What I have learned

Almost as soon as they have begun, my three months of leave have come to an end. I’m gutted. I loved every minute and even felt like I was starting to get the hang of it by the end.
I learned a lot on the journey from absolutely clueless to moderately incompetent. But right now I am sitting on a bus on my way back to a job that I’ve probably forgotten how to do.
As such, all the wisdom I have acquired has little use, beyond filling this farewell blog, which I hope may act as some kind of guide for any of you with intentions of spending time with children, whether other people’s or – god forbid – your own.
So here, in no particular order, are some nuggets I have picked up during these past three months:

1. Had I remembered how painful acquiring teeth was as a child, I would have taken better care of them as an adult.

2. The amount of snot produced during a cold is inversely proportionate to the size of the person.

3. Babies can eat limited amounts of chalk with no significant or noticeable side effects.

4. Likewise cat food.

5. Everybody’s life would be better if we all just had a few more playdates.

6. Supermarkets are surprisingly forgiving when you take out an entire breakfast cereal display through your inability to control a buggy.

7. However expensive the toys you present a 10-month-old with, they will never be as exciting as playing with plug sockets, an open dishwasher or cat litter.

8. You can’t win an argument with a 3-year-old; by the time you’re in the argument, you’ve already lost.

9. The park goes from an enchanting oasis of playful frolics to a full-on war zone within about two minutes at school chucking-out time.

10. Guessing which presenters on CBeebies dreamed of working in kids’ tv and which are just going through the motions behind a fake smile can be more entertaining than any of the programmes.

11. Except for ‘Sarah and Duck’, which is every bit as good as ‘The Wire’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Saint & Greavsie’ or whatever you consider the pinnacle of televisual achievement.

12. Other mothers can be pretty judgmental of a dad who’s not at work on a weekday.

13. The word ‘poo’ has lost none of its comedic currency among the pre-school demographic.

14. Fishfingers are not just an acceptable lunch option for a grown-up, but a delicious one too.

15. People are much more likely to tolerate a lack of punctuality if you can blame your lateness on the kids.

16. Everything is easier if you don’t take it seriously.

Writes and wrongs

In the three and a half years since Minnie was born, I have been exposed to quite a lot of children’s literature. It is fair to say the books available vary significantly in quality.

When buying books for Minnie or Baxter, it is quite easy to maintain some sort of quality control. None of those targeted at the three-and-under demographic are exactly War & Peace, so it’s usually possible to take the three minutes involved in reading the whole thing to make sure it’s half decent before buying.

We’re also lucky enough to have sufficiently discerning friends who have consistently introduced Minnie to some brilliantly imaginative works. Her bulging shelves have some books that would have a chance of making it onto my own desert island list, never mind hers.

Halibut Jackson‘, ‘Not Now, Bernard‘ and ‘Stuck‘ are just three of the genuine classics that I would not have discovered without having had Minnie to read them to. And already, through Baxter, I have found Jon Klassen’s brilliant ‘I want my hat back?‘ and equally ingenious sequel, ‘This is not my hat‘. I would recommend any adult to find a child to read to just so you can have an excuse to read them yourself.

There are some black spots in Minnie’s library, books that make my heart sink whenever she requests them at bedtime. Having got to my late 30s without having read any Beatrix Potter, I find myself staggered by how terrible it all is. How the clunkily written, anthropomorphic guff got published in the first place is beyond me, never mind that kids are still apparently lapping it up 100-plus years later.

She also has the entire Miffy set. While Miffy may be a cute image for a student’s ironic t-shirt, the most generous thing I can say about the rhymes in the actual books is that they may have been better in the original Dutch. There is one book in the series, Miffy’s Dream, that I can’t even say that for. The whole thing has no words, just a series of vaguely psychedelic images of Miffy going on an adventure involving clouds, shooting stars and rainbows.

