Petty domestic disputes No.7: Toys in the lounge

I can feel the blood pressure rising (source: nieniedialogues.blogspot.com)

Welcome home Daddy! (source: nieniedialogues.blogspot.com)

Picture the scene. You’ve been away from home for a few days, possibly longer. You are tired. The journey back has been longer than expected and you are a bit jet-lagged as you have been abroad – and it’s not as if you can sleep well in a hotel bed at the best of times. You open the front door and your children rush up, shouting your name as they throw themselves into your arms. It’s a great feeling, up there with the best moments of being a parent. You walk into the lounge, ready to sit down for five minutes and hear about what the kids have to say. Instead you just stand there open-mouthed.

The lounge looks like an explosion at Toys R Us. It takes all your dexterity to get to a seat without twisting your ankle and when you arrive, you find even more toys taking up the sofa space. Your blood pressure rises and before you know it you’re telling your kids to have a clear up. They stare at you, disappointment in their eyes as they remember how grumpy Daddy can be.

Now you might say I’m being unreasonable; children like to play with toys and what sort of monster would stop them from doing so? And you would be right, if the lounge was the only place they could play. But one of the reasons for buying our house was that on the ground floor it had a kitchen, lounge, dining room and conservatory, enabling us to eat in the conservatory and convert the dining room into a kids play room.

This never happens in our house

This never happens in our house

Can you imagine that, a whole room full of toys and books, with the space to play and make as much noise as you want? I would have loved to have had a play room when I was a kid. As we decorated the room I could see the scene in my head; our two boys playing nicely together in the play room while my wife and I relaxed in the lounge, the adult room. I’m so naïve.

For the majority of the day, the children’s play room is like a big storage unit. It’s where the children go to collect whichever of their (many, many) toys they want to play with and bring them into our lounge to play. When this first started happening I would shoo the kids back into the playroom, which would bring on the inevitable bout of tears; “how dare you force me to go into a room full of my toys to play, it’s so unfair. ” But my wife said I was being mean so we compromised ,and we now have the basket.

The basket is small – around 2 feet by 2 feet wide and 6 inches high – made of wicker and sits at one end of our lounge. When we started with the basket, the rule was that the only toys allowed in the lounge were those in the basket. For every new toy in, one went out. This seemed like a fair compromise. The kids could play in the lounge with those toys, but if they wanted to play with any other toys they had to either play in the play room or tidy away toys already in the lounge, ensuring the lounge wouldn’t get overrun. As I said, I’m so naïve.

Now that's what I call value for money (source: huffingtonpost.co.uk)

Now that’s what I call value for money (source: huffingtonpost.co.uk)

Over time, the basket started to resemble a salad bowl you see at a serve your self salad buffet. You know the ones I mean, where the bowl is very small and the people with a “bit more storage capacity than others” build up salad walls using carrots and cucumbers, increasing the bowls capacity so they can fill the middle with potato salad, coleslaw and croutons; all to be smothered by honey and mustard dressing. You know, the healthy option.

Now our lounge is just an annex of the play room. Despite my heroics in trying to get the kids to tidy their toys away each evening, they always miss something, usually something small and hard, which gets trodden on as you come downstairs to get a bottle of milk for the little one at 4:00am.

And, of course, in order to allow our children this privilege, we end up eating our meals in a furnace during the summer and a freezer during the winter.

That was until everything changed. The basket still remains in the lounge and it is still overflowing with toys. There are always toys scattered across the lounge and sofas. The difference, though, is that I am the one at home with the children and my wife is the one that travels. Yes, there are times when I would love for the boys to play in the play room for a while to give me a break, but most of the time I enjoy playing with them in the lounge. I’ve also developed partial blindness to the fact that toys remain scattered around the place. I’ve even developed a sixth sense to identify which areas to avoid on the early hours milk collections.

My wife, on the other hand, had a sort out of both the toy room and the toy basket the other day. I didn’t say a word.

Previous petty domestic dispute blogs in this series:

  1. Bed space
  2. The 6 a.m. watershed
  3. Food
  4. Houseplants
  5. Who changes the nappy
  6. Bed Linen

Brainwashing children

You will support my football team

You will support my football team

It sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it, brainwashing children. It’s like something out of a horror story; evil parents turn their kids from pleasant, everyday children into killer zombie monsters; but I’m of the opinion that brainwashing has a bad press. You see, all parents either brainwash their children, have done in the past, or will do so in the future, and the children turn out fine. Mostly.*

Nose-picking in progress.

