Precious time

You might remember that the first week of my shared parental leave was spent with Claire and both children on holiday in Wales and Ireland. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that spending time alone with my daughter is a metaphorical can to be kicked down the road, much like Brexit or a break-up conversation in your early 20s, but we didn’t have any one-on-one time until last Friday — the end of week two. That is the pitfall of not looking at your other child’s nursery closure calendar when planning your shared parental leave. Make no mistake, I spent week two in the deep end with both children and an overflowing laundry basket. But anyway.

Somehow we muddled through to Friday (although I suspect regression therapy will be necessary to remember how) when Claire was off work and took the boy off to see the Lion King. Elodie and I were tasked not only with spending the day together, but taking two trains to a shopping centre at the other side of London which, according to (but not guaranteed by) H&M’s website, was one of only two places in London to stock a particular t-shirt the boy had requested for his birthday. More on that after some train chat.

Our local railway line has recently benefited from a new fleet of trains, the British Rail Class 710. No doubt taking their cue from the family carriages operated by Swiss Federal Railways, London Overground’s new trains are properly kitted out for the infant traveller. London isn’t Lucern, of course, so there are no climbing frames, slides or games; instead, there are large open areas of floor, tip-up seats, and the happy-go-lucky sorts of people who want to get to Gospel Oak just after 11am. I can’t speak for every nine month old, but mine is perfectly happy crawling around on hard floors, pulling herself up on seats, and waving and smiling at anyone who happens to be near. She can do all these things at home, of course, but the train allows her to get slightly grubby, experience the thrill of being chinned by a spring-loaded chair, and be called a ‘lovely little boy’ by a well-meaning moron.

Getting the train around to Shepherd’s Bush means changing at Gospel Oak, opening up a double game of Overground Lift Roulette. It’s a game you should never play because the lifts never fucking work. Given the complete lack of response on Twitter, it seems neither TfL nor London Underground seem to give a toss. One for a later FOI crusade, perhaps.

Back to the shopping. H&M obviously didn’t have the required birthday t-shirt, but given I’ve got the summer off I decided to treat myself to a new t-shirt instead. Premium cotton, of course. You’ve got to do these things when you’re aiming to not wear a collar until October, and I hadn’t circumnavigated London’s orbital railway lines with a baby to leave empty handed. We caught the train home again and used the second carriage as a makeshift dining car, albeit without tables, crockery or what might be described as solid food — more or less what you’d expect of a British Rail buffet car in 1981.

Fast forward to Sunday lunchtime and the frissive sensation you get off the back of a four year old’s birthday party that was fuelled by a lack of sleep, the best part of a whole pizza and some cans of Amstel (which all parents in attendance agreed was an acceptable morning beer). I was wearing my new t-shirt, with the premium organic cotton, for the first time. Life was good.

The party finishes and my bladder is three cans of Amstel to the wind. My fractious daughter is asleep in the sling on my front. We set off on the twenty minute walk home. Nature and cheap nappies soon conspire to cover that new, premium organic, cotton t-shirt in piss — much to the delight of the assailant, who subsequently awakens and spends the rest of the journey home laughing at me, my full bladder, and my piss-soaked new t-shirt. I decide it’s probably OK to have a favourite child after all.

Handovers.

I found myself spending much of the week of the 15th July writing a handover document for my colleagues, dutifully detailing the various human relationships and technical esoterica that comprise my working life. It came to about five sides of A4 (or perhaps US Letter; a recent user profile rebuild really gave my Word defaults a mauling) which is a strange thing to have literally a third of your life reduced to, mostly in bullet point form. But reduced it is and, provided my colleagues can find some US Letter paper to print it on, they’ll be able to cover any cracks that might emerge while I’m away.

Our daughter is about nine months old and now it’s my turn to do about nine weeks of full-time parenting. at whatever time of day or night that might be needed. We had something of a handover week last week (well, we were both off work) but eschewed all practicalities by going off on holiday. A roof box but no routine, if you will. The week culminated in a twelve-hour drive home, followed by two hours of being pinched, bitten, sucked and screamed at by my babbling interlocutor before she conked out somewhere around half past three. One hopes it is not portentous.

