A month ago, I came across a request from a journalist at Trinity Mirror’s The New Day newspaper for a contribution to their ’11 DAYS IN THE LIFE OF’ column which involved a series of eleven daily articles about the life of somebody with something vaguely interesting to say. I contacted the journalist with details of this blog and she agreed to use my experience as a stay-at-home dad for it. These are the first five articles which appeared.
I purposely used the past tense, when I said that the column “involved” a series of eleven articles; The New Day was actually closed by Trinity Mirror last week due to low sales volumes. Sadly this meant that a lot of people lost their jobs and also that only ten of the eleven articles that I wrote appeared.
Apologies to anyone who has already seen these articles and is getting them again. In truth I could have been more timely in getting these up on the blog. Although these all appeared on my Instagram account, the text I have included below the images is the original text that I submitted to the newspaper and thanks to the sub-editing process there are some slight differences between this and what ended up in print.
Day 1 (Monday 25th April 2016)
You won’t find me in an office. In fact, aside from the odd café or supermarket, you won’t find me anywhere where paid employment takes place. Instead, should you bump into me, it’s a fair bet that our encounter will be in a children’s playground. I’m recognisable as the one with a baby strapped to my torso like a jihadist in a suicide vest. And were the encounter to occur after the schools had kicked out, I’d also have a four year old hanging from my arm.
Yet – and here’s the twist in the tale – I’m a guy. Doesn’t that all sound like women’s stuff? How is it even possible?
There’s a simple explanation. I’m one of those bohemian, equal opportunities dads who has embraced the Shared Parental Leave rules that were introduced last year. Even though our second daughter was only born nine months ago, my wife returned to work in February, handing me the (inevitably rather sticky) childcare baton. Since then, I’ve been the primary carer for little Mina and her four year old sister Lola.
If the stats are to be believed, I’m a rare breed. Based on what I’ve read, it would be easy to form the impression that dads who’ve taken up Shared Parental Leave are spotted in the wild only slightly more frequently than snow leopards or Sumatran rhinos.
Well we do exist. Here I am, so real that I’ve been able to write this. I’m the anomalous, baby-carrying bloke at the back of the parent and toddler groups who makes the mums and childminders (invariably all female too) feel slightly uncomfortable even though – it being the twenty-first century and all – they know they shouldn’t, .
Generally it’s fine though. Once they’ve overcome their natural reaction (“It’s ten thirty on a Monday morning, shouldn’t that man be at work? And what’s he doing with a baby of all things?”), the mums treat me as one of their own. I’m a welcome novelty.
It’s only when the conversation moves onto breastfeeding that is all gets a bit awkward again.
Regrets? I can honestly say that I have none. Taking the opportunity to spend this time with my girls has been one of the best decisions I’ve made. It’s a cliché, but they’ll only be young once and I won’t get this time with them again. With Shared Parental Leave, it is genuinely a case of use it or lose it, in more ways than one.
Day 2 (Tuesday 26th April 2016)
Besides the obvious benefits of being a stay-at-home dad such as being there when my infant daughter Mina learned to sit up and being around to help her elder sister Lola practice her reading after school, there are a number of ancillary benefits that I’d failed to anticipate.
Apart from no longer needing to frantically iron five work shirts every Sunday evening, it also means that I’m able to patronise London’s museums and galleries when they’re at their least busy.
I do this under the pretext of exposing Mina to the cultural wonders the city has to offer, but she’s a baby so couldn’t care less. In her mind, she can blow raspberries and chew her left shoe just as well whether she’s sat next to the Diplodocus in the Natural History Museum or on the rug in our living room.
Nevertheless I continue with the charade. Thus I decided that an excursion to the National Portrait Gallery was in order. What better way to introduce Mina to the nation’s great statesmen, artists and writers (and Paul McCartney)?
We travelled in on the tube with its attendant hazards. When you go underground with a pushchair, the ‘Mind the gap’ announcement takes on a whole new relevance, and the escalators certainly aren’t for the faint-hearted.
It turns out that from Monday to Friday the National Portrait Gallery is entirely populated by untidy knots of school kids in florescent jackets. Few of these children are actually standing either; most sit cross-legged on the floor, copying portraits into their exercise books and obstructing anyone with a pushchair.
Still, one kid made up for the congestion by setting off an alarm in the gallery housing the ‘Celebrating Charlotte Brontë’ display when he got too close to a cabinet containing the author’s ankle boots. This caused his teacher to evacuate the class from the gallery with a rarely-seen urgency and provided Mina with no little amusement.
What did Mina think of the Gallery? Well she fell asleep after about twenty minutes, somewhere amongst the Victorian portraits, which is understandable I suppose. All those po-faced, whiskery men of note were clearly less impressive than they imagined themselves to be.
Not to worry. We haven’t done the V&A yet, or the Imperial War Museum, and I’m not back to work for a while so no matter how often Mina falls asleep I’m fairly confident that I’ll always have somewhere else up my sleeve.
Day 3 (Wednesday 27th April 2016)
Days spent looking after a baby can lack structure. Babies do what they want, when they want. It’s difficult to build a routine around that. Or so I’m told. I have a four year old to marshal to and from school though meaning that Mina, our little one, just has to fit in.
There’s never a dull moment on the school run. Today, as I collect her and we set off home, Lola asks:
“What’s this song, daddy?”
