The Write Stuff

In which our reluctant hero realises that he may have done something good, quite by accident.

Earlier in the week, I read an article called “I Write Letters to My 8-Year-Old So I Can Reach Her When She’s Grown.

The title is full on Ronseal, so there’s little to add apart from that mum has written a letter each month since before her child was born and that there’s 204 letters at the time of writing. By my reckoning, either the child should now be sixteen or seventeen, or the letters were started about eight years before conception. But who am I to criticise the logic, math, or spelling, of an American?

I confess that the writing style isn’t really my cup of tea, seemingly page after page of “you’re so beautiful and wonderful” and “I’m a bit rubbish but I try soooo hard.”

How is the author is going to use the letters to reach her daughter? Well, at one point, mum imagines her daughter locked in her room while she waits patiently outside. Assuming that the daughter is sixteen by then (as there’s talk of boyfriends and that is NOT happening before sixteen in my house) there will be over, like, six hundred letters or something, if the same unique counting system is adopted.

Reach the daughter? In a locked room? Slipping the letters under the door, as the author proposes, would certainly mean that they reach her daughter, but how she might read them while trapped under a sea of paper when they’re all delivered is anyone’s guess. And would a sixteen year old be receptive to such a blanket of emotions anyway?

Flippancy asides, the idea of writing a monthly letter is an interesting one that caught my attention. Being British and a bloke, I exactly match the core demographic of people that don’t really do emotions as well as they might. So, capturing some of the thoughts and feelings from the good and bad bits of life may create a nice thing to look back upon. Not just by children once grown, but by mums and dads too.

Assuming that tuition fees don’t surpass the national debt of a small country, there’s affordable houses to live in, and jobs left to do, then, one day, we will have to let go of our offspring. And, apparently, it won’t be easy. I slightly dispute this given our current plans to sell our two year old if he doesn’t start behaving soon. (Just how do you shatter a DVD with your bare hands at that age?)

The author describes the change in her writing over the years, with the letters starting out as the story of her growing child, but evolving into a journal of how she has developed as a parent. So not just a tool to reach out with, but a record for mum to look back upon, remember, and cherish too.

This is something that I can in part associate with, simply from my current vocation of churning this guff out every week.

When I agreed to write this blog, I had no real plan. “Parenting stuff written by a Dad” was pretty much the brief. I thought that the content would naturally chronicle the crazy antics of my own children (what else?) but, looking back, it’s more loosely about them and more about the parenting process.

I expected the posts to peter out over a few weeks but, amazingly, my blog is alive and well over half a year on. Blimey. At times I have considered stopping writing it, primarily because it takes far more time than you think to plan and put together, and, secondly, as nobody really seems interested in reading it if the stats are anything to go by.

But then I was encouraged to think about who I am really writing for. My blog may say “NCT” at the top, but what I’ve created to date is a permanent record of 20,000 or so words touching on my family and parts of our lives that would have probably been lost and forgotten otherwise.

Ok, my approach may be to do less of the soppy stuff and more of the cataloguing disasters and being cross with the kids, but I’ve done it. Almost half a novel’s worth of thoughts and memories no less. Words that I may, one day, be able to print off and, page by page, slip under the door of a sulky teenager to remind them what a pain in the ear hole that they were. Oh, and of some of the fun we all had too.

So, will this inspire you to pick up a pen, keyboard, or a portable telephone and start scribbling something of your own too? Try it. I’m not a writer, so if I can do it, anyone can. You never know, it might be fun*.

(*) It won’t be.

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Come Fly With Me

In which our reluctant hero longs for some peace and quiet.

On Sunday we went to a Remembrance Day service at Telford Town Park. It was a poignant and well attended event, held in a park with fantastic facilities for children (more of this sort of thing in Wolverhampton please, council) which helped make a family day out of it.

I was busy playing the hymns with my local brass band during the service, which meant that my wife was stuck babysitting the kids. To be fair to them, they were both pretty good. The eldest sat beautifully throughout, taking everything in as flags were raised, candles lit, wreaths laid down and the last post played. The youngest only tried to escape a couple of times, which is impressive for him, joining the cornet section of the band at one point late on. Houdini tricks asides, there was a more tricky challenge to be negotiated. The two minute silence.

Asking a two year old to keep quiet for any length of time is like leaving a President-elect in a room with a big red button with “nuke” written on it, and asking them not to touch anything while you pop out. They’ll probably sit nicely for a bit, but you know that, at some point soon, there’s going to be a very loud bang.

