Dad in the playground

Dad in the playground

Now I’m an adult (of sorts), I’d assumed the days of worrying about the rules of the playground were behind me. Along with wedgies, communal showers and trying to inhale without coughing.

How naïve I was. Since having children, I find myself back in the same scenario, although admittedly no one has hauled the waistband of my boxer shorts above my shoulders (yet). Worse, the rules have changed. As many parents know, managing people with little regard for their own safety until faced with immediate peril requires significant levels of concentration, premonition and caffeine, as well as the ability to cross a wobbly bridge in milliseconds.

Often it lulls you into a false sense of security too. Like when your older child kindly offers to help the younger one join them in climbing something just a little bit beyond their capabilities. How sweet, you think. What lovely brothers. How nice to see them getting on so well. What hope it gives me for a future where they just do stuff together while I sit down on a bench and actually talk to my wife.


Shit, Nathan! Where did Dylan go? Oh, that’s right, he’s legged it up the rest of the climbing frame while little bro has dropped like a stone from 6 feet high. Thank God for modern-day, spongy playground floors.

There’s also my fellow parents to consider. On my Wednesdays off, I’m usually the only dad in the playground, still a surprisingly common experience in most places we visit during the week. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Mums do it better. Most mums I encounter in playgrounds tend to gather in groups chatting with each other while their children play. They exude a kind of calm control that I just can’t achieve. So, when I barrel nosily into the area with scooters flying, bag undone, kids in different directions, etc. I look pretty inept.

Kids are like moths. My attitude in a playground is if you can’t beat them, join them. The trouble is, when other children get wind of a youngster being tipped upside down, spun on a roundabout or chased through a tunnel, they tend to flock over for a piece of the action too. Thus, I spend most of the time lifting various nameless kids on and off equipment or helping bury their feet in fox piss encrusted sand. All while their parent happily chats to their mates.

It can be intimidating. Stepping into this still female-dominated environment (during the week) can make you self-conscious. I’ve even seen women check their watch as I step through the gates, confirming it is indeed still business working hours. The other day, a grandma (or ‘mature mum’ – I didn’t ask, I’m not crazy) actually screamed when I had the temerity to push Nathan above head height on a swing. Yes, he leant forward a bit, but really, a full-blooded scream? I may have a Y chromosome but I have no plans to send my child flying into a wall. I promise.

There are never enough swings. If I was a playground planner (what a job that would be!), I’d dedicate at least 70% of the area to swings. Two just isn’t enough. Every kid wants to go on them and every kid hates waiting. The result is a festival of placation. Both for the parent trying to coax their child off the swing and for the one whose son or daughter is on the sidelines preparing to take matters into their own hands. It’s a situation that’s even given rise to a kind of code.

Parent 1: No, someone is on the swing, so you’ll have to wait your turn (a little more loudly than necessary).

Translation: I may appear to have done it politely and as if I was trying to teach my child about waiting. However, I’ve now made it perfectly clear to you, Parent 2, that my child wants to get on that swing. Start preparing your kid for disembarkation before this shit gets real.

I’m sure there are plenty more but I shan’t bore you with them now. Hopefully some of this sounds familiar. Perhaps most of it doesn’t. All of it is largely my fault. But I guess one thing we can all agree on as parents is this: the days of playground protocol are not as far behind us as we thought.


Grandad died.

Grandad died.

A couple of weeks ago, my father-in-law died unexpectedly. As you can imagine, it’s been a tough time for everyone, especially my wife and her family. One of the very few benefits of having had only one grandparent (who died when I was aged five) is that my own experience of loss is relatively small. Certainly nothing like what Laura is going through now. It’s been a dreadfully impotent feeling. A mixture of being desperately sad for her, sharing her grief and trying to help in whatever small way I can.

Of course, amidst all this are the boys. Both, really, are too young to fully realise what has happened. Dylan, at 5, has some understanding of the fact we won’t see Grandad again and is processing it in his own way. But Nathan, at 2, is to all intents and purposes oblivious. On our first trip to visit Laura’s mum afterwards, I spent several minutes in the car trying to explain that Grandad wouldn’t be there, that he was now somewhere he didn’t feel ill, and that we must instead try to think about all the fun things we did with him. Not especially eloquent but, I hoped, effective.

As we walked through the door, a little voice piped up: “Where’s Grandad?” I’d been wasting my time.

Yet should I really have been surprised? How can you explain death to a toddler? There are loads of books out there and no doubt lots of far cleverer people than me have tried.  But the answer, as far as I can tell, is you can’t. Their lives are just too immediate, too short-term, too gloriously trivial for them to be interrupted by as nebulous and inaccessible concept as dying.

