Sunday, May 22, 2005

Splash Splash Splash

One of the things about being a 21st century dad is that you’re expected to attend various activities with your kids. Play groups, gym sessions, farm centres, birthday parties and even ‘play-dates’ with their little friends (god bless America). There are some things I positively enjoy.

The local activity place is called ‘Snakes and Ladders’ and is a huge warehouse full of ball pits, slides, an enormous padded assault course for our little commando. Jack goes in running and never stops. Occasionally I’ll get in there too. There’s huge fun to be had burying daddy in a pile of balls, going down the big slide together or playing peekaboo behind swinging lumps of foam-rubber. After a couple of hours, pink and wringing with sweat, we both go home utterly exhausted.

Birthday parties are a blast. It’s always good fun to see how your kid matches up against other kids of the same age. You eat all the really nice food the kids don’t like while they fill themselves up with marshmallows, meat-free sausages and ready salted crisps. And you get to feel better about your own hang-ups when you realise how many other parents have the same ones. And more. And stranger.

Play groups are the tricky thing. More often than not, I’ll be the only man in a large group of women, some of whom will be breastfeeding, others heavily pregnant with second or third children. I’m not the only man who ever goes, but because the other dads are at generally work during the week like me, there are never two of us there with a day off at the same time.

After a while you get used to being the lone man. You drink tea or thin orange squash; make small talk about pregnancy and child development to mums yummy and otherwise; and stop your child from battering or being battered by others.

At one of the groups the Mrs regularly attends, there’s a stay-at-home dad. Rather than make me feel more comfortable, having male company, he makes me feel even more out of place. He’s an über-Dad totally in touch with his son’s every need because he’s with him all the time. The mums all love him, for going through what they’re going through. And being a bloke, he laps up the praise.

He’s a nice guy, really nice, don’t get me wrong. He’s just not in the same position as me. I’m on the outside of the group, looking in. He’s the Alpha male.

I know this because he sings loudly and without fear in the group sing-songs. In every nursery that Jack attends (there are about four in all, ranging from gym activities to informal church play groups) at some time during the session the mums gather their little ones into a circle and sing songs.

The repertoire is remarkably similar at each gathering. The Wheels On The Bus is a dead cert. If You’re Happy And You Know It is odds on. Row Row Row The Boat at evens. I’m A Dingle Dangle Scarecrow a 4-1 shot. And at the end, the firm favourite, 1-3 on is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

I’m happy enough singing these and other equally silly songs to my children in the privacy of my own home. But singing them in public is just toe-curlingly twee. I can’t bring myself to do it. Action songs are even worse.

I once endured the exquisite embarrassment of a swimming pool singing session. I’d taken Jack to a toddlers swimming session, and we were minding our own business in the deep end when a woman in a yellow T-shirt shouted “OK, everybody, gather in a circle. It’s singing time. Everyone to the shallow end.” I should have known.

Picture the scene. Thirty mums of assorted shapes and sizes, acres of lycra under varying degrees of tension. Thirty red-eyed babies. Jack. And me in my Speedos. Singing about Ten Fat Sausages Sizzling In A Pan.

As any two year old will tell you, The Wheels On The Bus go round and round. Not at the pool sing-song. There, they go splash splash splash. In fact everything went splash, even Humpty Dumpty.

If I were a good dad, I’d probably advise you to embrace the embarrassment. You don’t know these people. You’ll probably only see them once or twice in your life. Your child is loving it. Sing your heart out.

But I can’t with any degree of honest say you’ll enjoy it. Singing to your child is laudable. Singing in public is fine, if you’re drunk and won’t remember it. But this isn’t karaoke. You’re stone cold sober.

It takes more of a man than me.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Daddy’s Nose: Why You Need A Photo Mobile

The call came through from some pimply teenager in a northern marketing office asking if I wanted an upgrade: “It doesn’t cost you anything. It’s free, as long as you keep your account with Orange” said my new northern friend.

“But I like my phone.” I argued. “It’s simple, I know how it works. All my numbers are in the address book.”

“But you’ll get them all when you put your simcard in your new phone. It’d cost £200 to buy new. It’s much better than your old phone. It’ll be with you tomorrow.” And so on.

Deciding I couldn’t be bothered to talk about this any more, I caved in.

Sure enough, the following day, my new, sleek, silver phone arrived with its colour screen and a little hole in the back for a camera lens. Cool.

A couple of days later I bought a Comic Relief nose and took a picture of me wearing it. I looked an idiot, so I thought it might amuse my wife. I sent it off.

When I arrived home from work my two year old son greeted me: “See Daddy’s nose”. My wife told me that she’d shown the picture to my son and all day after that he’d been pestering her to see the picture of me in the nose. When I put the actual nose on for him to see, he wasn’t very impressed. It was the special picture he liked.

The next day my wife started sending me pictures of the kids. Jack in the high chair, covered in food. Nancy lying on her play mat. Jack on a swing.

There is nothing better than being interrupted in the middle of the working day by these pictures. Of course they make it harder in one way, because they're the evidence of everything I miss out on by not being there. But they give me a connection, and one I can reciprocate by sending a picture of myself back. I’ve started sending them other pictures too. Diggers. Buses. Bridges. Boats. Shops. Trains. Cranes.

I’ve noticed my phone bill’s increased a little. But the couple of quid I spend a month is the best investment I could make. It’s not much, I know, but these little picture messages mean I’m a bit closer to home through the working week. Better than that, they keep me grounded at work. I’m not the big man. I’m just a dad, of a son with painty fingers and a daughter with a smile that could melt icebergs.