More Sugar, Sweetie?

If you’re a parent, the following scene should be achingly familiar to you: a grandparent (or aunt or uncle or surrogate family member) arrives at your front door clutching a big bag of sweets for your children. You shake your head and sigh. A whole bag? The odd sweet now and again, that’s what you told them. How many times do you have to say it? Trust is shattered. There’s only one thing for it: you frisk them. You find another twelve bags of sweets… an easter egg under a false wig… and a string of Bounty bars stuffed around their waistband like a bomb-belt. You also realise that everything they’re wearing – every adornment and accoutrement – is edible: candy necklace and bracelet; candy watch; hell, even their specs consist of lollypops for legs, a liquorice frame and sugar-paper lenses.

Nice try,” you say as you confiscate the delicious specs. “Now, is that everything?”

You hear the beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep of a large truck reversing down the street towards your house.

Please tell me that truck isn’t anything to do with you,” you say.

They shrug. “I just ordered a couple of… hundred-thousand tonnes of hundreds and thousands….”

You shoot them a panicked look laced with incredulity.

…and… a million millionaire shortcakes.”


Becoming a grandparent, or being promoted to any rank of relative with ‘great’ in the title, appears to transform a person into a kid-seeking sugar missile, ever-ready to detonate payloads of sherbert over the pancreases of your little pride-and-joys. Trying to stop a grandparent giving a grandchild a megaton of chocolate has the same difficulty rating as trying to save John Connor from a Terminator. What makes it harder still is the fact that we as a society seem to have accepted this behaviour as if it were some sort of sacred rite. Some grandparents even see it as an ancient and inalienable right. Clearly it’s utter madness, and must be stopped. But how? And what arguments can we employ to dissuade these Mary and Marty Poppinses from encouraging our kids to use a spoonful of sugar to help the sugar go down?

I love you, sweetie: A brief history of grandparents

When I was a lad my maternal grandmother berated me for eating too many chocolates and glugging too many fizzy drinks: substances she considered more hazardous to my hyperactive brain than the purest Columbian cocaine.

Pinned to her fridge was a large list detailing all of the artificial E-flavourings present in junk food, each item accompanied by a brief summary of its evil: a diabetes-themed Da Vinci Code, if you will. Gran was convinced that those dreaded E-numbers were the invisible demons responsible for my back-catalogue of ungodly behaviour (crimes like smiling, laughing, and saying things), and only she and her sacred list clipped from a special double-page spread in The Daily Record had the power to exorcise them.

She treated that fridge like the Oracle of Thebes, always stroking it and talking to it in rhyme like some old crone from a Shakespearian play –

The young lad’s had a Double-Decker,

He’s speaking Greek, the crazy fecker.

What happens if he grabs his pecker???

Oh, sage old fridge, so full of Es,

Should I phone social services?”

But… on the other hand, my gran’s stance on my nutritional intake was rather inconsistent, evidenced by the fact that her anti-sugar militancy only seemed to apply to sugar consumed outside of her walls. Inside her house, it was Sugar City. I can’t remember a single visit to my grandparents’ house where I wasn’t greeted at the door by a leaning tower of biscuits the size of a Cape Canaveral space rocket; a tower composed of every creed and breed of biscuit known to human civilisation, all teetering together on a tiny china plate.

There were Bourbons, Kit Kats, Nice biscuits, coconut creams, Digestives, Blue Ribands, Yo-Yos, custard creams, Jammie Dodgers, Jaffa Cakes: the celebrities of the biscuit world all happily hob-nobbing with the hoi polloi. Even Rich Teas – those bland, un-biscuity discs of half-communion-wafer, half-polystyrene-frisbee; the Ned Flanders’s of the snack world – were invited to the party. A billion biscuits (give or take), and I was expected to devour them. All of them. Every single one.

I don’t know if my grandparents’ desire to see me eat somewhere in the vicinity of ninety-six biscuits each time I visited existed because a) they’d lived through war-time rationing and as a consequence had vowed never to be frugal with food again, or b) they just didn’t like me very much, and wanted me to get fat and die.

In a weird way, I thought of my grandparents as a couple of crumb-based Christs: biscuit, body and soul each inseparable from one another. You hurt one, you hurt them all. Diss the bis, you take the piss. Leave fat-stacked plate?: yer gran ye hate.

Are you going to eat that 28th bourbon, son,” my papa would ask me, a haunted look in his eyes, “Or would you prefer it if I just stood at the top of the stairs with a butcher knife gripped in each hand and hurled myself to an agonising end?”

That’s the way the biscuit situation made me feel sometimes. The expectation, the gratitude, blown out of all proportion inside my head. I’ll be honest with you, though: it was my papa who prepared the biscuit plates, and I think he just liked being as generous as possible with them because he was a nice old guy. Plus, to some extent, he knew not what he did. My gran’s obsession with E-numbers aside, anti-sugar sentiments weren’t as strong or as prevalent then as they are today. In this age of information, however, it’s almost impossible to plead ignorance over the fact that sugar is pretty much the devil’s dandruff…

…especially when I call this section: Sugar is pretty much the devil’s dandruff

Sugar is now such an undisputed evil of our age that the US military has added plantations to its approved list of overseas bombing targets, alongside schools, orphanages and hospitals. The criminal underworld has started welcoming its first black-market sugar barons, a veritable legion of Tate & Lyle Tony Montanas. Pharmacies are already dispensing Canderel to help wean addicts off the hard stuff, and politicians have promised that each town in Britain will have its own sugar rehabilitation centre by 2020. Sweet-toothed junkies line our streets, accosting citizens at all hours of the day and night: “Come oan, man, ah just need a few quid for a packet ae sugar, man, jist enough sugar fur one wee bowl ae Rice Krispies, man, then ah’m clean again, ah swear it.” Parents yell at their kids: “Are you INSANE, going out with a Twix stashed in your pocket with all of those vigilante anti-sugar Death Squads patrolling the streets??”

Sugar is the new salt. It’s the new smoking. We now know – after a few careless and carefree centuries of garnishing our kids’ vegetables with chocolate; encouraging them to brush their teeth with lollypops; and syringing hot sugar directly into their eyeballs – that too much sugar can turn a reasonably normal, well-adjusted, healthy child into a spotty, toothless meth-head with the strength of a polar bear and the life-expectancy of a mouse; the sort of kid who lists their hobbies as cat-strangling, booting old ladies in the face, and dying of a massive heart attack. Kids so riddled with diabetes that they’re nothing more than armless heads bouncing around on a single big toe; kids whose brains have been so short-circuited that they regularly mistake themselves for hawks; kids so fat that their parents have to roll them around like over-inflated tractor tyres.

Man with diabetes holding a stack of chocolate chip cookies

Grandparents may well offer sweeties and chocolates and fizzy drinks in the spirit of love, but how many ‘thank-you’ cuddles do they think they’re going to get once their grandchild has had their sugar-ruined arms amputated? Or have become so fat that you’d need a team of sherpas to circumnavigate the cuddle? Come on, grandparents. Don’t be a Donald Trump on the sugar issue: an old fuck who doesn’t care if the world gets nuked or choked, because he’s probably going to be dead next week – just so long as the people love him until then (admittedly, that latter part of the plan isn’t working out too well for Trump).

Yes, sugar will make tiny people love you. They’ll come to associate the endorphin rush they get from treats with the sight of your face: a Pavlova-ian response, if you will. Kids love sugar like coke-heads love coke, and, boy, do coke-heads really, really love coke. Don’t be your grandchildrens’ drug-dealer. Be their celery dealer. Give them a packet of stickers and a stick of mother-fucking carrot. Give them a command to drop and give you twenty, then reward them with some kale. PLANT CRESS IN THEIR MOUTHS?! 

“This sugar thing stretches WAY back – just like your gran used to. HIGH FIVE.”

You might encounter the following pro-sweetie argument – that I skirted over earlier in this piece – from older relatives: “I had to put up with this kind of thing from my parents, feeding my kids sugary shit all of the time, so you’ll just have to suck it up and put up with it, too, now that I’m a grandparent. This is just what grandparents do.”