‘Grandad has died’ is simply ‘Grandad’s not here to throw me over his shoulder and shout Ba Ba Boof today, oh well, maybe he’ll be here next time’. ‘Grandad has gone’ translates as ‘Grandad’s somewhere else’. And ‘Gran is upset’ is, well, a brief concern but no doubt she’ll be OK again in a minute.

It’s fortunate and tragic all at once. On the one hand, how lovely to live in such a naïve place that bad news, the worst news, is no more than a passing gust of wind. But at the same time, how terrible that something so important, so fundamental to our life, can be ripped away without you really noticing. How unjust that, beyond photos and stories, Nathan probably won’t remember a warm, generous, doting man who loved him dearly.

As you can imagine, this has been a hard post to write – and I have no real answers to give or conclusions to draw. Maybe it’s all still too current, maybe I’m not smart enough, maybe it’s impossible, probably all three. Death of a loved one is shit. It hurts and it makes people you care about unhappier than you’ve ever seen them. Trying to manage that grief whilst looking after young children who need a brave face from mummy and daddy is immeasurably hard, undeniably sad – and a total tonic.

In fact, if there is one tiny chink of light here it is that perhaps, in a small way, we can all take a lesson from young children. These mini beings who think life is just a thing we all do forever – and simply get on with getting on with it. For whom both everything and nothing is a distraction. Who don’t waste time on stuff they can’t comprehend. And who are, for want of a less clichéd phrase, the way the rest of us live on long after we’re gone.

As Grandad himself said last year: “there’s no bucket list but that doesn’t stop me wanting to live forever.” Even though they might not know it yet, the boys are the ones who are going to help him do it.

An apology: I broke the first rule of Parent Club

An apology: I broke the first rule of Parent Club

The other day I did something I swore I never would. I judged another parent. I hate myself.

Of course, I didn’t voice my verdict aloud (I’m still British after all) but that doesn’t matter. Even in my own head, I still did it. And that puts me in the same reprehensible bracket as all the old people who have shaken their heads at my ‘disgraceful lack of control’ over my children in the park or the parents who have sneered at my Bolognese soaked sons in a restaurant while their daughters sit quietly colouring in or writing a piano concerto or whatever.

The incident occurred during that popular middle-class past-time: taking your children for a Babyccino. Translation: distracting them with milk, powdered chocolate and, if you’re truly lucky, marshmallows (the chewy kind), while you load up on caffeine and sit down for a few precious minutes.

Worse, the target of my judgement was a fellow dad! A man so harried by his two kids and two dogs that he could no longer maintain his composure in Caffe Nero. Several decibels and various expletives later, he was enjoying the stares of the whole establishment, his children were crying and his dogs were barking as if they’d seen a postman lathered in bone marrow.

Now, I’ve never understood why people with young children have dogs. Why choose to add yet another creature(s) to your life that must be taken outside regularly whatever the weather, has no sense of reason and may at any moment shit on your carpet?! But still, poor bloke.

At least that’s what I should have thought.

But I didn’t. Instead I thought something along the lines of: well, that’s a bit much, shouting like that before losing myself in a pious spiral of I would never do such a thing and my children are far more obedient, etc. Shame on me. A) Because I would and they aren’t. And b) because I forgot my allegiance to a fellow comrade.

As the brilliant DIY Daddy recently asked in a post: is there a right way to be a parent? To which, naturally, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Your way.  And that’s the point. All that my stressed-out Nero friend was doing was experiencing his version of the same moment pretty much every parent has, pretty much every week. His only ‘crime’ was that he happened to do it in such a public place.

Anyway, almost as soon as me, my wife and our (ahem) perfectly behaved children waltzed serenely out of the establishment, the guilt began to eat away at me. How could I be so unfair? And while I wouldn’t ever advocate dropping the f-bomb on a pre-schooler, the more I thought about it, the more I empathised with how he was feeling.

So, this, belatedly, is my apology. To the man who had the meltdown and to other mums, dads, grandparents, anyone who has been driven temporarily to distraction by the insanity of this job. I got caught off guard and forgot the first and most important rule of Parent Club. Never judge a fellow member. It won’t happen again.

A tour de force (or maybe farce)

A tour de force (or maybe farce)

For the first time in I don’t know how long, Laura and I took a trip to the theatre last week. Unfortunately, it was to a sweltering, jam-packed school hall for our son Dylan’s inaugural Christmas Nativity play.

Ahead of curtain up, tensions ran high. Would Dylan sing the rude version of one (or more) of the Christmas carols? Would the race to get on stage result in a pile-up of tinsel tiaras, cardboard wings and towelling robes? And would the dad sitting next to me, who’d just found out his kid had been cast in the dialogue-free role of ‘2nd Camel’, go on a Michael-Douglas-in-Falling-Down style rampage?

