Friday, July 29, 2011

The sleep of the just

Let's have a go at writing a blog post without sarcasm in it. Have some faith. I can do it.

As this is posted, I am mere hours from the end of the most difficult, yet enjoyable, time of my life. Today is my wife Shazia's last day at work.

You're my wife now.

For five years (except Shaz's last maternity leave), I've worked at night and looked after the children on my own during the day, but that ends today. We have finally admitted defeat and, with an offer of redundancy accepted, the children will have their mum at home during the day.

The decision was made for a variety of reasons, chief among them being we'll never have this time again. Rose is about to start school and Max is nearly two, so it's a magical time to be around them. With the option available, it was hard for Shaz to say no.

If we're honest, fuel prices played a big part in the decision, too. We did the arithmetic and realised Shaz was working full time for not very much money, because the commuting costs were crazy. Also, there is our own relationship to consider. We were starting to forget what it was like to spend time together.

Of course, sooner or later Shaz will need to find work again. In fact, if an opportunity was to come along now we would grab it. But there's no hurry.

Be careful what you wish for

As for me, it's a strange feeling. This may sound insane to any normal person, but I'm going to find it difficult to adjust to a full night's sleep again. It's amazing how much can be achieved in a 19-hour day and amazing how much time we waste sleeping. I suspect I will be a little frustrated about it for a while.

We'll also have to readjust to being around one another. I'm so used to being the only parent around the house, and having all the responsibility, that even at weekends I find myself taking over, automatically. I have to let go and learn to be patient.

It's been a tough five years. One moment I keep remembering is when I was feeding Rose, then just a baby, in her high chair. I was very tired, and suddenly I was overcome with a huge desire to go to sleep. I started fantasising about lying down on the kitchen floor and closing my eyes, and I knew - with absolute certainty - that I would fall into a deep sleep immediately. I sort of shook myself and put the thought aside, but that moment, more than any other, is my reminder of the challenge involved in balancing full-time childcare and a full-time job.

At the same time, I'm aware that I've been given an incredible opportunity. Few fathers can spend so much time with their children, or have so much fun with them. We've done so many things and had so many laughs. Nobody knows these beautiful children better than I do.

Of course, lots of people do what I do. Every parent has a difficult task, and every parent does their best to get through it. We've all been exhausted, covered in unspeakable substances and at the end of our tether. It's part of the job.

So, as I prepare for a new stage of my life with my family, and wonder if I will be any less grumpy and difficult when I get enough sleep, I offer a little advice. It's the best childcare advice I've ever heard, and I dish it out all the time. I won't say who provided it, but he was right.

Just get on with it. That's it: just get on with it. Shut your whiny face and be a dad, or a mum, or a grandparent or any other sort of carer. A child is relying on you. Get it done.

Hey, I did it! Absolute sincerity all the way. I even used the word "relationship". I promise to be especially snide next time.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Balloons: a rant

Children love balloons. It's a wonderful feeling for a parent to see their little faces light up at the mere sight of the brightly-coloured, bobbing amusement. On a superficial level, balloons are marvellous things: cheap, easy to hold and they charm children so.

Then the hatred sets in.

I hate balloons. They're my most hated thing, ever. That includes noisy toys that have no off-switch and only shut up when you get a screwdriver and take out the batteries. It also includes the Zingzillas, and my bile towards those prancing mutants is a matter of record. It even includes Brussels sprouts which, as any right-thinking person will tell you, are the Devil's testicles.

I hate nothing on this Earth more than I hate balloons.

Up, up and away

Part of it is the guilt. Children are so very delighted by balloons, and a small child will wave those little arms so enthusiastically at the prospect of grabbing one. But that's when the problems start.

Don't get too close to a child who's burbling with excitement and flapping around with a newly-acquired balloon. It is definitely going to hit you in the face, again and again. It doesn't help that fast food restaurants - yes, you will end up in one sooner or later; resistance is futile - often tie the damned things to the high chairs. Just getting a tot strapped in safely will lead to at least 10 whacks in the mouth.

The balloon will then be the sole focus of attention throughout the meal, party or public event. Efforts to persuade the child to co-operate with pretty much anything sensible will be ignored, because the balloon must be worshipped. Occasionally, it will be used to attack a nearby adult. Often, it will escape from little fingers, ironically leading to a mad dash to rescue it from the ceiling. It may even burst suddenly, inspiring myocardial infarctions and tears in equal measure. Balloons are evil.

Free as a bird

Now the stress levels are properly high, there arrives the most dangerous moment in any balloon's life cycle: the transfer to the car.

If you are at a party or a restaurant, there is a good chance the balloon is helium-filled. There is also a good chance that, for safety, it is attached only loosely to the string it is bobbing at the end of. This is a fatal combination.

The balloon is definitely going to try to escape. It is going to slip off the string or out of slippery fingers, or it is simply going to encounter something fatally sharp. As someone whose daughter lost a balloon at the top of an extinct volcano - amid cruel laughter from passers-by - I can confirm there's nothing like the sight of its escaping shape to induce heartbreak in a small child. Only the sight of a burst balloon in the gutter can compete for sheer pathos.

Even if you can get the balloon into the car - while being hit in the face even more, and trying to keep it inside the car and on the string as you strap the child in - the pain doesn't end there. The balloon will bob around the inside of the car and try its hardest to get into your line of vision and cause a terrible, terrible tragedy. A huge, intimidating shape in the rear-view mirror is the least you can expect.

Back down to Earth

Once the balloon is back in the house - again, a process fraught with danger - that should be mission accomplished, right? Nope. That's just the start of the once-loved balloon's descent into decrepitude.

As the thing starts to deflate, it will bob around the floor. It will trip you, confuse you and generally get in the way for a surprisingly-long time. As I type, I can see four balloons. They are orange, green, pink and white and in various states of deflation. They are also in the way constantly.