Given that we as a species have only very recently started living beyond the age of twelve, grandparents – in the sense that we understand them now in our particular corner of the developed world – are a very recent invention, as are teenagers, and the very concept of childhood itself. Older relatives filling kids’ faces with sugar is not an idea that’s been passed down from generation to generation since the first caveman grandpa handed the firstborn of his firstborn a finger of Fudge, shortly before having his own distinctly un-fudgey fingers bitten off by a hungry sabre tooth tiger. In the grand scheme of the near-infinite universe, this practice is about as ancient as Eastenders.

Jesus did not break Kit Kats with his disciples instead of bread at The Last Supper, as he glugged the finest fizzy Cola Jerusalem had to offer. Nailed to the cross in agony, he didn’t wail out to the heavens above: ‘The absolute worst thing about this situation is the woeful lack of Yorkies.’ There weren’t groups of supporters crowded around Jesus as he slowly perished on the cross all trying to chuck Fun Size Mars Bars into his open mouth.

Biscuits themselves have only existed for about two hundred years, and even then for much of their existence they were probably made out of goat bladder and dog cheese. The first milk chocolate bar arrived in 1875. Jaffa Cakes came along in 1927. Penguins waddled onto the scene in 1932. See? We’ve had guns longer than we’ve had chocolate bars.

We could erase this madness from our behavioural repertoire overnight if we really wanted to, and our descendants would thank us (once they’d stopped laughing at how bloody stupid we were). There’s nothing time-honoured or sacred about the way grandparents dole out sweets and sugar; in much the same way that there’s nothing time-honoured or sacred about a modern day gypsy’s wedding dress (on the grounds that ancient traditions tend not to feature multi-coloured luminous neon dresses with bridal trains the length of a blue whale’s cock). We invented it. We can un-invent it.

But don’t get too preachy. We’re all addicted to sugar. We all eat too much crap. Let’s just try our hardest to stop the hearts of future generations exploding like stress-balls under the tracks of a tank.


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Sometimes… Dads Can Be Wrong?

Life affords us plenty of opportunities to reflect upon the wispy and elusive nature of memory. Who among us hasn’t forgotten our on-line passwords, even though all of our passwords are ‘password’? Who hasn’t found themselves standing in a car-park panicking that their car has been stolen, only to remember that they don’t actually own a car? Who hasn’t found themselves jamming a sausage in their eye because they’ve forgotten how to eat?

When two people are asked to recount a shared experience the opportunities for conflict and confusion multiply exponentially. Showtime’s ‘The Affair’ – a show about truth, deception and perception, starring McNulty from The Wire and that crazy chick Alice from Luther – deftly highlights how a person’s emotions, traumas, delusions, neuroses and agendas can disrupt their sense of the linear, mould their memories and in some cases re-write history.

Sometimes ‘The Affair’ will show two versions of the same event through two different character’s eyes, and the only difference will be an emphasis here, a piece of clothing there, an outburst here. Sometimes, the differences will be almost laughably extreme. The wife will remember sitting with her ex-husband in a cafe enduring a tense conversation about alimony as they both sip coffee; the husband will remember the wife charging into the cafe on horseback, slicing off a waitress’s head with a scimitar, and angrily shouting the Swedish national anthem at a frightened old man as the horse shits into a child’s sundae. I’ll often find myself rolling my eyes and scoffing: “This is bloody ridiculous. No two people could arrive at such seismically different interpretations of one reasonably mundane afternoon. Codswallop, I tells you, codswallop.” And yet… a recent experience has given me a renewed appreciation of The Affair’s perspective on perspective.

A few weeks ago, our eldest boy, Jack, staggered through to our bedroom in the early hours of the morning, and clambered in next to me. He felt hot to the touch, especially his forehead. I’d been concerned about him. He’d been coughing, sluggish, glassy-eyed and subdued, and generally not acting like his normal, bright-eyed, bonkers little self.

‘He needs medicine,’ I croaked to my partner, my hand wrapped over Jack’s forehead. ‘He’s got a temperature.’

My partner rolled over to face us, opening a blood-shot eye. ‘He’s hot, he doesn’t have a temperature.’

‘That’s what having a temperature is, being hot! I’m going to get him some medicine.’

‘No you’re not, he’s fine. He’s just warm.’

‘He’s not warm, he’s hot, and it’s not ‘hot hot’, it’s ‘ill hot’. I know ‘hot hot’. This isn’t ‘hot hot’.’

‘He doesn’t need medicine.’

‘I’m going to get him some medicine.’

‘No you’re not.’

‘Yes I am.’

‘NO!’

And that was the end of it. There I lay in the room’s murky half-light, nursing both my little boy and a massive grievance against my partner. What a cruel witch. She’d just repealed my son’s health-care for reasons that were at best arbitrary, and at worst directly linked to her crankiness at being woken up. I seem to remember getting Jack a cool drink of water, and then mumbling something suitably melodramatic, probably about him exploding at some point through the night, and THEN HOW WAS SHE GOING TO FEEL?

The next day at work I recounted the story to a work colleague, eliciting the expected response of ‘Oh, you can’t take chances, he should’ve got some medicine if he had a temperature’. Towards the end of the working day, I texted my partner to ask how Jack was doing, making sure to mention the medicine debacle and the furnace his forehead had become the night before. Twisting the knife, you know. My speciality. Here’s a little excerpt from the exchange, in medias res:

CHELS: “We miss you too. Jack is a bit weird this morning, maybe he is ill.”

ME: “I told you, darling. He’d peed himself and he was roasting hot for the whole other hour I was awake next to him. Hope he’s okay.”

CHELS: “I never disputed he was weird I just said he never had a temperature, which he never. He still says he feels great and nothing hurts. He’s just quiet. I told him that we had to come home and get some medicine and he just said okay and went to get his hat, it’s usually a fight.”

And then, a sharpened point of memory whistled its way towards my skull, smashing through bone and embedding itself in the spongy yuck of my brain. I had an unsettling moment of revelation, similar to the one the cop experiences at the end of The Usual Suspects when the whole horrible truth of Kaiser Soze hits him like a shovel. ‘I just said he never had a temperature, which he never…’ I replayed my partner’s words again and again in my thoughts. ‘…which he never…’ But how could she be so sure that he definitely hadn’t had a temperature last night, unless she’d actually taken his temperatu… Oh my. Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. Suddenly I remembered. It was like fireworks had been set off in my thoughts. We’d taken his temperature. Not we: me. I’d taken his temperature. A course of action, a compromise, that had actually been suggested by my partner.

‘If you think he’s got a temperature, Jamie, then go downstairs and get the thermometer and test him. If he’s got a temperature, then give him some medicine.’

If you’d given me a lie-detector test earlier that morning and asked me to give a truthful account of my hot-headed son’s entrance into our bedroom, I would have passed it with flying colours. It begs the question: how could I have hidden this crucial piece of information from myself? I hadn’t willfully constructed the version of events I’d carried into work with me that morning. There was no premeditation. No deceit. I’d simply mis-remembered. But why? Does the brain have its own version of predictive text? Has a lifetime of self-righteous anger re-written my neural network, and taught my brain how to process and store real-time events in accordance with my expectations and personality? That’s absolutely bloody terrifying. There’s so much plausible deniability swimming around in my head that my brain’s basically a mob boss. There are so many locked doors that I’m close to becoming Elliott from Mr Robot.

Perhaps our poo-pooing of The Affair’s central conceit is an act of self defence; we shut ourselves off from a truth that’s simply too terrifying to absorb. The linear reality we perceive around us is an artificial construct in a state of permanent flux; the by-product of our sensory organs sending billions of signals to an endlessly intricate yet endlessly fallible organic super-computer. Our memories are inextricably linked to our identities, and so if we can’t trust our memories, then who the hell are we? And who are we once our memories fail altogether?

