Poetry Blog: Dad

I wrote this poem fairly recently and although the circumstances have changed for the better since then, the sentiment behind it remains very much the same.

It’s a poem about my dad, who at the time of writing, I hadn’t seen for 18 months. I hadn’t seen my mam either, come to think about it. Because they live together, which is usually the way when you’ve been married for 50 odd years. But it was speaking to my dad that prompted me to write.

Speaking to him shocked me a little bit, despite the fact that I was aware of probably a lot of things about him from the 18 months when I’d not been around him. I was also very much aware of his age and this should have been an indicator of the fact that he was getting old. And yet, speaking to him and hearing what sounded like a very old man on the other end of the phone, gave me a bit of a jolt. He sounded not only old, but frail, perhaps even ill.

It led me to sit, worrying, before then spending time reminiscing for most of the rest of the day. So having thought about my dad a lot afterwards, I sat down and wrote the following.

Dad

The drudgery of another working week done and I'm preparing for the next one
as my phone alerts me to the terror of a voicemail.
You sound urgent, but noticeably frail, more my grandad than my dad.
"When you get this, call. Straight away."

I sit down nervously, to return the call, pre-empt the bad news,
aware of hospital appointments, complaints, tests.
I needn't have bothered as the 'news' is nothing at all,
just a parent checking in. But still you sound different.

I'm reminded that, despite middle age, I'm still 'the bairn'
and continue to be wrapped in cotton wool, drip-fed information
on a 'he doesn't need to know' basis.
I can't trust your reassurance, but can't question it either.

You sound different; where once there was the toughness
of teak, now in its place squats a weakness as the ravages of
age take hold and remind me that you won't be here forever.
You're failing, ever so slightly, when I never thought you would.

That night, I can't escape you as you take root in my head.
The sound of you; segs on concrete, returning home with the paper.
Clearing your throat at 6am, tapping a razor on the sink, 
oblivious to those of us trying to sleep. Later you'd leave the car running
on the drive to warm up, just in case anyone hadn't yet been woken.

I see you emerging from the car after the Cup Final, crestfallen,
unwittingly signalling my own life of sporting misery.
Drunk on New Year's Eve, incongruously dressed in a kilt,
jiving with our neighbour on another package holiday; mesmerising.
Coming through the front door, hands black after another day running the yard.

Later, I feel you chasing me up the stairs, when my smart mouth ran away,
smell the sharp tinge of metal on your work clothes, 
the fug of flatulence as I open our living room door and the smell
seems to slap me in the face.

I smile at the pints we shared, the fish and chips, taste the 
cheese on toast you volunteered me for at the lull in Sportsnight,
hear your laugh, bellowing, a crude comment, a ruffle of my hair,
remember how you reduced me to tears telling your friends of your pride in me,
your son, the clever bugger. I see the picture of you
with your grandson and those tears burn my face again.

We haven't awkwardly hugged in far too long. 
I'm not ready for what inevitably comes next, even if no one will tell me
until the very last minute anyway.

The poem’s about just sitting thinking about my dad and the way I remember him. These are memories from along time ago and it seems obvious that he’d be very different now. So I suppose, it’s a poem about a number of other things too. Growing old, change, personality, perception. Certainly my perception of my dad has been that he’s invincible. While he wasn’t a hero figure growing up, he still just seemed to have a solidity about him. Speaking to him that a few weeks ago, he seemed to have lost that solidity.

I’ve since been able to visit my parents and although it wasn’t an upsetting visit – in fact it was truly lovely just to be able to be in the same room as them again – it was was a bit of a shock. The reality that my dad is now an octogenarian was unavoidable. And while that sounds silly, it was something that I hadn’t given too much thought beforehand. My dad was just my dad.

When I was younger my dad always seemed old. Anyone who’s been your typical teenager will recognise that feeling! So seeing him hit 60, retire and being the age he is now, didn’t feel like a big deal. He was old, just like he’d always been. It’s funny how just the sound of someone’s voice on the phone can shake you to your boots. Writing the poem helped me deal with how it all made me feel.

One last thing; the line about the sound of his ‘segs’ on concrete. That’s one that will mean something or absolutely nothing to readers. To explain, ‘segs’ are/were the little strips of metal that would often be on the soles of shoes and boots, I guess to protect said soles. They made a very satisfying noise when a person walked, a kind of scraping click. I don’t even know if ‘segs’ is the right word for them, but my dad’s shoes and boots always had them on throughout the 70s and 80s.

I hope you enjoyed the poem. Maybe it made you think about your own parents. Hopefully it provoked happy memories. I’d love to hear what you thought.

Is it me, or are kids just weird?

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Another weird drawing. That’s me on the left. Read on to find out what I’m doing.

Behold below a conversation that I overheard a few years ago between my then 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

Daughter: I’ve got loads of boyfriends.

Son: Have you?

Daughter: Yeah. I had more, but I broke up with some.

Son: Oh. So who do you go out with?

Daughter: I mainly go out with Ryan.

Son: Ryan? Oh. Do you kiss him? Do you kiss him up the bum?

Now ask yourself the question in the headline for this blog. I dare you to answer no.

If you’re a parent this is the kind of nonsense you’ll have heard a thousand times before from your kids. In fact, the chances are that you’ve heard a lot worse or a lot stranger. If you’re a parent who also works with kids then this type of thing is probably an hourly occurrence. There’s a reason for that and there’s no escaping it. Kids are weird.

Just over twelve years ago, as I looked down on my newly born daughter lying on our bed – she was born at home – there were many things I imagined. This beautiful, scrawny little thing was coming with me on a myriad of adventures. We’d be best pals, laughing and joking, I’d be there for her dark moments and I’d share in her many triumphs. That much was sure. She’d be a straight ‘A’ student – because back then no-one had had the 0-9 grading brainwave – she’d be imaginative, friendly, bright, good-humoured, sensible. She definitely wouldn’t be weird. And yet, nine years on she’d be discussing her loads of boyfriends with her brother, who in turn it seemed had become some kind of pervert after only six years on the planet. And why? Because kids are weird, that’s why.

Think about it. Every parent will have marvelled at their kids talking to themselves or holding conversations with something imaginary, or even tangible, like dolls or cuddly toys. And they’ll have done this for ages as well. Cute right? No. Weird is the word you’re looking for. Face it, half of that conversation isn’t actually happening is it?

And then there’s the drawings. As a parent you’ll have received hundreds of well-meaning gifts in the form of drawings or paintings from your children. All handed over with a certain level of expectancy, and of course you manage that expectancy by reacting in a ridiculously positive way. This drawing or painting is literally the best thing you’ve ever seen and it’s so much better than the last amazing one they presented you with all of twenty minutes ago.

But in reality, these drawings are almost always bizarre. In our house – and I’m sure in many others – they seem to regularly feature penises. My son especially seemed adept at drawing me as an actual cock. A family picture where mummy is recognizably small and dark-haired, his sister, slightly smaller, lighter hair, but again quite human and Dylan himself, probably holding mummy’s hand as the smallest of the family. And then daddy, drawn as an enormous phallus with two feet attached to the bottom of him that inevitably look like balls.

To add to this artistic madness he once also did a family drawing where everyone was present and again, recognizably human, while I was not only todger-like, but I was also having a poo. He even triumphantly announced, ‘…and look, Daddy’s having a poo!’ And there can be no other explanation for this type of behaviour than the fact that kids are weird.

We capture this weirdness too. Keep it for posterity. Preserve it on cameras, USB sticks and clouds, thinking that we’ll go back to it and remember how cute our kids once were. Well, look beyond the cute and I guarantee you’ll find that they’re all just weird, freakish and beyond our comprehension.

