Don’t like to be overshadowed? Neither does Annie Tickner, who grudgingly admits that living with a WonderDad isn’t good for her confidence.
I have married someone who could give not just Peter Andre but also, dare I say it, His Royal Highness Sir David of Beckham a serious run for his money in a ‘Dad-off’. Not everyone gets a great Dad who comes home to them every night. I’m well aware of the impact of this stroke of good luck. I’m just not sure I wanted him to be this great…
When I was growing up I thought I had the best Dad in the world. He built us endless death-trap rope swings, would read to me at bedtime and, as I got older, he’d pick me up from parties in the middle of nowhere no matter how late I called or how stroppy I’d been before I left the house. But I knew to be quiet when the news was on, not to expect him to come out from behind the newspaper for several hours on a Sunday and that my Mum was the person to rely on for hairstyles, Germolene or being able to pick at least one of my friends out in a playground line-up.
That was the 70s. Everything was brown, it wasn’t considered unhealthy to smoke, and people thought it was stylish to hang spider plants from hideous macramé confections in their houses. A lot has changed, including expectations around how the work of having a family is shared.
Mothers like me are reaping the benefits of this seismic shift. Hopefully, we’re just at the beginning of the curve. But sociology aside, away from the bigger picture that can be nothing but good news, I could never have predicted what it is like to live with someone who doesn’t just meet but exceeds modern expectations of fatherhood: at every irritating, glitter-strewn, giggle-filled turn.
Those of a nervous disposition may like to look away now…
My kids adore their ‘WonderDad’. He is more fun than me and has greater reserves of patience. On my daughter’s birthday he spent all day showing her how to work her new sewing machine and make a ‘sleeping bag’ for her beloved teddy Bobby Carrots. WonderDad also runs a ‘Teddy Hospital’ for any soft toys who sustain injuries. They have overnight appointments during which time he hand stitches them back to health and positions them in charming poses to surprise the kids when they wake up.
When the tooth fairy comes she delivers tiny, delicately cut handwritten notes in the shape of a woodland scene or ‘fairy snowflake’ that have nothing to do with me. WonderDad doesn’t ‘regift’ but actually opens and then follows through with every single basket-weaving, friendship bracelet-making, dinosaur-painting, robot-making craft kit they’ve ever been given. He will sit for hours with our son, encouraging him to hold a paint brush or, amazingly, a pencil, all the while making up funny names for monsters and then giving them hilarious voices. He creates colourful reward charts for the kids and labels all their school uniform. He is responsible for the only two birthday cakes I haven’t bought in – Iggle Piggle and Mike Wazowski are still considered the best cakes the kids have ever seen.
Who in their right mind wouldn’t be bouncing along on a cloud of happiness to have married such a fantastic man? What kind of person would find this charming but also bloody irritating in equal measure?
He’s a designer, so you could argue that he’s just playing to his strengths and interests. But sadly for me, you’d be wrong. When he reads them bedtime stories (always three instead of the stipulated two) he has the children doubled over with laughter at his panoply of hilarious character voices. Every morning before work, WonderDad carries the children to the ‘kiddie wash’ (bathroom) to do battle with my son and his toothbrush because he knows if I do it, someone is likely to cry.
He stops, listens and actually looks at them whenever they talk and he has started insisting we both put our phones in a (tasteful Orla Kiely) box whenever the kids are around. He’ll bounce on the trampoline, pinging the kids dangerously high into the air, no matter how hungover he is. At the park he humiliates himself and draws looks of betrayal from the other parents for letting the kids ‘kick him over’ when he stands in front of the swing. To top it all, he does this despite having a two hour commute each way to a high pressured job that he only does because he is taking care of us. He’d rather paint.
A brief non-scientific poll of mothers I’ve run into recently suggests that I’m not alone. My proposed article subject has been met with several empathetic weary sighs of ‘at least yours doesn’t volunteer to coach kiddie football and then have everyone back to ours for an impromptu kids party where he initiates a ‘book swap circle’ or, at least, ‘I know, mine has so much patience, it’s annoying’. Of course, the main thing is that all of our children are very lucky indeed.
I am thankful but I just can’t bring myself to be grateful.
