Day Forty-Four: The three Essential Virtues of stay-at-home daddery – Friday 28 August 2015

Day Forty-Four: The three Essential Virtues of stay-at-home daddery – Friday 28 August 2015

So just like that our first adventure together is over.

After three months and forty-four days of dynamic daytime partnership with Milo, I return to work next week. But not before I try my best to summarise how marvellous this adventure has been and why the concept of a stay-at-home dad must be normalised in Australia; for society, families and the individual.

My antennae has been rather sanctimoniously up over the last 3 months looking for any indication I was not being accepted or welcomed equally as a dad in a stay-at-home parenting world dominated by mums; at swim school, Gymbaroo, the park, anywhere. I was ready to pounce on and document any indication that I was less trusted around other people’s children, or treated as an outsider not worthy of a heads-up from the other mums when the supermarket was having a bulk sale on Covitol. I did not observe even a hint of this.

However, I did count 8 occasions when a well-intentioned member of the public approached me to offer specific praise for taking care of my son. The most predictable was an elderly lady who had just finished aqua-aerobics who told me it was so good to see a man taking an infant to the pool, the most surprising (and my favourite) was a large male employee at Bunnings who, while carrying a bag of quick-dry concrete on his shoulder, said “that’s what we like to see, a man looking after the baby”.

I have as much misplaced narcissism as the next guy so my immediate external response was always one of self-deprecating gratitude coupled with an internal self-congratulatory agreement that, yes, I am the world’s greatest dad since Sandy Cohen. My decision to sit in this cafe with my hilarious son drinking fine coffee at 2pm on a Wednesday is a wonderful sacrifice and I am to be congratulated.

No, the sight of a dad chilling with an infant on a weekday must be normalised to the point where the very kind and well-meaning strong man in Bunnings does not feel the need to compliment me. He should however offer me advice on how to fix my leaking toilet as it has been trickling for three weeks and I have no idea how to stop it.

There are many excellent reasons for all of us to hasten this normalisation, but I present below what I believe can be considered the ‘three Essential Virtues of stay-at-home daddery’:

  1. Mutual career sabotage; managing stay-at-home parenting in a baby’s first year is a human dilemma not a female dilemma. Both male and female employees should irritate their employers equally during this stage of life.
  2. Understanding the minutiae of your child leads to family harmony; shared knowledge of the most likely 15 minute windows during the day in which your child will poo brings a couple together, and both parents closer to their child.
  3. It is great; really, really great.

Essential Virtue #1 – Mutual career sabotage

Most Australians think we in Australia have a Federal Government funded Paid Parental Leave Scheme. That’s because there is a scheme funded by the Federal Government and it’s called the ‘Paid Parental Leave Scheme’. Unfortunately this scheme is somewhat poorly labeled. Like ‘Chicken of the Sea’ tuna, ‘Panther’s World of Entertainment’ or ‘New College, Oxford’ which was established in 1379, it’s just a little misleading.

Australia’s Paid Parental Leave Scheme is in fact a maternity leave scheme; for a father to take any of the 18 weeks paid leave the mother must be eligible and then ‘gift’ the leave to him. If the mother is ineligible, say because she earns more than $150,000, but the father is eligible, he cannot take the leave.

So, if a mother happened to earn $151,000 in the year preceding the birth of the child, and the father earned $50,000 in that year, the father would not be entitled to receive the payment to stay at home with his child. Neither parent could take the leave.

Eligibility for the payment is not based on a household income test however. If the father happened to earn $1,000,000 in the year preceding the birth of the child, and the mother earned $50,000 in that year, the mother would be entitled to receive the payment.

So, it would appear to me the scheme is either unconsciously or consciously biased against the possibility that a woman would be earning more than the father of her child, and certainly the possibility that the woman might be earning more than $150,000 a year. Or it is deliberately biased against fathers.

As Bengt Westerberg, the then prime minister of Sweden, told the New York Times in 1995 “Society is a mirror of the family. The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve equality in the home. Getting fathers to share parental leave is an essential part of that.” Essentially, unless fathers begin to share the home parenting load with more regularity women will continue to take longer stints away from their careers and will experience continued job discrimination as a result. Women will continue to appear comparatively less attractive to employers; businesses that presume women are more likely to take extended breaks after childbirth will continue to systematically underpay them and overlook them for promotion. If not the answer, mutual career sabotage is at least one of the answers.

This interview was given right before Westerberg instigated key changes to Sweden’s paid parenting leave scheme, which already included a component that couples could share. The changes meant that if fathers did not take at least a month off with their new child the couple would lose a month of subsidized leave otherwise available to them. It also increased the payment to 90% of existing wages, making it more appealing for fathers to take up. The compensation now stands at 80% of existing wages.

Within a few years more than 80% of fathers in Sweden were taking extended time off to spend with their children; and now after a number of further amendments to the scheme the figure is 90%.

As a result Sweden now has one of highest rates of working mothers in the world, around 90%, Sweden’s part-time gender gap (a comparison of what share of the female and male labour force is made up of part-time workers) is the smallest in the OECD and unlike almost every other country male and female part-time workers are paid the same. The key difference is that Sweden’s parental leave policy means that most Swedish women returning to work part-time after having children return to the same job that they left, and eventually to the same full-time position, once their children start school. In 2014 77% of Swedish women had a job, the highest level in the EU.

There are other fine examples of how policies designed to entice men to take their share of stay-at-home parenting are good for economies, families and workplace equality; Iceland and Quebec for example. This article “the economic case for paternity leave” provides a useful and informative summary. It even includes a photograph of Wayne Rooney who has always done his bit for family values.

So in the absence of any government policies in Australia that encourage or even support men to take extended time at home with their babies, if you are lucky enough to have an employer that offers any paid leave for this purpose, take it. All of it. If you are not lucky enough to have such an employer, like most Australian males, scrap together whatever annual leave, long service leave, leave at half-pay and any unpaid leave you can afford and spend some time in the cafes and bowls clubs of your neighbourhood with your infant. You will not regret it.

Essential Virtue #2 – Understanding the minutiae of your child

When Milo was around 5 months old we met my family in town to take some photographs. Afterward I suggested since we had all made the effort to get together we should have a coffee. Kuepps glanced at me with calm incredulity and suggested that no, Milo was nearing his nap time and we needed to get home. I protested and said surely we could stretch Milo a little and have a quick coffee and be on our way. Kuepps escalated the matter and said she was going home and I could stay if I wanted to. We all departed and I confronted my wife somewhat on the way home, suggesting that she was not allowing Milo to develop the resilience he needs by pandering so heavily. Quite reasonably Kuepps was not impressed by my antics.

In hindsight I believe this insignificant event best highlights Essential Virtue number 2. My wife was patently correct but at the time I had no idea, and I behaved like a bit of an ass. Until I was completely responsible for my baby for hours on end, without lifeline, I found it very difficult to completely grasp what he was going through and what he needed.

I now respect and worship Milo’s schedule and would only allow an unplanned deviation for something as significant as the re-opening of Leyland Brothers World in Tea Gardens. In fact as I tell people “it is not Milo’s schedule, it is my f*****g schedule” (I use the explicit language to let them know I mean business). Of course this is false bravado and Milo does what he wants but I do know precisely the ramifications of unnecessary intervention and exactly where we’ll likely be at 3 in the morning.

Being at work while your partner is home with your baby can be difficult and stressful. Being at home with your baby while your partner is at work can be difficult and stressful. It is an emotional business and can easily lead to arguments among couples. Having both parents experience both sides of this equation does not eliminate these arguments, because it’s an emotional business, but it can help to smooth their resolution.

Here’s how such arguments are usually resolved in my house; “you don’t know how difficult it is to stay at home with an infant all day while you’re off pursuing your career and having adult conversation. It’s not like I stay in bed all morning playing NBA Jam, you don’t know how much work it actually is.” Response; “sure I do”.

Or, “you don’t know how difficult it is getting up every morning and having to leave my baby behind so I can fight traffic and then have endless meetings. And then when I get home there’s baby feeding and bathing and settling. I feel like I only get the most difficult times of the day with him. You don’t understand”. Response; “sure I do”. Of course that’s not the end of the story, but most of the heat is taken out of these usually irrational interactions before they begin, allowing more precious time to catch up on the West Wing.