Fortunately, none of the above. Although I did catch said father wincing as his son was bent over and ridden around the stage like a Grand National winner by a bigger boy holding a riding crop. Much as the teachers winced when two of the cast held a piece of scenery the wrong way around, giving audience members the sight of a broom handle haphazardly masking taped to a load of crisps boxes, not the carefully-painted façade of the stable.

I also suspect the real Wise Men took greater care of their gifts for the Son of God than booting them around the streets of Bethlehem. Nor do I recall the entire town (including animals) clubbing together in the New Testament for a rousing rendition of We Wish You A Merry Christmas.

Yet forget all that. In between waving to their relatives and staring at the ceiling, the children were magnificent, not to mention very sweet! 90-odd four and five year olds belting out an array of festive tunes, dancing beautifully and diligently remembering their lines, no matter how nervous they might have been.

What’s not to like?

(Answer: the parents who spent most of the 30 minutes blocking my view with their mobile phones. I mean, do you really need to film the entire thing?! What kind of glutton for punishment watches it all again?)

Sure, there was more comedy than Canon, and yes, the last two minutes felt a bit like desperately waiting for the microwave to ping as your hangry toddler chews on the furniture. But overall, it was a tour de force (with a bit of farce mixed in too).

Like the rest of the audience, Laura and I left thoroughly entertained, in awe of the patience, hard work and control of the teachers, and very proud of ‘Narrator 3’. We’ll certainly be back for the sequel next year.

Unless Dylan gets ‘2nd Camel’ of course.

Escape…but no escape

Escape…but no escape

I’ve had to go abroad for work a couple of times lately. Get me. Admittedly, it’s only been for a few days at a time, but it’s still reminded me of the weird mix of emotions that come with being away from home.

On the one hand, it’s an absolute joy. Time to myself without anyone insisting I sing along to the Rescue Bots theme tune. Or peppering my body with surprisingly hard limbs. Or testing my prostate control by suddenly appearing between my legs while I’m going to the loo. I even ate several meals without having to: a) gobble my food down at the speed of sound; b) give away the best bits; or c) watch as a fellow diner smeared the contents of his plate over his own face.

But on the other hand, any period away from the boys, no matter how short, is a double-edged sword. In fact, spending time on my own these days is a bit like taking a dump in a public toilet or getting a massage from a bloke – still kind of enjoyable but nowhere near as nice as you try to pretend to yourself it might be.

Plus, as most parents probably know, you can’t stop thinking about your kids when you’re away either. Even when you try to. Like when I was in a taxi from the airport and instinctively pointed out a roadside digger to the driver. At dinner when I automatically started scanning the menu for a kids’ section. And when it felt plain wrong going to bed without having snuck in to give the boys a kiss goodnight first.

It’s irritating. But, in its own way, comforting too. As with anything that takes over your life so wholeheartedly, it’s reassuring to confirm that underneath all the ups, downs and public embarrassment of parenthood, and no matter what the kids throw at me (often literally),  I actually do enjoy every minute of being a dad and miss it terribly when it’s gone, even temporarily.

So next time I feel like I want to escape to anywhere but this damn car mat, gut-wrenching nappy change or latest getting dressed battle, I’m going to recall these trips away. Remind myself that, really, there is nowhere else I’d rather be and nothing else I’d rather be doing.

Although, I have to admit, it would be nice if it all started an hour or so later every morning.

On which note, I have one last thing to add. To all the people I heard discussing their “extra hour in bed” when the clocks went back: fuck you.

A question of balance

A question of balance

“Will you read me a story while I do a poo?

That seems to be the request of the moment in our house. To which the honest response is: “No, Dylan, absolutely not. I’d rather drink a cup of seawater.” But the answer I end up giving is: “Of course, darling. How nice it will be for us to spend some quality time together while you noisily empty your bowels inches from my face.”

It’s a pretty decent metaphor for parenthood. Not that being a parent is a big, steaming pile of shit (although sometimes it is) but that’s it’s all a question of balance. Weighing up when to say “no”. Which battles are worth fighting. What behaviour is normal for a ‘boyey boy’. The list goes on.

Sometimes it’s fairly menial stuff. Like last weekend when I had to decide how many times Nathan could bellow “man!” while pointing at the young, female swimming pool attendant before I needed to intervene. Although, in doing so I realised it’s very difficult for a 30-something year old male in swimwear to say “no, it’s a lady” in reference to a teenage girl without sounding seriously pervy.

It can also be much more important stuff. Like the many hours my wife Laura and I have spent trying to construct the best possible balance between work and home life. One that is good for us, our employers and, crucially, the boys. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it for our careers/sanity, Dylan and Nathan’s wellbeing, and our family dynamic as a whole.