Recently we were transferring some videos from a phone to a laptop in order to clear storage space. We found ourselves watching them again, as you do in a kind of ‘aaw, do you remember this’ kind of fashion. And we sort of did go ‘aaw’ and we sort of did remember those times too. But we also found ourselves wondering what on Earth we had brought into the world!

Two of these videos stand out. The first was filmed furtively over the top of a bedroom door after my wife had asked my daughter to brush her hair, ready for school. She was about 6 at the time; my daughter, not my wife. Of course, despite several enquiries as to the progress of the brushing, she wasn’t brushing her hair at all, hence the filming. But what was she doing? Well, she was perched on her window sill, singing a song to herself about having a party in her tummy, of course. I can still hear her now, out of tune as always, repeating the inventive line, ‘Party, party in my tummy’ in a kind of weak American(ish) accent. Weird.

The second video will always be cute. When my son is a strapping hulk of a man with children of his own, I’ll still be able picture him in this video. I’ll hear him too. For all but the last seconds of the film he’s as cute as a button, singing along with a talking teddy bear, who when you told it your child’s name, was able to put it in a song. He sings along happily, with the odd coy look at the camera or a giggle until, as the song ends, inexplicably, he makes the noise ‘Booooooooow’ (rhyming with ‘no’) before acting as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened and trying to grab the camera from his mum and demanding, ‘Lemme see!’ But, for the love of God, what was that noise? We’d never heard it before and have never heard it since and despite being immeasurably cute and endearing it can’t be denied that it is simply plain weird. What enters a kid’s head that informs them, just make a noise now?

My son especially, has provided lots of strange moments throughout his childhood. He went through quite a long phase of cutting up wiggly strips of paper and tucking them in the back of his trousers so that he had a tail. This was a phase long enough for it to be suggested that this might be some kind of obsession; almost like he thought of himself as some kind of animal. He was probably only two or three at the time, but the fact was, he seemed to do this on a daily basis and for an unreasonably long time. And there was no trotting around to accompany his tail, like a tiny horse. He would just make sure he had a tail and get on with the business of the day, like making weird noises in videos and asking his sister inappropriate questions.

Further standout memories of the weird in our house also include my son once asking me, ‘Will you leave mum?’ with no context at all as we sat eating our tea. Had he picked up a hint of marital trouble, despite there not being any? I wasn’t sure, but for a while I was staggered. I had no idea where it had come from, but boy, was it weird.

And in every household there’ll be a child who deems it appropriate to dress up as a super hero or a Disney Princess for a trip to the supermarket or insists on having some sort of strange order for eating food or refuses to eat without their favourite knife and fork. As a kid, I even had a cousin who went through a years long phase of adding food colouring to his meals. So you’d go to his house to find him eating blue eggs, green chips and maybe purple baked beans. And while I understand that it’s just kids being kids, it’s also undeniably because they are all very, very strange little humans.

As I work in a school, I’m subjected to lots and lots of examples of kids being weird. I should have enough anecdotes to write a book, but unfortunately either never wrote stuff down or wrote it down but never in the same place. However, from memory, geography seems to be a great source of weirdness in kids. Again, I understand that it’s just knowledge and that these are things that we simply pick up as we go along, but sometimes the strange way of looking at simple geography that kids have, can be absolutely staggering.

In the past I’ve taught Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ to thousands of children. And great fun it was too; putting on the voices, walking around like a big bear to mimic Lennie and trying to act like a flirtatious young woman while pretending to be Curley’s wife. There have been times when I’ve expected a delegation from BAFTA to burst through the door and yet here I am, writing a blog about strange kids, my acting still criminally ignored. In order to teach it though you have to give a class some idea on the background to the story – so The Great Depression, The Wall St. Crash, dustbowls, California, that kind of thing. And it’s here that the weirdness of kids has shone through time and again.

It would appear that there are many, many children out there without the slightest clue as to where America actually is. So before the history stuff I’ve often found myself drawing a whiteboard sized map in order to show where the USA actually is. Now if that wasn’t bad enough, once you’ve got some sort of approximation of where it actually is, you’ve sometimes then also got to go to the lengths of pointing out the East coast and the West coast, in order to show them New York, for Wall Street and then California, where, if you don’t already know, the story takes place.

Now, I’m sorry, as a teacher I totally understand that there are all manner of different abilities out there in children. Believe me, I know that work has to be differentiated in order to make it accessible to all. I also get it when kids are strong in one subject, but maybe not others. But, for the love of God, how can you not know where America is? Firstly, it’s enormous. Secondly, it will have had some significant level of influence on your life, culture, beliefs, the TV you watch, the music you listen to, at some point in your lifetime. And thirdly, why have you never seen a map of the world? I’d predict it was because you spent too long doing drawings of dads that looked like penises, that’s why! Surely this lack of basic knowledge says something about just how weird kids can get?

A few other instances of this general knowledge weirdness immediately spring to mind. The first one coincidentally links to Of Mice and Men, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand the dark depths of the mind that it came from. For context, if you don’t know me, I’m from the North East of England. Happily, I’m from the world’s greatest city, Newcastle, and as such I speak with the accent of those from the city. We’re known as Geordies and we have a Geordie accent; it’s quite distinct and reasonably well-known. Or so I thought.

A few years back a colleague came to tell me a story about what a kid – the weirdo – had asked them in class.  Apparently the child had flummoxed my colleague by asking the name of ‘that Californian teacher’. That Californian teacher was me. Where I’m from isn’t even on the same continent, let alone country. I couldn’t sound less Californian if I tried. Even the weather is incomparable. And yet, said child had identified me as such. There is no link. There is no explanation, other than the fact that kids are weird and on this occasion, almost too weird for words.

Over the years this weird geography curse has struck again and again. Notable examples have been when a kid asked ‘Sir, where’s Bradford?’ Answer, it’s literally less than 10 miles away – and also when I got asked where Australia was. On this occasion I patiently pointed out that it was thousands of miles away on the other side of the world; I think I also drew a very basic map on the board thinking that it would help. It didn’t help though because the child still looked puzzled. Finally, she revealed the source of her bewilderment, crying, ‘Eh? But I thought it was in France!’ In France. Not near or bordering – which, by the way, would have been equally strange – but actually in France. It’s rare that I’m lost for words, but this occasion left me unable to answer!

While a lot of these weird anecdotes have been prompted by the behaviour of toddlers, my final few pieces of weird evidence have come from the mouths of kids old enough to know better. Both anonymous, but both very recent. Firstly there was the food advice given by a child to someone who was considering a radical dietary change – they were thinking of cutting out dairy, including milk. To my utter exasperation the following question rattled around my head and indeed the room for what seemed like forever, while I tried to figure out just where it could have come from.

‘Could you try chicken milk?’

Seriously, let that sink in. But while it is sinking in digest the next piece of child weirdness that I have to offer. Just this week I had a class writing an analysis of a poem. We’d taken a couple of lessons to study it and the class were interested and eager throughout. They had enjoyed the poem and after a brief chat about the kind of language features they’d need to be analysing in order to answer the question, I set them off writing. The silence was tangible. The ‘sound’ of a class just working, thinking about their response to a piece of literature. Wonderful. And then a hand went up and when I asked how I could help, they uttered the following question?

‘Sir, what’s empathy? Is it when you put yourself in somebody else?’

No. No, that in fact, is something very, very different.

As a final footnote, even today a child of 16 has asked me if I’m Scottish. This despite someone prior to the question asking me if I was from Newcastle (which if you don’t know is firmly in England). He repeated his question several times after being told that ‘no’ I was from England. And then as if this wasn’t bad enough the discussion moved on to all things Scottish, including the revelation that kilts were somewhat classed as national dress and, much to the amusement of the boys, were a bit like a big skirt. But this wasn’t the height. No. Not even close. A boy then asked this incredible question.