For a start we brainwash our children into behaving in certain ways. I know that some people would call this teaching or educating, or other such fancy terms, and it is true that brainwashing your children to suppress their natural animal instinct of beating someone smaller than themselves until they get what they want is a good thing, but there are other behavioural rules which we inflict on children that are purely designed to ensure they fit into societal norms; rules which seem ridiculous when put under scrutiny**. Take nose picking. I find nose picking unpleasant and tell my children to blow into a tissue as it more hygienic. In some parts of China, nose picking is the norm. It’s seen as a good way to clear the nose. To somebody from these areas, the thought of blowing snot onto paper which you then put into your pocket in case you need to blow your nose again is seen as disgusting.

Still, I’m not inhuman. I understand the need to brainwash children into behaving as well-rounded members of a community. There is another, more insidious form of brainwashing that is less easy to justify: brainwashing your children to like what you like. Sometimes this happens by accident. For example, I love cricket but I swore never to force my boys to play a sport unless they wanted to. Still, as they have watched cricket since they were born, have had the rules explained to them in detail, and (most importantly) have grown up in a time when the England Cricket team is quite good for once, it was only a matter of time before they started playing cricket in our garden each evening.

Other times, I have made a more conscious decision to brainwash my children. I am a fan of Ipswich Town Football Club, so as soon as my first son was born I bought him a replica shirt. He has had a replica shirt most years. He is now 6 years old and an Ipswich fan. His younger brother will also be an Ipswich fan, because I will brainwash him too. If I’m honest, none of this is for their benefit. In fact by making them Ipswich fans I will be opening them up to many years of hurt, psychologically scarring them to always expect the worst, to feel constantly disappointed and unfulfilled, but I did it anyway.

Then comes the brainwashing handed down by each generation. In the case of our family it is music. When I was a kid, my Dad played music from the Rolling Stones, The Who and a lot of Atlantic soul music. I don’t have many memories of singing nursery rhymes as a kid, but I do remember singing Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding. The favourite song of my two boys is Song 2 by Blur. This is by design. They also like LCD Soundsystem, The Flaming Lips and Madness, plus love the Beastie Boys (played with strategic coughing whenever they drop the F-bomb). I know this brainwashing is working because as we were out in the car one day, a clip of Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns ‘n’ Roses was played on the radio. As soon as it was over, my two-year old shouted “that, more!” at the top of his voice, pointing to the radio. “Yes,” I thought, “my job here is done.”

But before you all pick up the phone to call social services, there is hope. My children won’t grow up as mini versions of me. I am so confident of this fact that I’m willing to lay money on it (but only in the state of Nevada for my American friends). Shall I tell you why? Because when I was 15 years old I discovered The Smiths. They were totally different from any music I’d ever heard before. Each song’s lyrics were filled with a witty cocktail of longing and despair which transported me away from my dark, dank bedroom and onto the dark, dank streets of late eighties Manchester. My Dad hated them, an act which cemented my love of the Smiths. Soon I discovered other music that also wound up my Dad, both changing my musical outlook forever and starting my transformation into an independent person. You see, no matter how hard most of us try, our children will eventually decide for themselves what they love and what they don’t. I just hope to god that my kids don’t end up loving Celine Dion.

Oh, and I have a confession to make. All through this blog are links to some great music. Whatever you do, don’t click on them as there is a danger that I’ll end up brainwashing you too…..

*As an aside, for those of you who have never blogged, us bloggers ‘tag’ each post with words that explain what the blog is about – it helps people find us via search engines. WordPress kindly offer suggested tags based on what you have written and at this point in the blog, they suggest Christianity, the Democratic Party and Shopping. I take it that Scientology isn’t on the list due to the Church of Scientology’s litigious nature (and their innocence, of course)***.

** This is my longest sentence to date. I’m very proud of it. Thank you for reading it all, you can take a breath now

*** Yes, I’m a coward

A typical car journey (thanks for this Ben!)

Petty domestic disputes no.3: Food

A salad platter.

Call this a meal? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever since we first moved in together, my wife has been trying to change what I eat. It started fairly innocuously – she decided that three sugars in a cup of teas was three too many – so she reduced the amount of sugar in my tea first to two spoonfuls and then to one. This was quite nice, I thought, she’s looking after my best interests and I don’t really miss all that sugar. Little did I know what a dangerous precedent she had set.

