Birthdays aren’t always about the kids; A blog post celebrating the celebrity of The Birthday Cake.

Kids birthday’s are a riot of colour, noise and fun, with the primary objective of giving the celebrating child a day to remember. But birthdays aren’t just about the kids. There is sometimes a quieter celebrity which often threatens to steal the show. The celebrity of The Birthday Cake.

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I have long forgotten how to celebrate my own birthday properly, usually perfectly content to let the event slip silently out of sight (as long as a little bit of a fuss is made for the zero ending birthdays).

So since becoming a father I have had to re-train myself to acknowledge the birthday as a key event in my children’s lives, and to re-engage in the ceremony of birthday for the benefit of my children.

As a result I have spent what seems like most weekends for the last 12 months or so, attending these wonderfully intense little explosions of colour, noise and vibrancy as child after child passes yet another milestone mark in their lives. And toddlers birthday parties are a sight to behold, populated by clumsy, wobbly zombies, each one vibrating with the raw energy of life itself; too young to really know what is going on, but old enough to know that a bouncy castle + balloons + friends + sticky cakes = best time EVER!

And the more birthdays I have attended, the more I have observed that there is a fundamental competition going on behind the scenes. Which parents can hire the best hall? Which parents can get the best bouncy castles? Which parents can get the best entertainment?

But it appears that the one factor that trumps everything else is the food. For my circle of friends at least, the more homemade, the more organic, the more wholesome the food, the better. For example a hand knitted flapjack using fairly traded sugar and Goji berries from an indigenous tribe cooperative in Latin America would score you BIG parent points.

But the thing that really trumps everything else is The Birthday Cake. Ah yes. The Birthday Cake. The ultimate symbol of the Super Parents. The Birthday Cake. The thing that shouts “Look at us. We have given birth AND we can bake. We are multi-tasking, home-baking, sustenance-providing SUPER PARENTS”

Ever since I became a father, my Facebook and Twitter timelines have become chock FULL of my friends pictures of their children’s Birthday Cakes (ironically, with not a child in sight). Some of these cakes are so utterly magnificent that the creators’ children probably didn’t eat for days whilst they were painstakingly crafting them.

And while my wife and I have largely resisted the lure of The Birthday Cake for my daughters first and second birthdays, I could see all this changing for my daughters recent third birthday.

It was a Saturday afternoon, about two months before the birthday. My wife asked my daughter if she would like a birthday cake. A perfectly reasonable question you might think, but let’s unpack it a little bit. My daughter was approaching her third birthday. Her opinions and views of the world are not yet fixed. Given that this question was her first introduction to the dialogue about birthdays, it is now likely that her view of birthday’s evermore will be first and foremost defined by the presence or otherwise of The Birthday Cake.

And in addition, it wasn’t just the question that was asked, it was the way it was asked. A glint in the eye, a conspiratorial whisper in the voice and a subliminal and very slight nodding of the head as the question was delivered. I realised my wife was, consciously or not, making it impossible for my daughter to say “no” to this question.

Naturally my daughter picked up on all the cues and gleefully replied “yes”. And that was it. Two months of discussing the party once the kids were in bed followed, with The Birthday Cake taking centre stage.

At one point, when I felt the party was in danger of mushrooming into a vast logistical and administrative undertaking that we would need an army of volunteers to help deliver, I suggested that we buy a cake from the local Posh Cake Shop to reduce the burden on the family. The frown and withering stare I received in return was enough for me to understand that what I was saying was tantamount to adultery and betrayal. I filed that suggestion into the mental box in my brain marked “Pandora” – along with the recent suggestion that we turn the kids sandpit into a raised bed for my carrots – and tried to change the subject to a safer, more mundane conversation, about balloons or something.

However, the worst thing about all this was that we decided to do a joint birthday with some of our best friends. This would mean there would be not one, but TWO cakes. And those cakes would be IN COMPETITION!

And sure enough the cake was an ongoing topic of conversation between the two matriarchs in the run up to the party. Some nights my wife would come off the phone from her friend, frustrated and grumbling about an added twist her friend had added to embellish her cake, walking off cursing into the kitchen to find something that could be added to our cake to fortify it.