“Do they play them massive trumpets?” As a stunned silence engulfed the room the penny slowly dropped with me. I thought I knew what he meant by “massive trumpets”.

Bagpipes. He meant bagpipes.

Kids are weird. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

 

What do you do when Santa Claus no longer exists?

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Santa was made redundant for being too wooden, leaving his mate, Santa, feeling all deflated.

So Christmas has been and gone, over for another year and ‘all that fuss for just a day’ as my mother used to – and probably still does – say. If you’re like us that would mean months spent planning, reviewing, buying, wrapping and then placing ‘just so’ around the front room, or if you’re very traditional, underneath the tree. The Christmas one that is, not the silver birch in the back garden. Christmas is stressful enough for all without turning it into some kind of treasure hunt. But it’s been a few weeks now and so we’ve all had ample time to recover, right? Well that depends on how you do Christmas, I suppose.

In our house this Christmas has been fairly monumental. I say fairly because there’s no telling whether next year will be just the same or in fact completely different. So already I’m thinking about next Christmas and as a result I don’t feel like I’ve adequately recovered from the one that’s just gone. The problem? The question of Santa.

We’ve brought our kids up to very much believe in Santa which has meant an enormous amount of lies and subterfuge. But, as they say in Hot Fuzz it’s all been for ‘the greater good’. Santa’s been a magical presence in all our lives, because of course, Santa is magical. As disturbingly perverse as a white-haired, well upholstered old man sporting a great big white beard and wearing a red velvet suit might be, we’ve all grown up to be touched by him, in the right way. And if you haven’t, then this probably isn’t the article for you. And if you’ve grown up with Santa and he’s touched you in the wrong way, well this isn’t going to help either.

Think about it. He lives at the North Pole. He’s in charge of a veritable army of elves. He’s quite the snappy dresser. He only works one night a year. He organises an enormous fleet of Coke trucks. He delivers presents to children all over the world, having watched them all year, placed them on a list and then assessed whether or not they’re worthy of his gifts. He flies around the world on a sleigh that is pulled by flying reindeer. One of his reindeer may or may not have ‘a very shiny nose’ which is also red. He gains entry to your house via the chimney, whether you’ve got one or not. And depending on where you’re from on the planet he has different names including Kris Kringle, Kerstman, Joulupukki, Black Peter and Babbo Natale. Now if that’s not a magical man, then I don’t know what is.

And now, we’re faced with the question of whether or not he’s actually real. I know. Ridiculous right? But in all seriousness, this is something that will hang over our family – and countless others all over the world – for the next year. My kids have reached the ages where they’re going to be exposed to the ugly truth. A truth so ugly that I find it difficult to speak it here. Suffice to say that they’ll come to their own conclusion about Santa.

My children are now 12 and 9. By the time Santa’s sleigh is being MOT’d in readiness for the next night of Christmas madness they will be 13 and 10. In short, it’s likely that either one or both will simply not believe any longer. The signs are already there. My daughter, the eldest actually found out ‘the truth’ a couple of years ago, but with a lot of guidance from us has retained at least some element of belief. She was angry at the time, threatening to tell her brother and declaring that she couldn’t believe we’d lied to her for all those years! That viewpoint was quickly talked out of her – it’s amazing how a cocksure side to someone can disappear when you threaten the existence of their Christmas presents!

I’m sure she’s in possession of the facts though as she’s now in Year 8 of high school, but it’s safe to say that there’s still a little bit of her that clearly believes, or at least doesn’t want to stop believing. This year she wrote a Santa list and she’s never explicitly told me that she doesn’t believe, which is all this dad really needs to know to convince himself of her continued innocence. But deep down, with my rarely seen sensible head on, I know she knows. I teach kids of her age and they’re simply not as innocent as you’d like them still to be.

My son, on the other hand, still seems to believe. He understands that the Santas in the shops aren’t real, but thanks to Christmas films such as Polar Express and Elf and a certain level of innocence that he’s always had, he still buys the whole Santa thing. But it’s definitely on the wane. This year, he mentioned to my wife that some Year 6 boys at school had been telling people that Santa wasn’t real. And he actually asked whether the Tooth fairy was made up. As a result it’s made me think that Christmas 2018 may have been the last of a certain kind. The last of the magical kind. And it breaks my heart to think of my children not believing any more.

So what do we do if and when Santa no longer exists? I’m kind of stumped. As I say, with my daughter it’s been a strange kind of transition and I can’t honestly say whether she still believes or not. She probably doesn’t, but she’s the pragmatic type who seemed more angry that we’d lied to her than about the loss of a cuddly white-haired old man who she’d never actually met. But I fear it will be a different story with my son, who is much more emotional and clearly more the type to believe totally in a cuddly old gentleman, however. The lead up to next Christmas could well be messy.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I’m adult enough – despite my age – to break the news. Or to deal with the question of Santa’s real identity. I mean, imagine the poor boy’s disappointment when he’s exposed to the shocking truth – no reindeer, no magic chimney, no sleigh and certainly no portly old man bedecked in red. And then the further disappointment of the fact that it has been me and his mam buying everything, hiding everything and wrapping everything, all along. It’s a lot to take in. The truth is about as far from fiction as you could hope for!

Our kids’ Christmas has always been a huge deal. The precision planning means that December has been a nightmare for years and that every Christmas Eve has been frantic and exhausting. Coupled with their belief that if it’s on Santa’s list that they can have it, it can make for a stressful time.

We’re both the product of traditional working class families, so the idea of budgeting for our kids has been high on our list. Every year we set a budget, but every year we try to spoil our children. It’s a tricky balance. For me in particular, although I loved Christmas as a child, it was often a bit of a disappointing time. My parents have often since admitted to the fact that there wasn’t enough money to give me and my sister what we wanted, however modest our lists might have been. And so, for a lot of Christmases I’d be willing Santa to bring me the things I’d put on my list, only to find that it wasn’t there on Christmas morning. Don’t get me wrong, I never let this disappointment show, but it was disappointment all the same and it’s certainly spurred me on in terms of the kind of Christmas I want my own kids to have. Within a budget, of course!

The point with the budget and the balance is that we end up doing a lot of online research – comparing prices, reviewing etc – in order to maximise what our kids get for their ‘money’. And when I say lots I mean months’ worth. Modern day shopping means that, as a parent, you have options. Amazon prices and Black Friday/Cyber Monday are there to be exploited as well as the many and varied sales that seem to crop up every other week. And, mainly due to my wife, we exploit them all!

Then there’s the twin terrors of hiding and wrapping presents, both of which end with you having to retrieve said presents from their hiding place on Christmas Eve! And all in the name of Santa Claus and the magical Christmas he brings! Presents have been bought and stashed in the boot of our cars for ages before being furtively moved into the house under the cover of darkness. Our loft has been crammed with stuff, but for some reason I’ve never been able to keep it all together, leading to many a frantic Christmas Eve spent scrambling about up there trying to track down one or two final elusive gifts for Santa to lay out. And then there’s the downstairs bathroom. For years my children seemed to just think this was a door that led nowhere, mainly due to the fact that it was always full of things being stored for another time and was thus out-of-bounds; from Autumn onwards these things would be Christmas presents. Needless to say, it was a revelation when I cleared the place out earlier this year and they realised that there was an actual toilet in there!

It’s a well-known fact that Santa’s elves wrap presents with precision following their many years of training in order to hone this skill. Now in my wife’s eyes, this has meant that in order to make the whole Santa experience as genuine as possible, our wrapping must be perfect! And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much rules me out. I am not a neat wrapper, meaning I’m solely responsible for the presents that the kids receive knowingly from us, but not Santa!

