My partner and I have two kids, one who’s just turned three, the other who’s about to hit his first single-digit milestone. What you’re about to read is a non-exhaustive, arbitrary list of the 12 things I’ve learned as a Dad over the last three years. I hope it’ll strike a chord with you, or at least make you smile.
1.) Buggies suck.
You know the old proverb. “Fold or unfold a buggy for a man, and he’ll be able to push the baby for a day. But teach him how to fold or unfold the buggy, and you’ll pretty much still have to do it for him every day, because he’s a bloody useless, temper tantrum-ing son of a bitch.”
The operation of most modern buggies is remarkably simple. Click, clunk, click, push. Press, pull, fold. So why then do I find myself, every single time – and I do mean every single time – jumping up and down in a car park, my arms flailing about like I’m a possessed, half-pissed semaphorist trying to marshal an airplane. I’ve been shown how to operate the infernal contraption time and again, on an almost daily basis, and each time I say, ‘Ah, of course, now I remember. Next time will be easy’. But next time isn’t easy. Next time is another angry wrestling match betwixt man and plastic. It’s like Groundhog Day, but by the end of the movie Bill Murray is even worse than he was at the beginning, rampaging around town trying to mow people down with an empty buggy that’s drenched in his own blood.
The bad man is a demonic boogey-man routinely conjured by lazy parents to strike an easy jolt of fear into their children. Why choose to inspire terror when the same result could easily be achieved through gentler, less traumatising means, namely by employing the twin powers of reason and imagination?
(Starts with a snicker, which builds to a convulsing laugh, and ends with me in violent hysterics, hardly able to breathe and slapping my thigh like a coke-fueled cowboy) Who am I kidding? The ‘Bad Man’ practically has his own room in our house, en-suite and everything. He gets breakfast in bed every morning; he even gets to leave the toilet seat up after a piss. At first we used him sparingly. ‘Don’t run off round that corner. The bad man might be there.’ Then we set up a hot-line. We started pretend-calling him on our phones for the most minor of infractions. ‘Hello, is that the bad man? Yeah, he won’t blow his nose. You’ll what? You’ll skin him alive?’ (lowering phone and whispering to son) ‘I can’t negotiate with this guy, he’s a fucking lunatic, you’d better just do what he says.’
We whiled away our evenings riffing on the bad man’s skills and temperament like a pair of sadistic session musicians, using our eldest child’s amygdala as an instrument:
‘The bad man’s got an electrified glove that will burn you like toast,’
‘He’s got a time-grenade that’ll blow you back to the prehistoric era and your head will be crunched off by a T-Rex,’
‘He likes to melt children down and make them into candles, and then he pees on the candles.’
Reason doesn’t work on young children. That’s why you need to get yourself your very own on-call behavioural terrorist.
Long live the bad man.
Not 3000 new episodes of Peppa Pig. The same episode 3000 times. Each staccato plink of that theme song starts to feel like a knife to the spine. I hate that my three-year-old loves it so much. It’s horrible. Not only does it make you feel like you’re watching TV through a spy-hole, but the pig-kids are insolent, disobedient little shits and the father is a marginalised moron who’d be more useful to the world on the inside of a soggy BLT. I’ve largely cut meat from my diet, and don’t eat pork anymore, but I’d happily make an exception for Daddy, that snorting, bumbling bloody imbecile.
Don’t let your kids watch Peppa Pig, if not for the reasons above, then surely because the pigs themselves have clearly been drawn to look like walking, talking big balls-and-cocks. It’s obscene. Peppa Pig? Peppa BIG Nutsack more like.
A week or so ago I had to make a hurried journey to the bathroom, with just enough time to forage for a book before the main event. I perched in comfort, readying myself to begin the expulsion not just of my internal waste, but also of the day’s worries and frustrations. I was happy. I was safe. Nothing out there in that noisy, calamitous universe could touch me, at least for five minutes… or so I hoped.
The screams of my second-born son, Christopher, reached me from downstairs. He’d been placed atop a soft blanket of toys by his mother as she made a brave attempt to cook dinner. Christopher’s not usually prone to screaming, but when he feels the need he makes sure to broadcast those screams at just the right frequency to pierce steel, skull and concrete. ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ came the sudden cries from my eldest boy, Jack, who had decided to accompany his baby brother’s fervent WAH WAH WAHs with a din of his own.
Jack staggered and trudged up the stairs like a mustard-gassed soldier: ‘DADDY, DADDY, MY EYES!!! MY EYES!!!’
‘WAH WAH WAH!’
‘MY EYES, DADDY, MY EYES!’
Jack had found a bottle of his mother’s perfume, and naturally had decided to spray himself directly in the eyes with it, the bold little scientist. ‘MY EYEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS!’ he cried.