In late 2011 (the year 3 BM – Before Milo) one of my friends who lives in the UK had a baby girl. He was planning to take several months leave with her once his wife went back to work but unfortunately the timing of this plan meant he would be off for a month prior to the Olympics, the entirety of the Games and a month afterward. His company, like many in London that were involved in delivering the Games, had cancelled all annual leave for that period. However, in the UK (as in Australia) every worker has the right to take a period of unpaid parental leave, and he decided to exercise that right.

As he explained it to me he had witnessed several male friends of his who had excellent relationships with their small children when everything was relaxed and comfortable. However, in moments of adversity, skinned knees, Spongebob Squarepants movie tickets sold out, their children instinctively sought out their mothers for comfort and consolation. My friend was determined to build a bond with his daughter such that he would be considered an equally palatable option when times got difficult, and he believed that would be forged before she was one. Whether my friend is correct or not he felt strongly enough about it to really inconvenience his employer; and when he returned he told me it was the best thing he had ever done. That was the moment when I started thinking about this as a concept. I renounced my membership at our local sauna, sold all my tight trousers, quit horse riding and began researching and scheming.

From my limited experience I do not believe there is such a thing as a natural-born parent. I believe there is a broad spectrum of styles, and within that spectrum perhaps a tiny minority that might be considered less suitable than others; the enormously tattooed man who lives his life as a leopard in a remote hut on the Isle of Skye in Scotland may fall into this category.

But like most things in life this is a game of repetition and a desire to win. This is Kobayashi doubling the World Record by eating 50 dogs in 12 minutes in his first Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Competition in 2001. This is Jeff Hornacek shooting free-throws, waving hello to his three children before each one. Practise, repetition and learning from mistakes. Surely giving yourself an opportunity to have uninterrupted time with your child gives you the best chance to build your skills, techniques and perhaps most importantly, your confidence.

I like knowing the best place to park at the Supa Centa to achieve easy access to the lifts, I like knowing that if you don’t pull the first leg of Milo’s tights all the way up over his knee he will simply kick it off when you turn your attention to the second, I like knowing when it is wise to wait 8 more minutes before going out because there is a 70% chance Milo is going to poo in that time period and you are better off dealing with it at home, I like knowing there is no point trying to get Milo to sleep with the pram seat fully reclined, the second lowest recline setting is best, I like knowing that before launching himself under a billowing parachute Milo will sit quietly on your knee for at least a minute surveying the environment and the other children before bellowing and charging in, etc, etc. Repetition.

Whatever the baby equivalent of figuring out the enormous time-saving benefit of eating the dog and the bun separately is, that’s what stay-at-home daddery can offer you.

Essential Virtue #3 – It is great; really, really great

I feel like more of an adult than I did 3 months ago. I think the feeling is somewhat akin to the first time you invite your grandmother around after you have moved out of home and you are able to offer her a cup of tea.

That experience was soured a little for me because my brother (with whom I was living) and I discovered belatedly that we did not have any tea. So I dashed out to remedy the situation, but given it was my first experience of such matters I did not realise one could buy tea in bag or leaf form. I was naturally drawn to the most cost-effective choice which was of course a box of home-brand leaf tea. I arrived home just in time and opened the box expecting bags. Finding leaves my brother and I looked at each other quizzically, we were out of our depth. Of course we had no straining implements of any kind so I did what any young man eager to impress his grandmother would do and strained our tea into a teapot through a white sports sock. Our grandmother complimented us on our tea and how much we had grown up.

I have tried hard to have fewer sports sock moments during this adventure with Milo, and although there have undoubtedly been some, I feel more confident and adult-like than I did at the beginning.

One of the aforementioned 8 unsolicited compliments I received was from a lady standing next to Milo and I while we all awaited coffees one morning. After we had chatted a little about our respective circumstances she said to me “it is so wonderful what you are doing”. For me this comment was akin to purchasing an ice-cream on a warm summer’s afternoon and having the ice-cream vendor (a brrrrista perhaps?) hand you the double-cone pistachio and coconut and say “it is so wonderful what you are doing”.

This comment may be controversial, but stay-at-home parenting is not difficult. I must preface that comment by noting my sample size is 1, the second half of the first year is far easier than the first, and I have to think Milo is above average on the wrangleability scale; he sleeps reliably during the day, he eats well and he is comfortable in the car and pram.

With that preface noted; if you are prepared to give in to a little chaos, set only modest daily goals and move slowly, being a stay-at-home dad is an overwhelmingly positive experience. There are no men that I know who would not thrive under such circumstances, if given the opportunity.

As this blog has probably shown our days have been spent enjoying each other’s company, planning and executing small adventures, visiting friends and family, browsing aimlessly in shops, discovering new animals and plants, walking every corner of our neighbourhood, sipping coffee while pining for positive attention from baristas, scheming, cooking, throwing food, eating, building, tumbling, chasing, leaping, learning and giggling.

With such a short time together, and with a camera always nearby, my instinct has been to record everything. And I have; thousands of photos and videos, an enormous oversupply of Milo images. However, among all of these I still do not believe I have adequately captured the joy we have shared together. He is genuinely hilarious, adventurous, joyous, inquisitive, hungry, unusual, noisy, gentle, violent, careful, reckless, athletic, resilient, boisterous and fragile.

Due to an overwhelming demand from my mum and her Bridge group I will continue to write this blog once a week on my day off with Milo but for now that is all, I have achieved my goal.

Years from now when Milo turns 14, gets his second big surge of Testosterone and wants to get a tattoo of Wario on his neck because in 2030 Wario will be considered an edgy antihero from the mid-90s much like Che Guevara’s image is used today, and I say he can have that tattoo but I am getting a matching one and he says he hates me because I am a loser and I don’t understand him, I will be able to print out this long, rambling, oft non-sensical record and present it to him to show that indeed I do understand him. That in fact I was there with him as he was figuring out how to be a boy. And he was there with me as I was figuring out how to be a dad.

IMG_3530 edit

  • Number of minutes playing NBA Jam – 0
  • Episodes of Game of Thrones – 3
  • Episodes of West Wing – 33
  • Total seconds of planking – 57
  • Number of pallets up-cycled – 2
  • Total number of push-ups – 10
  • Number of Spanish words learned – 2
  • Letters written to council – 0
  • Total hours planting trees – 0
  • Total beehives installed on our balcony – 0
  • Total items fashioned out of reclaimed timber – 0
  • Total hours researching family tree – 0
  • Total hours on bicycle trainer – 0
  • Hours spent re-oiling outdoor furniture – 0
  • Hours spent communicating with Eastern European hobbyists via Ham Radio – 0
  • Number of large Big Mac meals eaten in the car while Milo napped – 3
  • Duets sung with a stranger in the supermarket – 1
  • Minutes spent alphabetising our DVD collection – 0
  • Hours spent volunteering as life drawing model – 0
  • Hours volunteering for the ‘Urban Bee Society’ – 0
  • Podcasts listened to – 27
  • Number of total cafe visits – 52
Day Forty-Three: Blimp – Wednesday 26 August 2015

Day Forty-Three: Blimp – Wednesday 26 August 2015

As expected the travel cot did not go well.

Milo awoke around 2300 as he usually does, looked around and was quite displeased with his surroundings. If I am honest I cannot blame him; the mattress is thin like the pads wrapped around rugby league goal posts in the 80s, it is flat on the ground so offers no protection from the cold and when he claws at the mesh to be released he looks very much like a dolphin caught in a drift net.

Once out he was not returning so I welcomed him in with me and he immediately expanded to twice his usual diameter. I was soon sleeping on the floor adjacent to the bed, offering a human safety net should he writhe too much in his sleep and bounce his way out.

Milo slept like the proverbial baby, me less so. By 0500 I had snuck back in with him and nudged him into a more appropriate corner of the mattress. At 0530 Milo had slept enough and was up, giggling and looking for action.

I was not giggling nor looking for action so I attempted a technique I have tried forlornly many times before. I grab a handful of his sleeping bag and pin it to the mattress, and then attempt to close my eyes for another 15 minutes. The theory is that Milo will kick and scramble for a while but will soon be worn out from all of his fruitless effort. He will then decide he too is in fact still a little dozy and will drift back to sleep for another hour. This never, ever, works.