Wrapping also can’t be done in front of the children or within their earshot. So again, in the name of Santa, for years December evenings have been spent quietly and frantically wrapping after both children have gone to bed and have had enough time to be safely asleep! And always in the same paper so that our kids would never be able to suspect that it was us (the wife’s idea)! And then when it’s wrapped and brought out of its hiding place there’s the job of setting it all out just like Santa would’ve – we all do that, right?

So having written those last few paragraphs I can see that one of the things I’ll definitely do when Santa doesn’t exist is to do less! What has become a matter of routine that has grown and grown with each passing year actually seems like some kind of bizarre obsession when you read it back! But everyone will have their own ways and routines over Christmas and this simply multiplies if you’ve got children of a certain age. Even leaving things out for Santa can become something to think about. Do you just leave the whisky or milk and cookies out in a specific place? Do you have a special plate and cup? Do you leave something for Rudolph? Do you trail crumbs around to look like he ate and left in a hurry? Are you one of the people who leaves fake snow footprints as evidence that Santa’s been? The devil is in the detail and it’s the detail that adds to the magic of Christmas. Admit it, you’ll miss their faces full of wonder when they notice the crumbs or the half-eaten carrot? I know I will.

For all the work, planning, reading, wrapping and hiding that we do as parents, there will always be at least a moment that makes it all worth while. This year, at the sight of a carefully wrapped bike propped up on our settee, my son let out a series of squeals and ‘yeses’, punching the air and stamping repeatedly in unison. Genuine happiness that genuinely touched my heart. Similarly, my 12 year-old-too-cool-for-school daughter reacted with uncharacteristic glee when unwrapping small gifts like make-up and again my heart swelled just a little bit.

It feels fairly certain that next Christmas will be at least a little different in our house. Santa may well become just a decoration – a clockwork man who sits on the hearth and used to dance until my son’s curiosity got the better of him as a toddler. A bauble – of sorts – on the tree or a light up decoration stuck to the window. I’ll miss the strange reality of Santa and the hope he brings, but I hope it doesn’t make anyone sad. I’d like to think that rather than being entirely spoiled, without him Christmas will just be a bit different, but ultimately still Christmas and as the song says, ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ Still exciting, still fun, still a time for excess – in moderation of course – but different.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Now, how many days is it until Christmas?

 

 

Honesty’s the best policy? Maybe not when you’re a dad!

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Mmmmmmmm, great big chunks of onion!

All through our lives we’re told that honesty is the best policy. Your parents are the first to tell you this, followed by any number of well-meaning adults. Teachers, religious leaders, youth workers, police officers, neighbours, aunts, uncles, and pretty much any adult you encounter will tell you the same; it’s best to tell the truth.

However, when you grow up the boundaries start to shift. Take the process of applying for jobs for instance. You might find that honesty actually makes you the dullest possible candidate. So you add the odd interest or experience to your CV or your answers in an interview so that you shine that little bit brighter. In short, you lie. You know the type of thing. You might pick an obscure martial art and claim to practice it, adding that perhaps it might come in handy in your job. Tai Chi or something like that.

In trying to become closer to the girl or boy of your dreams you might find, again, that honesty might not make you that attractive. He or she might not see your full potential as a lover or life partner if you tell them that, actually, the furthest you’ve travelled is Cleethorpes, you haven’t really given any thought to ambitions or that you don’t really have any interests. So you might combine these type of things and spout forth at great length about your dream of taking a gap year and travelling the world. Because, of course being confined to the toilet in your Far East hostel as you gradually make the air funkier and funkier is a truly endearing image and undoubtedly the stuff that dreams, and partners, are made of. If only you had someone to share this passion with…

“Lying to your kids is pretty much what the first chapter of the Dad Manual is devoted to.”

As a dad I’ve found that telling lies is more or less essential. Two words: Santa Claus. A few more: The Tooth Fairy. You see what I mean? Lying to your kids is pretty much what the first chapter of the Dad Manual is devoted to. Then you get to the interesting stuff like Dad Jokes and Dad Magic. I mean, who knew you could produce a coin out of a kid’s ear just by becoming a dad? And did you even realise just how funny you were until you had kids?

Over the years I’ve told many, many lies to my kids. All harmless stuff, but lies all the same. I’ve dated supermodels (believable, I know), I can speak Spanish (hola), I’m a trained street dancer (if you’ve seen me move the only surprise here is that I haven’t claimed to have been Patrick Swayze’s dance coach for Dirty Dancing, because I think it’s plain to see that his character may well have been modelled on me), I can make a block of sugar hover on the top of a cappuccino by using magic (my son was genuinely upset when he found out that this wasn’t magic, just the sugar floating for a while on the froth), I was in the SAS (I’m certainly one mean looking hombre, that’s for sure) and whenever we visited a particular theme park when my kids were younger I would delight in telling them that we were visiting the power station with the massive cooling towers that we had to pass on the way there. This was a lie which they fell for, literally every time.

“I became Gregg Wallace and my daughter faced up to her very own Masterchef final.”

So when my daughter decided that she was going to cook the family tea recently, it became a true test of whether or not honesty really is the best policy. My daughter is 12 and in Year 8 of High School. She’s learning to cook, amongst other things. And we we’re putting her cooking to the test because my wife, in her wisdom, had agreed that we’d eat my daughter’s spaghetti Bolognese for tea. My idea of freezing it and letting the kids have it for teas when we’re at work was rejected so that we could all put it to the taste test. So I became, Gregg Wallace and my daughter faced up to her very own Masterchef final.

Now there wasn’t a lot to this particular spaghetti Bolognese. A supermarket bought Bolognese sauce, some spaghetti, an onion, a handful of mushrooms and some lean beef mince. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turned out quite a lot.

“…I’m quite a picky eater…”

On the day in question I’d been thinking about this Bolognese, sporadically, all day. It was something that genuinely terrified me for several reasons. Firstly, I’m quite a picky eater – I don’t like onions and I’ve never liked beef. I genuinely don’t get the fuss about beef at all. To me, it’s just really bland. Bland and very forgettable. But I’ll tolerate sometimes it so that the beef lovers in the house get to chow down on cow. So the fact that this was a Bolognese made with beef mince immediately troubled me and deep down, I already knew that I wasn’t really going to enjoy this meal. Obviously this worried me, because I knew that my little girl would be desperate to impress. However, I also knew that she’d be bright enough to recognise that it was never going to be a favourite with dad.

I’m also not a fan of too much sauce on pasta (fussy and a little bit juvenile, I know, I probably need to grow up) and having looked at the pile of ingredients on the kitchen table I imagined that I was going to get a mansize dollop of the stuff all over my spaghetti. Protesting simply wouldn’t cut the mustard (applause for the cookery based pun, please) with my wife who thinks I’m just being fussy and juvenile and that I need to grow up.

“…a curry, a Mexican, something with a lot of garlic…”

On the night in question I wandered into the kitchen as my wife was dishing up our tea. Where usually the downstairs of the house will be filled with the wonderful aroma of whatever’s cooking, tonight there was just a strange nothingness. Usually the smell of what’s cooking will be mouth-watering, – a curry, some Mexican, something with a lot of garlic – but tonight no such aroma existed and as a consequence my mouth was unusually dry. This was not a good sign at all. My enthusiasm waned with each passing second and it looked like my dad lying skills would be put firmly to the test here. In fact, I was going to probably have to employ some advanced level Dad lies.