That’s what most trips to the toilet are like these days. Remember that old Dad-centric cliché about a bathroom being a man’s last bastion of peace in a chaotic household? It’s full of shit. The bathroom door may as well be spun from spider-silk or constructed by a mime artist. If your kid needs to get through that door – locked or not, and no matter what you’re doing in there – then you’re opening up. They’ll rap and they’ll tap and they’ll chap and they’ll bang on that door until you’re forced to waddle towards it like an all-penguin John Wayne. They’ll then make you stand there by the sink in hellish, bowed-leg silence, like a naughty dog – squidgy poo-parcel half-nipped and glistening – as they proceed to take the longest piss in the world. They might even plump for a particularly savage shit, just to rub some salt into the wound.
It’s toilet Top Trumps, and your kid will always win, principally because it reflects rather badly on you as a parent if you force your kid to stand outside in the hall and shit themselves.
5.) TV is your friend
Don’t listen to the snobs: your TV is as much a part of the family as the grandparents, or that funny uncle with the twitch. My partner and I vowed never to use the TV as a live-in babysitter or motivational tool, and largely we’ve observed this vow. We’re careful to offset time spent in front of the TV with oodles of outdoor larks, jigsaws, puzzles, pretend play, books and tickle-fights. But sometimes… Just sometimes. Some days. TV may very well rot your children’s brains, but the brain-rotting skills of children themselves are unmatched and exemplary, so in this dirty war no weapon is out of bounds. I’ll be honest: if it wasn’t for the TV I’d probably have immolated myself by now.
6.) Don’t sweat the swearing
I don’t care what the Preachy McTutters of this world say: a swearing kid is a fucking hilarious kid. Naturally we don’t deliberately teach our three-year-old swear words. We don’t create Venn diagrams to show him the full galaxy of obscenities at his disposal, or give formal lessons every weekday morning. ‘Now, Jack, I want you to say it again, but this time I want to hear you enunciate the consonants like we practised. Ki…ki… ki… Ku… ku… ku… kun…kun…kun…. That’s it, you can do it!’
You simply don’t realise how much you profane as a matter of course until you’re sharing your home with a kid or two. Don’t get me wrong, over the years we’ve tried to shrink our pool of bad words (removing an em eff here, a cee there) and reduce the frequency of our swearing, but a 100 per cent standard is impossible to attain: as long as there are frights, stubbed toes, dropped plates, inconsiderate drivers and sudden swirls of anger there will always be ‘bloody bastards’, ‘shitting buggers’ and ‘Are you fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuckkking kiiiidddddddddding meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees’.
A friend of mine recently told me that she and her husband had been aghast to hear their three-year-old daughter saying ‘Oh my God!’ As I listened, I had a flashback to all of the times our Jack has blasphemed, bee’d, essed and effed, all of which were entirely and inescapably my fault. I’ve heard him affectionately refer to a playmate as ‘a wee bugger’; I’ve watched him dancing around the toilet chanting ‘Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!’ like some demented shaman; I’ve seen him sneering a swear through one side of his mouth in the same manner and voice as a 1950s Italian-American Godfather, even shaking his little fist: ‘Sunnnnnn of a bitch!’; I’ve watched him lightly slap his own forehead and cry out ‘Oh fuck’. It’s like some horrendous version of Blankety Blank sometimes. He knows where the bad words go just from the context given by the first few words of a rant. “OK, here’s your next one, little Jack. The guy tailgating me is a blanking blank?” “He’s a f….”
In saying all of that, he’s seldom swore the same swear twice, largely because we react to each utterance with calm neutrality, gently re-directing his words down a different path without giving the no-no words any sense of power by confirming their taboo status.
“Yes, you can say (x), but it would be better to say (y) instead. Yes, maybe next time we’ll just say (y)”
“No, I didn’t say that, darling, you must’ve misheard. I said ‘rubber trucking other cuffer‘. What does it mean?… I’ve no fucking idea, son.”
7.) People lie about their kids.
Nobody talks up the beautiful, life-affirming aspects of parenthood. All parents-to-be are given the same bleak and nightmarish pep-talk by existing parents: “You’re having a baby? Oh, you poor bastard! Forget sleep. Forget sex. You’ll be up to your knees in shit and piss. You’ll be so tired you’ll start hallucinating sentient raisins. You’ll be stressed out. You’ll probably start serial killing frogs, and using your head as a hammer to smash down play-parks. Your left leg will turn into an eighteenth century courtesan and you’ll marry it off to a viscount. Your right leg will fall off, but not before exploding and taking out a municipal park. You’ll shrink by five feet.You’ll think you’re an owl. Seriously, I’m not kidding around here, my cousin was a dad for one day and he set fire to himself and tried to ram-raid a church. With a bison. I’m telling you; you might as well just kill yourself now, save the trouble. That’s how awful kids are.”