Stranger still, as you’ll see from the reproduced text-thread above, our little boy had peed his bed prior to arriving in ours, and I’d washed him, changed him and put his sheets in the wash, something I’d ALSO forgotten until I reviewed those texts in the process of writing this very blog-post.

This blog-post is a sequel to this one I wrote a few weeks ago, also on the subject of our son’s physical well-being. My partner wasn’t too happy with it. She said it was funny and well-written (I’ve no trouble remembering things like that), but disputed its veracity. She agreed that the sequence of events was correct, but maintained that an emphasis here and an omission there had rendered her unfairly villainous. Apparently, it was our son’s distress and not her own stern words that had prevented me from taking him for a pee. She also claims that she’d said: ‘I’d rather he went to bed calm and happy and risk a wet bed, than put him through any more distress.’

Am I right? Is she right? Did any of it even happen? Was there a horse and a scimitar involved? I… just don’t know anymore.

Sometimes… Dads Can Be Right?

The other night, sometime around two am, I awoke to find my eldest boy (2) standing at my side of the bed. He was staring at me, his face smeared so liberally in blood that he resembled some half-mad jungle general who’d just taken a bath in the gore of his fallen enemies, or a demon sprung from the Cenobite’s mattress. His hands, too, were as red as pillar boxes, obvious even in the half-light conjured by the street lamps outside our bedroom window.

The uneasy, tentative ‘Jack?’ that escaped my lips belied the frenzied engine of my thoughts, which were screaming ‘AAARRGGHHHHHH! BLOOD! AAARGGHHH! BLOOD!’ inside my head. As he opened his mouth to speak I was sure he was going to say one of three things:

  • ‘Jack no need to have two legs so me took one off.’
  • ‘Which one of you rat bastards is next?’
  • ‘The cat’s sleeping now…Sleeping forever, Daddy…’

What he actually said was: ‘Hi Daddy,’ giving his biggest, goofiest smile in the process.

Mercifully, there was no sinister explanation for his appearance. He’d had a nose bleed. His mother’s prone to them: enjoy that little gift of genetic inheritance, my young friend. Psoriasis and depression runs on my side of the family, so look forward to an adolescence of scratching and crying as the blood streams as if you were some sort of Vatican-sanctioned miraculous statue.

We whisked him through to the bathroom and perched him on his little stool by the sink. His mum had to scrub him really, really hard. What began as an act of cleaning quickly turned into exfoliation, which in turn became a genuine attempt to scour the very skin from his face. It was late, very late, and Jack was tired. He moaned. He cried. He just wanted this brutal ritual to come to an end so that we all could be snuggled up in the cosy darkness of the parental bed like a family of fairy-tale bears. ‘Let the blood stay,’ his eyes seemed to implore, ‘Maybe I like resembling one of Captain America’s oldest and most significant enemies!’ He wailed and whimpered, simpered and sulked, even as I carried him back through to our bedroom and the warm, imminent promise of sweet dreams.

‘Hang on,’ I said to my partner. ‘I’ll need to take him for a piss; you know what he’s like if he doesn’t go for one through the night. Let’s not tempt fate.’

‘No,’ she said, decisively. ‘He’s really upset; you’ll just traumatise him if you cart him back through there, and then he’ll wake his little brother up.’ His little brother, Christopher, a young lad of not-quite-12-weeks old, sleeps in a stilted extension at his mother’s side of the bed, and is forever having his slumber disturbed by his lumbering big brother.

‘He’ll piss the bed.’ I said.

‘No he won’t,’ she asserted.

‘Jack, do you need to pee?’ I asked him.

‘Nope,’ he said.

For some reason I accepted his reply as definitive proof, even though most days if you ask him, ‘Are you a giant tarantula’, he’ll say yes without a second thought.

I awoke a few hours later feeling very lucky indeed, but only in the sense that while Nostradamus died without seeing any of his prophecies come true, I had woken up tinged with the wet and vindicating piss of a little boy.

I slipped Jack out of his sodden clothes, and carried him through to the bathroom. He stood under the shower, harried and half-asleep, his tears attempting to give the whooshing water a run for its money. He wasn’t happy with the situation, but if happiness is lying in a coating of your own warm piss, then happiness be damned. One quick towel down and change of jammies later, and we were in Jack’s room, crammed together in his tiny single-bed. He burrowed into me like a baby bear, while I lay sprawled and contorted like a giraffe in a toy hammock, desperately trying to stave off deep vein thrombosis.

Have you ever looked into the mirror and said ‘Candyman’ five times? Or crank-called 999? Do you ever just feel like playing chicken with fate? I guess I must’ve been feeling particularly brave or stupid that fateful morning, because I made the ill-advised decision (all decisions are ill-advised when I’m acting as my own advisor) to summon my partner: and when I say ‘summoned’, I can assure you that the context is demonic.

What I said to my son, loudly and clearly, to ensure that my voice carried to the next room, was: ‘Oh, son, don’t you worry about having a little accident. It’s easily fixed, Daddy doesn’t mind. It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have done anything about it… (at this point I sucked my teeth) IF ONLY THERE HAD BEEN SOME WAY WE COULD HAVE STOPPED THIS… IF ONLY… IF ONLY SOMEHOW, SOMEONE, SOME FORWARD-THINKING SOUL, HAD BEEN BOLD ENOUGH TO RECOMMEND STEPS THAT COULD’VE PREVENTED THIS; LIKE, I DON’T KNOW, TAKING YOU FOR A PEE WHEN YOU WOKE UP EARLIER, BUT, YOU KNOW, SON, HINDSIGHT’S TWENTY-TWEN…’

At this point a megaton bomb of thunder detonated in the skies above us, and a thousand jagged forks of lightning drove themselves into the ground, scorching and immolating trees, birds and even people, whose screams filled the air like air-raid sirens. Blood seeped through the walls. Ghosts appeared in a flash-flood of light, and swirled around the room like tornadoes. A raven smashed through the window, squawking its message of hell and damnation, each frantic beat of its wings shooting blood-covered shards of glass across the room towards us. I held my son to shield him from the rising chaos, when, before us, she emerged into the doorway through a pillar of foul-scented smoke, the hair dancing on her head like nests of snakes. Her body jerked and spasmed like a stop-motion animation demon jammed on fast-forward; an inhuman blur of boobs, limbs and underwear. We heard the bites and snaps of a mouth that in its fury was more shark, or Beelzebub, than human.

”WE’ DECIDED NOT TO TAKE HIM FOR A PEE BECAUSE IT WOULD HAVE MADE HIM UPSET, WHICH IT WOULD HAVE, SO EVEN THOUGH THIS HAS HAPPENED, WHICH WE COULDN’T HAVE KNOWN WOULD HAPPEN, IT WAS THE RIGHT DECISION AT THE TIME! AND THAT’S THE END OF IT JAMIE! SO ENOUGH OF YOUR BLOODY SARCASM!’

And with that, she was gone.

As I lay stroking Jack’s hair, a large smile barged its way across my face.

‘Totally worth it,’ I said to him, planting a kiss on his forehead.

I slept the sleep of the just. A dad may only get to experience one moment of pure, undiluted rightness like this once in a lifetime. It’s best to savour it.

Being at the birth

ouchMy second son was born last week, a healthy, whopping laddie of 8 pounds and twelve-and-a-half ounces. It goes without saying that I’m pleased as punch, happy as a sandboy, and a billion other over-used cliches besides, but I’m not here to discuss those feelings. Little Christopher deserves his own blog-post, which he’ll get in due course. For now, I’d like to talk to you about my experiences of witnessing and assisting in live births.

I’ve been at the births of both of my boys, which I guess technically makes me a birthing partner, although I think the term ‘partner’ somewhat oversells my usefulness during proceedings. I gather that in days gone by the majority of men holed themselves up in the pub as their wives gave birth, blind drunk and desperately trying to decipher a gambling Da Vinci Code within the pages of the Racing Post. They’d then hurry home – usually two to three days later – still melted out of their soot-blackened faces and reeking of a thousand filterless rollies, mildly startled to find a human baby clamped to their wife’s tit. “Shit, the baby was this week? Sorry, love… you got the tea on yet?”