A look at what appeared on my plate only confirmed my fears. Dollop after dollop of a sauce that seemed to have had all the fun sucked out of it by the power of beef. And as I looked closer it just seemed to get worse. Onion. Great big chunks of onion. I knew that this was going to crunch in my mouth and I knew that eating this Bolognese was going to be a bit of a trial. For me, crunch is fine…in a packet of crisps. This is ironic as I imagine a packet of crisps is exactly what I’d go looking for later on, when the kids had gone to bed and I was hungry due to lack of tea! As I continued to stare I felt sure that all the red was draining away from the plate and I was left contemplating a distinctly grey Bolognese. I knew, however, that the more I stared, the more conscious my daughter could be of me not eating. There was nothing for it but to tuck right in!

“This was a forkful and then some.”

Now every fibre of my being, every sinew, wanted to sift out some of the stuff in the sauce. Let’s just nudge that onion to one side and smear some of that mince a little across the plate. I had to show enthusiasm though. I had to lie. So I gripped my fork, said a silent prayer and I dug in. Right in. Inner than in. As I lifted the fork towards my mouth I could immediately see that I’d overdone the enthusiasm. This was a forkful and then some. A forkful that could have probably become a mouthful for at least two of the people sat around the table. But I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t fake a wobbly hand and drop some. I knew that my daughter was watching and that she’d been waiting for this moment, not just all day, but for the last few days. She’d been genuinely excited by making a Bolognese and providing tea for the family, which was lovely. Meanwhile, I had been dreading it! I mean, who is actually the adult here?

As the first part of the food hit my tastebuds, I realised that the adult was definitely not me. That said, I faked a smile, let out a big beaming ‘Mmmmm’ of satisfaction and resolved to chew. Just chew. I’m her dad and if I can’t – in her eyes at least – enjoy her cookery skills, then who can. No really, who can?

After what seemed like an eternity I was still chewing. That enormous first mouthful just wouldn’t go away. My teeth seemed to be bouncing off the mince and the crunch of the onions was worse than I could have ever expected. I just kept ‘Mmmmming’. This seemed like a good course of action.

“How can you get a Spag Bol wrong?”

Finally that first mouthful was gone, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Actually, I could, but it would have been in no way complimentary or encouraging. I realised that I should just Dad lie and move on, but I couldn’t. And this was not the time for blurting out something along the lines of ‘How can you get a Spag Bol wrong?’, ‘Does anyone fancy KFC?’ or anything worse. So in the spirit of keeping my mouth shut – which is a valuable lesson that, I must admit, mainly women have taught me over the years – I stuffed another forkful in and gave myself time to think. More chewing. More bouncing. More onions. Still no flavour though.

Suddenly, just as I was swallowing the latest tasteless morsel, I had a thought. A moment of blinding inspiration. I knew exactly what I was going to say and do. And so I said and did it.

*Turns to the right. Looks daughter in the eye. Taps daughter on the back of the head while she’s trying to eat*, “Not bad that, kid.”

It’s official. I am my dad. I’d just searched high and low through my mind for something inspirational to say to my 12 year-old after she’d made us tea and there it was. A bit of a slap to the back of the head and a “Not bad”. Dad of The Year stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. Imagine how great she must have felt hearing this. Imagine the warm glow that would shoot through her. All the trouble she’d gone to must have seemed totally worth it now because Dad told her that her Bolognese was “not bad”. Not good. Not delicious. Not smashing or tasty or even plain old nice. Just “not bad”.

“I could have critiqued her, told her that the beef was greasy and chewy…”

However, as the title of the article might suggest, I surely hadn’t done the wrong thing here either. In a world where no child is allowed to lose anymore and every kid, ever, is praised for simply turning up, I’d not given my kid a negative. I’d toed the party line. And I hadn’t lied, much. I’d protected her, just as a dad should. I could have critiqued her, told her that the beef was greasy and chewy, the onions not to my liking and that I was waiting patiently, but without hope for the moment that I’d really be able to taste something. But I didn’t. In fact, rather than a pre-prepared lie and an easily uttered “delicious”, I’d given my response some thought. Two almighty forkfuls worth of thought, in fact. And I’d argue that my honest, if uninspired “not bad” was better than your ‘it doesn’t matter how bad it is I’m going to force it down and tell her it’s “delicious”‘. My daughter now has something to aim for, while you’re just getting more of the same ‘delicious’ food next week.

As it turns out, I didn’t finish my tea. My Spaghetti Bolognese – mainly great big crunchy chunks of onion – was later scraped off into the bin. No one really enjoyed it, not even my daughter, the chef. She ended up having a little cry, but she was supported, cuddled, loved and told that it was OK. I didn’t tell her that I was going to the chippy once she’d gone to bed either. If I’d told her the lie that it was amazing or delicious, I still wouldn’t have finished, prompting the bigger lie that it was simply because I was full up. There was no Masterchef style critique, no stinging remarks about flavour combinations or presentation. Just advice. Keep trying, don’t worry, that kind of thing. She didn’t even have to do the washing up!

The week after she made chicken kebabs. They really were “not bad”. Certainly better than the Bolognese. I held back on the happy slapping though; there’s only so much enthusiasm a bloke can muster after a day at work. There were no tears and less lies though. Our plates were cleaner too, which in itself was a glowing tribute, and an avoidance of the lie that our tea was ‘delicious’. So we all learnt something. My daughter learnt that value of being honest. and me? Well, I learnt that honesty really isn’t always the best policy when you’re a parent.

 

 

Lace tying with frozen fingers, wrestling with goal frames and ever so precisely painting white lines – Welcome to grassroots football!

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It’s either very windy or we’ve used the wrong flag.

Picture the scene. It’s 11.50 am on a Saturday in early September. The sun is high in the sky and it is already an unreasonably hot day. In the middle of one of 5 football fields in Morley, West Yorkshire three men are chatting. All are tired, having only just completed a week at work, as well as running an hour and a half training session each for our respective teams. One of us has also only just finished an hour long fitness session for some of the members of both teams. Two of us are recovering from operations, although mine was a few months ago and so it’s safe to say I’m over the worst. All are hot – that’ll be the sun for you; not always a regular visitor to these parts. And as a result of the heat, two of these three men are wearing shorts. The other – me – really, really wants to wear shorts, but is sticking to tracksuit bottoms, the legacy of long, skinny, hairy legs that resulted in many a cruel childhood taunt as well as being the butt of my father’s best and most hilarious joke about putting them away because, ‘there’s a blackbird up there, feeding her young ‘uns, she’ll mistake them for worms’. I believe that young people nowadays call this banter. I just always wondered why my dad couldn’t get a new joke. Suffice to say, I prefer the safety of the heat to the peril of shorts.

“…Saturday has almost gone.”

We’re eight days away from the opening day of the season for Under 10s teams in the Garforth Junior Football League. Our pitches need to be bigger and we’re moving to a flatter area, so this means that we’ll have to measure both new pitches out, before marking the lines in white paint. I’ve been told that this will take around three hours, but I reckon that’s quite the over-estimation, given that I’ve marked three pitches out before in less time than that, on my own. I’m wrong. We finish just over four hours later. I’m tired, hot and I haven’t eaten since breakfast – it’s now 3.30pm and Saturday has almost gone.

I’ve only been involved in grassroots football for 10 months now, but already I’m addicted. I started out as just a dad, taking my then 7 year old to train with his first football team. This was a task I’d dreamed of doing from a young age – I always wanted to be a dad, taking his son to football. It was too late on in the season for him to actually sign for the club – and frankly he was way behind almost all of the other boys in terms of ability – so he trained every week. We were there come rain, hail, wind and snow. It didn’t matter. I watched him develop and get a greater idea of what was required of him on the pitch. By the time he was asked to sign on he’d improved enough to hold his own and when the moment finally came for him to put on his first match shirt I almost shed a proud dad’s tear, even though he was almost drowning in every item of the kit. The socks would have comfortably pulled up around his waist.