You see, although I don’t believe in generalisations, every woman looks at their long-term partner as a work in progress. They do not marry us because they are happy with how we are, but view us as a rough piece of clay from which they hope to mould the perfect partner. I eventually realised what was happening and have successfully staged a small rebellion, refusing to move from one sugar to none. This is not because I don’t like the taste, but because it allows me to reassert my free will*. It’s the little things….

Over time I have learnt that there are two types of food: those that it is OK to dislike, and those I dislike. For example, I am not a great fan of most vegetables. Just a hint of carrot makes me feel sick and don’t even get me started on cabbage or broccoli, yet this, apparently is wrong. It’s not that these foods are disgusting/repulsive/put on this earth by the devil to torment me, apparently I am being fussy (and despite there being scientific evidence to support my position.) My wife, however, dislikes ice-cream and any form of beans,which is clearly normal. She used to dislike bananas and for years these were also on the list of foods to dislike. Then she tried one. Now they are on the approved list. There is no scientific evidence to back up my wife, other than the fact she has a scientific background and therefore her views are scientific evidence.

The one area where this battle of wills really comes to a head is the barbecue. Summers here in England can be relatively brief, so every chance I get I offer to cook a barbecue. There are two reasons for this.

  1. Burgers are my favourite food**
  2. I get to choose what we eat.
image source: www.food-e-matters.com

This is how a BBQ should look (photo credit food-e-matters.com)

When I think of a barbecue it consists mostly of platefuls of meat and the odd bread roll to mop up the juices. This is, apparently, also wrong. After coming home with the minced beef to make burgers, some sausages, ribs, burger buns, relishes, mustard and ketchup; the first I question I’m asked is: “What about the salad?” You see, when my wife thinks of a barbecue she sees bowls of fresh salad, coleslaw, potato salad, assorted breads, a variety of salad dressings, plus somethings barbecued, preferably kebabs that consist of large hunks of vegetables and the odd piece of chicken, which are impossible to cook without burning the vegetables and the stick whilst leaving the chicken hazardous to your health. So we compromise by me going back to the shop and buying salad stuff.

At the barbecue itself, timing is everything. I like to cook the food so everything is available at the same time. If I don’t, my wife will helpfully offer to get me a plate of something to eat while I cook. This a sausage, some coleslaw (don’t get me started on the evils of coleslaw) and lots of garnish.

I remember at one barbecue, having cooked everything on time and to perfection, my wife glanced over to my plate and said “you’ve forgotten your salad.” This was clearly unfair as I had a very large portion of potato salad alongside my two burgers, sausages and ribs. Undaunted by the logic of my argument (if it’s not salad, why does it have salad in its name?), my wife insisted on putting some extra salad on my plate.Now, I could refuse the salad as an infringement of my right to choose to eat what I damned well please, but I don’t because my wife has cunningly decided to have the whole conversation in front of the children.

She has out foxed me once again. I can’t show my hatred of vegetables in front of the children because then they would refuse to eat them. Therefore, every meal has to contain some form of vegetable or salad, otherwise the children would end up dying of scurvy, rickets or some other dietary disease I managed to avoid during my lifetime. It is OK, though, to pick the kidney beans out of a chilli in front of the kids, as nobody died of kidney bean failure.

Eventually, I’m full, but my wife hasn’t finished. “We’re all having some fruit. Would you like some?” I like fruit, but by now I feel as if I have a small baby in my stomach. My wife gives me that look, which means ‘think of the kids’. I look at my two beautiful boys and in my mind their hair and teeth starts to fall out of their future fat and bloated faces, so I give in and eat some fruit.

Later that night, I toss and turn on my side of the bed, unable to get to sleep due to indigestion. I should never have said yes to that fruit.

 

*OK, it is the taste really, I mean, tea without sugar, ugh!

** I know, call me a heathen, but they taste so good.

 

Petty domestic disputes no.2: The 6 a.m. watershed

Petty domestic disputes no.1: Bed Space

Petty domestic disputes no.2: The 6 a.m. watershed

The official start of morning

The official start of morning

For this second edition of petty domestic disputes, I will be staying in the bedroom. During the week my wife works and I look after the children (it’s a little more complicated than that but for the sake of this blog, that’s all you need to know). As my wife is the only wage earner, from Monday through to Thursday, if the children wake during the night, I deal with them. This is only fair. However, when it comes to the weekend, we enter into negotiations.