Claire returns to work tomorrow, seemingly coincidentally on the same day our son’s nursery begins its summer closure. She just popped in to the living room and found me steeling myself for the week ahead (by online ordering school uniform from Asda). She threw the baby monitor down, next to me, on the sofa. “This is the ceremonial handover”, she said, before plugging in her work iPhone and disappearing to bed.

And so here we are. Handovers done, WordPress updated to the latest version, SSL certificates installed. Let the nine weeks begin. Again.

I’ve never seen Return of the Jedi

It was a year ago today I admitted to the select and respectable audience this blog once almost had that I’d never seen Star Wars. But then, thanks to being in the house on my own while my seven month old son slept, managed to make it happen.

A year to the day, I’m pleased to report to you that I’ve just this evening watched the hotly-anticipated follow-up, Return of the Jedi. The scenario will be familiar to many parents: home alone, the child asleep, quite enough sport-gambling thrills already had placing 25p bets on last night’s televised greyhound racing.

So, once I’d put all the little plastic bath toys away, tripped over the HappyLand railway set and told Iggle Piggle to fuck off for always being in the fucking way, I was ready. All I had to do was awaken The Force to be able to work the Sky Q remote (try it and you’ll understand), fight my way past all the Peppa Pig and In The Night Garden, sit back and enjoy this behemoth of the silver screen. And that’s pretty much what happened. But let’s talk, a little bit, about Peppa Pig and In The Night Garden. The televisual book-ends to my infant son’s day.

Peppa, his true third love (after milk and Burt the Monkey) whose presence will be requested (first thing after milk and Burt the Monkey) by a flying remote control and a truly impressive “oink oink” from the smallest member of the house. Sometimes I wonder whether we’ve accidentally managed to breed a child that’s part Gloucester Old Spot, but suddenly realise it’s only a five minute programme and THIS IS THE WINDOW NOW NOW NOW MAN if I actually want a shower. Which I do, obviously, because he’s somehow managed to get Weetabix in my hair.

And then there’s In The Night Garden. Thirty minutes when Sir Derek is personally supervising every single under five in the country as parents frantically try to get shit done (in my case: make him snack, offer him snack, don’t get offended by refusal of snack; put pushchair away; run bath; warm up milk; what was that crashing sound, don’t worry it’s just your son checking he does not yet have the strength to smash his HappyLand train through the plastic lid of your quite expensive record player).

Half an hour, every night. Sir Derek is in charge here. Sometimes it’s slightly less if we’re a bit late getting back from nursery because I’ve been chatting with one of the cool mums on the walk back, but a judicious and subtle bit of fast forwarding (not as easy as it sounds, this is Sky Q remember) during the duller moments of the programme help us to hit the bath at 18:50 with excellent consistency. The sort of consistency with which Arsene Wenger would be proud. (Just checked the spelling of his name and he’s 67 and French? Who knew.)

Anyway, what’s happened in that year between me watching Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back? Walking, eating and shouting (all on his terms, of course). A delightful array of animal impressions, always on tap. A fascination with dogs. Seeing Santa for the first time (which went predictably well). Trips to Brighton (train), Belgium (ferry, forgot to pay Dartford crossing charge), France (plane) and Horsham (car, remembered to pay Dartford crossing charge).

365 days of fucking brilliantness. That’s what happened. And I should write about it more, but I’m busy enjoying it. Enjoying it and then being absolutely fucking knackered.

Also I think I swear more.

Get back to work.

It was a Thursday, seven weeks in. The mother of my infant son had a couple of sequential days off work and planned to take him back to Suffolk for her parents to dote and friends to coo. Given it’s not socially acceptable to go to parent and baby sessions without a baby, and everyone I know is generally at work during the week, I arranged a ‘keep in touch’ day.

