A surrogate mother and a father-in-waiting

Isaac cuddling Kara

Predictably, the trouble started within minutes of getting off the phone with Mummy.

The children often find it unsettling when one of their parents is away for a period of time. Being away with friends in Barcelona from Thursday through to Sunday certainly qualifies. I’m occasionally away with work during the week but that’s not so bad as the kids are at school/preschool/after-school club for much of the day, so it’s a relatively small ‘hole’ in their routine. A weekend absence is much more noticeable though.

It doesn’t take long for the kids to start playing up. It’s late in the week, they’re tired and they’re always a bit on the edge by the time Thursday evening rolls around anyway.

Isaac niggles the others by being a bit too bossy and also invading their personal space. It’s something he does unconsciously when he’s tired. He’s always been a tactile child and he doesn’t recognise that sometimes he needs to back off a bit. What’s normal for him is intrusive and annoying for others.

Toby requires only the tiniest of nudges to tip him into floods of tears. A book from school he doesn’t want to read. The wrong number of pieces of broccoli on his dinner plate. Not being the first up the stairs at bedtime. (Two of the three incidents actually happened. I’ll leave you to guess which ones.)

Kara, ever the feisty one, becomes extra stroppy. When Isaac leans into her too much, she snaps back at him. When Toby barges past her in the bathroom, she pushes back.

You turn away for 30 seconds and before you know it they’re all wailing and pointing the finger of blame at each other.

Heather will tell you that this is a common occurrence on nights when I’m not home for the kids’ bedtime, particularly on a Thursday or Friday when they’re at their most fractious.

But last night it wasn’t Heather who had to deal with them because it isn’t me who’s away for the weekend – it’s her.

The phone call with her? We were at home, she was at the airport, flying out on a girls’ weekend to celebrate a friend’s birthday.

It’s a well deserved break for her too. Other than a work trip last year, which doesn’t really count, I can count the number of nights she has spent away from the kids on the fingers of, well, one finger. She asked if she could go on this weekend – I told her not only that she could but that she should.

So dealing with all the niggling fell to me. And keeping cool in the face of three exhausted kids still being up two hours past their bedtime fell to me. And sitting on the stairs with a tearful Isaac telling me how much he missed Mummy also fell to me.

(They’re never this overwrought when I’m away. Hmm.)

But I coped. No shouting. No threats. Just a firm hand when it was needed and an arm around a shoulder when that was required instead. I don’t ask for a medal or a pat on the back. I’m just doing what a parent does – and what their mother does on a far more regular basis. I’m a dad, not a babysitter.

Fundamentally I keep reminding myself they’re good kids having a bad night through a combination of fatigue, uncomfortably sticky heat and missing their mum.

And, though he was the most upset of all, I’m immensely proud of Isaac. He may be our oldest child but he is also the most sensitive one. And yet when his sister was struggling to get to sleep, he wiped away his tears and willingly adopted the role of surrogate mother, soothing Kara and tucking her into bed.

That’s how lucky I am. I’m experienced enough looking after the kids that a tough evening like this doesn’t overly faze me anyway. Then I have the added bonus of knowing the burden of standing in for Heather doesn’t fall solely on my shoulders. Isaac is there too. He makes a great mini-mum – and hopefully that means he will one day make a great father too.

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