I usually have Classic FM on in the car but I’ve had enough Rossini for one day so have switched stations on the way to school. Since I’m doing my upmost to avoid running over Lola’s classmates, I’ve not been paying attention to the radio. It takes me a moment to place the song.
“Like a Virgin,” I reply without thinking.
Without thinking – always a poor choice where Lola is concerned.
“What’s a virgin?”
I mean, what else would she ask? I sigh. Here we go. Explaining taboos to kids time.
The problem is that as a four year old Lola doesn’t even possess the context to understand what a virgin is. It’s akin to heading up the Amazon, searching out an indigenous tribe and trying to explain to them who Cristiano Ronaldo is when they’ve never even seen a football.
I give my response some thought.
“A pure lady, Lola.”
“What’s a pure lady?”
This isn’t going in the right direction, but I spot a way out. Lola’s star sign is Virgo. I tell her that Virgo is represented by a virgin. At which point she corrects me, explaining that her star sign is a rabbit. And that when she stayed with my parents, Grandad said that his star sign is a rabbit too and that Grandma’s is a rat and mine is a monkey and Mina’s is a sheep.
If she and I and Grandma and Grandad and Mina hailed from Beijing, she’d have a point.
I try to explain the difference between western astrology and the Chinese zodiac, but by this point Justin Bieber is on the radio, apologising, so I’ve lost my audience. I never thought I’d see the day that I was happy to hear Bieber, but as the saying goes, desperate situations call for desperate measures.
I get away with it this time, but learn a valuable lesson; namely don’t change the radio station. You never know where it could lead.
Day 4 (Thursday 28th April 2016)
We recently moved Mina into Lola’s room. Lola would’ve had her sister in with her as soon as she’d returned from the maternity ward but we thought it wiser to leave it a few months. As Mina has been sleeping reasonably well recently, we decided to see how she’d get on in her new room.
I’d come close to announcing the trial a success. After last night, you can forget that.
Mina woke up shortly after my wife and I had gone to bed. She wouldn’t drift off again so we brought her into bed with us. Mistake number one.
We all went back to sleep. A little later I woke to find Lola next to me. Unsure how she’d got there, I let her stay nevertheless. Mistake number two.
We all went back to sleep. Only Mina knows why she decided at 3am to practice her speech. My wife and I woke to “Ba ba ba” as if we’d taken a lamb to bed with us.
Mina did that for a while then, buoyed by her mastery of “ba”, decided to see whether she could use the time to crack crawling. It would be indecent to say what hour it was.
None of this came close to waking Lola, a child who could sleep through a rave. There’s an experiment I’d like to try though probably never will as it might be misconstrued as child cruelty. It involves me waiting until Lola is asleep then sounding an air horn beside her to see whether she stirs. I’m certain it would be fifty-fifty.
Mina is different. Her sleep state is as finely-calibrated as a Swiss timepiece. The merest disturbance can cause it irreparable damage.
So it was disappointing that as soon as Mina gave up on the crawling and fell back to sleep, her sister began bellowing “cheese” at the top of her voice. Still asleep, mind you. Clearly it was urgent though. One can only imagine what dairy-related crises were occurring in her dreams.
Lola’s cries woke Mina up. You couldn’t really blame her I suppose. If someone lay next to you yelling “cheese”, you’d wake up too.
A real tag-team effort.
In the end I left the girls to it. I went and curled up like an embryo in Lola’s bed, her butterfly night lights twinkling above my head, a serene vision entirely at odds with the anarchy that had preceded it.
Day 5 (Friday 29th April 2106)
Are you a morning person? I’m decidedly not. I often think morning would be a marvellous idea if only it arrived later in the day. Having children has reinforced this belief.
I need to be on top of my game from the moment the alarm starts to wail. Most mornings Lola has to be forcibly wrenched from her bed. The tussle between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls has nothing on the daily scuffle between Lola and I as I try to prise her fingers from the mattress.
I leave Lola with her school uniform to get dressed while I go downstairs with Mina. I check on Lola five minutes later and she’s back in bed. Some assertive coercion on my part ensues.
Breakfast is a farce. Since Mina started on solids, she and Lola have eaten the same meal perhaps twice. Invariably I have to prepare two separate dishes – fried egg on toast for Lola, say, and some bananary yogurty mush for Mina.
While I feed Mina she endeavours to glaze herself in her breakfast. Lola sits watching, talks about school, gets down to use the toilet, stares out of the window and very occasionally permits an offcut of egg white to pass her lips. By the time Mina decides she’s finished, Lola, to all intents and purposes, hasn’t started.
I take Mina out of her highchair and put her on the floor. She then decides she hadn’t actually finished breakfast and shuffles around collecting the dusty crumbs and renegade peas that litter the kitchen floor and shovels these into her mouth. I try to prevent to this while looming over Lola like a drill sergeant so that she gets her breakfast eaten.
I’d say it is like herding cats but it isn’t. We use dot have a cat and whenever I needed to get him anywhere, I simply put him in his box and carried him there. You’re not allowed to do that with kids.
8:15am is zero hour. If we’re not in the car by then, Lola is heading for a red mark in the register. Accompanied by the smell of smouldering rubber, we manage to get to school on time.
Weekend mornings aren’t as frantic so at least now I have a couple of days off, but the shenanigans all begin again on Monday. Can’t wait.