I accepted defeat and we were up. Milo had strongly resisted the shower the previous evening so I tried to bathe him in the laundry trough, I thought a good bonding activity for two chaps on a road trip. Milo did not share my view on this and refused to sit down, standing up in knee-deep water looking disappointed with me.

Milo enjoyed his breakfast with his Aba who took him for an hour so I could recharge a little in a baby free bed. Milo enjoyed rifling through papers and climbing in and out of Aba’s briefcase.

Soon we were out strolling in our travel ‘Umbrella Stroller’ which offered neither of us anywhere near the comfort we are used to from our deluxe urban tank. We were close to arriving at our destination, lunch with my cousin, when Milo’s head snapped vigorously up and left as he unveiled an ‘Inquisitor’ with a particular flourish that caused me to follow his outstretched finger immediately.

Milo was babbling and lifting his whole torso out of the pram in a frenzied bouncing excitement. I followed the trajectory of his finger and saw there, hovering right above us, a giant, blue blimp.

Milo had never encountered such a craft before and I have not seen him so excited since his first meeting with the penguins. We watched it drift gently for several minutes, Milo’s neck craning whenever it disappeared behind a tree or building, until it finally escaped the ‘Inquisitor’ and passed out of sight. Milo looked up at me with a wide toothy grin as if we had really shared something special together.

More coffees with family and friends, and meals with Aba and we were back to the airport on Thursday morning ready to fly home to a lovely reunion with mum.

Once again we had three seats and this time I was wise enough to order nothing from the trolley. Although I did bring a mandarin which seemed very foolish immediately after I gave it to my son to spray all over both of us.

Thanks to some more assistance from the overhead light and some friendly passengers behind us Milo remained calm throughout the flight. We even witnessed an aviation miracle with a short nap during descent.

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An aviation miracle

  • Minutes of plane sleep – 12
  • Minutes of trough bathing – 3
  • Number of planes spotted by Milo from the plane – 1
  • Milo lifetime blimp count – 1
Day Forty-Two: Flying solo – Tuesday 25 August 2015

Day Forty-Two: Flying solo – Tuesday 25 August 2015

If you take one thing from this blog let it be the following; ordering a couscous salad on a plane with an infant is not a good idea.

In my defence I wanted the chicken pesto pasta salad but they were out. The flight attendant suggested the couscous salad, personally recommending its deliciousness. I looked down at Milo who was at the time dangling upside down from his waist seeing what he could find to eat under my seat. “It will be messy” I said. “I don’t clean the plane”, came the quick retort. “OK then” I said, shrugging, and the disappointingly small shrink-wrapped salad was sitting on my tray in a jiffy, looking up at me in its unappetising way.

Milo immediately sensed a disturbance in the force so clambered his way upright, kicking me in the neck as I helped him up. His little face arrived smiling and chewing, always an unnerving combination when your child has just emerged from underneath an aeroplane seat.

I left it wrapped for a moment as I tried to visualize a technique that might offer some chance of either Milo or I consuming at least a little, and minimise the severity of the couscous hail that must soon rain down upon those lucky few seated around us.

Milo is used to food in paste form or cutlet form; couscous is right in the middle. I started to get nervous and considered just leaving it untouched on the tray to be retrieved when the trolley came rattling back in 20 minutes or so. There were just so many of those little couscous globules in there. Even if I were able to control 60% of them, which was ambitious, there would still be literally hundreds of errant orbs to be scattered here and there and, as the saying goes, everywhere.

Milo made my decision for me. He had spotted the small tub of future mayhem and was giving it his best ‘Inquisitor’. I gave a slight shrug to nobody and rendered a small breach in the top right-hand corner.

My first plan was to simply offer it scoop by scoop to Milo on a spoon. This was a bad plan. Milo greeted the first spoonful with his always welcome, not-at-all-annoying method of demonstrating culinary displeasure by taking the couscous out of his mouth with his hand and dropping it on the ground. I didn’t learn immediately so offered him a second spoonful, same result.

Recently Milo has responded well to having his own bowl and spoon to play with at mealtimes, a distraction which holds his attention as he is being fed. A more socially acceptable Baby Einstein I suppose. So I gave it a try.

I sprinkled a few couscous particles into his bowl (which is held by suction onto the tray) and gave him his spoon. Milo violently thrashed at the bowl until this poor diversionary party of couscous had been flung well beyond the three seats our sensible cabin crew had allocated to us, and onto the floor. Unperturbed I attempted to execute the second part of the bowl diversion play and offered him a third spoonful.

This time the spoon did not breach Milo’s lips. Sensing my intention he thrust at it with a savage blow of his plastic spoon as if we were spoon-sabering for our lives. The couscous jerked forcefully into the air and then hailed down silently onto my lap. I took a deep breath.

I would not say I was panicking at this point but I was certainly ready to concede defeat. The bulk of the couscous was still contained but we were definitely approaching a tally of hundreds of spheres already scattered at our feet and in the aisle, and no clear path to depositing the remainder safely in Milo’s stomach.

I moved into damage control and starting shoveling the couscous into my own mouth before my alarmingly swift child could get his hands on the mothership. Like falling on a stale tasting couscous grenade I gulped at the maximum speed allowed by the tiny, terrorist-proof plastic spoon they had offered me.

My child was momentarily distracted by a few couscous granules he had discovered clinging to his trousers so I did manage to consume almost half of the salad before he became aware that a fine opportunity for mayhem was passing him by. I had one hand on my toothpick spoon and one hand on Milo to protect him from toppling forward, which left the steadily emptying tub unguarded.

In one motion Milo looked up and swiped sideways with a mighty swish of his right hand, as if he were perusing photographs on a giant iPad. He collected the tub flush with the back of his hand and with no ballast at all, damn those lightweight fluffy grains, the remaining couscous arced in slow motion high into the pressurised cabin and, sailing on the air-conditioning current, traveled a surprising distance, drifting down silently like volcanic ash to rest on jackets, scarves, shoulders and seats.

I placed the now dented and empty tub on the ground, folded up our tray-table and we continued with the flight.

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Post couscous apocalypse

This morning Milo and I boarded our first plane together without Kuepps. We were off on an interstate journey to visit my dad.

Arriving at the airport we were looking forward to special treatment, probably a special check-in desk for single parents with infant children, I presumed a glass of sparkling water with lemon for me. A quick glance around confirmed we were far from special; Baby Bjorns, Ergo Slings, Umbrella Strollers, wriggly babies everywhere. We swallowed our disappointment at being quite ordinary and joined the rather long queue; no sparkling water, no lemon.

Our journey through the airport was straight forward although we were randomly selected for an explosives check which I thought was a little uncouth given I had no spare hands and a squirming baby in my hands. We passed the test and were on our way.

On the plane we were fortunate to be given a row of three seats which allowed Milo to be reasonably free-range throughout the flight, strolling back and forth and presenting his pointy fingers at the customers behind us. These customers were all very gracious and pointed back, outsourcing my parenting a little. The rest of my parenting duties were performed by the overhead light which I flicked on and off repeatedly, much to Milo’s never-diminishing delight.

With the exception of the couscous mistake the flight was reasonably incident free. We arrived a little ragged, found a taxi and made it into town in no time.

My dad enjoyed watching Milo take on a lamb cutlet first-hand at dinner and then we spent a productive 15 minutes conducting a Milo-led child proofing of the apartment. Like a hunting dog Milo would sniff out the dangers, we would then scurry in behind him and remove them.

Tonight Milo will be re-acquainted with the travel cot; the first time as a fully sentient being. It is unlikely to go well.

  • Number of couscous granules discovered inside Milo’s onesie this evening – 57
  • Minutes of sleep for Milo on the plane – 0
  • Letters written to Sydney Airport requesting sparkling water and lemon on arrival – 0
  • Number of times overhead light flicked on – 85
Day Forty-One: The finger of truth – Monday 24 August 2015

Day Forty-One: The finger of truth – Monday 24 August 2015

Milo takes pointing very seriously. Over the last week or so he has learned this skill and now demonstrates it at every opportunity, whether he thinks others are watching or not.

