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23 January 2023

I live with two children who are not my own and they are doing me the world of good

How sweet it is to enter into a world created by the contortions of child’s imagination, and to pretend the real one does not exist.

By Pippa Bailey

If you are the sort of person who finds yourself struggling to get out of bed in the morning, or spending the first 15 minutes of each day scrolling inane TikTok videos, may I suggest a game of the marvellous dancing fairy rug.

The rules are: when a small child propels you on to whichever rug has been deemed to be said fairy rug, you must dance constantly until someone rescues you. Also, no music shall be provided: you have to sing/hum/otherwise create your own.

Modes of escape are usually books thrown down as stepping stones, or a tied-together chain of blankets and discarded pyjamas tossed into your flailing hands, by which you may be dragged to the safety of the floorboards. Once there, though, don’t get too comfortable; at any moment you will “accidentally” be pulled back on to the fairy rug, to jig and sing again.

These are the sorts of charades that now pepper my week. How I love to make an absolute fool of myself to the absolute glee of two small children.

People often ask how my latest living arrangement is working out in a cautious tone, primed to grimace in sympathy. I understand that living with children, and certainly those towards whom you have no biological, oxytocin-induced compulsion, might not be everyone’s ideal set-up. But the truth is, it is – they are – doing me the world of good.

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I don’t mind being woken up in the middle of the night because they need a wee or they’re scared of the dark or they’ve lost their water bottle. I don’t mind that they take hundreds of near-identical photos of their toys on my phone, and insert a more-than-ideal number of (swiftly deleted) typos into the copy of this magazine by making Lego characters run across my keyboard.

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I’ve oohed and ahhed my way through talent shows of forward rolls and ninja moves and songs they learned at choir. I’ve pretended a dining chair is a rocket, that I’m a burglar who disguises themselves by putting socks on their head, and that waving a “wand” of asparagus can change a human being into an animal.

I’ve written stories on demand featuring words they’ve plucked from books – ramshackle, svelte – and characters whose names they invent (eg, Bobnigel, which they were very specific about being one word). I’ve practised deep breathing with a birthday girl who was at once too overstimulated and too tired to sleep, and I’ve promised I will guard with my life a milk tooth, still lightly bloodied, pressed into my hand.

I’ve tried not to laugh as they repeat a funny adult phrase that they’ve heard someone say, such as “He’s a naughty fellow” and “Thank you for the advice”.  And, according to these two incredibly discerning judges, at least, I am remarkably easy to make laugh – “Let’s make Pippa laugh,” they say, “that’s such an easy game” – and what a warming thing to learn about yourself through the eyes of a child.

There is no reason to expect that they might trust me with these small intimacies, nothing dictates that they must. And so each lean of a head on my shoulder while I read a story, each hand in mine, feels like something won. Of course, it is lucky that on the odd occasion they are not being cute and charming, I can absolve myself of responsibility. Lucky, too, that I am not so sure that I want children of my own as to find that their company induces biological-clock-based anxiety.

I might not have chosen of my own accord to leave my lovely little one-bed flat, but I am glad, at the moment especially, not to return home to its resounding silence each night. How sweet it is, even just for a few minutes a day, to enter into a world created by the contortions of a child’s imagination, and to pretend the real one does not exist.

[See also: The best children’s books of the year 2022]

The c-word adds an extra frisson of weirdness to online dating – at what point to mention it? I raise this with a friend ahead of a first date this week and they reply with three revelatory words: “Maybe just don’t?”

It will likely come as no surprise to you, given that my professional life includes the writing of this column, that I am not always the best at judging what and how much of myself to share. I say this to my therapist and she just sits there in silence, smiling quietly, and I take that to mean she considers me a peculiar case. I decide not to bring up the fairy rug.

[See also: The government’s concession on childcare shows that the issue matters to voters]

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This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better