The one thing that often seems to fall by the wayside in this juggling act, though, is exercise. No matter how firmly you promise yourself you’re going to go for a run or to the gym after the kids are in bed, it takes some major willpower to actually do it amidst everything else going on. More than I have, usually.

I’m convinced this lack of activity is the reason I suffer from more muscular aches and pains these days. Well, that plus age and sitting in front of a laptop four days a week.  So, when a company called Furniture@Work got in touch with me the other day about Office Yoga, I put my initial scepticism aside and took a look. They’ve created a pretty useful little guide to keeping yourself active at your desk –without having to contort yourself into a possible HR violation. Check it out here.

For me, the idea of doing a bit of stretching and muscle exercise while I’m working sounds like a decent plan. One that will hopefully stop my neck aching every morning when I’m rudely awoken by a Lego torch in the face.

It’s also another example of that classic trick for any parent: balancing two seemingly conflicting activities at once. Like cooking dinner and building a train set. Changing a nappy while playing hide and seek (yes, really). Playing football while being wrestled in a ‘Transformer Fight’. Having a career and also being an attentive mum or dad.

Or indeed, reading a bedtime story in the lavatory. Only Yoga smells better.

Disclaimer: I was asked to write this blog by Furntiture@Work. They didn’t ask me to talk about my son’s toilet habits though.

A new love/hate relationship

A new love/hate relationship

There’s plenty I could bang on about in this post. Our last ever family break not in the school holidays. Dylan’s birthday, including the bizarre cocktail of enjoyment, pressure, pride, horror and exhaustion that comes with hosting a five-year-old’s party. Or even his first day at school.

But I’ve already bored you with holiday tales once this summer, I have only fuzzy memories of the party mayhem and if you’ve seen one photo of ‘child-in-new-school-uniform-in-front-of-door’, let’s face it, you’ve seen them all.

So instead, I’m going to talk about Lego. Not because they sent me any (that’s about as likely as me being asked to front the new series of Bake Off) but because it’s recently provided me with yet another example of the bubble-bursting nature of parenthood.

Lego was, unquestionably, one of my favourite activities growing up – only behind playing sport and terrorising my younger brother, especially during the halcyon days when he had an abject fear of wolves (did you know England is home to the world’s only man-eating wolf, Little Bro?). So, I’ve been really looking forward to Dylan and Nathan getting into it too.

Images of joining my sons on the carpet for entire Saturday afternoons constructing cog mechanisms and hunting for vital pieces. Of building the Millennium Falcon and then taking it apart to create an articulated lorry instead. Imagine how impressed they’ll be by the trademark of my youth, the Lego ‘Indestructible’, I thought.

How wrong I was.

Firstly, kids eat Lego. More than they play with it. Instead of being left to get on with my pioneering ‘rock buggy’, I spent most of our early sessions repeatedly reminding a teething two year old Nathan not to chew on the tyres or, worse, reaching into his slobbering cake hole to haul them out myself.

They also only share in one direction. So, the piece I’ve just spent ages sifting a tonne of Lego to locate is suddenly absolutely critical to the success of Dylan’s rocket. Or Nathan’s mid-morning snack. Yet in contrast, every piece they have is absolutely not available for swapping. No matter how marginal it is to their latest haphazard recreation of a pool of plastic vomit.

Thirdly, and this is something I didn’t fully appreciate as a child, Lego is like sand. It gets everywhere, including previously unimaginable and uncomfortable crevices of your body. The other day I spent several frustrating minutes looking for a piece that was right in front of my eyes until Nathan decided to aquaplane across the Lego pile. It just vanished.

And that’s all before we go through the protracted battle of tidy up time. It’d be easier to just set fire to the room.

And lastly, of course, are the injuries. Should Laura or I have the temerity to walk across the kitchen during the day, the soles of our feet will almost certainly end up looking like a pin cushion. There may even be a couple of metal cars lurking amidst the plastic minefield ready to add insult to injury.  I like to think of myself as relatively pain resistant but a pointy rotor blade in the heel bed really smarts, especially after a depressingly interrupted night’s sleep. See teething point one.

Anyway, despite all this, I still look forward to tipping out the box of bricks at the start of every day and we’re even off to see a friend exhibit at a Lego Show next weekend (yes, he is an adult by the way). But it’s fair to say that, thanks to the intervention of kids, my previous Lego love affair is now more like a love/hate relationship. Brangelina rather than Chas & Dave. Maybe things will get better when they graduate to Technic.

Oh, and by the way, the piece I lost during the aquaplane turned up yesterday in Nathan’s potty. The mind boggles.