It’s like the episode of neighbours where Bouncer (a labrador) had a dream sequence. It may be slightly amusing but the lack of words presents quite a challenge when you have to read it as a bedtime story. Narrating fairly simple drawings of rabbits gets pretty repetitive, even when those rabbits are floating in space.

Anyway, the good outweighs the bad and most bedtimes keep me entertained as well as the kids. However, since Minnie began at nursery, a new dimension has been introduced which threatens the standard of story; every day, she gets a book to borrow overnight. Minnie gets to pick this book herself and is usually quite unwavering once she has chosen, however much I try to dissuade her from something I can see is going to be terrible.

Lowlights include a book abut a jungle dance, which revolves around a series of magnetic animals that the reader can position within each of the scenes. A lovely idea, but, having been loaned to a different three or four-year-old every day for the past decade or so, not one of the magnets survives. So I spent one memorable night trying to inject some excitement into a story illustrated entirely with pictures of trees and plains. However engaging the accompanying rhymes were – and however dexterous the rhyming of ‘snake’ and ‘shake’, ‘monkey’ and ‘funky’ –  with no sign of the animals they referenced, a children’s book without pictures proved a hard sell.

Another time, she picked the ‘Baby’s catalogue’, some simple lists of items related to babies. No story, just pages and pages of pictures of baths, rattles and daddies. I think even Minnie gave up during that one, her usually attentive veneer slipping to reveal a pure bafflement as to why anyone would want to write, publish or buy such a book.

Whatever we’re reading has to be really terrible to get this reaction. She even managed to maintain a level of interest for more than one reading of a factual book about tractors that she brought home a couple of weeks ago. I have successfully dissuaded her from choosing it again since, although she has tried.

Anyway, what’s scaring me now is that in two days’, time I am going back to work full time and the professional childcare will kick in. Dani the nanny will be dropping Minnie off in the mornings and, at the same time, choosing the book with her. I will have no influence. In a month or so’s time, after repeated reading, I will probably know as much about tractors as the most informed three-year-old.