“What’s that noise mummy?”
“Chocolate now please?”

Etc. Etc…

The two minutes must have felt like two hours for mum who deployed well-honed distraction tactics until the reveille finally echoed out to mark the end. Fortunately, nobody seemed to mind the couple of brief interruptions. One mum came over to say “well done” having left her children at home to avoid putting herself in the same situation. Which is a bit of a shame, as surely it’s better to raise the children’s awareness of why there is an annual act of Remembrance and not worry about a bit of noise?

But, as parents, worry we do. Well some of us do, and we’ve all no doubt tutted at the ones that don’t. Quietly, under our breath, as not to cause a fuss.

The worry of being able to keep the children happy and in-check effects a large range of our decisions. From which restaurant to eat at, travel choices, where to go on holiday, and what time we do things to name but a few. It’s not just about disturbing other people either. Yes, a flying fish finger or turkey twizzler in the face and a load of shouting may ruin the romantic meal of the couple at the table opposite, but it’s no fun for us, the parents, either. And besides, it serves them right for not going to somewhere nicer, the cheapskates.

Thankfully, it is getting slightly easier as our children get older. But it’s not that long ago that they were six months old and barely two, and that was a whole different ball game. Half an hour spent eating microwaved slop at the local child friendly restaurant chain may be one thing, but the thought of attempting a long train journey or, worse still, a flight sends shivers down my spine even now.

We’ve all been there. Check in at the airport. Grab some food and maybe a sneaky half. Wander around duty free to kill some time. Join the queue and spot the family with young children. Eek! Panic, then spend the time up to boarding hoping that you’ve won at “seat roulette” with the top prize being that you’re sat nowhere near them.

So, do these parents deserve a medal or do they simply need locking up for their own safety?

If you’re not sure whether or not taking a flight, train or long car trip with young children in tow will be OK, I have devised a simple test that you can try out at home to help avoid a potentially disastrous ordeal.

First of all, head to the smallest room in your house. Line up as many chairs as there are adults, and as many high chairs as there are children, facing a wall about two feet away. Strap the children in, sit down and see how long you can stay there without getting bored or stressed with only a cabin friendly sized bag of paraphernalia and a handful of nondescript snacks to distract them with. If anybody cracks in the first three hours then forget it. To test for a long train or car journey, simply reposition the seats accordingly and shout “Are we nearly there yet!” for the entire time.

So, as parents, what do we do? Stay indoors until the kids reach a certain age? Of course not. Plan, yes. Try to make it as painless for you and everyone else, yes. But at the end of the day children are children and things don’t always go to plan.

And that’s worth remembering.

Equal or Opposite

In which our reluctant hero bravely tackles a topical issue.

While working through my weekly bag of fan mail, awards, gifts and begging letters, I came across a message from a mum (and presumably a big fan) who was incensed about gender stereotyping. On a Tuesday. Blimey.

Apparently, some Strictly Come Dancing (whatever that is) contestant or other, Greg Rutherford, and his family faced a backlash from a very angry mob of keyboard warriors after their two year old son appeared on the show, dressed in clothes that some insightful commentators have referred to as being “a bit girly.”

“Gender stereotyping for kids drives me nuts!” the message continued. Go girl!

Clothing choices on prime time BBC asides, it’s the 21st Century so surely the notion of gender stereotyping still being around is a terrible mistake, yes? It’s not the 1930’s after all. We sent our top man (me) to investigate further.

Avoiding the obvious banana skin of trying to rationalise the opinions of a bunch of “Strictly” fans through the medium of lazy stereotyping, I instead turned to Google. Facts. That’s what we need. All of them, via a cursory glance at the first couple of pages of hits.

I confess that I hadn’t spent much time pondering this issue until now. Our youngest child, a boy, is two and a bit and our eldest, a girl, has recently turned four. Having a boy and a girl, there is a wide range of things to do, and both “girls” and “boys” toys (not my labels) around the house to play with. Mostly on the floor.

Things got handed down from sister to brother. There lies a pink sheet on his hand-me-down cot bed for no other reason than it fits the bed and we haven’t got round to buying another one. Bothered? His sister “borrows” things bought for the little man “just until he’s big enough.” They both have Fireman Sam swimming suits because they both like Fireman Sam and that is what they picked. This all seems like pretty progressive, if not all that planned, parenting to me. Go us!

