This is the time of year I feel most inadequate as a father.
Christmas obviously brings its own strains, financial and emotional, but at least there’s plenty of booze and chocolate to soothe the nerves during the festivities, so that I’m generally able to remain cheerful, to dote on my offspring and play my role with conviction.
But now this. This wasteland to be traversed, these weeks and weeks before the start of the school year, it’s more than can be endured, by man at least.
Of course, my partner, my de facto, my co-parent, she tells me she doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. That it’s really not that bad, that, as a grown man I should be capable of managing my own children.
Easy for her to say. But I’ve seen the little vein throbbing in her temple, too, as she attempts to get the manic swine ready for bed.
We both work part-time, me from home for most of it, and we share the childcare duties. Which means we often bicker about who has the lousier life.
“They’re not the same with me as they are with you,” I have been known to wail. “With you, they get on with stuff on their own. But when I’m around they demand my participation, they compete for my attention, then before you know it they’re hitting each other and I’m shouting at them. And that’s before I’ve given them breakfast...”
“You need to set boundaries,” she tells me, like some book, as she kicks away my grasping hands from her ankles, and leaves for work.
A boy of four and a girl of six is what we’ve got. The boy is a handful, these days. He has a very narrow field of interest, but when he’s into something, he is passionate about it, to a degree that is ravingly compulsive. Recently he has exchanged steam engines for scarecrows as the object of his ardour, a choice that stemmed from his enthusiastic appreciation of a particular episode of Shaun The Sheep that features one.
Then come the screams that summon me from my desk and require me to work out who to punish first, her for teasing him, or him for smashing a jigsaw puzzle over her head.
A fortnight ago, my partner fashioned for him his very own scarecrow, the state, location and bearing of which have become absolutely paramount to the boy’s wellbeing at any given moment. So I stick the scarecrow over by the wall; I take it down and help him to change its clothes; I scour my wardrobe for a hat that might look a bit more like the one in Shaun The Sheep; I move the thing over to the trees next to the carport; I fix its arms when they drop off; and, when, finally, I try to set some “boundaries”, a moratorium on all scarecrow-based activities while I get lunch ready, the boy mutates into a snarling incubus and bellows that he’ll hate me forever and that I can never, ever go to his party.
Thankfully, my six year-old daughter is largely able to occupy herself, abusing her dolls, experimenting with her make-up kit (thanks, Santa!) and practising twerking in the mirror. (I know, I know, I should be helping her brush up on her sums and spelling in readiness for grade one, another dadfail for the list.)
Sooner or later, though, she’ll get bored, and take to brother-goading, her default diversion. She plays him like a violin. All she has to do is look at the scarecrow with just the right expression of smarmy, sisterly condescension, and he’s sure to explode. Then come the screams that summon me from my desk and require me to work out who to punish first, her for teasing him, or him for smashing a jigsaw puzzle over her head.
So I bribe them both with a DVD and an unhealthy treat. Dadfail!
Of course, sometimes they play together beautifully. That’s when they really make a mess. The house is strewn with scrawled drawings and fragments of coloured paper (they are both prolific and temperamental artists), random installations of piled cushions and clothing (“Don’t touch that, we’re making a cake!”), dolls, toy trains, half-eaten sanwiches, clods of kinetic sand (“fun, indoor, mess free!”), and all of it lightly scattered with glitter.
The relentless cacophony of their excitement and glee, rising with grim regularity into hysteria, and a crescendo of screaming and tears. Should this be music to my ears?
And the noise. The relentless cacophony of their excitement and glee, rising with grim regularity into hysteria, and a crescendo of screaming and tears. Should this be music to my ears?
All parents understand the need to get them out of the house. Which means every attraction is crowded. We went cherry-picking at the weekend - elbows everywhere. We were only there an hour before the children got bored, but we still spent sixty bucks and all got diarrhoea.
Just yesterday, we drove (well, we were driven - I don’t drive and have to rely on fellow parents for lifts when I’m on my own with the kids - uber-dadfail!) for nearly two hours to reach somewhere called “Fun Fields”, a water and amusement park. A hundred and six dollars entry for me and the kids.
Once inside, the main activity was queuing. And the queuing had a twist. I’d be queuing with the kids for a lifetime or two, say for some water-slide, merciless sun beating down, and then, at the last minute, one of them would decide that they really didn’t want to go down the slide at all, no way, and that they didn’t want to wait right here while you took the other one down the slide, either. Cue simultaneous meltdowns.
These, though, they tell me, are the golden years, the ones I’ll look back on with yearning. But these weeks of summer. These weeks and weeks.
“They’re only children,” my partner tells me, after I’ve regaled her with an account of the day’s indignities, and unfolded my bruised and weary body into bed. And that’s when I remember I’m off to work in the morning, and she’s staying home.
“You’re right, darling,” I concur with a tender kiss.
“You have fun with them tomorrow.”