In his repertoire he has; a casual bent arm semi-extended point with curled crab-claw hand, known as ‘The Murali’, a laser straight-arm, full legal extension elbow, rigid thrusting finger with deliberate trajectory, known as ‘The Inquisitor’, an elevated shoulder, perpendicular elbow, locked wrist, upward-pointing straight finger with officious sideways pendulum, known as ‘The Mutombo’,  and an indecisive, wandering, semi-locked elbow, with tilted wrist and pistol shaped hand construction, known as ‘The Tupac’. Milo is also an ambi-pointer.

All techniques will be seen on any given day, often with multiple examples of each. Milo usually executes the Murali to draw his parents’ attention to nothing in particular. He maintains eye contact and directs his crab claw in a deliberately non-committal fashion as if to say “Father, I have seen something in that direction. Is that something you or I should be interested in? If so let us go and examine it together.”

‘The Inquisitor’ is reserved for birds, planes, digital displays in lifts and grannies on the street. When executing this style Milo’s eyes will be locked on the item that is being aggressively examined, his little index finger reaching out with urgency, his face emotionless and professional. The Inquisitor is serious and absolutely requires acknowledgement from whomever is with him. Thus, one needs to quickly establish what worthy item has been identified and vocalise its significance, “sulphur-crested cockatoo” or “Airbus A380”, for example. This confirmation is sometimes difficult as Milo seems to be able to spot speck-like aircraft in the sky as if he were using Whitey’s spectacles in the film ‘Me, myself and Irene’.

Most often a small bird or swaying branch can be found at the business end of his finger but every so often we will be walking happily on the footpath, Milo’s eyes will lower, the finger of truth will be unfurled emphatically in the direction of something over my shoulder. I will turn happily to identify the item of interest only to find a person walking close behind me, or standing waiting at the traffic lights, staring back at my child. This person, for some reason most regularly a senior citizen, will usually seek to engage Milo in a friendly way. Milo, most often a child free with his smiles, is in ‘Inquisitor’ mode and so will offer no smile, smirk, grin or friendly response of any kind. He will only continue to stare and point until the person moves away out of his eye-line, leaving me to apologise or offer some limp explanation for my son’s unusual behaviour.

‘The Mutombo’ is usually executed when Milo is playing quietly with the Elefun Party Popper, or when dancing with his mum. It has also been seen indicating Milo’s delight at a morsel of lamb he has received.

Finally, ‘The Tupac’ can most readily be seen early in the evening while Milo is settling himself, or very soon after he awakes. It is an absent-minded point with no clear objective, performed by a tired or discombobulated boy. If the ‘Tupac’ should settle upon something of interest, such as the oversized hanging butterfly in Milo’s room or a light-fitting of some kind, it can easily morph into a ‘Murali’ or even an ‘Inquisitor’.


The Inquisitor

Oma came around early this morning to engage Milo in some Inquisitors as he watched the early morning planes come and go, so I was gifted an unexpected sleep-in and then a peaceful lunch.

In the afternoon Kuepps and I engaged Milo in a game of ‘Duplo Dueling’, essentially a block of Duplo is held in one’s mouth and then, using the force of pressurised air out of the cheeks, is jettisoned across the room. Milo is very fond of this game as these days a small cube of blue Duplo is challenging white plastic spoon and wooden peg for ‘object most regularly in Milo’s mouth’.

I was being thoroughly outperformed by my wife who was achieving significant distance and deserved giggling kudos from our son. My paltry efforts were achieving little more than a dribble out of my mouth, and a polite smile from Milo. So, on my final attempt I looked directly at my child, established a tight seal on the block and exhaled mightily. The block flew with pace out of my mouth and directly into Milo’s forehead, at quite some velocity. Milo was left with a small welt above his eyebrow and a furrowed, distrustful brow as he crawled away from me and into his mum’s lap for comfort. All I could do was apologise and concede defeat in the duel. Milo ignored me for 10 minutes.

The evening was peaceful and productive as Milo and I prepare for our big interstate adventure tomorrow. Our final week has begun.

  • Record number of aeroplanes spotted in one day – 37
  • Record distance (cm) achieved by Kuepps in Duplo Duel – 125
  • Minutes spent hand-pummelling chicken breasts to make schnitzel – 0
  • Hours spent watching French gangster films – 0
Day Forty: Seagull herding – Friday 21 August 2015

Day Forty: Seagull herding – Friday 21 August 2015

Of all the contributions I make to this household, and to the Milo raising that goes on herein, the most valuable and unique is the consumption of surplus baby shampoo.

When Milo was born we were the fortunate recipients of a huge volume of ‘no more tears’ baby shampoo and it’s variants; pink liquids, white liquids, clear liquids, orange liquids. We approximate the total volume of this haul at around 8 – 10 litres; street value $120.

Of course Milo shortly after birth was quite bald, so for a long period our stockpile was entirely redundant. And even though we are currently considering cutting 8 hairs on each side that are swirling up and over his ears, Milo’s crop remains wispy and rarely in need of a good lathering.

At Milo’s current rate of consumption we have calculated our initial injection of shampoo will last 5.12 years; that is, we will run out some time during the afternoon of 27 November 2019. To compound this issue Kuepps attempted to purchase more baby moisturiser this week to satisfy Milo’s insatiable hunger for it, but unfortunately in her haste only managed to procure more shampoo. Frankly we don’t have the storage capacity to keep that volume of product on hand, we are sacrificing in other areas such as novelty Nespresso pods for when difficult/ discerning guests drop by.

That’s where I come in. As a dad I of course do not have any specialty body-wash requirements. If we had a surplus of baking soda in the house due to a “lamington-off” one weekend, that baking soda would be dissolved in water to form an abrasive paste which I would be asked to use as a personal cleanser.

So the family sized vats of baby-shampoo are lined up two-at-time in the shower and Kuepps makes regular comments about how grubby my meagre hair is looking, not asking but suggesting a shower might be a good idea. I pour this viscous, lightly fragranced liquid liberally all over my head, as if I were a Turducken basting itself. I lather, rinse, lather, rinse, lather and rinse until I am so fresh I no longer cast a reflection in the mirror. As I vanquish each bottle I toss it with satisfaction over the shower screen, letting it clatter away across the tiles. Kuepps is immediately on hand to soberly pass me another litre of pastel coloured soapy marinade without humour. I am going quite mad.

Yesterday was delightful weather for Family Fun Day, our last together during this chapter, so we loaded up and headed to the beach for Milo’s first taste of sand and surf. Here’s how we dressed him; tracksuit pants, long sleeve/ short-legged onesie, vest. Why we chose this combo I am not sure, but certainly the primary school equivalent of such a parental wardrobe mistake would have had far-reaching social consequences for our son. On this occasion however he suffered no obvious ill effects.

After an apprehensive 5 to 10 minute period in which he remained on the rug touching, massaging and tasting the strange medium encircling him, he was off. Milo spotted a confident group of Seagulls and crawled in a speedy but laboured fashion in their direction, improving his gait step by step as he got used to the sinking surface beneath him. Milo, not giving his parents a second thought, pursued these intriguing, hopping scoundrels for 20 minutes up and down the beach as they remained comfortably out of his reach. An enthusiastic gull would periodically leap up out of the pack and hover above Milo, squawking at this pursuer, more persistent than the T2000. Milo thought this was a wonderful spectacle and would pause briefly to point and giggle. Our adventurous child eventually grew tired of the hunt and clambered back to us, falling onto his mum exhausted, sandy and damp.

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The following morning we were still removing sand from our son’s nose (despite using up some baby shampoo on him the previous evening) but after his morning nap we got ready and headed over to his Ama and Aba’s house for lunch.

Milo enjoyed the feast, particularly the asparagus which he tried for the first time, waving it around like a rubbery spear, slapping me in the face with it. After lunch Milo was very pleased with his ability to test and defeat the capacity of his nappy, forcing me into a full change and refresh.

Milo lay on his back, unusually compliant as I undressed him. I should have been suspicious but my overwhelming desire to believe my son’s good behaviour clouded my judgement.

Milo waited until he been entirely denuded and with a swift but precise swivel of his hips he was out of my grasp, on all fours, and darting toward the stairs, blabbering and giggling joyously. Milo then proceeded to climb five flights of stairs in the nude, darting and bouncing up each flight at a surprising pace, not unlike a dancing lemur. As he completed each flight Milo picked up his pace to motor across the landing and commence the next climb. When he had finally summited the last flight Milo sat triumphantly with a grand smile on his face and his arms stretched out toward me, permitting me to now carry him back down to where his fresh clothes awaited him.