But, hell folks, this is a different world, and my cock-and-ball-owning contemporaries and I are sons of a new age. We want to be there. We need to be there. All the tea in China couldn’t keep us away (unless it was stacked up against the front door of the hospital: then we might have problems). It’s just that… Well. I really don’t know who is the most helpless in that delivery room: the fathers, or their freshly-born offspring. Women – quite rightly so – have the monopoly on the pain, respect and wonder of birth. Men are there to… well, men are there, certainly.

My duties can be broken down under the following sub-headings:

Words of encouragement: Mid-wives, and women in general, tend to excel at saying the right thing, in the right way, during labour, and the woman giving birth – in my experience anyway – tends to respond to their words with gratitude and deference. For all the positive effects my words had over the two births, I may as well have been hollering abuse from the other side of the room. “You call that a push?” “I’m on the clock here, can you hurry it along, please?” “Hey, I can see its head, can you believe that it’s actually fucking uglier than you!”

During the second birth, I got locked into a bit of one-man-up-manship with the midwife.

She’d say: “You’re doing well, you’re doing good.”

I’d say: “You’re doing well, you’re doing GREAT.”

She’d say: “You’re being brave, you’re doing okay.”

I’d say: “You’re being SO brave, you’re doing absolutely bloody BRILLIANTLY.”

She’d say: “Come on, you can do it.”

I’d say: “Can?? You ARE doing it, you ARE doing it.”

At one point, my partner opened her eyes through her fog of agony and locked me with a stare seldom seen this side of Hades. I shut up for a bit, and silently resolved to settle the matter with a fight in the hospital car-park later in the day.

My main issue is, what the hell are you supposed to say to your partner? And how the hell are you supposed to keep saying it for hours upon hours? There are only so many generic phrases of encouragement you can utter before you start to feel like a jockey whispering in the ear of a prize racehorse. I caught myself a few times during the first birth stroking the bridge of her nose and saying things like, ‘Shhhhh, girl, shhhhh, calm, calm, shhhh, you’re doing great, that’s my girl, I’ve never seen your coat looking so shiny.”

Going for a shit at inappropriate times: Whoops, right? I gather my partner cursed my name to the midwife as I disappeared out of the room with a newspaper tucked under my arm. I missed the opening salvos of her most painful pre-birth contractions. I was along the corridor, pushing out an entity of my own. Luckily, I returned in time. I don’t think our repertoire of family memories would’ve been enriched by the tale of, ‘You remember that time you missed the birth of your second child cause you went for a shit?’

birth3Reading the paper: At one point during birth two, my partner’s sister was holding one of her hands, and the mid-wife was holding the other, which left me sitting a few feet away in a comfy armchair with nothing to contribute. My partner was in a great deal of pain, which I caught a glimpse of from time to time as I bobbed my head up from behind the newspaper to say encouraging things like, ‘Oh, you’re doing well, SO well. Fancy giving me a hand with this crossword?’

This is a wo-man’s world…

A childbirth simulator? Come on, men, did we really need that? "We've spent millions on this thing, and what do you know? It really IS fucking sore."

A childbirth simulator? Come on, men, did we really need that? “We’ve spent millions on this thing, and what do you know? It really IS fucking sore.”

In most women’s eyes, men are a gaggle of pussies who would never be able to bear the pain of childbirth should medical science ever make that process available to them. I think they’re on to something. I know we men tend to jokingly underplay the agony of childbirth, comparing it to a toe-stubbing or the pushing out of a particularly gnarly poo, but, really, I defy any man to watch a woman grunting and screaming a human being out of her nether-regions, and feel anything other than admiration, empathy and a great, burning sense of relief that they were lucky enough to be born with a cock.

bbbGiven the enormity of birth, it’s surprising that women don’t talk about it more often than they do. Can you imagine if men gave birth? We’d never shut the fuck up about it. You see what we’re like after we’ve lifted a reasonably heavy box, or recovered from a bad head-cold. Childbirth would be incorporated into our testosterone-tastic rituals of puff-chested dick-swinging; our conversations with other men would become like tweaked versions of the scene in Jaws where the guys sit around on a boat and compare war-wounds. Or the Yorkshiremen sketch from Monty Python.

You think that’s bad? I was in labour for eight weeks without sleeping or eating, gave birth to a baby the size of a rhino, in fact it was a rhino, pushed so hard that it ripped my arse and balls off, lost fifty litres of blood, three of my limbs actually exploded, and just prior to delivery a squad of terrorists broke into the room and started stabbing me with kitchen knives. And I never felt one bit of pain.”

And you try telling the women of today that… they won’t believe you.”

The two questions most often levelled at a man who has attended the birth of his child are ‘Did you cry?’ and ‘Did you puke?’, the latter because women don’t merely think that men would be incapable of handling childbirth: they deem them incapable of handling even the sight. I understand why some men find childbirth unpalatable; why it might engage their gag reflexes. It’s gross. It really is. The word ‘beautiful’ is banded about a lot in this context, but I’d just like to disavow any prospective fathers out there of that notion. A sunset is beautiful; a rainbow is beautiful; morning dew glistening on the grass as birds chirp from the trees is beautiful. But a roar of feral agony and an explosive squelch of blood and human tissue? That’s resolutely not beautiful. Unless you happen to be Ted Bundy with a cricket bat.

birth2In the run-up to birth number 1, my partner gorged herself on episodes of One Born Every Minute (or Jeremy Kyle for Slightly More Respectable Poor People, as I like to call it), an activity from which I abstained on the grounds that I only want to bear witness to pain and horror if I absolutely have to. Because of this, I went into the birth ignorant of its mechanics and intricacies. In particular, I was woefully unprepared for the first glimpse of my son’s blue, gunk-covered cone-head as it pushed through my partner’s vagina like something out of HR Geiger’s nightmares. I remember expressing concern that I appeared to have sired one of the X Men.

I couldn’t watch heart surgery without reaching for the barf bag or a big bag of valium, but live birth doesn’t seem to revolt or frighten me. It may not be beautiful, but the process is undeniably fascinating and filled with wonder (an easier sentiment to express if you happen to be watching it instead of doing it, I’m sure!). That being said, our second child was born in a birthing pool, and I did describe the moment of birth as looking like someone had thrown the mattress from Hellraiser II into the bathtub at the end of Fatal Attraction.

Mere minutes after Christopher’s birth, my partner was poised to receive an injection that would hasten the appearance of the afterbirth. It wasn’t required. As she stepped down from the birthing pool, the placenta performed a spectacular dive for freedom, only halted by her quick reflexes, and the help of the midwife, who grappled with the umbilical cord like a magician doing a difficult trick. I got to look at the placenta, long and hard, as it sat wholly intact on a table. I always imagined it to be some sort of thin, almost-ephemeral, jelly-fish-like substance. It isn’t. It’s like a T-Bone steak, almost as big as some babies. Fred Flintstone’s dinner. Women, I salute you again. You have to give birth twice, you brave sons of bitches. And a shout out to my partner in particular: just gas and air the second time? Hardcore. I’m sure you’ll never throw that fact in my face the next time I’m a wee bit tired or feeling under the weather…

The tears of a clown

gazzaBirths are one of the few times in a man’s life when he’s permitted to cry (football being the other) without being judged an insufferable weakling or some sort of emotionally-unstable, nascent spree killer. Having a good sob at a birth is now mandatory; indeed, my partner considers my lack of post-partum tears a weird, almost unforgivable omission, and possibly evidence that I’m a psychopathic half-Vulcan robot. This judgement has left me feeling a little like the protagonist in Camus’s The Stranger, whose inability to cry at his own mother’s funeral indirectly leads him to the gallows (apologies for the slightly pretentious literary reference; at least I didn’t use its French title, L’Estranger). To make matters worse, I feel like I’ve sold my sons short, given that I didn’t cry at their births, but I did cry at Ghost and Watership Down.

