blogging, I gave myself a few rules. 1) I wouldn’t spew endless crap into the universe for the sake of hearing my own ‘voice’. 2) I’d try not to be too serious or sugar-sweet. And, most importantly of all, 3) I would never, ever give out advice to other parents.

I see number 3 all the time. ‘My top 5 tips for entertaining kids on a plane.’ ‘3 ways to help your children eat healthily.’ ‘10 reasons why I’m just an all-round better parent than you’. ‘100 ways to painlessly remove the patronising rod stuck up my ass.’ That kind of thing

Given the unique and individual nature of parenting (even between kids in the same family!) along with my own questionable dadding skills (see Diet Coke and fug errors), who on Earth am I to give hints to anyone?!

The truth is my life is boring. Not the sitting-in-a-chair-watching-the-world-go-by kind of boring. Sometimes – I wish! Rather, it’s the same madcap, chaotic, wonderful and frustrating existence that pretty much every parent or grandparent knows first-hand. Which means you don’t need the likes of me banging on it about it all the time. Or, worse, telling you how to do it better!

This isn’t me checking out of blogging for good. After all, if nothing else, it can be a great form of personal catharsis – especially after meals out or family holidays. It’s more a promise to anyone who reads this stuff that I won’t bother you unnecessarily.

When I’ve got something I think is worth sharing, I will. Like 3-year-old Nathan drawing an imaginary knife across his throat and growling: “maybe somebody cut them; that’s what I learnt at nursery” last week when I informed him that sadly the relative of a close friend had died.

Or Dylan going on a ‘date’ in the playground – AT AGE 6!!! Or my wife’s endless, fruitless attempts to get the boys to stop rummaging around in their own pants while watching TV – as if, somehow, she can overcome thousands of years of ingrained male behaviour with threats to turn off Ninjago.

But on the flipside, when I haven’t got anything noteworthy, I’ll keep quiet. We’ve all got enough noise in our lives and there are plenty of people out there willing to add to it. It’s advice I probably should have given myself 30-odd years ago. It’s taken becoming a parent for the penny to finally drop.

Why parenting should be X-rated

Why parenting should be X-rated

I was getting changed after a swim at the local leisure centre the other day when, from the neighbouring cubicle, I heard this: Wow, you’re a big boy aren’t you. Naturally, I nodded. But then: It’s hard, isn’t it. Would you like a hand pulling it?

Surprising for a multitude of reasons, not least the fact I’d just emerged from a cold, public swimming pool.

Of course, it quickly transpired that it was actually a mum talking to her young son who, presumably, was making a good fist of trying to get himself dressed. Perfectly reasonable and certainly not the risqué scenario it initially sounded.

But it did get me thinking. Imagine the conversations we have with our kids…then picture someone listening somewhere just out of sight. What must it all sound like to them?! At least 50% of it’s complete filth.

Like lunchtime as my three year old spends his umpteenth minute faffing around with his food as if it’s laced with poison. Finally, I step in, scooping up a hefty dollop and delivering it with an encouraging-but-non-negotiable: Open wide, here it comes! Then: make sure you swallow it all. Now, imagine someone walking past and hearing an adult male saying that to an unseen ‘victim’. Welcome to Hollywood.

Or the time I’m at home, desperately trying to get some piece of mundane life admin done while one (or both) of my sons incessantly pesters me to play with them. Why don’t you play with yourself for a little while? I say, a suggestion that may carry very different connotations in a few years’ time when they become teenagers.  

Fixate on it, and the innuendo is everywhere. Push harder, it’s tight as I battle Nathan’s shoes into place while the postman sniggers on the other side of the door. OK, bend over and I’ll have a look for one of the endless stream of bruises, splinters and small injuries Dylan picks up.

Or the moment one of them arrives from the garden caked in mud. Oh my God! says my wife. You’re so dirty! Strip off and then upstairs. In this case to the shower, most likely battling him all the way. Yet were Laura to text that to me, it’s fair to say I’ll be right there.

Even the relatively innocuous instructions we deliver as parents like hands out of your trousers please and I don’t want to be licked thank you, would, if heard without the visual context, leave the average person wondering what kind of hell they’re about to walk in on. And that’s without factoring in the litany of filth being thrown up by Dylan’s recent enrollment into Beavers.

So, while it’s nothing new to say parenting should be X-rated, in this case I don’t mean the theft of sleep, free-time and cleanliness that assails every household following the arrival of kids. I’m talking about the everyday filth we rely on to keep our children socially and/or behaviourally acceptable. Ironic given how hard we all work to keep ‘naughty words’ away from their young ears.

Obviously, there’s not much we can do about it, most of us have got bigger problems to contend with and it’s probably just my own smutty mind working overtime anyway. But, whatever, think enough about it, and the stream of innuendo we spew out as mums and dads is endless.

I’m sure you have your own examples and I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, I’ll be watching what I say next time I take Nathan to the swimming pool.