On Friday night the planets aligned. Oma came to babysit Milo and some good friends of ours also managed to procure a baby sitter at short notice, thus allowing a rare adult meal to be enjoyed. Twenty minutes into the meal we noted that our only line of conversation had been our respective babies so we laid out an agenda to cover several other important topics, which we achieved, before quickly returning to tales of mayhem and mirth.

  • Metres covered by Milo pursuing the Seagulls – 200
  • Current litres of baby shampoo on hand (approx) – 6.1
  • Grams of Huckleberry’s moulting fur gathered to use in scarf knitting – 0
  • Centimetres of home-made sushi prepared – 0
Day Thirty-Nine: “Farewell Gymbaroo, farewell Gymbaroo, something, something” – Wednesday 19 August 2015

Day Thirty-Nine: “Farewell Gymbaroo, farewell Gymbaroo, something, something” – Wednesday 19 August 2015

As the days tick away on this grand adventure that Milo and I have shared there will be many ‘finals’. Today was our final Gymbaroo.

Circumstances conspired favourably and allowed Kuepps to work from home today so we went out for an early breakfast to settle Milo’s nerves. Watching Milo precisely scrape away just the top layer of his vegemite toast with his now established upper teeth and toss the vegemite-less scraps away casually I realised he was not in the least bit exercised about this milestone, and neither should I be.

Today was Kuepps’ first opportunity to experience this strange phenomenon and she joined in with enthusiasm, clapping, singing and smooching her son. Milo seemed a little distracted initially and I worried that his mum’s overt affections had him rattled. This lead me to recall a similar occasion many years ago when my mum arrived at my rugby game only minutes before we ran on and as we stood in a huddle being manly and saying manly things mum spotted me and called out “hi blossom!”. I of course ignored her but being a mum she misread my response, thinking I had not heard her, so called out again a little louder while waving to make sure of it. I acknowledged her, and a new nickname was born.

Milo was casually disinterested in the wheelbarrow, performed admirably in ‘jelly on/off the plate’ which appeared for the first time today in a clear cross promotion from Swim School, both washed and dried the dishes with ease and slobbered more than tossed in ‘slobber and toss’. The Treasure Bag was full of cats today and Milo enjoyed sucking on the tail of a Pink Panther doll. Soon it was time for the gym so Milo showed his mum some of his favourites; crawling up the robo-turtle slide, shimmying through the hangy tube, rolling down the cheese wedge, cruising along the ‘perilous plank’ and for the first time swinging back and forth in the ‘anti-grav seat’.

We looked around the gym and realised there were no more challenges to pursue, and nothing that we can’t install at home with a few dyna-bolts, some bubble-wrap and a handful of cable-ties. Kuepps, having not seen the journey from start to finish, having not seen a wide-eyed Milo clinging to me while his very first Gymbaroo instructor tried to coax him into the fleece-lined dino-pit, said “what’s all the fuss about?” And she is right.

This statement was reinforced during parachute time as Milo prowled around giggling and chasing balls, and then after the session as he played happily alone for several minutes after the other babies had left, chewing on a contraband bouncy ball he had managed to hold onto. This is no longer a competitive activity for Milo, it is leisure; and if so perhaps it is time to bid farewell to this structured, rule-based institution of formal Gymbaroo and forge a new path among the free-form, underground warehouse gyms of Sydney.

The rest of the afternoon was peaceful and in the early evening Kuepps headed out for a work dinner. Having been a professional child wrangler for a few months now I can usually foresee when a scenario is likely to lead to chaos, such as handing Milo a dried apricot to work on while  we are shopping in a bridal gown boutique. That does not necessarily mean the chaos is avoided, but at least as I am hosing down the wall I can say to myself “yup, I saw that coming”.

Every so often I am, however, taken completely by surprise. This evening was one such occasion. I cooked Milo and I a simple carnivore’s dinner of steak and pan-fried mushroom. Milo will of course not entertain the idea of being fed such a meal so I tossed strips of steak and mushroom onto his tray for him to negotiate and went about cutting up my meal (pre-preparation for one-handed eating is usually a good investment).

I looked up not 10 seconds later and witnessed a scene of shocking mushroom-doused devastation. Milo had a strip of mushroom held in each tight little fist and was waving them around vigorously, spraying a black mushroomy liquid in splashing arcs that flew beyond the high chair, beyond the scraps towel perimeter and comfortably onto the carpet, surprising the cats that were hoping for something a little more appetising.

The scene appeared as if, in the 10 seconds I was looking away, a large squid had emerged from the floor, panicked, sprayed ink in Milo’s face and disappeared. He looked like Norm Provan in the famous photo from the 1963 Rugby League Grand Final that eventually inspired the Winfield Cup. He was filthy. I reached my hands out to retrieve the mushroom but realised I had already lost, such was the speed of my transition from casual in-control dad to scrambling ‘hold child out at arm’s length and carry him to the sink’ dad.

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Mushroom explosion

I had entertained the prospect of a sly no-bath evening in Kuepps’ absence, but this dream was shattered in 10 seconds of poorly supervised mushroom consumption.

De-fungused and re-dressed, Milo free-flopped himself to sleep to prepare for our final Family Fun Day tomorrow.

  • Minutes spent scrubbing mushroom distillate from the carpet – 15
  • Minutes spent de-beading our footstool to remove swallowables – 30
  • Minutes spent making home-made play-dough – 0
  • Number of teaspoons stolen by Milo from cafe this morning – 2
Day Thirty-Eight: Chao the Dream Maker – Tuesday 18 August 2015

Day Thirty-Eight: Chao the Dream Maker – Tuesday 18 August 2015

There are a handful of people of such notoriety and influence they are known by a single name, a brand unto themselves; Madonna, Bono, Pelé, Alf from Home and Away. In the field of Gymbaroo there are but two; we have already met Valdis, and the other is known simply as ‘Chao’.

Details on Chao’s background and path to Gymbaroo greatness are, like his beard, sparse. What is known paints a portrait of a man of deep complexity; Chao’s family origins are traced to the Vietnamese diaspora of pre-colonial Hong Kong. Some say before his distant relatives were smuggled across the South China Sea, the family can be drawn all the way back to Gia Long, the first of the great Nguyen Dynasty. The last ruling family of Vietnam.

When you meet Chao, and observe his quiet nobility, it is easy to believe this lineage. However, he is a man as comfortable at the card tables of Macau as he is in the quiet Pagodas of Hue. He holds a world ranking in pinball and could be a great of competitive Buck Hunter if he were to ever take it seriously. He wears short-sleeved floral shirts in muted browns and greens, collar open and loosely held by his signature silk cravat. Atop his head can usually be found a narrow brimmed Panama Hat, and on his feet plimsoles in brown or blue. He is one of those men for whom facial hair is of no concern; it grows naturally in a discrete pattern that renders him a caricature of himself. The thin moustache that clings to Chao’s upper lip is never in need of cultivation and remains always perfect, and curious.

Whatever your opinion of Chao his influence in the world of Gymbaroo is unquestioned; many call him the ‘Dream Maker’ for his ability to identify young, talented aspirants, and build them into stars. And today Chao, the Dream Maker, paid us a visit.

Chao’s role is not to identify talent in the gym; if Chao is visiting the talent and potential are not questioned. Chao’s special skill lies in his ability to identify those young aspirants who have the demeanour and family support to go all the way.

Chao arrived at about 1100 and instructed Milo and I to go about our day as we ordinarily would. He noted from the outset he has monitored our progress closely and is somewhat concerned at our inability to complete some of the daily aspirational tasks we have set ourselves. Some of these would therefore be addressed in the afternoon, but our first order of business was lunch.

We took Chao to our local child friendly cafe on the park and allowed Milo to spend some quality free-range time. I went into the cafe to order lunch, leaving Chao to have some alone time with Milo. I briefed Chao on my park doctrine noting that Milo is allowed to eat leaves, twigs, dirt, most anything he finds, but I draw the line at cigarette butts and pointy sticks longer than two inches. Chao seemed to nod approvingly and as I departed to the cafe I saw him note something down in a small notepad he had tucked under his Panama Hat.

