Realising the beautiful bond with your 3-year-old daughter will soon be gone - Steve Canavan

I cried in bed the other day and am now worried I might be having a nervous breakdown.

Friday, 13th December 2019, 6:00 am

It would be a terrible time for it to happen, what with Christmas coming. I mean if I’m going to have a breakdown, at least let it happen in January when there’s not much on.

What happened – although given I consider myself an incredibly butch man (I have two chest hairs and once got in a fight at primary school) I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it – is this.

Mary – who turns three in a couple of months – has recently moved from toddler prison (aka her cot) into a bed of her own.

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This is because, after at least a full year of promising, I finally got around to decorating the back bedroom. Actually that’s not entirely true. What happened is I continued to ignore Mrs Canavan’s nagging for so long that my father-in-law eventually lost patience and came round to do it.

He spent two full days painting walls, hanging paper and fixing a curtain rail. I nipped up occasionally to ask if he wanted a brew, though not too often as there was a good football match on TV.

I can’t help but feel my father-in-law – and I don’t blame him whatsoever for this – looks at me with slight disdain. He is terrific at DIY and does every job himself. I, on the other hand, will observe a growing damp patch in, say, the back bedroom, for about eight months, each day gazing at it and inwardly thinking, ‘I must do something about that’. Then when it’s so bad that black mould has started sprouting and various family members are suffering severe respiratory problems, I’ll ring a handyman and pay an extortionate price – a massively higher price than if I’d rung when I’d first spotted it - to get them to solve it.

Anyway, with the back bedroom finally decorated, Mary has made the move into what she calls her big girl room.

Because it is very different and much bigger than her previous room, I have taken to – after reading her a couple of stories around 7pm – getting into bed with her until she settles.

Mrs Canavan doesn’t do this. She reads two books, then – even though Mary will be hysterically screaming as if being attacked by an axe-wielding madman – flicks the light off and walks out. Mary inevitably stops crying five minutes later and falls asleep, allowing Mrs Canavan to enjoy a relaxing night on the couch watching Coronation Street and exchanging messages on her ‘baby mum friends’ WhatsApp group (sample conversation: “Our Alfie has a temperature of 38.2 and his poo’s an odd white colour. What do you think I should do girls?” ‘Aw, poor you hun. Give him some Calpol’. ‘Argh, that’s terrible chick. Is he eating?’ ‘Thinking of you darlin. Hope he settles soon’ … it’s riveting stuff).

But I can’t leave my daughter when she’s crying, mainly because I am soft.

So instead I get in bed alongside her.

What I don’t realise, of course, is that my daughter is actually manipulating me and now, like a spider who’s snared a massive fly, has me exactly where she wants. I’m under her control and there’s a set routine each night.

First we play dentists, which involves me sticking my head under the duvet while she’s at work. She hums a tune, then says ‘finished’, at which point I pop my head out and say, ‘good afternoon I’ve got a sore tooth’. She gets her ‘magic grabbers’ – which she reaches out for and plucks off her bedroom wallpaper – then pulls at one of my teeth with her fingers and triumphantly says, ‘it’s out now, is that better?’

After around 15 minutes of this – and as I’m rapidly losing the will to live and teeth to take out, I tell her Winkie is outside. I’ve cleverly built Winkie (you know, the ‘are the children in their beds yet? It’s past eight o’clock’ chap) into some kind of terrifying figure who hovers outside our house, to the point where she’s genuinely scared of him and quivers under the covers at his very mention.

For a couple of minutes she goes very quiet and still –at which point I always, without fail, naively think ‘has she actually dropped off? – until she suddenly says, voice awake as anything, ‘tell me a story daddy’.

I ask what story she wants and every night – and I mean every night – she replies, ‘daddy bird and the chicks get stuck up a tree in the park’,

I have no idea where she has got this from but let me tell you now that even the most inventive of minds would struggle to, for 43 nights on the row, make up a different story with exactly the same plot line.

This whole routine goes on for about an hour and 20 minutes minimum before eventually Mary drops off. Often I nod off as well and have, many times now, been woken by Mrs Canavan hitting me on the arm at about 10pm, and hissing ‘you put her to bed three hours ago, where the hell have you been?’

Anyway, back to the very first line of this column and my sobbing fit.

I was lay with Mary the other night and she was close to sleep. I’d invented three stories about daddy bird and the chicks getting stuck up a tree – the final one had a very exciting twist involving a squirrel with pneumonia (I’m thinking of pitching it to Julia Donaldson) – and she drowsily looked at me and said, ‘daddy, will you still sleep with me when I’m grown up?’

To which the obvious answer would be, ‘well, no, because that’d weird Mary and the police would probably get involved’ – but which actually suddenly made me realise that one day we won’t have this beautiful bond, that I won’t always be the centre of her universe, that she won’t shout for me the minute I walk through the door and she won’t beg me to put her to bed … and I began crying.

I was in my daughter’s bed, a grown man, actually sobbing at the thought of her growing up.

I told Mrs Canavan what I thought this quite beautiful and poignant story when I went downstairs.

‘Have you been drinking?’ she asked.

I’m not sure whether it’s embarrassing I cried or a good thing I love my child so much, or somewhere in between.

What is certain is that next time I put her to bed I’m taking a packet of Kleenex.