For me, just writing the list of WonderDad’s key activities was exhausting, and a bit embarrassing. Why don’t I do all the things he does? Why is he so much better at making the kids happy than I am? Self-doubt is an all too familiar companion for parents everywhere. But I like to think I go the extra mile by not just doubting myself as a mother but also as a human being. Who in their right mind wouldn’t be bouncing along on a cloud of happiness to have married such a fantastic man? What kind of person would find this charming but also bloody irritating in equal measure?
Apparently me. Here’s why:
- I’m never as good as Daddy
WonderDad sets the bar so high, adds so many bespoke flourishes to his interactions with the kids that when it’s ‘just me’ I can’t simply read them a story, I have to read them a story whilst channelling a combination of Jonny Morris and Alistair McGowan. If I try to buy myself 20-minutes to make the supper by putting on You’ve Been Framed I find myself having to sit with the kids and deliver an alternative Harry Hill-style commentary in order to make sure they ‘get’ the jokes. The list goes on. In short, I’m never as good as Daddy.
- I often try too hard
Trying to convince the kids that time spent with me is not (literally) the booby prize is hard work. I frequently find myself busting comedy moves in public bathrooms or spending all day making a chocolate cake with the ‘perfect’ amount of buttercream and their names piped onto the top only to be met with looks of utter horror or disinterest from the kids. Sometimes I think they pity me. I once caught a glimpse of myself in a changing room mirror whilst doing a ‘special dance’ to my acapella version of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s I Like Big Butts. It wasn’t a proud moment for any of us.
- I frequently resort to begging
If WonderDad is around I actually have to ask (read: plead with) them to sit next to me on a plane or even hold my hand whilst walking down the street. I am transported back to netball lessons in the Upper Third and the audible sighs elicited by someone being told to be my partner. My son is inscrutable and hasn’t once cracked, my daughter however often pretends to change her mind with a heartfelt ‘poor Mummy’.
- I hurt myself just to make them like me
Over the years I have developed a ‘by any means necessary attitude’ to getting the kids to think that I am fun. Pratfalls, tree-climbing and cartwheels in the park are bad for my body and morale. But if it makes the kids smile, I’m in. The other day, whilst my husband was re-glueing the ‘bobbin winder spool’* onto my daughter’s sewing machine I had to find something to occupy my son. Suggesting we carry on building that Lego racing car Uncle Paul bought him for Christmas was futile so, instead, I had him in fits of giggles by letting him whip me with his dressing gown chord. It was one of the best 20-minutes of the week and ended abruptly the moment WonderDad was done. If one of them should ‘accidentally’ find themselves sitting on my knee I do not move a muscle for fear of breaking the spell. Haven’t been able to feel my foot for the last 15 minutes? Who cares. Knobbly elbow digging into my ribs? Yes please. I’ll take it where I can get it.
*In the interests of full disclosure I should add that WonderDad even sang ‘wind the bobbin up, wind the bobbin up, glue glue glue’ as he did so.
- I have to be really good at the boring bits
With WonderDad clearly winning in the parenting stakes I am left with the life admin: ferrying, cooking, shopping, nursing, tidying, cajouling, washing, supporting and last but not least, caring for WonderDad. Boring as that might seem, the time and effort I give to that list reassures me that whilst I’m not the same kind of parent as my husband, I am still a good one (except if I’m hungover or have an article to finish).
As WonderDad put it so (irritatingly) graciously, “it’s all about Mazlow’s Hierarchy of needs. You provide the first 4 for the kids – physiology, safety, belonging, esteem – so that I can come in and show pony on number 5 (self-actualisation).”
And in an unconscious way, I think the kids know it too. In an edifying recent exchange with my daughter she said she could think of a hundred things Daddy does that are great and two things that I do – ‘helping us and not getting grumpy’. What I ‘do’ may be largely invisible but it’s by no means inconsequential. Without me there’d be no meals, no shoes that fit, no play dates, no completed homework, no carefully curated lists of Christmas presents for the family to buy the kids, no glitter in the craft box and no-one who knows exactly what the 12 different meanings of ‘good’ are in answer to the question ‘how was your day?’.
I am a maternal ninja. I am InvisiMum. And together with WonderDad, we make a good team. But it doesn’t however stop me wanting to poke him in the eye when he suggests we all go outside with the telescope to look at the moon before bed.Annie Tickner is a writer and mother to two children aged 6 and 8. She is from Whitstable and currently planning her escape from life in Silicon Valley.