KIT days are an opportunity to go to work without needing to do any work. The idea is to attend team meetings, training sessions, seminars and the like – so you keep loosely up-to-date and don’t go back to work totally cold. And, because they are paid, they are also one of the greatest wheezes of the parenting business. Imagine getting paid to go to work and, quite legitimately, not getting your laptop out, checking e-mails, answering your phone. Not really doing very much at all, in fact. And you can do ten of them, subject to your employer agreeing. If nothing else, they’re a handy top up to Shared Parental Pay – especially for those taking a longer period of time out.

But it was really useful. I sat in on a supplier meeting in the morning and our home team meeting in the afternoon. The time around and between was useful for general immersion in office life, a good opportunity to listen and observe while not needing to be doing anything else and not needing to be involved. I found it a valuable and interesting exercise, perhaps something to try and do from time to time in the future. It being a Thursday, the apres-work was also pretty good. Bear in mind, though, the trendy wine bar near your place of work is unlikely to subscribe to a pricing strategy where patrons can get drunk for a tenner. If your main alcohol intake has been at parent and baby sessions in a local working mens, sports, or political club, this will come as something of an unpleasant surprise, a bit like the first round you buy in London in January after you’ve spent the previous fortnight up north.

 

Being back at work for real is an altogether different experience. It’s not like work was before, even when he was around. It feels strange to drop him at nursery on a morning and continue on without him; the last couple of months we’ve been everywhere and done everything together. The doctors, stay and play, swimming, the pub. He’s my little dude and I am bereft without him. I am sad for me, not for him – I know he is having a great time at nursery and developing at pace. I am sad for me, not for him – I feel like we should be sharing as many great times as possible, adventuring out in the world together.

 

But at least we have the whole of the future.

 

Mothering Sunday

I should have known the moment I mistakenly took the third exit from the roundabout and ended up on the wrong side of George Lane, a railway and a station standing between where we were and where we wanted to be. That’s when I should have realised. That’s when I should have just ordered a bouquet instead.

But instead I pulled over and chose Google Maps to help me around the intricacies of the South Woodford one-way system. The destination was the pottery cafe I’d visited with George a few weeks back. It was on that occasion I’d had the idea: what could be better, I thought, than for my infant son and I to produce a unique and touching ceramic work for Claire’s first Mothering Sunday?

I should probably point out, at this point, that my talents are not well-weighted in the direction of the arts. I would have done well to remember the appraisal a particularly malevolent primary school teacher once made of one of my less meritorious paintings. Somewhat invidiously, and to the entire class, he described it as ‘an explosion in a beetroot factory’ (it was a purple tree). If only I’d pointed out beetroot is grown on farms, not made in factories, and that he should get his own house in order before publicly shaming a nine year old, the callous ginger dickhead.

I found a parking space after four spins around the one-way system, Google Maps increasingly incredulous at us reaching our destination and driving on time and time again. “An hour should be long enough” I thought, cockily, while feeding the meter. “We’re only decorating an item of crockery”.

This was before I had attempted to apply paint to my infant son’s hands and feet and then produce a reasonable image of them on a plate. It takes longer, is harder, creates more mess and generates more reciprocated resentment between you and your child than might one might initially expect. One of the staff at Creative Biscuit saw our trouble and, having probably heard about Beetrootgate, intervened with calm, measured, experience and got the prints made in a matter of some seconds. All that was left to do was for me to paint a few suitably sentimental words, finish off my coffee, pay up and get off.

Painting words on a plate is difficult. Really difficult. Next time I see a proper hand-painted plate, I will take a moment to reflect on the skill and experience of its artisan creator. After seeing my failed attempts at writing the word ‘to’, one of the other staff suggested I might want to write the words in pencil and then just go over them in paint. (Hopefully I’m not giving away too many trade secrets of the fine china industry; sincere apologies if I unwittingly cause a crisis in Stoke-on-Trent.)

All the words set out in pencil. Colours chosen. Paint brush ready. The first letter. Second letter. Third. Totally in the zone. I was half way through an H when the I was alerted to the gentleman newsreader Harvey Cook’s unmistakable delivery playing out over the cafe’s hifi for the second time since my arrival and, for my subconscious, a helpful reminder that I should stick an extra hour on the parking – and, with a be-camera’d Civil Enforcement Officer a matter of meters up the street, at the most fortuitous time.