Two months into that season, however, and I was asked to take over the running of the team. Turns out other parents and club officials were unhappy with the coach and so, when I did OK filling in when he went on holiday, that was enough to convince people of my qualifications for the job..

I must admit, I had no intention of ever coaching the team. The thought hadn’t even entered my head, even as I watched on, frustrated at some of the training sessions being put on. However, when I was asked to take over I couldn’t say no. As a teacher, I’d coached before. As a football fan I would regularly watch matches, screaming at the telly about the wrong pass or a terrible tactical decision. As a man, the offer was way too good for my ego to resist and as a Geordie, well, we invented the game and are born with an encyclopedic knowledge of it, so denying the kids of that would have just been cruel!

I’ve been ‘officially’ in charge of Glen Juniors Whites (Under 10s) since the middle of November 2017. My team are what we call the ‘development’ side, essentially the kids with less ability in the squad that makes up the two teams within the age group. However, what my boys might lack in skill, they more than make up for in desire, togetherness, hard work and spirit. But they’re adding more and more skills as the weeks go by.

“…half the squad gawped as if a pterodactyl had just swooped past.”

Training sessions have often been spent working on basics – can we stop the ball and pass it, can we take a touch and get a shot on target or can we sprint from one cone to another? But even then this throws up some unlikely and often amusing scenarios. On any given Thursday evening I can be preparing to give instructions when I notice that four or five of the boys are engaged in something other than listening; important stuff such as ‘dabbing’ or ‘flossing’. Just last week a boy rode past on a bike and I had to stop the session while half of the squad gawped as if a pterodactyl had just swooped past. And my worst fears were confirmed when, as we played a match on a field near the airport, one of my defenders nudged the other one and they both turned their eyes away from the game going on around them and pointed in wonder at a passing low flying jet! It doesn’t matter how many times you tell them to stay focused you can guarantee that there will be at least five moments in any one match when you catch someone, switched off and gawping open mouthed at something remarkably unremarkable.

Our ‘development’ status has also meant that our team has not been successful in the traditional sense of the word. To put it bluntly, last season we played 17 games, won one, drew one and lost the rest. For a couple of months we simply weren’t competitive. And yet still we made progress. In our second game of the season, facing a team whose senior side actually play non-league football we were trounced to the point of ridicule from our opposition. I was ‘just’ a parent that day, but still it was difficult viewing. The home team’s parents were brutal and openly mocked our boys. The home team themselves swapped goalkeepers, giving their regular keeper the chance to play outfield – the ultimate act of thumb biting to your opposition – and he promptly scored a hat-trick. Two of our boys left the field sobbing, refusing to carry on. However, when we scored our first goal of the season – our consolation in that game – their coaches were visibly angry, shouting at their 8 and 9 year old defenders for losing their man and costing their team a goal. That was progress. We’d broken our duck and to paraphrase the great Kevin Keegan’s infamous Sky TV rant, told our mighty opposition, ‘we’re still fighting for this game’.

The progress continued throughout the season and we were rarely trounced again. We were generally competitive and almost always scored. My boys were happy playing football and I found that I was also making progress as a coach. But I quickly learnt that there are always surprises in grassroots football.

One of the biggest (and dullest) surprises about becoming a coach at this level has been the admin. Before each game last season we would have to line the kids up, with their ID cards ready to be scrutinised by the opposition coach. In turn, I would have to take a long hard look at their team to check whether all was on the level. I lost count of the amount of times I cracked the same joke – that they couldn’t play a particular player because he was obviously not the kid in the photograph. The coaches all saw the funny side, but judging by the faces of some of the kids, they genuinely believed that I wasn’t going to let them play. Sometimes, 9 year olds just don’t have a sense of humour.

“I’d hand mine over looking like I’d got a four-year-old to fill it in.”

On top of this we’d then have to fill in team sheets, ticking off the kids that had played. At the end of each game you’d get them signed by the opposition coach, note the name of the referee, award a Fair Play mark – we once got marked 97 out of 100; what had we done to merit a 3% deduction? – and then swap sheets with the other team, making sure that we only swapped the right colour sheet. And let me tell you, filling in one of these sheets in the middle of January when your hands are frozen is nigh on impossible. I’d hand mine over looking like I’d got a four-year-old to fill it in. These sheets would then have to be photographed together and emailed to the league for them to verify what had gone on, like if they hadn’t seen a bit of paper the game hadn’t actually happened.

This system has now changed into something that should be a great deal easier – an internet based system, backed up with the sending of a text to confirm your result. However, neither are available to me due to the fact that the FA are yet to issue me with a log in and still haven’t sent me the text. The season, however, is almost a month old! I’ll never learn to love admin.

Easily one of the most unpleasant things that we have to put up with in grassroots football has to be the weather. Standing on a touchline means that you’re left wide open to the elements. Steve MaClaren’s time as England manager means that there’s no way in the world that I’d dare to use an umbrella, so I’m frequently soaked to the skin. And I never thought I’d buy another pair of football boots once I’d got into my forties, but warming up on park pitches often means puddles and mud and trainers simply don’t cut it. Yet still, I’m regularly getting back into the car and having to drive home with soaking wet feet! Our referee sometimes wears wellies (and probably has lovely dry feet as a result), but I’m afraid that male vanity won’t let me go that far!

On top of the rain, this winter we were blighted with quite a bit of snow and although this meant the postponement of several games – and the bonus of a warm Sunday morning for all involved – we couldn’t avoid training. Our club trains at a local high school during the darker months, as they have a 3G pitch and floodlights, meaning that we can train through even the most inclement weather. Great news! This is bad enough when the cold is bitter and the wind blowing in from across the moors brings with it an element of ice. Layering takes on a new meaning! However, coach a session through a storm and you will truly know the meaning of cold. Shackleton, Scott, Hilary and all the other Polar pioneers were amazing explorers, but could they do it on a wet and windy Thursday night in Tingley?

“…have you ever tried tying someone else’s laces with frozen fingers?”

The cold weather, combined with a team full of kids under 10 can also bring another problem that, at first, I hadn’t reckoned with. I’m regularly asked to tie their laces! Now here, we have a bit of a problem. From what I can gather I was taught to tie laces in a rather peculiar fashion – one so peculiar that my wife has asked my kids to ignore the way I show them! So when I tie the laces of my team it quite often results in some very funny looks – and they can’t even tie laces! Furthermore though, have you ever tried tying someone else’s laces with frozen fingers? Let me tell you, it’s quite the conundrum and there have been numerous times when I’ve considered asking an adult for help, before remembering that I am an adult.

At the moment the weather is good. We’ve barely had a spot of rain during training or games and some of our pre season friendlies were played in baking hot sun. Wonderful as you stand and bask in the glorious heat, but terrible when you get home and look in the mirror to realise that, yes, you are receding, otherwise those livid red patches of sunburn on your increasingly large forehead would never have appeared. But the sun will fade and soon, as with every season, we’ll be out there, every Thursday and Sunday getting soaked, frozen or both. We’ll walk across pitches and simply sink into a puddle, because after all this is grassroots football and our pitches are often at the mercy of the local council. Our games may be played on pitches where there are no lines, just cones to give players a rough guide as to when the ball goes out of play, because the coach hasn’t had the time to mark the lines given the fact that he’s a husband and dad and has a full time job. And barring the generous help of parents, this is all the responsibility of the coach. Again, I hadn’t realised that I’d have to be doing this before accepting the role and probably imagined that the football fairies were responsible for white lines, Respect barriers, goals, nets and corner flags. Thankfully, the parents of our boys are quite willing to rally round and help out, although I think some of this is done more out of pity than anything else, as they watch me wrestling with a set of goals!

