Last week, I did something I never do. I took a week off work and didn’t go anywhere. That’s right. No cheeky European city break; no bout of winter sun in the Canaries; not even a night away in a boutique little B&B on the coast. Nope. I spent five whole days of my annual holiday allowance at home, just me and the kids.
Mum wasn’t there, you see. In an act of altruism or pure foolhardiness, I’d volunteered to look after my two young children (Leo, 4 and Genevieve, 2) whilst Kirsty jetted off to Singapore to visit her best friend.
The plan came about one January evening. We were debating whether to take the kids to the Far East this summer. The desire to do so was great – not only from the point of view of catching up with a friend, but also the tantalizing prospect of ‘hopping’ over to Bali for a while. However, the reality of a 14 hour flight and a whopping 8 hours time difference deterred even us, the most intrepid of parent-travelers. Having decided to postpone the Great Asia Jaunt till 2014, I presented option 2: “You go, Kirst, I’ll stay and look after the children.” It just slipped out.
My surprised wife understandably seized the moment – these sorts of offers are few and far between. “It’ll be good for you,” she said. “You know, to spend time with them, just doing everyday stuff.” Arrangements were made, flights booked and before you knew it, departure day rolled around.
Now I regard myself as a fairly competent father. I can cook – not just oven-baked chicken nuggets, I’m talking slow-cooked-goulash-from-scratch here. I am relatively responsible. I can even do laundry (though choose not to whenever possible). But it was the routine that worried me. The school drop-offs, the nursery pick-ups, the football kit on Wednesday, the daily medicine at 7pm… in other words, all the things I happily outsourced to my wife. How on earth was I going to cope with it all? Kirsty diligently produced a day-by-day list, ran me through it and bade me adieu. “You’ll be fine. You’ll do a better job than me.”
And there it was. The challenge. Kirsty knew the best way to motivate me would be to challenge me. Damn it I thought, she’s right. I can do this. I can do it better. Maybe.
I wasted no time getting started. Back home from the airport drop-off, tea-time was upon me. I had decided on the drive back that this wasn’t going to be any old tea. No. This was going to be super-fun-with Dad ‘make your own pizza’ tea. A bit of passata in the fridge that needed using up; some tortillas on the cusp of staleness; a packet of salami; and a tin of pineapple. Hey presto, the kitchen had become Pizzeria for the night. Tea was duly created and devoured and the kids toddled off to bed happy. Round one to me.
Next morning, my desire to up the ante continued. After dropping Leo at school, rather than return to the house and switch on CBeebies, to Genevieve’s utter delight I whipped her off to the local swimming pool (big brother gets to go every week for lessons, you see; she doesn’t). And that evening, Daddy’s ‘build-your-own’ fruit kebabs with red sauce proved the perfect follow-up to Annabel Karmel’s BBQ chicken drummers. The kids were squealing with delight (especially when Waitrose fresh custard was produced). I, too, was feeling pretty pleased with myself. Another round won. This was too easy.
Just as I was getting into a groove, along came the curveball. Tuesday was a freak snow day. School was closed and I was faced with filling a whole day with activities for two housebound kids. This was nowhere on Kirsty’s to do list. By 10am, PlayDoh had been played; paintings had been painted; and a lemon cake had been baked. The house was a tip, my OCD tendencies were kicking in and my ideas chest was nearly empty. A Facebook message later and similarly-snowbound friends and their 2 year old were over for a snowball fight in the garden and lunch. Miraculously, the sun came out in the afternoon, precipitating a rapid thaw and permitting a post-nap walk to the local tennis courts car park, of all places. A whole, happy hour passed ‘sweeping’ the tarmac with marram grass and cracking ice on puddles. Before you knew it, we were back home for dinner, bath and bed.
I had survived the snow day. From then on, I was coasting. Genevieve was at nursery for Wednesday and Thursday, giving me precious time to myself – a trip to Brighton, a run on the Downs, a bike ride along the coast. I felt alive, happy and miles away, mentally and physically, from my London job.
On Friday, my last full day flying solo, I took Genevieve to her weekly music class. And it was here, for the first time, that I felt the challenge got the better for me. Genevieve seemed to enjoy all the prancing about with the other mums and toddlers a lot more than me; but when the host, a very sweet lady called Jan, started singing “put the maracas awaaaaaay”, I could barely stifle my flinch. I wanted out of there and having to pretend to be a cat for the finale, chasing Genevieve as ‘the mouse’, had me bolting for the exit. Fortunately, I was soon back in my comfort zone, pushing Genevieve round Waitrose – where, to her delight (and mine), we discovered Babybels come in purple, her favourite colour. A true father-daughter moment.
So, now the week’s over and Mum’s safely back, how do I feel? Well… surprisingly, a little bit sad. I’m not sad, of course, to see my wife – I love that we are together again. I am not sad either that I am no longer permanently wiping Weetabix and pasta sauce off tables and floors all day. And I’m certainly not sad that I can’t take Genevieve to music class this week. But I miss my children a little more than I used to when I leave for work in the morning. I miss the new routines we introduced during our week together: the long morning cuddles with Leo in mummy and daddy’s bed; the activity desserts (fruit kebabs came out more than once); and the nightly watching of the day’s video diary that I had been making (the kids adored seeing themselves on tele). Above all, in a bizarre way, I miss the feeling that I was wholly responsible for them and the challenge of doing my best for them.
Would I actively choose a week’s holiday to stay at home and ‘play Mum’ to the kids? That’s a difficult one: with me, the temptation will always be to go somewhere new, to seize that opportunity to travel. And I can’t deny that my heart will always beat faster for a week in Spain than one in West Sussex. What the experience has taught me is that travel doesn’t always buy greater happiness. Sometimes, you need to look no further than your own home, and the people you live with in it, for a truly memorable ‘holiday’.