Lettering successfully complete and, with another 50 minutes of paid-for parking in hand and driving absolutely the right behaviours, there was clearly scope to add some extra words. My infant son’s name and the year, in Roman numerals, on the front. A little motto and the date of the prints, again in Roman numerals, on the back. Because Roman numerals are a bit special, aren’t they? A little club that not everyone’s in, an opportunity to stop and conjure a memory in years to come as the cogs slowly turn and the date is revealed. Either that or the mark of a pretentious elitist, eager to impress upon you their intellectual superiority, such as the person responsible for their perpetual use in the credits of BBC Television programmes up until really very recently.

Our infant son presented his mother with the plate this morning, along with a small card and box of macarons. A question, which initially appeared innocent, came quickly: “What does MMVI mean?”

“It means twenty sixt…oh, bollocks.”

Mother's Day 2015
Mother’s Day 2006

Happy Mother’s Day, Claire.

Holiday

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, culminating in a long weekend away at Center Parcs. Just Claire and me, our infant son, and ten of our friends-who-don’t-have-children. All of us, along with four and a half litres of gin, eight bottles of Prosecco, a case of red wine, two crates of Peroni, a selection of bottled real ale, a box of infant formula and a selection box of Ella’s. All tastes catered for.

At this point, it’s important for you to know that Claire comes from something of a ‘planny’ family. Lunches are agreed at least ten clear working days in advance, weekend visits scheduled months ahead, holidays planned years in advance. Sometimes I’m genuinely surprised there’s not a series of allocated time slots pinned on door to their lavatory. I don’t come from a family of planners; my lot are more likely to decide to make the 180-mile trip only to find we’ve gone out.

Anyway. The good thing about one of us being a plan fan is that we usually have an enviable set of gigs to look forward to, a Saturday night table at one of London’s better eateries, at least one reasonably priced flight to somewhere new and interesting, etc. That was back when we did things like go to concerts, eat in restaurants other than Giraffe and holiday in places that aren’t just an hour up the M1. But did we manage to secure any baby activities at Center Parcs? Or did we spectacularly fail to secure the boy a single minute of creche, baby sensory or messy club? And, with the infant swimming session scheduled at 9am on a Saturday, the boy’s swimming shorts were destined to remain untainted by chlorine.

He was stuck with us, our ten friends, and the largest cache of alcohol that’s ever been driven away from Tesco Bedford in a small family hatchback. Thankfully, there is a mutual love and respect between drunk people and babies, probably borne out of the similarities between the two: undulating emotions, an insatiable appetite for snoozing, tearful wake-ups, and a love of MC Hammer.

Not being completely irresponsible, we made a pact. Claire would swap Captain Calamari for Captain Morgan on the Friday and I’d get to decide which particular red wine most looked like Ella’s Prunes Prunes Prunes on the Saturday. Everyone else would be all even on both nights. Except we’re all well into our thirties now and, never the fan of drinking alone, I’m sadly unable to report any findings.

The simple things

You might think that counting to seven is a simple and straightforward task, something which you’d be capable of in almost any situation and most, if not all, circumstances. I, once, was like you.

However:
In the last week, I’ve needed to count to seven on around thirty or forty occasions – while adding scoops of formula into a bottle – and think I’ve managed to do it, and being absolutely sure I’ve got it right, about half the time. The rest is anyone’s guess. I’d be pretty sure they were all one either side of seven. Given that he’s both a little chubby chops and a bottomless pit, I can only assume it’s ending up about right. Either that or I’m managing to feed him both too much and too little at the same time.