We enjoyed our lunch, chatting casually, as Milo engaged in some free-form work on an adjacent stone wall, and with a small football he managed to purloin from an older child on an adjacent rug. Chao’s approval of Milo’s effortless skill was clear to us both.

Upon arriving home Milo was soon ready for a nap so Chao and I set about satisfying some of the outstanding tasks he had identified; planking, push-ups, alphabetising the spice rack, up-cycling a pallet for Milo’s Urban Garden Project and learning one word of Spanish. We managed to satisfy all of these items and even learned two words of Spanish. The first, appropriately is ‘Desvelado’ which means ‘unable to sleep because you are kept awake by something or someone’, a useful word. The second was chosen by Milo as he stabbed at the computer screen with his little index finger; ‘Mantenido’ which means ‘a guy that cannot pay the rent so needs a rich woman by his side’; perhaps not so commonly used.

Once Milo had arisen Chao wished us farewell. Perhaps we will see him again, perhaps we won’t, but despite the pressure we both felt throughout the day Milo and I genuinely enjoyed his company. Chao is undoubtedly the Gymbaroo Dream Maker but perhaps at this point the real question is ‘what are Milo’s Gymbaroo dreams?’ Is he ready for Chao, the bright lights of Macau, Latvia and Lidcombe, the spandex endorsements, the inevitable Repetitive Wheelbarrow Stress (RWS) injuries? Tomorrow is our last day of Gymbaroo together, whatever the outcome, we are ready for these questions to be answered.

There are no photographs today as Chao forbids camera usage during assessment days. It is rumoured that not one clear photograph of him exists.

  • Seconds of planking – 57
  • Minutes of pallet up-cycling – 45
  • Minutes of spice rack alphabetising – 7
  • Number of push-ups – 10
  • Number of Spanish words learned – 2
Day Thirty-Seven: Prams – Monday 17 August 2015

Day Thirty-Seven: Prams – Monday 17 August 2015

Milo and I are considering a letter writing campaign to the Australian Standards Board to request the standardisation of pram gauges in Australia, and that the chosen gauge be enforced as a minimum for all cafe door frames across the country.

A very similar system, known as Panamax, revolutionised shipping at the time of the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Panamax, dictated and enforced by the Panama Canal Authority (PCA), specifies the width and length of ships that wish to use the canal. It has therefore become an observed standard for ship building worldwide.

Thanks to Panamax, ship captains cruising under the Bridge of the Americas approach the Panama Canal with confidence, safe in the knowledge their vessels are appropriately sized and they will not have to effect an embarrassing about turn when they arrive, apologising profusely to other ship captains travelling behind them or worse, those wishing to exit.

Milo and I enjoy no such confidence as we approach the front doors of cafes. We walk tentatively up and down the street pretending we are on our way elsewhere, perhaps to the dry-cleaners, trying to visualize the width of door frames. From a distance this is difficult. I take bearings and look at adjacent objects for scale. Is my pram twice the width of that pot of oregano? Or, I know the approximate size of that Hungarian Vizsla waiting for its owner on the doorstep, how does that compare to the width of the Uppababy Alta?

Several times we have mustered the requisite confidence and forged onward to the door only to find ourselves marginally over-sized. What ensues is always awkward. Firstly one needs to extricate one’s self from the entrance. Invariably there will be busy customers on their way out, trays of hot coffee clutched in one hand as they try to hold the door open with their buttocks and spare hand, or pre-occupied caffeine seekers, noses down catching up on last evening’s ‘My Kitchen Rules’ revelations, on their way in. Both categories of customer will find your presence, and that of your stranded, hulking pram, to be inconvenient at best and a direct affront at worst.

So, precariously balanced exiting customer and frustrated, anxious entering customer then do-si-do around you as you attempt an Austin Powers-esque 17 point turn with sub-standard front steering and rigid, suspensionless rear wheels. Once you have unblocked the passage, usually with one of your wheels now in the aforementioned pot of oregano, then what? Do you swallow your pride and head back into the street in search of a Panamax compliant cafe (Cafemax), or do you abandon the beached pram, remove your child, fill your pockets with the valuable possessions you have safely stashed in the ‘parent organiser’, totter into the cafe, order your soy cappuccino then return the child to the pram whilst achieving the impossible task of not scalding him with hot coffee? I am sure it is clear that both options are unpalatable. It is also clear therefore that our letter writing campaign is both necessary and urgent; this is an issue that affects us all.

Standardising the pram gauge in Australia would also remove one variable from the process of purchasing a pram, which is already a baffling ordeal. Pram shopping is one of the many unique experiences of baby-growing that one does not give a second thought to until a moment before the experience arrives.

It is a shock similar to ordering a coffee in Zurich or a beer in Dubai. Having not researched or considered the matter in any way I presumed a pram might cost around $150. No, prams cost $1000; a horrific realisation to make late in a 40 week pregnancy. Next there are brands, and colours, and suspension, and inflatable wheels, and jogger attachments, and variations in the number of seating positions, and cup holders and features that could not possibly be useful that you begin to think you cannot do without. Yes, I do believe I need my pram to operate efficiently on the beach because I can imagine a scenario under which I will need to roll my child directly into the ocean without his feet touching the sand.

It is impossible not to be baffled and frustrated at this selection process but at the end of the day there are two, and only two, qualities that you require. Ease of folding and storage capacity. I would even be happy to do without my ‘parent organiser’, one-of-a-kind patterned fleece trim and cup holder so long as I can fold the pram in one movement and fit a 48 box of nappies and a barbeque chicken in its storage basket. That and it must be Cafemax compliant.

Today we continued our mission to extract value from our ‘eclectic mix of Sydney attractions’ annual pass and headed into the city to climb Centrepoint tower. We closely considered our options and decided to catch the bus. Without the safe bubble of the car this a hair-raising option which renders us vulnerable, and acutely susceptible to any unforeseen mishap.

Milo lost a sock on the bus. A one-socked child just looks bedraggled and poorly cared for, greatly diminishing any air of professionalism you are trying to cultivate. And once the sock is lost there is very little you can do, of course bringing a spare pair of socks just feels defeatist, and we couldn’t handle the extra weight travelling so far from home.

It is natural to briefly consider the possibility of removing the second sock to make it appear as if the sockless child was intentional. Appearing negligent is sometimes preferable to incompetent. But ultimately you know you would then be deliberately giving your child two cold feet in the interest of your vanity, so one sock it remains.

We climbed the Tower without incident; of course the lift attendant pointed out that Milo had but one sock. I thanked her for this observation and let her know we had lost it on the bus; incompetent not negligent.

Milo enjoyed the view somewhat but certainly enjoyed the lift ride up and down more; it was the tallest and most exciting lift he has ever been in.

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Pointing at stuff

We then strolled further into the city, feeling more and more out of place, wishing we could have confidence in the width of doorways we were walking through and cursing the slow turning wheels of bureaucracy at the Australian Standards Board, before meeting a friend for suitably city coffees which were small and powerful.

Milo ate strips of chicken out of my pie and bashed his tea-spoon onto my plate with extreme vigour and enjoyment. This drew the ire of some retirees who were lunching next to us so I carefully replaced his metal spoon with rubber and nodded an insincere apology at their scowling faces.

It was drawing close to sleep time and we were many miles from any kind of safety, so I foolishly attempted to give Milo a bottle of formula in a park inhabited by pigeons and ibis. Of course such exotic bird-life is of extreme interest to my son and he could not possibly divert any attention to drink his milk. I then panicked and decided we would just walk the bus route and if Milo fell asleep we would walk until he awoke and then get on the bus. An hour and a half later we were home, Milo still asleep and me with sore feet.

Kuepps walked in the door shortly after, Milo refreshed and happy after a big pram day. I was out for the evening and Kuepps still banned from Milo lifting so Oma got to experience some evening ‘free-flopping’, which she executed smoothly.

  • Suggested standard pram gauge – 800mm
  • Number of odd socks in Milo’s cupboard – 3
  • Minutes spent pressing Milo’s bare foot into wet concrete in the city – 0
  • Minutes spent clipping our cats’ claws – 25
Day Thirty-Six: Dangerous creatures – Friday 14 August 2015

Day Thirty-Six: Dangerous creatures – Friday 14 August 2015

Today I commenced Milo’s education on the dangerous creatures of Australia. So far he is not doing well.