“…scoring goals is always the dream.”

Another surprise – which really shouldn’t have been – is the number of 9 year olds who only want to play as a striker or a midfielder. Now I understand that almost nobody wants to play in goal, but in our team that stretches to defence as well. Even our best defenders are reluctant to say the least. In training, before a game, mid game and after a game you can be sure to be pestered by the same’ish question – ‘Can I play in midlfield/as striker?’ Playing regularly is sometimes not enough – scoring goals is always the dream. It’s understandable, I suppose. I mean, who wants to be John Stones or Kyle Walker (or God forbid Phil Jones) when they could be De Bruyne, Lingard, Ali, Kane or Aguero? And while it can be irritating, especially during a game, to be asked, I have to say that my boys are always good enough to accept the my decision. It never stops them asking again though!

Recently I managed to have a morning that encompassed many of the plus and minus points of grassroots football. So let me end by telling you about it.

Picture the scene. It’s 8.45am on a Sunday in late September. It’s no longer sunny and in fact it’s getting more and more like winter as the days pass. Two men stand on adjacent football pitches. We’re both tired. We’ve both been at work all week and one of us was out inspecting the pitches yesterday afternoon. Despite the coolness of the air one is wearing shorts, while the other, sensibly, has opted for tracksuit bottoms. There are sparrows feeding their young ‘uns nearby, after all.

We’re three weeks into the new season in Division C1, for Under 10s, of the Garforth Junior League. Our pitch is bigger and flatter and the white lines have recently been re-marked by one of the other coaches. One coach has managed to erect the first of his goals and is busily working on his corner the flags. The other, me, has managed to get all of the parts of his first goal out of the bag and has laid them out, as per the YouTube video he watched last night so that he’d finally know what he was doing. Unfortunately he’s forgotten the drawings he did in order to remember. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Is the cross bar three long sections or two and a small bit? Are the posts two long sections high? Has he got enough connectors? Hang on, is someone secretly filming this? Can he expect a visit from a heavily disguised Ant and Dec any time soon to eventually tell him he’s been pranked and he’s going to look like a total fool on live TV some time soon?

“The other coach is done. The pressure is on.”

Twenty minutes later and he has assembled some sections of the goal. But they clearly don’t actually go together to make a goal. So he’s just randomly put some bits together. Maybe he’ll just make a raft? He’s quietly cursing. The other coach is done. The pressure is on. He has a thought. He’s missing a bit that he needs. So back he trudges to the clubhouse to hunt among the other goals for the missing section. Five minutes later it’s clear that the other section doesn’t exist and he has made it up. Back he trudges to his raft.

It will take another fifteen minutes before he has two working goals. He has to take a look at the other coach’s complete goals in order to work out where he’s going wrong. And by that time some parents and team members have turned up and helped out. Corner flags are being placed in the ground, the Respect barrier is being put out. Kick off is in about 20 minutes and he hasn’t even said ‘hello’ to his team, let alone started warming them up. And then he spots something that will delay things even longer. A kindly dog owner has allowed his or her pooch to poo on the pitch and then pretended not to notice. He quietly curses some more. Oh well, at least it’s a new experience. Digging a carrier bag out of his kit bag he proceeds to remove the offending sloppy brown calling card, before trudging back over the fields to place it in the bin provided by the council for such things. It’s a shame that the dog’s owner didn’t know these things exist. Maybe someone should paint them all bright red and put pictures of dogs on them. He reminds himself never to get a dog.

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With about ten minutes to go before kick he is finally ready to warm up his team, before giving a quick team talk. The team still don’t all have shirts due to an order taking way too long, so some will play in borrowed club hoodies. The game, somewhat bucking the trend of the day, will go well and our team wins, despite being 1-0 down at half-time. However, there’s just time for one more moment to leave the coach looking to the skies for the kind of divine intervention that he knows doesn’t really happen. From somewhere, during the game, a goalkeeper’s shirt arrives and it’s decided that one of our subs can go around to the goal and, when the ball is down the other end of the field, get our keeper to swap his outfield shirt for the keeper’s top. Easy, yes? In the hands of two 9 year olds, no and the coach is left to watch on in sheer horror as first, the message is totally confused and our sub starts to wander back carrying the goalkeeper’s shirt. Then, deciding that he needs to carry out the instructions our keeper takes his outfield shirt off and is left without a shirt for a moment as the ball approaches. Luckily it’s cleared away and he can put on the right shirt. But no. No, he can’t. The boy simply cannot get the shirt over his head or his arms through the arm holes, due to wearing goalkeeper gloves! The coach quietly curses. After what seems like an eternity though, the problem is solved and we have a goalkeeper wearing the correct shirt. The goal is intact and we go on to win. It’s been a hell of a day, but I’ve absolutely loved it!

Welcome to grassroots football!

Fatherhood: falling into the traps I swore I’d avoid.

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A little over 12 years ago I became a father. This was something that left me very excited indeed. It was the pinnacle of any achievements I might have had (although I’ll be honest, it didn’t have a great deal of competition). I enjoyed it so much that I did it again a few years after. Again, it felt incredible. It was no less joyful second time round and as expected, fatherhood has given me memories that I’ll take to the grave.

So why do I feel so disappointed in myself as a dad?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking for sympathy here and I’m certainly not claiming that I’m a terrible dad. This is not, in any way, a cry for help. We don’t need to increase the hugs. In truth, I’d bet that there are countless dads (and mams/mums/moms) who feel exactly the same as me. Deep down, I know that I’m doing a decent job. I’m there for my children, I try to always set them the best examples and, along with my wife, I’m determined that we create memories for them that they’ll cherish and take into adulthood. I’d like to think I’m preparing them pretty well for the real world.

But the truth is that I find fatherhood a genuinely frustrating job. It seems like the harder I work at it the more frustrated I get. I was going to be a natural. A fantastic father. The don of the dads. The toppermost of the popermost. You get the picture. (If you don’t, tough. I’ve ran out of alliteration). However, despite the best of intentions, it’s rare that I ever really actually feel like this.

‘Me and my kids would inevitably connect – I’d worship them and vice versa’

I love kids. Always did. Funny little people with boundless energy and a unique take on things. It’s a cliché, but a lot of the time I felt like me and kids were singing from the same hymn sheet, intellectually. And so, when I had my own, although I knew it was going to be hard, I felt pretty much over-qualified for the role. Me and my kids would inevitably connect – I’d worship them and vice versa. We’d have fun, we’d learn together, we’d laugh, we’d snuggle up and feel safe and loved and we’d explore the world together. And we’ve done all of these things. But I still feel – and it’s probably every day – that I’m getting it all terribly wrong.

There are a number of things about fatherhood that I think I’m bad at. For a start, I wanted to be patience personified as a dad. I understood that kids would test my patience like perhaps nothing else, but I felt prepared for that. In 2006, when I first became a dad, I’d been working with kids for 5 years. Older kids and other people’s kids, but kids all the same. So I thought I’d probably had my patience tested to its limits. Believe me, if you can listen to a thirty teenagers reading Shakespeare and not explode, you imagine you’ve got patience in spades! So what is it about my own kids that makes me so impatient? If I ask them to do a job – say helping me pick the leaves up off the garden – it’s only a matter of seconds before I hear myself snapping, ‘Oh, I’ll do it myself!’ It’s ridiculous! Rational me realises that they’ll drop some leaves before they get to the garden bin, but grumpy dad just cannot help himself. And what does any of it matter? They’re 12 & 9, of course they’re going to make mistakes. In fact, face it; they’ll be bloody awful at absolutely loads of things. I’m decidedly middle-aged and God knows I lack talent in a myriad of areas. So why can’t I accept it in the two miniature humans that I helped to produce?