A number of other useful life skills have packed up and pissed off in the last week, presumably thanks to the heady combination of sleep depravation and spending my days with someone who communicates solely in grunts, cries, chuckles, and using his fingernails to lacerate your face:

  • various bruises attest to my latent ability to walk down our hallway while avoiding static hazards (e.g. the thermostat, door frames);
  • I have forgotten the process of ‘making a cup of tea’ beyond putting a tea bag and some hot water in a mug (for the record, this is: stir it a bit, add some milk, leave it a bit, stir it a bit more, remove tea bag, stir it a bit more, leave for a while, drink (NB this is definitely the correct way to make a cup of tea));
  • knowing that it is not possible to reason with a six month old as they generally don’t understand what you’re saying (“if you stop kicking your heels in your dirty nappy I will make extra sure I put the right amount of powder in your next bottle”) or why you’re crying (it’s 3am, your infant son is engaging in a dirty protest in your white-walled living room, you know full well you stand zero chance of being able to count to seven);
  • how to work Sky+ (“make sure you delete the one we’ve just watched, not the one that’s recording now.” (Did anyone tape this week’s Deutschland 83? Asking for a friend.));
  • knowing that you probably shouldn’t make wisecracks in a big WhatsApp group where you only know about half the people (I’m no longer going to a birthday party this Friday).

They’re just the day-to-day faculties I’ve lost. In terms of actual possessions, I’ve actually lost my actual wallet, containing all my actual bank cards, my actual driving licence, my actual Nectar card, my actual Tesco Clubcard, my actual My Waitrose card, my actual AA membership card (Relay, Home-Start and Stay Mobile cover – a small price to pay for a great big piece of mind when you drive a ten year old Italian hatchback), and two slightly used books of actual Royal Mail stamps. Plus some receipts for some stuff. And an EE SIM card I use at Glastonbury.

I last had my actual wallet on Thursday afternoon at Big Tesco in Edmonton (the one next to Ikea) where I stocked up on a wide range of groceries (formula, some Ella’s, nappies, nappy bags, baby wipes, Calpol, some bottle teats, a bottle scrubbing brush, a pack of muslins, a bunch of bananas) and then, buoyed by my success, decided it would be a good idea to take my infant son to soft play. I took a photo of my infant son looking unimpressed at being in a ball pool (while trying to work out how to eat one of the balls) and another of him crying in a Little Tikes fire engine. Dad of the year.

Alex in a ball pool
Anyway. It is all very well larking about in a ball pool with your infant, occasionally tearful, son on a Thursday afternoon when you and your mate Lynne have got the place to yourselves. It is quite another thing to return on a very busy Friday morning, without your infant son (who I needed to guard the car because, you know, traffic wardens) or mate Lynne, and start feeling every square inch of the ball pool floor as part of the eternal search for something that’s forever out of reach. Top tip: if you are a lone adult male who has legitimate reason to enter a children’s soft play area for a good rummage, you might want to explain yourself to at least one of the mums. On the upside, I did find a bit of a Tracker bar and the centre manager was, eventually, most understanding. Then we went home (no parking ticket, well done son) and I rang all the banks and supermarkets and asked them to send me new cards, please. “Certainly, Mr. Jeffery. Can I just take the second and seventh letters from your telephone banking password?”

Nothing’s simple.

I’ve never seen The Empire Strikes Back

It’s half past one. The alarm clock I didn’t set goes off and there’s no option to press snooze. The subconscious ability to ignore such nocturnal animations is, according to the gentle shake on my right arm, no longer a relevant life skill. Up we get, one eye squinting and the other still shut. Try not to walk into the wardrobe. It’s like a hangover but without the regret.

He settles back down and resurfaces at a more reasonable time. It’s still dark but at least Radio 4 has started up for the day. A feed and a change and Karthi Gnanasegaram’s first sports desk are a recipe for our first nap. We wake up, a shade before eight o’clock, to both a call from the Sky installer and a house bereft of its mother. We’re on our own but, hey, at least we’ll have Sky Sports before lunchtime. As it is, the Sky man’s in and out before Karthi’s final bulletin (“I hope the rest of the day is this easy, it’s too cold to be putting dishes up outside”). But where there’s yin there’s invariably yang; the BT Openreach man later spends three hours up a ladder trying to install our new phone line. I start moving our network devices over to the new connectivity during his afternoon nap. The boy’s, not the BT Openreach man’s. I don’t think people at BT get to have afternoon naps. Not since privatisation.