I did cry that day, though. My toddler, Jack, was brought to the hospital in the afternoon by his grandpa and grandma to see his newly born little brother. Afterwards, as I was staying with mum and baby for the next few hours and didn’t know exactly when I’d be home, Jack was going back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for a sleep-over. As he was being carried down the corridor in his Grandpa’s arms on their way out of the ward, I locked eyes with him, and he seemed to give me a sad, wistful little smile that doubtless I imbued with my own feelings of separation anxiety. My eyes started to glaze over with a thin film of tears. I’d never slept under a different roof from him since his birth.

I still haven’t. When I got home he was in the house with his grandma and grandpa, in the process of having a story read to him. He just couldn’t settle without his Dad. Well, he name-checked the cat, too, but I’d like to think I was the greater part of his motivation… he does love that bloody cat though. When I heard his little voice drifting down from the top of the stairs, I actually punched the air with happiness. And even though his unexpected presence in the house deprived me of the rare treat of pornography with the sound turned up, I couldn’t have been more glad. See? I do have a heart.

MORE PARENTING/PARENTHOOD ARTICLES

Co-sleeping kids: banished from the bed

Happy Father’s Day… to me?

On the horror of taking your child to hospital

A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding

Existential Nightmare at the Soft-play Warehouse

Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs

When people take pictures of your kids

Reflections on school days, bullying and the bad bus

seatbeltsIt’s going to be a while before either of my children (one a toddler, the other yet to be born) go to school, but given how quickly time has whizzed by since little Jack first emerged gunky and cone-headed into the world, I wouldn’t be surprised to look up to discover him bedecked in a blazer and sporting an incredibly ill-advised side-parting the second I’m finished writing this article.

The thought of sending my children to school terrifies me. For all that school is a place of forced captivity where lessons are learned and friendships forged, so is fucking prison. School’s a place where we’re bundled off to be indoctrinated into a work-a-day routine that’ll help keep the wheels of capitalism spinning, whether we’re destined to become the spinners or the spun. They’re living-flesh factories, sorting children by aptitude and ability and then spitting them along the conveyer belt – or down the garbage chute – of life. Teachers seem to be so over-worked and under-resourced that even the most inspirational of them are too busy being crushed under a ton-weight of bureaucracy to break out any Dead Poets Society-style shit. While it’s true that school has the power to teach you a lot about yourself and the wider world, that doesn’t prove that the experience is ultimately a worthwhile one. After all, even in war people still find time to play a quick game of five-asides against the foreign exchange students.

In some ways, things are even more war-like than they were in my day. Schools now have their own cops, for Christ’s sake! How did that happen? This development in community policing indicates either that schools are now fundamentally unsafe places to send our children, or else the government is conducting a grand experiment to save time and money by identifying and labelling future offenders early: a choice between The Hunger Games and Minority Report, if you like. Bullying, which has always been a constant of school-life, has now entered The Matrix thanks to the oppressive, omnipresent connectivity of social media. 2016’s bullies have the access and power of the fucking Lawnmower Man, meaning that my kids can now be bullied in the comfort of their own bedrooms, 24/7. In my day (there’s that fuddy duddy refrain again), a bedroom was a sanctuary that only homework and mothers had to power to penetrate.

media

I’m perhaps over-accentuating the doom and gloom element of school life in general and my own school days in particular. My schools were hardly the stuff of The Wire, or Dangerous Minds; they were rather pleasant places, actually, and I do have a lot of fond memories to look back upon. As I still live in the same general area I’ve no reason to expect that my sons will experience a radically different school-life from mine. Even still, whichever school they attend is going to have a ‘Lord of the Flies’ flavour that I dearly wish they didn’t have to taste: regardless of any culturally-shared notions of school ‘preparing them for the real world’ or ‘building their characters’. Simply put, my partner and I can’t afford to send them to private school.

The good news is, though, that because we can’t send them to private school, my paper-thin socialist sensibilities get to remain untested and intact. Thank God for that. (clears throat and raises fist aloft) Education for all! Down with the two-tier system! Private school kids are all snobby bastards… (checks bank balance again, just in case)

Of course, Private school wouldn’t eliminate psychopathic bullies from my children’s school life, but it would probably buy them a better breed of psychopathic bully. Instead of being stuck in a class alongside kids who listed among their hobbies eating stringy bogies, setting fire to bins and taking steaming shits in the teacher’s supply cupboard, they could be rubbing shoulders with the crème de la creme of cold-hearted monsters, the sort of rich boys who will inevitably grow up to destroy the world’s economy with one solitary sniff of Bolivian and a single thump of an ENTER key (We’ve considered home-schooling, but my partner’s worried we’d make them weird. They share fifty per cent of my DNA, love. That ship’s already sailed).

Thinking about my kids’ future school days has got me thinking about my own behaviour at high school. While – broadly speaking – I was a good, unobjectionable and unremarkable young lad: never quite top of the class; never quite on the teachers’ shit lists; liked – or at least tolerated – by a wide-ish spectrum of the school continuum – I could still be an absolute cuntbag. As all teenage boys, I’m certain, have the potential to be, a potential that most of them fulfil at one point or another.

school

My cuntbaggery always shone brightest when I was sitting up the back seats of the Wallacestone bus on the journey home from school, alongside a merry band of chanting dick-bags who – when we weren’t cruelly impersonating teachers or singing bawdy football songs (which even I joined in with, despite my hatred of football) – took great delight in providing really quite horrible intro music for the bus’s regular cast of characters. We revelled in the supreme power our size, seniority and prime seating afforded us, believing ourselves to be banter-maestros extraordinaire, when in reality we were a bunch of boorish, bullying bastards in the iron grip of mob rule.

The memories are a catalogue of shame. There was a little boy of wholly Caucasian extraction whom we decided had a curiously Mexican flavour to his heritage, and so, without fail, every time this poor unfortunate boy stepped onto the bus, we stamped our feet in unison and mimicked the vigorous strumming of guitars, belting out a Speedy Gonzales-esque Mexican ditty. You know the one: de de de-de de de-de de de-de, de de-de de de-de de de-de. We may even have shouted Ariba. We really were cunts.

There was another boy called Michael, still not sure of his surname, whose only crime was to have an ear-ring. He also bore a striking resemblance to a young Jimmy Sommerville. When he got on the bus we always chanted, “Micheal Thingmy is a poofter!”, which we repeated and repeated until he’d sat down, each line of the chant punctuated by four loud hand-claps. I don’t know what hit Michael Thingmy the hardest: the taunts about his ear-ring, or the fact that we never considered his surname all that important to the bullying process. Michael’s probably a bank manager with a wife and three kids by now, and it’s my fond hope that the Thingmy family is doing well.

fight

Another poor boy was welcomed daily with a chant of ‘You smell, and you know you do’, again and again until he disappeared up the top deck of the bus. It’s never been confirmed that he actually smelled, and it’s certainly never been confirmed that he knew that he did. He never stuck around to debate the matter with us, quite correctly ascertaining that a gang of idiots with a mixed-back of monosyllabic chants probably wasn’t the best group to engage in rational discussion.

The worst song was reserved for one of our own, a pleasant chap by the name of Craig Muir (*not his real name), and to my eternal shame I must confess to having written it. Craig was a nice, normal lad, peaceful by nature, and never went looking for trouble. He had a close friendship with his brother, and at primary school used to win fights by chewing on his own hand with a terrifying look in his eyes (the tactic being: “If I can do this to myself, think what I’ll do to you!”). From that scant biography grew a song that went a little like this:

The Muiry Song

Verse 1

He lives in a house of tar and bricks,

He’s had the same jacket since primary six,

And when in a fight one must demand,

He opens his mouth and bites his hand.

Chorus

Muiry boy,

Muiry boy,

Went to the shop for a new sex toy,

Stuck it up his bum,

Covered it in cum,

Oh Muiry boy, oh what’s your ploy?