So promise number one to my kids – this member of the Middle Age Fanclub will work on his patience. Drop the leaves, it’s fine. Mind you, pick the things up afterwards though. All of them. And quickly!

‘…it really feels like I’m not enjoying what should be the most precious moments with my two most precious little people.’

Perhaps the best thing about having kids is the sheer enjoyment of many of the things that you’ll do with them. And yet, I fear I don’t enjoy my kids anywhere near enough. I have moments of dancing around the kitchen with one of them or snuggling up and watching bad telly with them where I’m fun, loving dad and I’m simply enjoying spending time with them. I’ve baked cakes with them, taken them to the woods to build dens, taken them walking in streams, dressed up for their fancy dress themed birthday parties amongst other things. But I fear that those moments have been few and far between and that when my children look back on their childhood they’ll come to the heart-breaking realisation that it just wasn’t that good when it involved dad. Middle age has made me an adult who tries to think far too sensibly and it really feels like I’m not enjoying what should be the most precious moments with my two precious little people. Meanwhile, their mother (my lovely wife) finds it effortlessly easy to act like a ten-year-old with them – signing, dancing, tickling, play-fighting, gaming…you name it and Fun Mum will have been doing it with them!

I coach my son at football and so quite regularly take him to the field where we’ll work on his finishing (and there you have it – read that sentence back and it can’t be long before you’re asking where the fun is; we’ll work on his finishing indeed). All too often during these sessions I find myself frustrated. I called out ‘Right’ and he went left, his 108th shot of the morning trickled into my arms or he went to control the ball and it slid easily under his foot. Afterwards and even as I’m writing this I’m beating myself up – what does it matter? He’s 9! He’s regularly there for an hour, he must be wiped out. He’s doing all of the running while I play in goal, a largely static position, especially if you’re a fully grown adult and your opponent is 9 years old. He, however, NEVER complains!

Promise number two? Much, much more of fun dad. If you’re shot was a bit weak, well at least it was on target. High five, little man! Now let’s go and have a water fight!

Now you wouldn’t know it if you don’t know me very well, but I love a chat. So when I became a dad one of the things I found myself really looking forward to was my kids learning to talk and being able to have a chat. Like I say, funny little people with a unique take on things – our chats would be long and funny and positively enriching. And both of my children have given me immeasurable joy with some of the chats we had when they were toddlers. Seemingly endless questions about how things worked or what something meant that I was able to give them answers that made them happy, or even better, tell them Dad lies and watch as they completely believed what they were told. Again though, reality bites.

‘Why was she reluctant to talk?’

When my daughter first started primary school I looked forward to picking her up and finding out about her day. She, on the other hand, had other ideas. My daughter has rarely given me chapter and verse about her day, meaning our chats have often been over within a minute. At first this worried me. Why was she reluctant to talk? Was she being bullied? Was she profoundly unhappy with the whole concept of school? So, I read bits and pieces in books. Apparently this was perfectly normal – their day is their property and they’re not always too fond of sharing that with others. She was tired too – including Before and After School Club she’d often been there for over 8 hours; she didn’t want to talk, she wanted to watch CBeebies and have something nice to eat. So gradually, I reigned in my expectations and learnt that any response about her day was better than nothing and that we were chatting after all. We could snuggle up and watch telly together and what did it matter that we hadn’t chatted about phonics or throwing beanbags around in PE? Needless to say though, I looked forward to her getting older and less tired and being able to tell me more.

But here’s the rub. She’s got older and the chats are still often fruitless. Initially, she’d tell me more, but as soon as we got through the door of the house she wanted to leave all things school behind. Home meant food, home meant more television and eventually home meant going up to her room to stare at a screen. We’re repeating the process with my son, who although far more chatty is never engrossed enough in conversation to tear himself a way from a screen for too long. To paraphrase Cliff Richard and at the same time confirm my status as very definitely middle aged, ‘It’s not funny, how we don’t talk anymore.’

My third promise has to be then, to listen to them when they do talk. It’s far too easy to tell my kids, ‘I’m busy’ and to complain that ‘We can’t all just be chained to our phones and X-Boxes all day, you know’, so I need to push things aside and make that time for them, regardless of whether I’m ready or not. It won’t be long before we enter moody teenager faze and then they won’t want to talk at all to uncool dad. So now, whether it’s the latest video posted on ‘Like‘ by my daughter or what my son’s killed on Roblox Jail Break, I’ll do my best to listen intently and pull my interested face. Just like being in meetings at work.

‘I’m immensely proud of my two mini humans’

Another area for improvement in my dad skills (dadding?) is probably with something that we all do. My parents certainly did. However, I need to stop comparing my kids unfavourably to other people’s children. I don’t see enough of other people’s kids to have any kind of comprehensive knowledge, so why do I insist on asking mine things like, ‘Why can’t you be (insert particular quality here) like__________________?’ It’s ludicrous. Don’t get me wrong; I’m immensely proud of my two mini humans. They’re both bright, loving, funny little things so why am I bothered that someone else’s child seems to be – on occasion – brighter, lovelier or funnier. After all, is it not my job to nurture all of these positive qualities in them? My daughter must have spent her entire time while in primary school with me and her mum comparing her to her best friend, with us thinking that some of the qualities said best friend had would magically rub off on our darling daughter. I’m now learning that I can be satisfied with my kids, just the way they are. We can work together on making them fully functioning human beings and if that means ignoring some of the negatives, taking a deep breath or walking away for a bit in order to not blow my stack at them, then that’s what I’ll do.

Next promise – leave them be. My children are amazing and probably no more angelic or irritating than most, so from now on (as much as I possibly can) I’ll cherish what’s there in front of me, not give them the impression that they’d be better off being someone else.

The last fatherhood trap that I’ve definitely and shamefully fallen into is in the response I give when I’m questioned on something. It doesn’t really matter what the question is as long as I’ve already issued the order. The question, Why do I have to turn my tablet off/undo the laces on my trainers/eat my mash before my sausages/put my school bag in that particular place/play on the trampoline/not sit in that chair/not sing/not eat my cereal like that, will always, always be met with the same answer. Altogether now, Because I said so! And it’s the response that usually accompanies the ‘No’ to lots of other questions too!

This response used to infuriate me when I was a kid. Often there seemed no good reason for not letting me do stuff and looking back there really was no good reason. I mean, what harm could I come to by venturing into that cottage made entirely out of sweets that we stumbled across in the forest? Yet my dad especially would always tell me it was No,  and because I said so. I hear myself saying it now and often can’t fathom why I’m saying it. I even consciously try to stop myself saying and before I know it, whoops there it is! I guess it’s part control and part trying to keep the kids safe. But I’m sure, with my rational dad head on, my kids can be too well controlled and too protected. Because, surely if I said so, I can just as easily unsay so. Common sense says that if I can unsay the odd because I said so my kids will have at least a little more fun, as well as perhaps enjoying being around their dad some more. And anyway, we haven’t even found a cottage made of sweets in our woods.

So the final promise has to be that I’ll think before I speak. They can eat their sausage before their mash, they can keep their tablet on for a little while longer. They probably can’t go and explore the cottage made out of sweets in the woods, if we find it, and there’s no way in the world, that they can take their trainers off without untying the laces either. No crimes against trainers can be allowed in our house.

And there we have it. Whether it’s a hyper-critical look at my dad skills or whether I really am Victorian dad, changes will be made. My son is nine. We share interests – the scene is set for lots more years of dad and son fun, provided I can relax a little more and enjoy what he brings to the world. My daughter is 12; she has precious few years of her childhood left and I’m going to do my absolute damnedest to help her relax her way through them and enjoy things. And why should she be able to relax? Because I said so!

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