And then once your kids are a bouncing, bawling reality, and you’re asked the same old questions: ‘How are things at home?/How’s life as a parent?/how is/are the kid(s)?’ you lie then, too.
Maybe you’ve just spent the day at home cuddling your kids while watching a movie, or joyously laughing at their inspired silliness, or moved to tears by their innocence and sense of wonder, but you’ll always shake your head and say: “Those fucking kids will be the death of me!”
8.) Bye, bye, sex life
Scheduling amorous activity with your partner when you’ve got children is difficult; scheduling it when you share a bed with your kids (our youngest, baby Christopher, sleeps in an adjoined extension, and our toddler usually sneaks in beside us at some point through the night) is nigh on impossible. The very fact that you have to ‘schedule’ at all is a bitter pill to swallow (a pill to swallow? Christ, there’s a Freudian slip). Sex isn’t an activity that lends itself well to scheduling or good time management skills, although as I’m writing this sentence I’m remembering a little something called ‘the entire sex industry’ that rather depends upon both of those things for its growth and survival, so I guess I’ll rephrase and refocus my argument somewhat: good time management and awesome scheduling skills may be useful, but they sure as shit never made anything sexier. Sex in the home between two partners should be sexy, urgent, primal, spontaneous, and not boring and clinical like making an appointment to see your bank manager (if you’re currently banging your bank manager, please feel free to imagine a different analogy).
The ideal scenario is for both kids to be fast asleep, and for us to slink silently from the bed and into the hall downstairs, to commence the world’s quietest bout of passion, like two mime artists make-believing a normal sex-life. If we make it to the living room we’re in for a riot of locked-knees, cold bums, burnt bums and stiff necks. We still have to be savagely quiet, but if there’s an accidental scream at this point it’s usually because we’ve stained the couch we’re still bloody paying for.
Wherever the venue, time is very much of the essence; because we’re both aware that we could be interrupted at any second, our coupling becomes less like a spontaneous act of love and more like two people desperately trying to beat their record on the mechanical bull. Never matter. I’ve always excelled at getting it done quickly.
9.) Dinner time will never be the same again.
Dinner time used to be a time for… well, eating dinner? I think that’s what I used to do at the dinner table, anyway; I might even have regarded it as a sacred space; a place for joyous reflection, vigorous discussion or occasionally just silent bliss. A bit like the toilet, but slightly more sanitary. I’m wiser now. I know that mealtimes shared with young children at the dinner table have the same grim uncertainty as urban warfare; the mess, the thuds, the shouts; the hunks of chicken strewn over the floor like innards; the Dexter-style ketchup splatter.
The more kids you have, the worse it is; the more it becomes like some almost impossible late-80s video game. You have to work fast to plug the correct mouth with the correct piece of food at exactly the right moment, or else it’s screamdemonium. To achieve this near-impossible feat you have to ignore your fallible human brain-body-interface, and turn yourself into either some sort of psychopathic, epileptic octopus; a Hindu God on fast-forward; or a demonic incarnation of one of those big shaky tube things that flails around outside American car dealerships.
It’s Hell. As you slither and dart around the dinner table, plugging half-escaped screams with chicken nuggets, and begging older children to eat something, God damn it, ANYTHING AT ALL, your own dinner will grow cold as the grave; cold enough to attract polar bears to the table, who’ll burrow their weary bulks into the uneaten snow-dune that your mashed potatoes have become. You’ll spend long minutes shouting terrifying proclamations at your children through a megaphone: “Stop trying to knock your little brother unconscious with hunks of lamb! Eat that bloody sausage, don’t just push it around your plate! Eat a pea at least? One measly pea?! You won’t eat a pea?? Do you hate me? You must really hate me if you won’t eat a pea. Maybe I’ll just choke myself to death on those peas, would you like that?? Don’t care about that, do you? Well maybe you’ll care about the fact that your stomach is so hungry it’s gained sentience, and is in the process of trying to escape through your mouth so it can eat your face off. SCREAM MORE QUIETLY, WILL YOU, YOU’RE WAKING UP THE BLOODY POLAR BEARS!!!”
10.) Discipline is like its own science
When we were assembling our parental toolkit we decided not to include vicious punishment beatings; after a fierce debate, we also ruled out the construction of a medieval torture dungeon in the cupboard under the stairs. This left us with rather limited options. How were we going to civilise our eldest son?
We couldn’t use reason, because reason doesn’t work on toddlers and very young children, the absolute fucking psychopaths that they are. Seriously, you’d have better luck teaching pigeons to do maths.