There were a lot of other verses, possibly as many as there are to be found in our own national anthem, which have thankfully been lost to the mists of time: one of which I’m sure was about the Muir brothers fucking each other. It was a very subtle piece of work. The song became so popular that another wee guy in our circle, Karl, typed up the lyrics and handed out song sheets. Song sheets on the bus, for fuck sake. Some of these guys never did their homework, but committed themselves with great zeal to this extra-curricular musical extravaganza. Years later, in my mid-twenties, I was at a function at a hotel, and was served by Craig Muir. One of the first things he said to me, with a scowl on his face, was: ‘That fucking Muiry Boy song.’

The bad news: I was an arsehole. The good news? I’d written a hit song.

NEXT TIME: The scales are re-balanced slightly when I recount my own experiences of being bullied, and of saving someone from bullying. Plus, an introduction to the phenomenon of ‘the shaggy pole’.

(PLEASE NOTE: NEXT TIME could be a long time away. Child number 2 is imminent, and I have to be in the mood to write it. I’m sure you’re on the edges of your seats waiting, right?)

Parent-and-child parking spaces: the dos and don’ts of not being a dick

Tesco has vowed to start fining people who make improper use of disabled, and parent-and-child parking bays (improper in the sense of categorical appropriateness, rather than improper in the sense of setting up tombola stalls in the vacant spaces). Whether or not Tesco has the authority to enforce such fines remains to be seen; however, what I find most interesting about this news story is the reaction to it from certain quarters of the great unwashed via the ever-malevolent medium of the comment threads underneath online articles, especially on Facebook.

To my mind, responsibility for the regulation of car-parking behaviour shouldn’t fall under the auspices of local government or corporate might. We should self-regulate; the impulse should come naturally to us. It certainly seems like a slam-dunk to me: don’t park in a disabled bay if you aren’t disabled; don’t park in a parent-and-child bay if you don’t have children in the car with you, or if the child you have with you is 43 years old. The clear focus of the issue here is basic respect and decency, not some imagined Stalinist nannyism against which we should all be rallying. Even still, in the vacant spaces beneath articles, via the empty spaces between some people’s ears, the bile-bomb has gone off with a bang. Ignorance drips from the fingers of a thousand angry eejits. Drip drip drip. Into our eyes, and into our brains, water-boarding us with a steady flood of selfishness and un-reason.

I’m going to keep my focus on the parent-and-child spaces, because even the worst of the world’s keyboard warriors – troll and non-troll alike – would clearly find it hard to sustain a charge of laziness against the disabled. What follows is a flavour of the comments I’ve witnessed on my journeys through cyberspace. I’m going to be paraphrasing here, but only ever-so-slightly:

“OMG, just because they have children suddenly they can’t walk??? Their r sum lazy good-for-nothing people out there!”

 

“I’m sick of people thinking they deserve special privelle…privvill… treetment just becoz there husband didn’t pull out in time. WALK you scrounging assholes.”

 

“WHY DO THEY NEED WIDER SPACES? IS IT BCOS THEY’RE FAT AS WELL AS LAZY? MAYBE IF YOU AND UR FAT KIDS WALKED FURTHER TO THE DOOR YOU ALL WOULDN’T BE SO FAT AND YOU WOULDN’T NEED WIDER SPACES YOU LAZY FATTIES??!”

 

“Now THIS is why I voted for BREXIT!!!”

You get the idea.

Just to clear some things up: parent-and-child spaces are wider to allow parents extra room to load and unload things like push-chairs and car seats. Where the parent has many children with them – but even if they’ve only got one – the extra space makes said children’s entry and exit from the car a lot less of a logistical nightmare, and a whole hell of a lot safer.

Yes, it’s true, parent-and-child spaces are often – but certainly not always – positioned near the front-door of a store. Where the bays are not located right at the front door, they are always connected to a path or walkway that will lead parents and their children along a safe route to the front door that doesn’t necessitate a mad, dangerous dash through a gauntlet of reversing cars and fast-moving traffic. Safety is the concern here: not proximity.

Now, isn’t that simple? I like simple. And this next bit is even more simple: if you park in a parent-and-child space when you’ve no right to be there, you aren’t some ballsy Robin-Hood-style folk hero sticking it to the man. You are indeed, and without exception, a cunt. And cunts don’t get their own special parking spaces.

Unless you count Waitrose.

When people take pictures of your kids

snapWe went on a family trip to Glasgow last week to visit the Glasgow Transport Museum (now housed within the Riverside Museum at Pointhouse Quay) and the Tall Ship (which is moored behind the museum).

The Transport Museum is great if you love having exactly sixteen seconds to admire each display before being surrounded by a crowd of feral, elbowing families, who envelop you like something out of World War Z. Probably best to avoid the museum unless you happen to be a nostalgic, history-loving giraffe. Especially since a large proportion of the exhibits are displayed on shelves fifty feet in the air (I mean, I know Glasgow has a few issues with car theft, but surely that’s excessive).

car3The Transport Museum has a penny-pressing machine. We can never pass one without taking home a souvenir. You place a pound coin and a penny into the slot, and turn a wheel to press the penny into a flat oval embossed with a little picture, and description, of the place you’re visiting. Yes, they’re tacky little pier-side trinkets, but time’s fast march will transform them into priceless treasures, especially once my partner and I are in the ground being pressed into flat ovals of dust and gloop by the inescapable might of bio-chemistry. Depending on how good a job we do raising our children to be sensitive, sentimental beings, there’s every chance they might try to flog them on Ebay the second we’re dead.

I sat in an old tram with my young son as my partner busied off to the machine. As she stood fishing in her purse for coins, a jolly German giant approached her and asked if he could trouble her for a penny. He was a stout, rotund fella with a perma-smile and a big beard, whose giganticness was more horizontal than vertical. Imagine a Tolkein dwarf who’s red-cheeked and merry after his first four vodkas of the night.

I didn’t know the gent was German at the time, you understand. He wasn’t kitted out in lederhosen and loudly apologising for the war or anything like that. I inferred his nationality later in the timeline of this story, information I could’ve imparted to you in a more natural and fluid manner, but doing so would’ve robbed me of the use of the deliciously alliterative phrase ‘jolly German giant’.

tramsThe jolly German giant took the wheel of the machine straight after my partner had picked up her flattened knickknack. Before placing his money in the slot he spent a full two minutes staring into the mechanism with wide-eyed wonder, spinning the wheel around and around, and acting for all the world like a child who’d been turned into a man by a haunted speak-your-future machine at a Coney Island fairground.

“What the hell is wrong with that guy?” I asked my partner as she joined us on the old tram.

“He’s happy.”

I shook my head. “Fucking lunatic.”

I noticed he had a high-tech camera fastened to a strap around his neck. He lifted it up and snapped a picture of the machine, before peppering the wall-of-high-shelved cars with a barrage of clicks.

maxresdefaultWe walked outside and boarded the tall ship. On the decks there were four little barrels filled with water, each with a tiny brush sticking out of them. As my son seems to have inherited my partner’s mild OCD and love of cleaning, he was more than happy to lift out a brush and start swabbing the decks pirate-style, a task he would’ve doubtless spent the whole day engaged in had we let him. I could feel my partner’s eyes boring into me and sending me a stern, unspoken message: ‘See? That’s how you pick up a brush, you big swine.’

The wee guy looked adorable in his shorts, sandals and jaunty bunnet, as he attacked the grime of the deck with a single-minded zeal. I was felled by his cuteness. “We’ve got to get a picture of this,” I said. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. The jolly German giant appeared at our side, his camera raised like a rifle. Before we knew what was happening he’d snipered off a shot. Click! He gave us a wide, beaming grin. “He looks like a little sailor,” he said, shaking his head at the adorableness of it all before bounding off down the deck. He wasn’t whistling, but he was walking like he should have been.

I stood frozen to the spot, certain that something awful had happened but unable for the moment to articulate it.

“Did he…?”

My partner nodded.

“I mean, should we be bothered by that?” I asked.

“I don’t know…” she said.

“He should’ve asked our permission,” I said, the sound of my son’s swishing adding a staccato rhythm to my thoughts. “Which we wouldn’t have given.”