As any parent of young children knows, a lie in is the highlight of the week. It’s that little bit of indulgence that helps you get through the tantrums, whining, crying, hitting, throwing and screaming without resorting to infanticide. Deciding who gets a lie in when is a delicate negotiation. I will give you a classic example:

Wife: So who’s getting up in the night?

Me: I’ll get up in the night, you get up early.

Wife: But my exercise class is at 8:00 am the day after tomorrow so if I don’t have a lie in tomorrow, I won’t get a lie-in the whole weekend.

Me: But the little sod’s had me up every night this week. I really need a lie in.

Wife: I’ll get up in the night.

Me: Why did you ask me the question then?

Wife: Go to sleep.

You can see that my wife made the classic error of asking the question first, therefore handing me an advantage which she expertly recovered by ignoring anything I said and doing as she damn well pleased. So far, so normal. The real battle starts as the night progresses.

You see, in our household, getting up in the night means any time from when you go to sleep through to 6 a.m. the following morning. Not 6 ish, from around 6 a.m., close to six, but 06:00 hours on the dot. To many people this might sound unreasonable, inflexible even, but it’s through forming understandings like this that our marriage has been so successful.

Rabbit, the source of many sleepless nights

Rabbit, the source of many sleepless nights

Of course, this doesn’t mean the agreement is always honoured. Both of us, in certain circumstances, will do anything to get out of it. Let me give you an example. It is my turn to get up in the night. At 12:30 our youngest loses his toy Rabbit and starts to cry. I get up, find Rabbit, tuck him in and go back to bed. Perfect parenting and I’m quickly back asleep. At 2:30 am our oldest boy calls my name (it’s always my name no matter how many times I’ve told him to call for mummy). I go to him and find he’s had a nightmare. I give him a hug and tell him it’s only a dream. He lies back down and I go back to bed, tossing and turning until I eventually fall asleep.

It’s 4:30 in the morning and I’m woken by my youngest one’s breath on my face. He’s standing right next to my bed, holding his Rabbit, staring at me as if he’s trying to work out if I’m alive or dead. As I open my sleep filled eyes, he says “Milk.” I tell him to get back in bed,  go downstairs and warm up some milk. While I’m waiting for the milk I check my phone and get excited as I see somebody new is following my blog. Maybe this time they aren’t a spammer. I take the milk to my son, tuck him in,go back to bed where I lie for an age trying to get back to sleep.

Then comes the killer. It’s 5:45 a.m. I can’t remember falling asleep but I must have as I’m woken by my youngest son crying. It’s the “huh, huh, huuuuuh” type of cry that isn’t really crying, more a sign of boredom. I’m bone tired. I should go to him, but it’s 5:45 a.m. It’s nearly morning. All I have to do is hang on for 15 minutes and my wife has to deal with him. At this point my wife rolls over. Her eyes are closed she looks asleep, but she isn’t. She rolled over  so she could check the time. She’s had a long week, getting up early to catch a flight then working long hours before flying back a few days later. There is no way she’s getting up until 6 a.m. on the dot. So we both lie there, me hoping our son will settle down, my wife (back right along the centre of the bed), desperate for me to deal with the crying.

Finally, fed up with the lack of attention, our son walks into the bedroom. It’s 5:56 a.m. He walks first to my side of the bed. I refuse to open my eyes. There is a stand-off for a minute as he waits to see if I react. Nothing. He pats at my face but i refuse to budge. Realising he’s getting nowhere, he walks to my wife’s side of the bed. It’s 5:58 a.m. Surely she can’t ignore her youngest son, the little guy she’s missed so much while she’s been working away.

“Mummy, up.”

I smile. There is no way she can ignore that. I wait for her to get up out of bed but instead, she plays her trump card.

She lifts him into our bed.

“Give Daddy a cuddle,” she says, all innocence, “he’s been up all night,” and my annoyance at a lie in lost is swept away as our son wraps his arms around my neck. He squeezes me tight and I luxuriate in this act of unconditional love, doing my best to ignore the grin on my wife’s face.

To read the first in this series: Bed space, click here

Petty domestic disputes no.1: Bed space

Do you see how she is guarding the centre of the bed?

Do you see how she is guarding the centre of the bed?

