A Dad's View: The perils of early parenthood
A visiting toddler puts Tom Dunmore through his paces, reminding him of the perils of early parenthood
A tower rises majestically from the kitchen floor. Every single piece of Lego and Duplo in the house has gone into making this, plus some less-than-secure generic building blocks. I hold Erik as, with uncharacteristic care, he places the final, one-stud block on the pinnacle of the tower, which now stands level with my nose. It wobbles precariously but doesn't fall. I lower him to the ground, and we stare in silent awe for a couple a seconds before he asks, 'Can I smash it down now, Daddy?'
'Not yet,' I say. 'Let's see how long it'll stay up for.' I'm guessing the answer will be about 30 seconds, because it's only since he turned three that Erik has started making things out of Lego rather than just smashing down his sister's constructions.
So I'm pretty stunned when, 45 minutes later, the tower is still standing. But then the doorbell goes and in comes my sister-in-law with her beaming 18-month-old boy. Within moments of their arrival, the tower is gone – and I'm desperately trying to sweep up the cascade of colourful blocks before they're snaffled by a toddler.
Everyone knows that children grow up quickly. But until you're a parent you don't realise how quickly you change, too. Each one of your baby's new achievements comes with new challenges, so we grown-ups have to be constantly relearning what it is to be parents and, as a coping mechanism, blanking out everything that came before.
At least, that's my excuse for forgetting exactly how much attention you have to pay to a tiny person who's just started walking.
All those edges I'd forgotten about suddenly seem sharp again; I notice the radiator valve I forgot to cap; even the oven seems to glow maliciously and it's not actually on. Or is it?
I pick up my nephew and pretend to cuddle him while mentally surveying the house for potential deathtraps. It's full of them. The stair guards are gone; the floor is littered with tiny, delicious-looking toys. And now my wife and her sister are heading out for a meal so I'm left with this gurgling child who – it suddenly dawns on me – doesn't understand a word of English: his mother tongue is Norwegian. And talking of tongues, is there something odd about his? It seems strangely blue. No, wait, that's... the top of the tower!
'No!' I say, to an uncomprehending look. 'Uh, I mean nein... No – NEI!'
'Nine!' echoes Erik from across the room. 'Ten, eleven, twelve, fourteen.' With every number he throws another of my carefully tidied building blocks onto the floor.
Later, when the kids are finally in bed, their cousin fully de-Legoed and safely imprisoned in his cot, I survey the devastation they have left in their wake. After a couple of hours man-marking this little boy – while juggling the demands of my own kids too – I have no energy left to start the cleaning. I feel like I've stepped back two years, and vividly recall how tough the early years can be.
Then the crying starts. I'll give him one minute, I decide, then I'll go up. And to my astonishment, the crying stops. This never used to happen. I tiptoe upstairs to check all is Ok. I peep through the doorway and see the cot illuminated by a nightlight. And there, by its side, are Erik and Ava, sweetly singing to their rapt cousin, 'Twinkle, twinkle, chocolate bar, my mum drives a rusty car...' I manfully swallow a tear, quietly reverse from the room, and float downstairs to finish clearing up.