As the party approached the conversations between the two women literally turned to sledging each other over their cakes. I got an insight into how men must appear when we do that blokey, sledgehammer, put down thing i.e. great fun for those of you in the middle of the banter, but extremely uncomfortable viewing for those watching and not quite sure of the rules.

Then came the day of the party. For my daughter, the party was all about bouncy castles, her friends, balloons and hilariously bad dancing to Katy Perry (can it be torture if they appear to enjoy it?). But for all the adults, underneath all this superficial colour, happiness and noise, was the underlying tension of the two cakes being pitted against each other; two houses going head to head in a glorious cake-off. The battle for cake supremacy had begun.

Someone dimmed the lights. I don’t know who. It didn’t matter. A hush descended on the room. Everyone turned to face the glow of candle light coming around the corner. The hilltop fires had been lit! The Birthday Cakes were here! CAKES!! INCOMING!!!

I must confess, while I had been, up until this point, less preoccupied by the quality of the cakes and more concerned about the survival of my CD collection (which was being frisbeed around the room), I was by now desperate for our cake to be beautiful; to be the show stopper; to resemble everything you might find in a Posh Cake Shop, and – with the benefit of the infinite love of a mother poured into it – much, much more.

The first cake arrived to a collective gasp; a deep, dark dense chocolate cake with elaborate bursts of coloured icing, crackling like fireworks against a midnight sky. The cake-makers face was lit up by the candles, a portrait of happiness and pride.

Then came our cake. More gasps of appreciation. And I was amazed! This was a lighter, pink affair over two tiers, each lovingly adorned with beautiful, delicate thin wafer flowers and studded with pink and white chocolate buttons.

And ff this cake had been a car, it would have been a pink Lamborghini. It would have come screeching into the room, exhaust throttling, tyres burning, a perfect hand brake turn at the end for the adoring crowds. It was a stunning, prancing horse of a cake.

The candles on the cake lit up my wife’s face, a pink halo burning above her head. My daughters face also lit up. She tilted her head down, beamed a beam as wide as an ocean trench and clapped her little hands together three times. Her shoulders bobbed up and down with excitement and she was squealing with joy. A burst of pride spread across my chest.

And my goodness, it tasted amazing. Admittedly it was helped by the TWO packs of butter that were helping to hold it together, but raised cholesterol levels aside, this was a job well and truly done.

So there it was, two months in the planning for both families, demolished in seconds by a hungry and appreciative audience. And it dawned on me. As the cakes were being brought through and all eyes were trained on them – flashbulbs popping and the crowds parting to let the sugary sweet VIPs through – that birthday parties are without doubt primarily about the children; but that the cakes take a certain celebrity too.

And on this occasion it was the mothers that had embraced this celebrity and gone head-to-head, two matriarch lionesses on the Serengeti savannah, circling each other, measuring each other up; each cake cub crying for attention, a symbol of life, creation and nurture. A symbol of pride, dedication and selfless giving, all wrapped up in a sugary-pink icing casing.

And as the chaos died down I decided that next year I am going to get involved. And it’s going to get serious. I have decided the cake will have turrets and minaret’s, delicately sculpted in an Arabic style. And there will be marshmallows and Lindt chocolate. And Spiderman and Winnie the Witch will be involved. And I will take photos of it, and post them on any social media site that will have me.

Oh yes.

It’s cake war.

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What I learnt the night I thought my daughter was dying

Being a parent has taught me that I can cope with my own mortality; but the thought of my child’s mortality fills me with a fear that is as deep and primal as life itself. This is what I learnt from the night when I felt the bottom was falling out of my world.

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Late one night, walking up the stairs to carry out my late night baby check, I heard the grinding, grumbling noises of a boiler on its last legs. Or so I thought.

I pushed open the bedroom door and it was then that I immediately realised something wasn’t right. The noises were not coming from a faulty boiler; they were lower sounds, more guttural, almost animal. And there was another sound too, one that I had not heard before. It was a writhing, flapping, beating sound.

I rounded the door and looked to the cot. Where my peaceful, calm, tranquil sleeping baby should have been lying fast asleep, was instead a wide eyed, rigid child, rattling with violent tremors, foaming at the mouth. The noises hadn’t been coming from the boiler. They were coming from my child.

A pulse of shock went through my body. A knot of tension surged across my chest. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach.