Like a fledgling eagle being pushed out of the nest, or a Harp Seal pup abandoned on the ice after just 12 days, there comes a time in an Australian baby’s life where it must come face to face with the myriad Australian native creatures that could kill a baby rhinoceros with a sideways glance. For Milo that time arrived today.

Milo and I have been running basic drills from his very earliest days; applying the “look before you lift” technique by peering under the barbeque before turning on the gas, or under the worm-farm lid before attempting its removal. Milo has always been terrific at squashing the fingers of his gardening gloves before putting them on, usually using his plastic spoon in a stabbing motion for this purpose, or shaking out his gum-boots before putting them on his feet. Obviously Milo would never crawl through tall grass, and when bush-crawling he carries a long stick in his mouth which he swings to-and-fro to ward off basking snakes.

However, these largely theoretical lessons can only go so far and must eventually be supplemented by a field trip to view the creatures first hand. So today my mum and I took Milo to the Sydney Wildlife Park to test his instincts, and his ability to implement classroom training in the field.

Family fun-day Thursday was interrupted this week as Kuepps had a procedure that will hopefully fix her Milo-destroyed hip. It essentially means Kuepps cannot lift Milo for at least two weeks and must even avoid his clambering at all costs for the first 72 hours. To demonstrate the high value of mums, Kuepps headed off to hers for a recuperation retreat while mine moved in with us to help with the Milo wrangling.

We arrived at Swim School to the news there had been an ‘accident’ in the infant’s pool such that it was ‘out of action’ for a period to be ‘refreshed’. These are cute euphemisms to describe a scenario that needs no real clarification. One of the pool maintenance guys Howard could be seen forlornly poking at the surface of the water with his periscope net while an associate feverishly applied additional chlorine.

This refreshing period meant our class was to be held in the main pool which is at least 5 degrees cooler. We were the first baby/ parent combo to arrive so we jumped in for some warm-ups. Milo, although trying his best to be positive about Humpty Dumpties and Jellies on the Plate, was turning slightly blue in the face and his happy babbling was being interrupted by chattering teeth.

I therefore asked whether the class could be postponed before retreating to the paddling pool where I could see a number of other familiar babies cowering for warmth. The paddling pool is no more than a foot deep and is kept warm by a combination of its shallow depth, furiously circulating heated water and urine.

We splashed happily in this Petri dish for about 20 minutes before wrapping Milo up like a burrito and beating a hasty retreat. It is amazing how far we have come since our first embarrassingly ill-prepared attempt at Swim School; we no longer even enter the change-rooms or showers. There is no pram, carrier, jacket, change of clothes. We have a new nappy, a plastic bag, a towel, a bear suit and a dried apricot for the drive home. The rest of Thursday was spent peacefully in the park with occasional calls to mum to check on her recuperation.

On Friday morning Milo and I went for our now customary morning stroll which we use as a type of anaesthetic to ease Milo into his morning nap. While waiting for our coffee we stood next to a man who took an unusual interest in Milo. I deduced he was likely also a dad, probably a new one, so asked him if he had any kids. Yes, a four-month old boy. This stimulated the usual conversations about sleep, upheaval, faeces and who the child looks like. This dad joked that his son had inherited his family jowls, we chuckled together. I retorted that Milo had unfortunately also been gifted my prominent family ears.

Milo’s ears are adorable but not subtle. They are about the same size as his mother’s. Not in terms of scale, in an absolute sense. If we had at our disposal the previously referenced ‘over the horizon’ technology offered to us by the film ‘Face Off’, Kuepps and Milo could switch ears and I suspect few people would pass any sort of comment.

This newly met coffee-dad peered again into the pram and exclaimed with genuine surprise “Holy shit! He really does have your ears!” I thought this level of enthusiastic agreement to my light-hearted quip was somewhat indelicate, and I felt a little indignant on behalf of us both.

After Milo’s nap we quickly mobilised and soon found ourselves at the Wildlife Park. As you enter the Park the signs remind the visitor in no uncertain terms that everything in Australia will kill you if given the chance. ‘Australia has the 428 most deadly millipedes in the world and 267 of those are commonplace in your shower’, for example. Or, ‘Cassowary – World’s Deadliest Bird!’; that one is a little silly.

You are, however, eased into the danger with a stroll through the butterfly house, although I am sure to the very young and the infirm these butterflies could be poisonous if eaten. There were only a few butterflies on hand to greet us but those available captivated my son. He leaned forward out of his pram pointing frantically and bellowing whenever one of these curious floating creatures came near. At one point a butterfly came to rest on a leaf not far from Milo’s head and he became very exercised, waving his hands above his head like Gary Johnston giving the signal to Chris in the film ‘Team America’.

The next enclosure, and the first test of Milo’s innate instinct to detect a dangerous creature, is the Tasmanian Devil. Milo failed this test. Seeing the Devil as simply a slightly nuder and mangier version of his cats, Milo grinned and giggled and attempted to shimmy his way into the enclosure to play with this odd cat/ piglet creature.

Next stop, snakes. Milo was delighted to meet the Eastern Brown Snake; cackling, clapping and trying his best to greet the slithery reptile cheek-to-cheek. I tried to point out to Milo the combination of words ‘common and deadly’ on the Brown Snake’s description mean he is not a creature to befriend, or taken lightly. Milo was disinterested in my warnings as he had spotted the Common Death Adder and was eager to make his acquaintance.

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A friendly greeting for the Eastern Brown Snake

This pattern continued throughout the Park; Red-Belly Black Snake, Inland Taipan, Mainland Tiger Snake all greeted warmly and with enthusiasm, Milo looking at me and my mum as if to say “Dad, how cool are these weird slithery things?”

The spiders were no better. The Sydney Funnel Web (which happens to be the most deadly spider in the world and also rather common in Sydney) lives in a dark enclosure which can be lit up by pressing a button alongside the glass. The idea is to be dramatic and shocking, revealing the spider with his shiny black feet lurking just beneath the surface in a swirl of thick web.

Milo didn’t see it this way. We spent two or three minutes pressing the button on and off, Milo hooting with laughter every time the light came on.

Despondent and scolding myself for my patently inadequate dangerous creature home-prepping we walked toward the last exhibit, my final hope for the day.

Surely Milo could not interpret this animal as a kindly companion, suitable for petting or playing, or even a misunderstood victim who deserves the benefit of the doubt and Milo’s conciliatory friendship. The final cautionary tale in the Sydney Wildlife Park is a 5m, 700kg Saltwater Crocodile named Rex who was saved from extermination and brought to the Park after he killed two female crocodiles who had been introduced to him as potential mates.

For this last lesson we released Milo from his pram and allowed him to explore independently. For a moment Milo appeared apprehensive or even, potentially, cautious. This caution soon passed.

Milo crawled over to the tank at express pace and clambered up onto the glass, pointing at the fish, the croc and then back at us in an excited, and not at all cautious display of delirious enjoyment. We allowed Milo to tap gently on the glass for a few minutes not 5 metres from this highly evolved killer, before I gave him a handful of ‘craisins’ (cranberry raisins) and slipped him into his pram to babble happily as we strolled back to the car. It is clear we have some work to do.

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Rex looks pretty friendly

Milo was exhausted from all the new curiosities he had witnessed and slept soundly in the car, hoping that he might receive an Eastern Brown Snake for Christmas.

The evening and night passed peacefully (for me) with my mum giving me the gift of sleep, as she expertly performed the role of ‘night-nanny’.

  • Total deadly species embraced by Milo as new friends – 15
  • Total deaths attributed to Sydney Funnel Web since anti-venom developed in 1981 – 0
  • Minutes spent sketching a new family crest for submission to the College of Arms in London – 0
  • Minutes spent tie-dyeing old white tea-towels for Milo to wear as technicolour togas this summer – 0
Day Thirty-Five: Lamb Shankin’ – Wednesday 12 August 2015

Day Thirty-Five: Lamb Shankin’ – Wednesday 12 August 2015

When I was a young boy, perhaps 10, I wore a lamb’s knuckle to school for one week, on a chain around my neck.

I discovered the knuckle in our Sunday lamb roast one evening and suggested to my father that I would like to wear it to school. Rather than discourage this suggestion my father boiled it down until it was clean and gristle free, drilled a hole in it, and gave it to me on a silver chain.