My wife and I bicker a lot. We are world class bickerers. Along with love, mutual respect, openness and honesty, bickering is probably key to how our marriage is still going strong after 13 years. I feel bickering as entertainment has been overlooked by marriage counsellors (this statement is based on absolutely no facts whatsoever.) Bickering can be a release valve for the daily friction that occurs in every relationship. I’m tempted to write a book called ‘Love through Bickering.’ I think it could be the next international best seller. To test the waters, I’ll be running an irregular series of blog posts called petty domestic disputes.
Now I’m a very reasonable person whereas my wife can be quite stubborn. A good example of this is her opinion over bed space. We are both relatively slim people but I am much broader across the shoulders than my wife. The problem comes when we read in bed at night. I often find my wife creeping across to my side of the bed so that I end up pushed to the edge of the mattress. I hate this. The edge of the bed is also the edge of the duvet, which means I end up cold down my left side.
I’ve done my best to reason with her. I’ve tried to explain that the issue is all to do with proportion but my wife, in all her stubbornness, seems to believe the bed should be shared equally as with everything else in our marriage. This is clearly wrong. As I am broader than my wife, I should have proportionally more of the bed than her. This is the fair solution. Instead I was forced to spend weeks slyly moving her pillows right to the edge of her side of the bed and pushing mine right next to hers. This gave me the extra few inches of space I was entitled to and for a while I was happy. My wife said nothing but instead bought pillowcases with a border that were exactly half the width of the bed. In the end we bought a bigger bed.
Great, you might think. Situation solved. Not a chance. You see, you forgot about one thing: children. Our youngest has recently been waking up in the night and finding it difficult to settle. Quite often he ends up in our bed, but interestingly enough, not on my wife’s side. He stretches out on my side of the bed, pushing his feet into my back and wrapping the duvet around himself until I am left freezing on a sliver of mattress. My wife, in the mean time, is asleep, her back right along the line of the middle of the bed, the line as delineated by those bloody pillowcases. I have literally been given the cold should from the pair of them. And despite the fact she has her back to me, I know my wife has a smile on her face, and knowing what she has done makes me smile in return. That is what makes this marriage a success.

The little boy in a hat

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been waiting for feedback from my alpha readers on my first book. As well as writing the odd blog post, I’ve been using my precious writing time to plan out my next book. I’ve been working it through for a week or so and got to a stage where I needed a turning point which would have enough emotional impact to tip my main character to do something they would normally never consider.

So, like most writers, I started to think about what would cause me pain and I immediately my children come to mind and how I would feel if they had an incurable illness. It is important for the plot that this illness cannot be treated on the NHS in the UK, even better that there is a treatment available abroad but that it would cost a lot of money. I type the words “Children cancer no treatment NHS” into Google and find that there is a type of childhood cancer called Neuroblastoma. It is a rare cancer that affects between 75 -100 children in the UK per year. There is a treatment available on the NHS but it has a low success rate. Another type of treatment has been developed and is being trialled in some countries including the UK, but access to it is limited because its efficacy hasn’t been fully proven. It is just what I’m looking for.

The NCCA UK support families with children suffering from Neuroblastoma

The NCCA UK support families with children suffering from Neuroblastoma

I do a bit more research and come across the Neuroblastoma Alliance website, which has been set up by the NCCA to provide information and raise funds for the families affected by this terrible illness. On their website is a section called the Wall of Memory. It’s at this point that my research grinds to a halt.

The Wall of Memory tells the story of children who have died of Neuroblastoma. As the page comes up my eyes are drawn to a small photograph of a boy running in the garden. He must be around 18 months old and is wearing a floppy sun hat. It is exactly the same type of hat that my two year old wears. I look at the photo and think of my children and I can’t stop crying. I read the story and find out that the boy died just as his treatment started. The thought that this beautiful boy is no longer with us is too much. I start to cry yet at the same time I’m angry with myself for feeling this way when I have no real reason to cry. My children are happy and healthy and will hopefully stay that way. What right do I have to cry compared to the grief felt by these brave, brave parents who by exposing that grief can hopefully raise awareness and funds to give other kids a chance. It suddenly hits me how selfish and callous I’ve been. This isn’t just an interesting subject for my book. These are real people dealing with circumstances that I can barely comprehend. I look at the picture of that little boy and wonder at the person I have become.

I eventually calm down and decide what to do. My book will have a child diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, but I will use the plot point to raise awareness of this terrible disease. I will promote the Neuroblastoma Alliance charity within the dedication of the book, plus if I manage to publish the book and make any money, I will make sure some of the profits go to help these poor children and their families. I have also donated some money today, in memory of the little boy in the hat. If you are moved by what you have read, maybe you would like click on the link here and donate some money too. Perhaps we can help prevent more children from appearing on the Wall of Memory.