My partner winced. Then tilted her head back and forth. Then shrugged. “I guess it’s okay. I mean, I don’t think he meant any harm.”

I felt uneasy. At worst, I’d failed to act to protect my son’s safety and interests. At best, I’d allowed my authority as a parent to be usurped by a stranger. My own social conditioning had rendered me static and mute: wanting to preserve the status quo, not wanting to cause a fuss, always aiming to be cordial and polite.  Irritation twitched in my toes, sparking a chain-reaction of nerve-signals that rocketed up my leg and culminated in a controlled explosion of anger in my belly. My chest tightened. A lump formed in my throat. My brain had bees dancing across it. My lip curled into a snarl, and before I could make a rational and considered assessment of the situation and calmly decide my next course of action, I was already striding down the ship in the direction of the departed German.

“I’m going to find that guy,” I called back.

“Oh, Christ, Jamie, not again!”

“Keep the wee guy safe,” I said, suddenly wishing I’d had a pair of shades to hand. It felt somehow very cinematic, despite the fact that I was a red-faced, disgruntled, pot-bellied lanky-pants, and not Arnold Schwarzenegger.

decksWe don’t put pictures of our son on-line. Obviously, there’s a stranger-danger element. Once a photo hits cyberspace, even if it’s only shared with people you know on Facebook, you lose custody of it. Facebook is like a many-tentacled space octopus, its connections and degrees-of-separation almost impossible to chart or quantify. You never really know who’s watching, or why.

And then there’s the old-fashioned argument: that if tens, hundreds or thousands of people have ready access to your memories then those memories cease to feel as special. Better to have complete ownership of, and the exclusive distribution rights to, the unfolding storybook of your children’s lives. Better to have sets of physical photobooks to flick through as a family in the years to come, in the knowledge that only the people closest to you have been privileged enough to see them (‘But wait, Jamie, aren’t you ceaselessly blogging about your son’s life as it unfolds, I mean, isn’t that even more of an intimate thing to share than a set of photographs; don’t you think that makes you a bit of a hypocr…[imaginary opponent struggles against the onset of a chloroform knock-out, as I press the soaked rag to their mouth]’ “Shhhhh, shhhhh. Sleep now, shhhhhhh.”).

Lastly, look at how celebrity impacts on celebrities: the paparazzi, the flash photography, the front-page scoops and four-page spreads. It turns a lot of them into arrogant, conceited assholes. Facebook is doing a good job of donating a big box of celebrity-lite crowns to the masses; it’s like an on-line Hello magazine for the less significant, allowing people to become pseudo-stars in their own social circles, if not society at large. Look how narcissistic we’ve become. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! What challenge? The challenge to post even more pictures of yourself on-line than you did yesterday? Yeah, but SOCIAL ISSUES, SOCIAL AWARENESS, SOCIAL JUSTICE, stop pooing on our parades, you meanie, we’re trying to save the world with these pictures of ourselves… and if we happen to look kind and successful – and smoking hot, incidentally, if we do say so ourselves – while doing it, then all the better!

trumanThere’s no way to know exactly what effect being displayed to the world from the moment of birth will have on our kids. In any case, I’m pretty sure The Truman Show was meant as a cautionary tale. We’re out. When he’s old enough to consent to having his picture disseminated to the world at large, then he can make that decision for himself. Although if some movie producer were to offer us £1m for our son to have a starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster, we might have to re-evaluate our stance on the matter.

Back to the boat.

I scoured every inch of it: my nostrils flared out, my swagger in full swing. Up stairs, down stairs, through dark and noisy lower decks, behind this, in front of that, here, there and everywhere.

Just as I was about to give up and resign myself to failure, I spied the jolly German giant sitting upon a bench on the shore, just about to tuck into a sandwich. I crossed the gang-plank and strode towards him, all of the possible scenarios of our imminent meeting playing out in my mind: me calling the police, me punching him, me throwing his expensive camera into the sea, me throwing the German into the sea.

imagesI sat down next to him, and stared ahead, like a spymaster about to pass details of a top-secret mission to his agent.

“I know you’re an amateur photographer, and you didn’t mean any harm, but I’m going to have to ask you to delete the picture you took of my son.”

I turned and looked him in the eyes. His jolly grin was gone. “Of course, of course,” he said, setting down his sandwich and groping for his camera. My anger was gone. I was reasonably certain that the sandwich-gobbling snapper wasn’t a nonce, but at this point it didn’t matter. Still, even with right on my side, it was an immensely awkward conversation. I had to reassure this guy that I didn’t think he was a paedophile while at the same time making it clear that I thought he might just be a paedophile. Schrodinger’s paedophile?

“You understand, we don’t even post pictures of our own son on Facebook.”

“It’s your choice, I’m sorry, I should have asked you first. I did not mean to cause distress. I will of course delete it,” he said, fiddling with the buttons on the camera.

He was cordial, sincere and deferent. All the same…

“I don’t want to sound like an asshole here, but could I watch you do it? Could you show me?”

He showed me. I had sounded like an asshole. Buto nly because I was a Scottish guy using the word ‘asshole’ and not the more colloquially appropriate ‘arsehole’ or even ‘bawbag’.

“Thank you,” I said as I got up and walked off towards the boat again. I patted my pockets. Still no shades.

As I re-boarded the boat, I realised something important: I’d spent so long scouring the decks for the jolly German giant that I had no idea where my partner and young son were.

What a fine job I did of protecting them.

PS: The picture the German took wasn’t very good. It was snapped at a weird diagonal angle. That proves one of two things: 1) he really was a paedophile, or 2) he was just a really shite photographer.

Or both I suppose.

MORE ARTICLES ON PARENTHOOD

Co-sleeping kids: banished from the bed

Happy Father’s Day… to me?

On the horror of taking your child to hospital

A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding

Existential Nightmare at the Soft-play Warehouse

Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs

click

When your kid goes from angel… to Hell’s Angel

behaveangelImagine the scene. Your kid is on the cusp of becoming a toddler. They spend their days teetering around, swishing behind them a rainbow of babbles, innocence and light. They seem to tip-toe across rooms like a lady at an etiquette school balancing books on her bonce, their little head wobbling gently in the manner of an acquiescent Indian’s, but holding firm and steady, their gaze fixed on some far-off and unseen horizon.

There are, however, no books resting atop that diminutive dome, only a single, solitary halo, round and bright and smooth and solid, a perfect crown for a perfect kid. The halo will stay, of that you’re certain, permanent proof of your supremacy as parents. The concept of sharing? Tick. A sweet, happy and loving disposition? Tick. Absence of tantrums? Tick. You’ve done everything right, in fact you’ve re-written the rule book, and made right look positively, prehistorically left. Hundreds of thousands of years of child-rearing distilled and crystalised into the body of that zen-like little creature you’ve gifted to the world. If you had a mic you’d drop it, walk past a billion-strong crowd of parents with a sneer on your lips and a swagger in your step: “Suck our block-rocking cocks, Doctor Spock! Mum and dad out! ”

I remember the days well. When our little boy was very small, my partner and I would find ourselves in restaurants, or soft-plays, or attending children’s parties, surveying the raft of shrieking, wailing, kicking, screaming, biting, slapping demon spawn around us; we’d observe the scarlet-faced, coarse-voiced frustration of their parents, and we’d each raise a silent furry eyebrow in the other’s direction. Our eyebrows would receive such regular and herculian workouts that it’s a wonder the juts of our brows weren’t rendered cro-magnan with the extra layers of muscle.

Afterwards, in the car or safely back home, we’d dissect the scenes, two Glasgow tenament women gossiping over a fence, arrogance and self-righteousness flooding from our mouths like bile-flavoured milkshakes: “Did you see it when that kid hit that other kid? Oh, I know, and then when he… yeah, and then that little girl, you know the one, the one with the messy big face, when she kicked that boy in the… oh, I know, I know. And when that kid stole that sandwich from the smaller kid and shoved it in his mouth, and the mother just… well, she just sat there… I mean, our kid would never do that, never, and even if he did, well, I mean, we simply wouldn’t stand for it, would we?” No, of course that wouldn’t happen to us. Impossible. I mean, that’s a halo on his head, not a hoopla. It’s fixed. It’s everlasting. We’ve won at parenting, that’s what that halo means.