I distinctly remember it bulging awkwardly underneath my t-shirt like an untreated goiter. I kept it secluded in this fashion during class time and then allowed it to dangle free during recess and lunch, a caveman trinket swinging and hitting me in the chin while I competed furiously at hand-ball, or wall-ball, or dodge-ball, or some other ball related activity.

It only took until the first afternoon for a teacher to ask me about it: “Is that a special bone of some sort? Did you get it on holiday?” No, I answered, I found it in our lamb roast last Sunday. The teacher had no further questions for me at that time but presumably went to the staff room to discuss my adornment in an incredulous tone.

If I am being honest my father had done an imperfect job in boiling down the gristle. Some chewy looking particles remained; and even a rudimentary inspection would confirm my jewel was more likely to be table scrap than a petrified dinosaur molar, or something else of actual or sentimental value.

The children loved it. My hand-ball game was on fire, buoyed by the confidence that only the adulation of a group of primary school children can give you. Rumours circulated about how and why I had come upon this beast’s knuckle bone, and what captivating tale there must be behind its acquisition. I, however, did not feed these rumours. Throughout this brief but memorable period I was always completely honest about the entire story; we usually have a leg of lamb on a Sunday, I had asked my dad whether I could gnaw on the leg bone, he had said yes, I had sucked on it for a while, spat out the knuckle, liked the look of it, asked my dad whether I could wear it on a chain, he said yes and then enabled my request.

I was oblivious to the opportunity for fabricated tales of heroism with which I had been presented, and seemingly oblivious to the fact that the truth was, well, a little bit weird.

Anyway, by Thursday the spots of remaining gristle had become a little funky and my teacher, who had likely been discussing and planning her next approach since the Monday, gently asked me again to recount the story, confirmed whether or not the bone had any sort of sentimental value, not really, and then suggested that perhaps I might consider whether it needed to come back to school with me on Monday. It didn’t.

I am not sure where the knuckle ended up. I continued to wear the chain for a little while but quite soon that too disappeared and the incident drifted over the years into the realms of anecdote.

Today I believe I experienced some of what my father did all those years ago that lead him to what objectively might be considered a reasonably odd decision.

Exhausted and hungry after an exhilarating Gymbaroo today, Milo and I shared a lamb shank for lunch, which he devoured aggressively. At the conclusion of the meal he reached his little arms forward toward the bone, picked clean but still tasty looking. I did what any loving parent would do and handed it to him. The focused joy and systematic gnawing I witnessed was heart-warming. It looked like a small dinosaur bone in his little hands as he waved it around and sucked furiously on its knuckled end.

It was only when he really started to pull with his teeth at the bits of fatty gristle that remained attached to the bone, with success, that I removed the impressive shank from his firm grasp. The forlorn look on his face and his little lips still smacking together were heart breaking, and I know at that moment had he asked me to fashion it into a belt buckle, or a head-piece or a hair-comb I would have said yes immediately and put the kettle on.

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Today was our penultimate Gymbaroo together. Invigorated by Valdis’ words and gestures the previous afternoon Milo looked relaxed, peering out the window at birds and aeroplanes on the drive over. As we arrived Felix looked up from his mop and gave us a gentle smile and encouraging nod, then returned to disinfecting the equipment. I thought I identified a hint of concern as he quickly returned to his work.

There had been ‘chatter’ all week on the Gymbaroo forums that something ‘big’ was planned for this session. We had caught phrases like ‘tube of terror’, ‘the strangler’, ‘tubenado’ and ‘tube the noob’. The previous afternoon Valdis had also briefly looked up from his Kandy Krush Saga and grunted something rather cryptic at us while Milo was scaling Grandma’s Cottage; “I hope Milo isn’t afraid of the dark”. I looked up quickly for an explanation but his head was already down again, only the coiffed badger could be seen.

We had dismissed it at the time as the ravings of a brain over-stimulated by animated Kandy but now, standing in the gym room for the second last time together, it was soberingly clear

Snaking out before us was the longest, most intimidating tunnel Milo or I had ever seen; an ominous deep red in colour it was at least twice as long as any Milo had ever attempted. It curled left and right, into valleys and up over yellow foam triangles that looked like immense pieces of cheese discarded by a giant mouse. We peered into it together, and we could not see the exit.

Milo went through the motions during the stretching, dancing, massaging, odd rhyming, upside-downing. Milo predictably crushed a limp-wristed opposition in the wheelbarrow but I could tell he derived no pleasure from this. His mind was on other things.

Uncomfortably soon we heard the words “free time in the gym now”. The usual exuberance was absent. None of the babies moved toward the gymnasium. Several feigned a renewed interest in the bucket of assorted plastic ducks, trying to convince their parents they wanted to explore it further, one crawled back to the pile of pantyhose filled with rattly balls and pretended it was the greatest toy he had yet encountered. One of the smaller kids simply began to cry.

One by one the babies were scooped up by their parents and taken into the gym, deposited here and there to shimmy unsteadily along beams, bounce listlessly on the mini-tramp, pull at the robo-turtle’s leg and recline in the sheepskin lined plastic shell. Milo and I took up a position alongside the rolling wedge which offered a good vantage point of the demon tunnel’s gaping mouth.

Milly, a plucky, smiley baby who has always competed well and is near the head of the class in terms of walking progress, was deposited directly at the cavern’s entrance. Milly’s mother then took a tambourine to the exit and attempted to coax her through. Her voice sounded like a distant echo and the tambourine a tinny whisper. Milly’s smile slipped away for the first time in weeks as she edged into the darkness and out of view.

All baby eyes were on Milly, breath collectively held. The tunnel vibrated slightly to indicate Milly’s process, which was slow and stuttering. After what felt a baby lifetime Milly re-emerged from the entrance, wide-eyed and unsmiling. Milly’s mother arrived swiftly and took her to the horizontal ladder to recuperate.

One by one we watched babies confront this challenge, many could not even be coaxed to begin the journey, even when encouraged by the tambourine with streamers attached. Those that did venture inside lasted only moments before scampering back to freedom. Lennox had been notable in his absence at the mouth of this fiendish tube, executing impressive routines on the lower level apparatus around the room.

Eventually Milo burst out of my arms, through the short wooden culvert which marked the entrance to the beast and disappeared out of view. I scurried alongside the tunnel as it bulged and shook with Milo’s progress, attempting to beat him to the exit. He took the corners swiftly and moved up and down the hills and valleys as if he were back at Valdis’ gym, clawing his way over the Plain of Pyramids. I heard him growling and yelping with determination as he plunged through the dark.

I traversed the tunnel and slid onto my stomach, desperate to peer into the abyss and locate my son. All was silent. The tunnel was still.

Just as I was considering whether I could squeeze my shoulders into the tunnel, and how embarrassing it would be to have the Gymbaroo panel cut me out of it, Milo’s smiling face popped around the corner and he ploughed toward me with his jaunty crawling style. I waved the dodecahedron at Milo to encourage him the last few metres but all of a sudden he paused.

It was then I noticed Lennox at my left shoulder, crawling past me with his eyes on Milo and one hand on the dodecahedron. Lennox, at great pace, covered the metres between them swiftly and they met for the first time, face to face, in the red tinged darkness of the devil’s throat.

The two great rivals then awkwardly shuffled around each other as if they were square dancing, aligned themselves and crawled happily out together, chatting in conflicting languages that neither understood.

Lennox’s father and I scooped up our respective champions and chatted comfortably about the difficulties of executing Swim School alone, the complexities of managing Gymbaroo expectations and how easy it is to not shave for days at a time as a stay-at-home dad.

The parachute and farewell song drifted past us, Milo grinning and satisfied at his ability to overcome his apprehension of the tunnel, and of Lennox. Perhaps these two great rivals now have the foundation of a great friendship, as they both prepare for their graduation to the ‘Fairy Penguins’ in the coming weeks. Or perhaps they were simply caught in a moment. Time will tell.

So we finish the story where we began, two satisfied lads eating slow cooked lamb shank together, and dreaming of the future.

  • Total length of devil’s throat (m) – 6
  • Number of Gymbaroo sessions remaining in Part One – 1
  • Pairs of jean shorts fashioned out of worn-out jeans – 0
  • Days since last shave – 6