Going for a song

Usual apologies for the delay between posts. After one of my first blogs betrayed a terror about what I had let myself in for, someone suggested everything would soon become less hectic and settle into some kind of routine. It hasn’t.
What has happened is that Baxter has grown and now reached the age where there is a whole new world of scrapes for him to get into. His mobility, increasing speed and ability to stand, coupled with the sort of inquisitive nature that could easily be mistaken for a deathwish mean he now has a host of new ways in which he can harm himself. He discovers the death traps I have obliviously littered around my home far quicker than I can so I can’t take my eyes off him for a minute.
He is exhausting and I barely have time to eat, wash and sleep, never mind such fripperies as poncing about with blog posts.
When I am not hovering neurotically around Baxter, my time is taken up just keeping the kids occupied. Mostly this is straightforward and involves little more than sticking them in front of a pile of moulded plastic and letting them squeak, beep and bash until they grow tired, need feeding or start to fight over who was playing with something first.
On the rare recent occasions when the weather has allowed, we have headed out to the park. Minnie runs all over the place, finding the death traps there as easily as Baxter does at home and terrifying me with her gung-ho approach to unenclosed heights. But Baxter is largely limited to swings, and not even the edgy ones without bars to hold you in that Minnie now prefers. Once he has tired of swinging, his activities are restricted to being carried around the park, joining me as I chase his sister in a futile attempt to keep her out of danger.
In the mornings, there is a window when Minnie is at nursery when I can take Baxter for some quality time on his own terms without having to worry about how bored his three-year-old sister is getting. There are a few regularly scheduled activities I try to take him along to. There are quite a few things laid on around the area that are targeted at the one-and-under market. The 1 o’clock club playgroup in Peckham Rye park – which obviously starts at 10.30am – is one favourite, but most often I take him singing.
There are a few options here too. Minnie graduated from the brilliant Bea’s Baby bop last summer and Baxter has taken to it with similar gusto. There is also a council-sponsored singing session at Dulwich library, at which we have become regulars. But I’ll be honest; that one is a nightmare.
For starters, it is free. In the same way that Metro has become the most read newspaper in Britain despite also being the most rubbish, purely on account of people not having to pay for it, the library sessions often resemble a scene from Ben Hur.
What’s worse is the timing of the sessions. I have 15 minutes from the 11.30 finish to get back to collect Minnie from nursery. It’s about a 10-minute walk and it is quite likely Baxter’s buggy will be trapped behind about 3,000 others at the end, meaning I have to wait and then basically sprint at breakneck speed across a busy junction and through the streets of East Dulwich to ensure his sister doesn’t get abandoned.
As a result I need to time my arrival to get there late enough so there isn’t time for all the other buggies to box me in. However, the downside of achieving this is that there is no space left in the actual singing session and we have to squeeze in at the back.
The logistics of just getting in make me wonder whether it is worth it, especially as Baxter sits looking non-plussed for most of the half hour (although that may be down to his being stuck on my lap in a plastic chair in the corner rather than down the front where the action is, and the tambourines are).
Through all the sickeningly energetic efforts of whichever failed drama student is ploughing through the Wheels on the Bus, Old McDonald or whatever, Baxter sits grumpily, just waiting – and apparently failing – to be impressed.
Every week I wonder why I have dragged us both down here. To be honest I don’t enjoy it much more than he does. We go through all the usual motions. Boredom, giving way to wriggling and then me having to hold on to him because there is no room to let him go for the crawl he craves. The Grand Old Duke of York provides some respite midway through but then we’re back to the usual pattern of him fidgeting and me restraining.
Then, suddenly, about 27 minutes into the 30, everything falls into place. Along with everybody else, we stand up. I help Baxter put his left hand in, and he starts grinning. By the time it’s “knees bend, arms stretch ra-ra-ra”, he is delirious.
The joy he gets from those two minutes make the whole nightmare of just getting there worthwhile. It seems that, for Baxter at least, the Hokey-cokey really is what it’s all about.

Gut feeling

First off, I should apologise for the delay between updates. I have suffered from a failure to understand the meaning of the word ‘leave’ and have been spending too long doing the sort of proper work that I am supposed to be enjoying three months away from. Due to a perfect storm of things going wrong at the magazine I work for (none caused by my absence, sadly) I’ve spent a lot of my evenings doing the day job. When I arranged this leave, that wasn’t part of the plan.
Anyway, it turns out that regularly updating this blog isn’t the only modest ambition that has proven to be beyond me. Before this leave began I had big plans for my time away from the office. Beyond spending quality time with the kids, ensuring their welfare and other guff like that, I had a to-do list in my head of things I wanted to achieve. In among the tedious and predictable, like sorting the loft, putting up stairgates, brushing up on mio Italiano (my Italian), I had this idea that I might lose some weight.
I’m a bit above my fighting weight at the moment. Well, I assume I am – I haven’t weighed myself in years, but I don’t do any exercise beyond jogging my memory and have spent the past 17 years of my life steadily expanding.
Before it started, I had an idea that this leave would feature long walks pushing a buggy up and down the hills of East Dulwich, as well as lifting, carrying and running after two small children when they weren’t confined to buggies. This, combined with three months away from the work canteen and fish and chip Friday might reverse the burgeoning of my waistline and get me into something approaching good shape.
However, the fact is I have two children of unpredictable appetites. Baxter is 10 months and experimenting with everything but rarely eats it all. He also has teeth coming through intermittently so will occasionally have days where he barely eats a thing.
Minnie, on the other hand, goes through very brief phases of liking and not liking whatever is put in front of her. This cycle can take minutes. Sometimes she can go off a food in the time between her asking for it for her dinner and me putting it in front of her. To her this inconsistency can be explained perfectly logically: “I didn’t like courgettes when I was two but now I’m three I do.”
The upshot of this is that it is often them that decide when mealtimes are over, and when they do there is often a lot of food left on their plates. I hate to see anything go to waste so feel compelled to help out and finish whatever they haven’t eaten. Minnie has also been ill during the past week and has lost her appetite, meaning not only is there more food left, I’ve sometimes prepared a variety of things in an effort to get her to eat something.
By the time the leftover pasta, toast, yogurt, breadsticks, rice cakes and curry have added up, I have in effect been eating at least one extra meal a day. By the time Helen comes home I have had breakfast, lunch and a half, and dinner. Then, once the kids have gone to bed, I sit down to another dinner with Helen. What’s worse is that Helen, having spent the day working instead of stuffing her face, is keen to eat chocolate, cake or some other sweet when we collapse on the sofa afterwards.
Basically since being on leave, I have increased my calorie intake about threefold, and reduced my exercise – admittedly from a low starting point – to zero.
I am now half way through the period of leave so there may be time for me to get into shape before I go back to work full-time but as things stand I am peering over my belly just to see the iPad screen to type this. I wouldn’t bet against the screen disappearing completely underneath a roll of fat before then.