Back to Google and the search results were worse than I had predicted. They always are. And not just the ones with the phrases “Donald Trump” and “elected President of the United States of America” in the the same sentence. Clothes, toys, film, television, adverts, shops, schooling, books, you name it, they’re all helping to subliminally define gender role behaviour. And much of it seemingly a little out of our control.

The biggest influence on our son is his elder sister. Fact. He will happily be the patient while playing hospitals. He will also demand equal custody of the angel’s wings and cat’s ears when dressing up. He’ll make dinner or cups of coffee on the toy cooker, or push dolls, teddies and other things around in a buggy if there’s one to hand. He has the occasional meltdown wanting Rapunzel on the telly, because Rapunzel is on the telly a lot as his sister likes it. It’s a familiarity thing.

Equally, he will play with cars, tractors, lorries and the like as he loves things with wheels. The only thing he wants for Christmas is a green Number 1 (Tettenhall Wood to Dudley) bus. No, really. Football, golf, Lego, selling ice creams at the pretend shop. He asks for Fireman Sam and Paw Patrol on the telly because he likes them. He plays with what he likes, when he likes, as he knows no different. Just as it should be.

Our eldest was pretty much the same at his age but, two years on, things have changed. She is growing up and becoming a sponge for ideas and information. From seemingly nowhere, she has become obsessed with Disney Princesses, which I initially thought odd, not least as she’s never had any of the dolls, films or anything else associated with them. But then I twigged. The biggest influence on our recently turned four year old is advertising.

Adverts. Adverts between programmes, sneaked into the programmes and films, in magazines, in shops, on posters, on the sides of buses, on clothes, and in books. Most of it is gender suggestive, ALL of it after my cash. Dolls, tea sets, hairdryers and princesses for girls. Superheroes, cars, tool sets and footballs for boys. The adverts with girls playing in are usually quiet, pretty, and submissive. The ones with boys are often loud and in your face. Those with both girls and boys playing together are usually for board games that the grandparents can join in with at Christmas.

Even children’s films are heavily stereotyped. Princesses, most of them negative role models (“Ooh, please save me handsome prince”) for girls and the square chinned, muscle-bound Buzz Lightyear saving the universe on behalf of the boys. What sort of messages are they sending out? Actually, let’s leave Toy Story out of this. It’s ace.

Almost everything comes in pink or blue these days. You can spot a girls section or boys section in a toy or clothes shop a mile off. It is probably a lot worse now than when I was growing up in the 1970’s too, when everything was made in more gender neutral primary colours. And the 1950’s, when everything was in black and white.

Campaigns like “Let Toys be Toys” have probably got a point, if for no other reason than it makes handing things down tricky. No reasonable person would pop a young boy in a bed with hand-me-down pink sheets after all.

So, are we powerless to stop it? To a degree, yes. Advertisers, retailers and the like certainly need to be more responsible. According to an article in The Independent a couple of years ago, some are making progress, which is good, but there’s much more that needs to be done against a lot of heel dragging. And drag they will. The formula works. It makes money. Forget the rest.

However, as parents, we can, and should, make efforts to challenge this through our own behaviour. Should I be worried that my daughter was bursting to tell me that “I’ve made your dinner with my mummy while you were at work” is falling into the same trap? No. Because although it’s clearly woman’s work (*ducks*), there’s days that she makes dinner with daddy while mummy is out at work. And when the little one is a bit bigger, he will too. What better role models than mum and dad?

And the children, and my wife, can all start taking turns washing the car, cutting the hedge, doing the “Shake and Vac” and emptying the bins when the time comes, because I’ll be old and in need of a nice sit down by then. By the fire, with a pipe. As it should be. Probably.

They Say it’s Your Birthday

In which our reluctant hero goes last-minute shopping.

Children’s birthday parties are peculiar events to plan. When the children are far too little to appreciate it, you hire a hall, invite loads of guests, spend an age making butties, getting stressed, and hoovering crisps and Play Doh out of every uncovered surface before you are allowed to go home. Or worse still, you may attempt the same scale bash at home in summer. It’ll be fine as long as it doesn’t rain. In July. What are the chances? Oh.

By the time that the little people get to nursery age, you’ve wised up and spend weeks, months possibly, planting the idea that having a couple of friends over, or a day out, would be far more fun. And, more importantly, both easier and (probably) cheaper. Keep the “easier” bit to yourself though.