We couldn’t ignore his behaviour or use undiluted bribery to subvert it, because unless you’re born into a disgustingly rich family dynasty whose destiny it is to rule the world through golf and evil, it’s probably best not to turn your kid into a fat, scheming, morally-vacant sex maniac.
So we used stickers. Not to cover his mouth or eyes or anything: no, to build a reward system that would encourage positive behaviour and discourage negative behaviour. Jack has to hit five stickers to get a reward, which could be anything from a mini-adventure to a small toy he plucks raffle-like from a cardboard bucket we keep hanging from the wall. He gains stickers for doing things like being polite and well-mannered for long periods of time, listening well, being kind to other kids and to his little brother, and helping out with chores. He loses them for things like smashing his baby brother in the face with a toy helicopter.
I had a few reservations about the system initially. I worried that we were teaching him to jump through hoops to get trinkets, rather than encouraging him to be good for goodness’ sake. I quickly moved past that when I remembered my realisation from a few paragraphs ago that all kids are psychos, and if you aren’t going to hit them, then you’re sure as shit going to have to bribe them. I guess, as well, that it’s a good idea to erect a moral framework around your kids as early as possible, despite the fact that they might not appreciate the point and deeper meaning behind the framework for many years to come: stabilisers for the soul, if you like.
My other fear was that the justice underpinning the system would be dispensed arbitrarily, based more upon what mood we happened to be in at any given moment than on solid ethical principles. For instance: ‘I TOLD YOU I DIDN’T WANT TO HEAR ANY PROLONGED VOWEL SOUNDS TODAY! YOU JUST LOST A STICKER!’ or ‘WILL YOU SHUT UP? I’M TRYING TO WRITE THIS BLOG ABOUT WHAT AN AWESOME DAD I AM. THAT INTERRUPTION WILL COST YOU TWO STICKERS, MY FRIEND.’
I must confess, however, that there’s a dark, ceremonial joy to be harvested from de-stickering a child. I find myself adopting the tone, voice and poise of t Pinhead on those rare occasions when I have to take one away. “Ah, human goodness, so delicate and ephemeral, so easily lost or moulded. Did you feel pride when you earned this sticker? Pride is a sin of which I’m happy to divest you. There are no stickers in Hell, boy. Only pain.”
By this point in the speech, he’s usually smashed his little brother in the face with a helicopter again.
11.) Being a stay-at-home parent is not easy – especially if you’ve got more than one child.
Stay-at-home parents shouldn’t be devalued or denigrated. I’m jealous that my partner gets to spend every day with our kids, but at the same time I’m absolutely fucking relieved that I don’t have to, because giving your mind, body and soul to your kids 24/7 is exhausting. Beautiful, enriching, incomparable, yes. But absolutely draining. I love and respect my partner immeasurably for what she does.
The only people who think that looking after babies and kids at home during the day is a piece of piss, and not as challenging or important as a ‘proper job’, are a) people who have had their amygdala surgically removed and replaced by a bag of morphine; b) the dead; c) super-advanced Japanese butler robots; d) the sort of loud-mouthed, blathering troglodyte who still says the word ‘Phwoar’ out loud when he sees a set of breasts, and who spends his days doling out sage nuggets of wisdom like, ‘Birds love it when you whistle at them from up high, makes their fucking day it does’ and ‘Course, I don’t know what the world’s coming to when those poofs in the courts won’t even let you call them darkies anymore,’ and e) blinkered, bitter or judgemental working mothers who subscribe to the ‘I’m not doing that so it must be wrong’ mentality.
Unfortunately c) doesn’t exist.
Unfortunately d) and e) do.
12.) Being a Dad is amazing.
I originally planned to go down the cop-out route for thing number 12. I was going to entitle it, ‘Having kids means not having the time to write the twelfth entry on a list of twelve things’, but upon reflection I think I’m going to take my tongue out of my cheek, temporarily remove my scatological-hat (I was going to shorten that to ‘scat-hat’ in the interests of snappiness, but I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea and picture me in the closing minutes of some ungodly German porn flick taking off a hat that only minutes before had been squatted over by two dead-eyed, loose-stooled lunkers, and then proceeding to wipe a waterfall of effluent from my stinging eyes.So rest assured there won’t be any scatology anywhere in this entry, none at all: and if there is, I’ll eat my hat) and show some honest-to-goodness heartfelt humanity.
Being a Dad has handed me happiness and focus in a way that I wouldn’t have imagined possible. Every sentimental and groan-worthy cliche about parenthood is true. Though each member of my nuclear family may occasionally irritate every atom and fiber of my being, they – individually and collectively – are everything to me. And without them I’d be nothing.
Nothing else matters.
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