An epiphany

So, Christmas is over and Helen has gone back to work. More importantly, I haven’t.
It was a pretty good break all in all. I never used to enjoy Christmas. I loved the Christmas period and all the mince pies, glitter and Slade that it entailed, but Christmas Day itself was always a bit of a let down. A day spent with people who, if you liked, you would see during the rest of the year, receiving things that, if you wanted, you would have bought yourself, while a tree slowly died in the corner.
My outlook has brightened considerably since the arrival of the kids, but I now tend to enjoy the day vicariously through their joy. That said, this year did seem particularly good (maybe Ebenezer Cudby is finally allowing a bit of warmth to thaw his cold,cold heart). A stream of visitors and visits kept Christmas going for what seemed an interminable period, but, topped up consistently with an equally interminable supply of presents, the kids never stopped enjoying it and I never tired of seeing them enjoying it.
But that’s now all over. The wrapping paper is overflowing from the wheelie bin, the tree is slowly dying outside and we are down to our last 3lb of Stilton. Helen went back to work at the end of last week and suddenly I am left with two kids to entertain and only a large room full of newly acquired, battery-operated plastic to do it with.
Whenever I have had a two-week holiday from work I’ve always come back vaguely bewildered, as if a fortnight away is long enough to completely erase any awareness of how to do my job. It always takes a few hours to kick my brain back into work mode and resume that feeling of knowing vaguely what I am doing.
If that is true of a job I have been doing for almost 15 years now, imagine how lost I was when suddenly left alone to look after the kids all day for the first time in two and a bit weeks, having only accumulated two weeks of experience to forget before the break.
So far, I’ve coped. And so have the kids, but with the comedown from all those festivities and that ton of new stuff vying for their attention, it has been hectic.
Beyond just coping, my proudest achievement is to have managed to keep Minnie entertained without having to resort to playing with the My Little Pony hair care set her Uncle Danny thoughtfully gave her. I only have today to get through without being forced to showcase my lack of coiffuring skills on her tiny, equine friends before she goes back to nursery tomorrow and I only have Baxter to worry about, for the mornings at least.
If he naps, there may even be an hour or so with no children to occupy me. I may even get a window to eat, drink or wash then, possibly all three. A belated Christmas gift to myself.