On Tuesday, it was Birthday Eve at our house. Presents wrapped long ago and hidden. Then found. And hidden again. Sherry, mince pies and a carrot ready to he placed neatly on the hearth for Father Birthday when he pops down the chimney. It’s nice being organised. Ish. Apparently, there’s still a card and balloons for me to buy on my way home though.

I arrive back into Wolverhampton from Leeds with about twenty minutes to go before the shops shut (to give myself plenty of time, obviously) and head for a well known high street card outlet. No, not that one. The other one.

Balloons and a princess card with a badge with a number four on it. What could be easier? Within minutes, I realised that I was about to fail at the first hurdle, there being no cards remotely suited to my or, more importantly, my daughter’s needs. I left the shop and headed for the other one. You know, the one that you thought that I had gone to first.

It being November 1st, entering the second card shop was like entering Santa’s grotto. Snow was falling. There were elves, reindeer, and even Christmas carols blaring out. The clock was ticking. I needed to get out of here quickly. So, I asked someone for help.

“Hello. Can you tell me if you sell balloons with pictures of princesses on please?”
“Yes. At the back of the shop.”

I headed off and eventually spotted the sadly-far-too-familiar image of Anna (No daddy. It’s ‘Anna’, not ‘Anna!’) and Elspeth, or whatever the other one is called, splashed across hundreds of tinfoil packets of deflated “up” balloons. I located another assistant.

“Excuse me. Could you tell me how much this balloon is please? There’s no price on it.”
“The Deluxe ones are £4.99.”
“But this one isn’t a Deluxe one.”
“Yes it is.”
“It isn’t.”
“Oh, yes it is.”
“Oh, no it isn’t. It says ‘Standard’ on it. Look.”
“The standard ones are £2.99.”
“Thank you. And do you sell normal blow up balloons with princesses on too?”
“I’m sorry, we don’t. Maybe try the other shop that you probably went to first because it’s cheaper, you skinflint.”

Quite.

Up balloon. Tick. Now for the card. There’s a pretty shoddy selection here too, but I find one with a scene from Cinderella and a number four badge attached. It’s even got a pumpkin on too. Result! I go to pay.

“Hello. Just these please.”
“Do you want the balloon blowing up?”
“No, I think we’ve got a helium canister at home in the shed to do it, thanks.”
“Pardon?”
“Yes, I would like it blown up please.”
“That’s fine. What colour string would you like?”
“Eh? I don’t know. What colours do you have?”
“Well, there’s red, or white, or yellow, or green, or black, or purple, or…”
“Can I just have one that matches the balloon please?”
“Yes. We normally use pink for this balloon.”
“Do you? Pink will be fine, thank you.”
“Would you like a weight for the string?”
“Does it come with one?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“And how much does a weight cost?”
“It’s 99p.”
“I’ll have one then please.”
“That’s fine. What colour would you like?”
“Eh? I don’t know. What colours do you have?”
“Well, there’s red, or white, or yellow, or green, or black, or purple, or…”
“Can I just have one that matches the balloon please?”
“Yes. We normally use pink for this balloon.”
“Do you? Pink will be fine, thank you.”
“How long would you like the string?”
“Pardon?”
“How long? Ceiling height, head height, desk height, short length, long length, somewhere in between?”
“Somewhere in between… I think. It’s for a four year old. Did you notice the card?”
“Yes. I can tie it and leave some extra string around the weight if you like so that you can adjust it when you get home?”
“Is that how you normally do it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“That would be splendid.”
“Would you like it in a bag?”
“Does it come with one?”
“No, it doesn’t…”

Just buy a birthday card and some balloons on your way home, they said. It will be fun, they said. It turns out that card shops are no place for blokes. Who knew?

Eventually, I escaped and headed back to shop one to purchase normal balloons with a number four on. I was fairly confident that they would be obtained by handing over a pound and grunting. Just like the staff do.

Mission almost accomplished – I just needed to sneak it all back in the house undetected – I headed for the bus.

Ping! What’s that? Oh, a message on my phone.

“Things I need that I forgot at Sainsburys;
Orange sweets (something that could look like carrots – look into Halloween leftovers) – to put in my melted Olaf pudding.
Double cream to make ice cream.
White paper/plastic cups.”

Fin.