Time stood still. A second wave of shock came over me. I went over to her cot and tried to talk to her, tried to engage her, to see my baby, to engage and soothe and calm. But her eyes were wide open, fixed in a horrific stare – dark pools, soulless, like the haunted, cold eyes of a shark. The shaking was getting worse and I noticed that she was soaking wet, and lying on sodden bed linen. I touched her, tried to get her out of the cot, but she was wooden, rigid, plank like and it proved a struggle. And she was burning up, a fever so hot to the touch, literally dripping with her own sweat, her hair plastered across her forehead. All the time a low grunting and growling was emanating from deep inside her.

I had only ever seen something like this in a horror film. I wondered if I was in a nightmare. I thought she was having a fit, maybe worse. I had no idea what to do. I tried to take her clothing off, trying to get some air to her. With the shaking it was impossible. I laid her on the floor, put her on her side in the recovery position, and shouted to my wife to come in. My wife heard the tone in my voice and came running through. She came straight over and let out a small cry.

By now the shaking had stopped and something worse had happened. My daughter’s body had gone limp and her eyes were shut. The horrific grunting had stopped. I held her face and tried to talk to her, my voice increasingly growing desperate, louder, frightened. But she was limp and floppy and quiet, her eyes closed to the world. She lay motionless. I couldn’t hear her breathing. I scooped her off the floor and ran through into our bedroom, laying her on the bed. I tried to find signs of life. I felt sick, truly sick. This could not be happening.

Then panic. “Wake up Asha! WAKE UP!!” But she didn’t. She couldn’t. The prickle of horror spread up my neck and behind my ears. My heart was racing.

But wait! There it was! There! I could hear breathing through her nose! She was breathing. We quickly established a pulse too. But she was unconscious and still burning up. 

My wife called an ambulance. We live near a hospital and they were with us within 5 minutes. They were amazing. In the back of the ambulance, after a few tests and listening to the answers to a couple of well chosen questions, they told us she was probably having a febrile convulsion. My jaw dropped. This did not sound good.

They must have seen the look of horror and confusion on our faces so they quickly told us it was incredibly common. They told us it was not dangerous. They told us it was probably nothing to worry about. Each statement was like a kiss from a lover. Each statement dispersed the clouds and bought the sunshine streaming in. Each statement lifted the darkness on my soul.

Anyone who is a parent, and has been in a drama like this, will know how reassuring it is to hear these words coming from qualified professionals. And you will also know too the feeling that accompanies words like this, words of hope. It feels like a part of your life is returning. You begin to feel complete again. The dark fog and the mist lifts and you feel strangely euphoric.

In the hospital they ran tests. Our daughter lay in a deep sleep for hours afterwards. Despite being reassured by those around us, and the fact we were in a hospital and being looked after extremely well, it was frightening as she could not be woken and was silent, immovable.

I just wanted my baby to wake up. I wanted to look into her big eyes and see the light return, the glimmer, the sparkle, the glint of mischief. I wanted to see her dimples again, and hear her chuckle. I wanted to erase the memory of the staring, dead eyes and the body wracked with convulsions. I never wanted to feel like that again – powerless, impotent, scared to death. I wanted my daughter back.

Eventually she stirred, let out a little cry, rubbed her eyes and sat up. She looked pale, drawn, white as a ghost, shattered, but she was awake, alive. She looked surprised at her surroundings and I reached across to her. The corners of her mouth turned upwards into a little grin and her eyes sparkled. She held her arms out. I went in for the biggest hug ever. I squeezed her tight, and allowed her gorgeous curls to tickle the side of my face. I cried tears of relief. I didn’t want to let her go.

In the morning we were discharged. We learnt that my daughter had had a virus which had caused a sharp spike in her temperature. This had triggered the febrile convulsion. We were told it was likely to happen again, and that while it was not serious, we should call the doctors or an ambulance for peace of mind.

She has had tests since which confirmed the diagnosis and only one convulsion since. It was equally scary, but this time we were prepared. She has been clear now for close to a year. Apparently children generally grow out of them, there is no lasting damage and they are relatively harmless.

I learnt that night to be very grateful for the NHS, the excellent staff who reassured us, the speed with which an ambulance was with us and for their overall care and commitment. I am lucky to be living in a country where this kind of service is still free.