Playdays

A lot of people have asked me what the best thing about doing parental leave is. Actually they haven’t, but I’m going to tell you anyway and I can’t think of a better introduction than that.
You might think that getting the chance to spend time with the kids and see every aspect of their growth would be the highlight. Spending every spare minute with the kids and watching their personalities develop is admittedly pretty good.
Being there when Baxter pulled himself up to a standing position yesterday was fantastic. Hearing Baxter say something this morning that sounded near enough to ‘Daddy’ (I’m claiming it anyway) was even better, but still there’s something that I find even more incredible.
The more cynical among you might suggest not having to endure London commuting for three months as the best thing about parental leave. Again, that’s quite a nice thing but it’s a long way from being the best.
No, in the last week I have made Rice Krispie cakes, played with cars (the Matchbox streak racing set , complete with loop-the-loop, that was recently rescued from my Dad’s loft), had an afternoon disco to MIA, cut out some paper snowflakes, decorated two Christmas trees and watched the CBeebies Christmas Carol. I have loved every minute of all of these activities.
There can be no other context in which a 37-year-old man could write the previous paragraph without coming across as more than a bit weird, but everyone I have spoken to positively endorses my new hobbies. In fact I even get credit and praise for doing them.
My life at the moment is one long playtime and that is definitely the best thing about parental leave.

Parental advisory

Those of you who know me will probably know that I am prone to fairly regular outbursts of what is euphemistically known as ‘colourful language’. Actually ‘outbursts’ is probably the wrong word; it suggests my use of swearwords is sporadic or prompted by anger. It is neither. To me swearing is just another part of speech to be employed as easily and naturally as any other words.
I don’t swear because it’s cool (although it undeniably is) or to get attention. It’s just that there are times when “heavens to murgatroyd” just won’t cut it.
I do, however, believe in swearing responsibly. I am happy swearing in most company, but would not dream of it if I thought for one moment that whoever I was speaking to might be even remotely offended. I have always tried to avoid swearing in front of children too, although that is primarily motivated by a fear of their parents being offended.
It was the same before I had any kids of my own, although I often failed, finding myself unable to contain a stream of obscenities that I just could not keep in. It seemed that, maybe being over-conscious of not swearing, I thought about it more and this manifested itself as a bizarre form of child-provoked Tourette’s. As soon as I was in the company of anyone under the age of 10, a stream of unstoppable filth spewed involuntarily from my mouth.
That said, it is futile even trying to prevent children hearing bad words. A few years ago I was at a 5-year-old’s birthday party and happened to pop outside into the garden where the kids were playing without any adults. Away from disapproving ears, their language had become the sort of thing you might usually hear in a dockyard.
I doubt any parent is stupid enough to believe they are going to win the battle to protect their little darlings’ ears from profanities, but I try to respect their wishes nonetheless.
I wondered then whether my attitude might change when I had my own kids’ delicate sensibilities to worry about and whether bad language would be something that suddenly began to concern me.
To be honest, for the first three years of being a Dad, it wasn’t much of an issue. For pretty much all of Minnie’s and Baxter’s lives so far, I have had nine or so hours every day when I am away from them and in which I can treat myself to as many swears as I like.
But, these past two weeks, I am spending every waking hour with them and suddenly I am realising quite how often I do swear. The regularity has increased as there are hundreds of challenges, battles and defeats every day that deserve to be greeted with profanity. Whether I am trying to fathom how a buggy folds up, wiping Weetabix from the wall, or realising Baxter is helping himself to the cats’ bowl again, my day is filled with prompts that would usually have me reaching for the gutter for a response.
I do try to bite my lip, but I don’t always manage it. Here’s the thing though. Minnie has not started running around the nursery playground effing and jeffing to all and sundry as a result. She did once get me in trouble with her embarrassed mum after she spent a playdate loudly reciting Public Enemy lyrics, but so far she hasn’t copied my potty mouth.
I am trying not to swear in front of my children but that’s not because I don’t want them to swear; it’s because I know other people don’t want them to swear.
I also know the best way to stop them swearing is to not make a big deal, act shocked or draw any attention to it when I do let an expletive slip out.
Minnie will, at some point in her life, use “bad” language. So will Baxter. I’d be stupid to pretend otherwise.
Hopefully it won’t be for a few years yet. By then they will be old enough to show a bit more responsibility than their Dad and learn when they can – and most importantly can’t – get away with it.