That doesn't matter to children. They will happily throw the things around the room, shouting, "Yay!" in sheer pleasure. They tend to pick their moments carefully, particularly targeting any adult passing with a hot drink and/or sharp implement. Then it's time to get the defibrillator out again.

Wake up, Champ! Wake up!

This story has a sad end. So many of them do. Little Andy grows out of his toys, Old Yeller dies and Bambi's mum turns out to be delicious when pan-fried. Balloons are no exception. Sooner or later, every child must say goodbye.

Sometimes it is a quick end. There are tears, of course, but they only last until the appearance of something with sugar in it. Sometimes it is a slow, sad decline as the balloon gets smaller and smaller and eventually is found in the bin by an indignant brat. Sometimes it is mysterious and unexpected, and a parent may look a little shifty. Just shut up and eat your cookie, child.

Then the stress and hatred can abate a little, at least until the next time a balloon is acquired. Then, depressingly, the battle against the evil of balloons is renewed. Will it ever end? Not until icicles adorn Surtur's fiery realm.

Well, no - let's not be hasty. The good news is the world's supply of helium is running out. That's understandably sad for people who need an MRI scan, but for a dad who's only had five hours' sleep and has to wade through four balloons on the way to the precious, precious caffeine, it's a cause for celebration. Let's have a big party.

Just don't bring balloons.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Children are rubbish, but we can rebuild them

It is a source of constant astonishment to me that children are so badly designed.

Yes, I know all that stuff about cells splitting and fish crawling out of oceans and weird hairy things evolving in trees but that's not what I mean. I'm talking about the way children are apparently designed to be at maximum risk of terrible injury - or of driving a parent into a state of mental collapse - at any given moment. I know they're a miracle, but would it be really selfish for me to suggest they could be a little more miraculous?

Yes. Yes it would. But I'm going to do it anyway. Here is how children can be improved. Scientists, please take note. I shall expect you round my house immediately with some scalpels and impressive-looking glass jars.

Haud yer wheesht, or I'll haud it for ye

Let's start with the obvious one: making a child shut up.

There are a number of ways to cope with the chatter of a small child. A patient person (i.e. a non-parent who is trying to impress someone) will hunker down to a child's level and actually feign interest in whatever the little monster is saying, then pretend they are neither disappointed nor disgusted by it.

A more sensible person (i.e. anyone who has spent more than an hour alone with a child and is now eyeing their own hairline suspiciously in the mirror) will tune a child out. This is surprisingly easy, but is not a permanent solution - because eventually the child's voice will filter through or they will attract your attention with a wooden toy to the temple. Worse still is the later discovery - usually in the company of appalled adults - that some general, non-committal noise you made has been taken as a cast-iron promise that it's permissible to carry some steak knives up a tree while eating an entire chocolate cake. Made of poison.

No, the only solution is to stop the noise at source. Yelling will do the trick but you might be blamed for the emotional trauma later. See also fitting a gag and/or muzzle. It would be better to invent a working mute button. Science, I demand that you find the answer. Er... that's all I've got. Let's move on.

Verily, prevention is better than cure, sirrah

Just this week, I watched three tiny children comparing knee scabs while waiting for the start of their swimming lesson. Each was entirely relaxed about the injuries involved because, of course, children are convinced they are indestructible. Nearby, several parents watched in silent terror. Surely there is a better way?

Oh yes: armour. It's often said that we can't wrap our children in cotton wool, but why the hell not? Has anybody tried it? I say we should.

What we need is some sort of padded armour that grows with them, like a tortoise's shell. I would also be willing to use some powerful adhesive - preferably one that isn't soluble in water or bubble bath - to attach some sort of padding to knees, elbows, posterior and head. Whatever lets me get a cup of tea in peace.

Failing that, there are dusty suits of armour filling museums and stately homes all over the country, and doing nothing more useful than amusing tourists for a few seconds. I say they would be put to better use protecting our children from themselves. We could even get them sponsored. I'd happily paint a logo on the back of both of mine. Get in touch, Apple, if you're up for it.

You'll never make it stick

Here's another thing: children don't half get in a mess. I mean a proper mess. We all remember being grubby children but back then we were the scrubbees, not the people doing the scrubbing. Trust me: sometimes you worry that you're going to hurt them. All the while, the child is screaming and dribbling unspeakable substances and thrashing around and getting in an even worse mess. It's probably the circle of life or something.

But this nightmare need not continue. If only some inventor was to create a way of ensuring children don't get dirty. Yes, I'm talking about a Teflon coating.

According to my extensive research that was in no way limited to a quick Google, such a coating tends to be applied to things like metal and would very possibly hurt a human being during the application process, but I'm sure the world's geniuses can find a way round that.

Then we can have ever-fragrant children, and our days of scraping dried-up poo from the backside of a child who ran away and hid at the worst possible moment will be over. Also, jam salvaged from their faces would, in theory, be reusable. That's a win at both ends.

The Island of Doctor Morose

So let's recap. We have a silent, steel-clad child who can withstand temperatures of more than 300 degrees celsius - like a miniature Robocop - and a parent who is ignoring the child utterly and eating all the biscuits.

It is perhaps possible that some sections of society might consider this amoral, and even accuse the parent of playing God. Well, to most parents "God" isn't so much a deity as a wail that goes up sometime around 4am when you've just been woken for the ninth time.

Also, if the creator or evolutionary process or whatever combination of those you happen to believe in had done the job properly in the first place we wouldn't be having this discussion, would we? Children would slide, all metallic and heat-proof, down the birth canal and immediately start earning money so their fathers could retire and go and sit in the shed.

Now, if I can only think of a way to fix teenagers...