And being a parent has taught me that I can cope with my own mortality, but that the thought of my child’s mortality fills me with a fear that is as deep and primal as life itself. This is a feeling that is so powerful, a feeling the strength of which I never thought possible until I became a parent. There are no words to describe it. Life is so transient, so temporary; we never know what is waiting around the corner. Having children has really taught me to live for the moment, embrace every second because life moves so quickly and I don’t believe in regrets.

I knew when I became a parent that it was going to be a challenge. But I had no idea that being a parent could so profoundly rattle my soul; I had no idea that being a parent could result in such unbelievable highs and such unfathomable lows; I had no idea that being a parent could give me such a incredbible reason to live; And I had no idea that being a parent would stretch me in every fibre of my being to be a better person.

And the thing about being a parent is this. My emotional capacity has grown exponentially. My capacity to love has become infinite and unconditional. And my emotions are, on a daily basis, polarised to such extremes. My children have taught me to fear; a fear so profound and primal that it cuts in such a way that I have never experienced, not even when I have been in situations where I have been fearful of my own life. And conversely my children have taught me to love; a deep profound love; a glorious love that can cut through the darkness and gloom; a love that can send a crackling pulse of energy so strong, that it feels like it could push back the tentacles of Death itself. This is what I learnt the night I thought my daugther was dying.

 

I’m travelling abroad for work, without my children – is it OK to be feeling this happy?

New parents are often subject to extremely powerful and often contradictory new emotions. The surge in hormones, the all conquering nurturing instinct, buckets of adrenalin and potent endorphins all combine to create a heady soup of emotional upheaval. Perhaps the biggest struggle I have faced as a new parent is dealing with the overwhelming urge to love, protect and die for my little crazies at the same time as trying to reconcile the daily, often hourly, desire to get as far away from the little buggers as possible. This blog is dedicated to that struggle.

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I have been away with work a couple of times since my daughter was born in 2010. Each time I found it really difficult. I took photos and videos of her on my trip and tried a few Skype link ups each time I was away. I found it hard though, particularly the Skype link ups. I found I just wanted to be there with her, bury my face in her soft curls, smell the sweet, earthy fragrance of her skin, give her a big bear hug and watch her face light up with those gorgeous little dimples.

And it is often late at night when it is the hardest, when I am sitting on my own in some desperate hotel room. It is at these times that I often find myself wondering what on earth I am doing. Becoming a parent has bought it into stark relief for me that the most important job in the world is not negotiating a new contract; it is not convincing your manager that a particular idea is worth investing in; it is not presenting data and statistics on company and staff performance; it’s not budgeting and it’s certainly not reporting. It’s none of this.

The most important job in the world for me is being there for my babies, to nurture, steer and guide; to be a stable and reassuring presence in a turbulent world; to be that person to calm the tantrums; to be that person to cuddle and reassure; to be one of only a few people in the whole world, that they can trust and rely on, and who they know will love them back, unconditionally. My company can get rid of me tomorrow, and I will likely be forgotten in a couple of years. But my family will know me to my grave and will remember me perhaps even beyond. I am working, whether consciously or not, towards creating a lasting legacy and footprint way beyond my brief physical time on this planet. This is a sobering thought and one which helps to put parenting, and its importance, into perspective.

And so there it is, those late night pangs of guilt. Yes, I know that by going on this trip I am providing an income for the family, and yes I know I am securing a roof over their heads and yes I also know I am helping to invest in their futures. But the one inescapable truth is that I am not there for them AT THAT VERY MOMENT. And for babies and toddlers it is all about the here and NOW. And when they are young they are changing all the time, and a week in their world is equivalent to 3 months in ours. One of the worst emails I ever received was during one of these trips when my daughter first became mobile. The email was from my wife. It simply said

Emily has just started ROLLING! I put her down in the bathroom, and before I knew it she had rolled all the way down the hallway! She was grinning all the way! Thought you would like to know that xx”

Now this may seem a stupid thing to get emotional over (it’s not even walking!), but reading that, in my lonely hotel room, made the tears flow. Here I was, stuck in some stupid meeting about company performance, and I had missed the moment my daughter had become mobile, my own beautiful little rolling pin! And I could imagine her little curls and dimples, tumbling over and over, gleeful at discovering this new found trick, her very first experiment with personal freedom. And I was not there to pick her up, give her a hug and tell her how brilliant she was.