It’s the age-old tale. Just as you’re busy awarding yourself with a machine-gun volley of self-congratulatory slaps on the back, a funny thing happens…

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Your kid turns into a fucking asshole.

That’s right, people. A beautiful, wonderful, magnificent asshole, sure, but an asshole none-the-less. They push kids. They snatch toys. They hurtle down the aisles of the supermarket whooping and laughing, their ears closed to your hollers of protestation. They lob their dinner at the cat. They lob the cat at their dinner. They start ritually sacrificing goats and glugging the blood like wine.

The transformation doesn’t happen overnight. At least it didn’t for us. I still remember the day when the bubble of our hubris was loudly and decisively popped, in public, during a trip to the safari park. The lion’s share of the day (forgive me) had passed without incident; our darling boy had cooed at the elephants, stood enthralled by the giraffes, and laughed his little ass off at the meerkats. It was a time of great joy, and peace, just like all the rest of our times. Why should this day be any different? In retrospect, it was the most apposite time for the universe to send this particular piano of truth crashing down atop our heads.

My son, as we learned that day – and have never forgotten – is highly skilled at perfectly timing his tantrums and manic episodes to coincide with those moments where we find ourselves trapped and unable to pull free from the orbit of his naughtiness. Like, for example, when we’re crammed into a small boat with twenty-five strangers en route to Chimp Island.

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I had been excited. “I wonder what those chimps are going to get up to,” I said to my partner. “The reason these boats have cages around them isn’t simply to protect us from an audacious chimp attack or prevent us from falling overboard. They’re there to protect us from the rocks and sticks the chimps like to hurl at the boats. Not to mention clumps of their own shite. God, I’ll bet they’re going to go absolutely mental, and jump around and throw shite at us. Oh please say that they’ll do all that, please, I can’t wait to see them go crazy!”

Disappointingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they did nothing. They just stood there on the shore, staring mutely at us, bored and weary looks weighing down their ancient hairy faces. My son instantly siezed the opportunity to show his lesser cousins how boisterousness was done, homo sapien-style, claiming centre stage for himself. He writhed and flailed in my arms, shrieking like a banshee in a house-fire, his little limbs pumping like pistons oiled by evil. He occasionally ceased his shrieks to sink his tiny little teeth into the soft flesh of my shoulder. I had to hold him back, and aloft, like he was some psychopathically recalcitrant zombie Scrappy Doo. All eyes on the boat turned to us: the hairless missing links that were infinitely more interesting to behold than the sluggish, half-arsed primates across the water.

Water, I thought. I’ll give him a drink of his water; that’ll distract him. Well, it did, and it didn’t. He started loading it into his mouth like liquid ammunition and spitting it everywhere, raining down globs of watery child saliva upon the shoulders of those poor souls  unfortunate enough to find themselves in our immediate vicinity. Never have so many sorries been uttered in such a short a space of time to so many by so few. I could already hear the judgements and condemnations forming in their minds, as they prepared to engage in the same sorts of conversations that we’d always enjoyed having about other people’s naughty children. It’s funny how you find yourself playing to the gallery during those moments, loudly spelling out the extenuating circumstances behind your child’s behaviour for all to hear. “He’s not normally like this… I SAID HE’S NOT NORMALLY LIKE THIS, CAN YOU HEAR ME AT THE BACK UP THERE?! I’LL SAY IT MORE LOUDLY, I SAID HE’S NOT NORMALLY LIKE THIS!”

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A few weeks ago we attended an American friend’s fourth of July barbecue. Naturally, we dressed Jack in a Captain America costume, complete with superhero shield. I had been very close to ordering my partner and I Uncle Sam hats and Obama masks for the occasion. Thank Christ I didn’t, because when we arrived there was nothing identifiably American about the occasion, save for the host herself. I blame my misconceptions on Rocky IV, which I’ve obviously interpreted as some sort of cultural documentary. I dread to think how we would have dressed our kid had we been invited to a Hindu celebration.

Anyway, our wee guy was five to eight months older than most of the kids at the barbecue, and was long overdue a nap. As a consequence, his ‘well-developed concept of sharing’ was buried deep within a fog of pissiness. He snatched books and toys from the smaller kids, and knocked them over like pins at a bowling arcade. You feel paralysed at times like this. People who have no frame of reference for your kid’s behaviour will naturally assume that you’ve raised an asshole. You want to chide your kid, to show that you’re not a passive parent who tolerates unruly behaviour, but at the same time you feel you have to hold back your sterner inclinations because you also don’t want to come across as the boom-voiced, authoritarian dick you are at home. I just ended up sounding like Hooks from Police Academy, with an apologetic, wobbly whisper escaping from my mouth in the mould of ‘Don’t move… dirtbag,’ followed by a muttered string of, ‘He’s not normally like this-es’ and ‘He’s a wee sweetheart at home-s.’

Don’t misunderstand. Our boy isn’t the devil. He’s still a sweet, bright, caring and loving little person, and thoroughly well-behaved the vast majority of the time, which is one way of saying that the beatings are working. He’s never surly or aggressive or violent, he just occasionally likes to flaunt his moxy, and wear a look on his face that says: ‘There hasn’t been a naughty step built that can hold me, motherfuckers.’

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I guess the occasional bout of bad behaviour is par for the course at certain stages of a child’s development. And sometimes what we class as bad behaviour is a by-product of limits being tested or the flexing some new found muscle of freedom or experience. It’s our job to introduce him to consequences and responsiblity, certainly, and to socialise him, and protect him from the unfiltered excesses of his own ego and the punishments he might face from those outside the family with a less forgiving eye, but it’s also our job to understand what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling, and ask ourselves why he might be behaving in a certain way. We owe him that. Sometimes he’s hungry, sometimes he’s tired, sometimes he lacks the language skills to convey his feelings and communicate his desires, which can lead to frustration. Sometimes, when we make an effort to trace the genesis of a particular action or behaviour, we’ll discover that we, the parents, are the unwitting Kaiser Szozes.

For instance, we’ll chase him around the house telling him we’re going to eat his legs off, and then react with shock and anger when he later runs up to us and sinks his teeth into our leg. Or we’ll make the experience of teeth-brushing more fun by preceding it with a round-the-house, laughter-filled chase, and then lose our shit when he decides it would be funny to replicate the chase in a busy supermarket when we’re lugging heavy baskets of fresh produce. This is one reason we’ll never smack or strike him. What will you then do if your child hits someone? Hit them harder? To teach them about the abuse of power and hypocrisy?

We’re learning that the toddler years, especially as we prepare to enter the infamous ‘terrible twos’, are a period of constant adjustment and correction, of our behaviour as much as his.

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It’s reasonably easy to predict what a baby will do. But as a baby becomes a toddler becomes a child becomes a teenager becomes an adult, the range of possibilities stretched before them – of thought, of action, of mood, of mind, of experience – increases a million-fold, transforming the relationship between cause and effect into a dizzying, ever-multiplying web of connections. They’re exposed to other kids, other family members, other adults in your friend circle, strangers, the TV, a multitude of new sounds and smells and toys and concepts. Life is complex, and complicated, and so’s your kid.

What I’m saying is, should ever see our little boy dashing around a supermarket with a mischevious glint in his eye as we lumber after him like angry dog-catchers, or hear me roaring in pain because my darling son has just sprinted towards me and sunk his teeth into my crotch, please reserve your judgement. I promise to do the same for you. And keep your eyes trained on the empty space above his skull. If you screw up your eyes and strain really hard, you’ll still be able to see the faint outline of a halo. Not quite as bright as it once was. Maybe not as perfectly round. But it’s there.

I promise you it’s still there.

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