An important aspect of looking after an infant is, according to those who have done it, to get out of the house every day. It was nice to visit Lynne (good chat) and Ari (I now know how soon babies can negotiate a flight of stairs and turn on all the bathroom taps) and spend the walk back discussing the relative merits of a particular brand of high chair with my mother. The relative merit is, in this case, that my mum’s willing to buy one for us. We just have to pick a colour. Good job there’s only thirteen of them to chose from.

Bedtime passes without incident. But that unexpected alarm goes off again before long and yesterday’s shake of the arm has become a gentle prod in the ribs. We go through the motions (note double entendre) and go back to bed. No time for Karthi this morning, though, because there’s a Test match to watch. Despite it being the first opportunity to watch cricket at home in nearly four years, I have absolutely no idea what happened or what I did instead of paying attention to it. Some laundry got done, much to everyone’s surprise, and we visited some of the North Circular’s most popular family destinations (Mothercare, Costco, Sainsbury’s petrol station). Alex’s good behaviour was rewarded with a new pair of faster teats, mine with a crate of Peroni.

The evening was unremarkable and passed without incident. He slept, Claire went out for a pal’s birthday, I ordered a Papa John’s and watched Star Wars for the first time. I go to bed wondering what I’m going to use as an unusual fact about myself at the next team-building away day.

“I’ve never seen The Empire Strikes Back.” Job done.

 

Nine weeks, you say?

I’m dad to Alexander (that’s still weird to write)  and have been since the beginning of last August. At some point in last year’s mild autumn, Alex’s mum and I decided that it would be good for me to take decent chunk of time off work and, instead, hang out with the little man. The benefits are many: I get to spend a chunk of time really getting to know and look after our son; my partner gets to launch herself back into the career she loves without the added anxiety of wondering how the boy’s getting on at nursery; he’ll get to try some new experiences, like solid food and going to the swimming pool; you’ll get to read about how we get on, if you want.

I’m also looking forward to having some time away from work and, perhaps, developing a bit more perspective from that. I’ve always, at 32, been employed or in full-time education; no gap year, no career break, only a fortnight on JSA between jobs in March 2006. Not that it has been deliberate, and definitely not the result of a particularly strong work ethic or careerist tendency, it’s just that I’ve got on with things and this is how it’s ended up. Claire found one of the challenges of maternity leave was not having the mental stimulation afforded by regular work; meanwhile, a company iPhone has allowed my work to become an ever-present blancmange, the beneficiary of which I am yet to encounter.

Claire has been helping me to draw up a list of things to do. There’s a couple of sessions left in the current season of baby massage class. Martin doesn’t work Mondays, Lynne’s around on a Thursday. Alice says I’m always welcome to go to baby cinema. The NCT mums are going to set up a new WhatsApp group. The health visitors run a weigh-in on a Wednesday lunchtime. The flat could always be cleaner. My thoughts, meanwhile, are focused on how to engineer nap time so he sleeps during live play and wakes to save me from Bob Willis’ apathetic and bewildering approach to analysis.

But assuming we’ll be knocked out of the Twenty20 early on, I’ve had some other ideas. We could crack on with some of the remaining Hundred Things, or get around to shimmying back up The Orbit thanks to my annual ticket. There are routes from the local bus station which end up in all manner of alluring places: Chingford Hatch, Barkingside, Yardley Lane Estate. At least one of those has to be worth a punt. There’s the monthly E17 Baby Social, where a gin and tonic is £2, and there are all manner of opinions to express on the Walthamstow Parents Facebook page. My mum will almost certainly make it down for a few day trips.

Last weekend’s test flight was pretty successful. There are a couple of warm-up days later this week, followed by a week in which to reflect, hand over all my work projects, go for a goodbye beer with the team, make sure there’s a series link set for Diagnosis Murder, and watch as the Post-War Architecture of Walthamstow calendar flips over to February and shit gets real. And probably hits the fan, goes all up his back, etc. etc.

Nine weeks. That’s how long for.