And this is all true. And I love my daughter (and now son too) beyond words, both when I am away from them, but also (more so) when I am with them.

But here is the thing. There are also days when I would happily sell my children on eBay to the highest bidder. This is because they are EXTREMELY HARD WORK. Children mean the relinquishing of your own life and needs, they mean endless nappy changes, petty squabbles, change mat fights, noise, clutter, sickness, trips to the hospital, chaotic dinner times, stressful bed times and mess. And that’s not to mention the tantrums, the sleep deprivation, the teething, the colic, the screaming, the horror, THE HORROR!

In all of my adult life – a life that has at times seen me negotiating with warlords, armed rebel groups and government staff in different countries, working in disaster affected communities in some of the poorest places in the world, managing mass redundancies, disciplinary processes and fraud cases – I have never walked out of a room because a conversation is proving too difficult. Since having children however I have had to walk out of the room twice because I could feel the anger and stress surge up like a fountain. Children are programmed to be parasitic, selfish and utterly self absorbed. They have to be, otherwise they would not survive. But boy this is a drain, particularly if you have two (or more) of the little horrors and you, yourself are also having a bad day.

So in this context, trips away can take on a new, happy meaning for me. A break from the chaos, SLEEP, the return of my own personal space, MORE SLEEP, running to my own rhythm, adult conversations, the ability to just pop out somewhere, go for breakfast / lunch / dinner without having to apologise for re-painting the walls a shade of bolognaise red, EVEN MORE SLEEP and the ability to move between places without having assorted children hanging off my trouser legs – heck I could even go for a pint and READ A NEWSPAPER!

And even writing this above paragraph is starting to make me excited. In a few weeks, I will get all of this. I will be on a plane to a foreign country. Just me. No one else. And by the time the plane takes off, I will be half way through a newspaper, headphones on. The return of my personal freedom, the return of choice, the return of good old selfish me. And this is where the irreconcilable contradiction begins.

I know that during those late night work sessions, stuck in my lonely hotel room, I will be eaten up by that burden of guilt, knowing that my real job is thousands of miles away. I know that I will feel that lump in my throat as I look at photos of my children. But I also know that I will feel euphoric as I wake up after 8 solid hours of uninterrupted sleep. I will shed tears as I play THAT video of my son waddling like a fat duck, pushing his buggy, cackling like a demon as he discovers his own personal freedom. But I will flourish in the luxury of a bar meal and adult company and conversation. And I will feel pain that I can’t be with my children for the 7pm post dinner evening disco that we all love. But I will relish in leisurely breakfasts, which someone else has cooked and will have to wash up. And I will miss the morning cuddles, giggles and rough housing in bed with my kids that set the day up so perfectly. But I will embrace the silence, the space and the mindfulness as I walk on my own around unfamiliar neighbourhoods. 

The only way I can begin to try and reconcile all of this is to accept that it is perfectly natural to be excited about a few days away. And that I should be proud that I will be really sad to be away from my kids, because it means that I am an involved father, and that in turn means that when I am with them, I am 100% all guns blazing with them. 

And the thing I am going to revel in, the moment those doors close and the aeroplane is cleared for take-off, is that I can be me again. Just me. And that makes me happy. But the thing I can look forward to the most is getting home again, walking up the drive and turning the key in the lock. From there I will hear a squeal of delight and the pad-pad of running feet. It will be my daughter, she is older and quicker, and she will round the corner, out of control of her legs, a morass of smiles, curls and dimples, and she will crash into me, like a wave breaking over rocks. She will give me one of her lovely knee-high sticky hugs and will hold on for dear life.

And then, crawling as fast as his little body will allow, will come my little man, head down, hands slapping on the floor with each move, determined not to be left out, big gummy grin, arms outstretched imploring to be picked up for a cuddle. There will be screeches of excitement and a cacophony of noise as each child competes for the air space to report back, in their own unique way, on EVERYTHING they have done and seen and heard since I was away. And my wife will be stood behind this human tide, arms folded, content to patiently wait her turn. And I know she will be thinking that now there are two pairs of hands and her mood will lift and a weary smile will break upon her beautiful face. And imagining that scene, and that moment of utter perfection, brings me a happiness beyond words.