Apart from the time I spent as a youngster myself, I had never had much experience of children. For about 20 years, I tended to agree with W C Fields on the subject: I liked children, but I couldn’t eat a whole one.
Then, at age 35 or so, thanks to a new girlfriend, I got kind of dunked into a large extended family featuring kids of all ages and temperaments.
It took a little getting used to. I mean, who knew kids were so physical? When they weren’t jumping on you, they were swinging out of your neck, or running head first into your nether regions.
My new girlfriend had about 10 nieces and nephews, but we seemed to be thrown together with two in particular, girls aged about five and seven at the time.
I remember being surprised but rather delighted at the way they would automatically hold your hand when out walking, or nestle into you when watching a movie.
They would also jump on you in the swimming pool or whack you with a plastic baseball bat, but it is the snaking of small, warm hands into yours that I remember mostly.
Then my girlfriend and I got married and had a child of our own. I had never dealt with one so small and so, well, mine. Our daughter was too young to hold hands, but she would grab a finger and hold on for dear life.
This was physicality on a different level. A baby is so dependant on you. You have to lift them and carry them and hold them. They need human touch to thrive and, although you hadn’t realised it before, so do you.
Soon, our little girl was toddling about and stretching up to be lifted or held. Then she grew to knee and later waist height and it didn’t require bending down to take her by the hand.
She fitted nicely into the crook of an elbow when we sat on the sofa to watch The Princess Diaries 2 and wasn’t yet so tall that she cut off your view when she sat on your knee.
Just like her cousins, she liked a good fist-fight or a Graeco-Roman wrestle (she had to win, of course) and when it came to crossing a road or watching a scary bit on TV, her little hand would find its way into yours.
But this year, aged almost eight, something has changed. I noticed it first the other day as we walked to school. I held out my hand behind me, expecting her to catch up and take hold of it, but nothing happened.
I left it dangling there for a while, but it was never grasped, even when we crossed the road. “Do I have to?” she asked eventually.
Later, I tried deploying one of the cast of characters I have invented to get us over tricky discipline issues.
I have many at my disposal: Mr Murdle, originally based on a Dickens character by now a kind of butler figure; Maurice, a horrible Frenchman who thinks everything Irish is rubbish and everything French is fantastic; Courgettini Banana, an excitable, pasta-loving Italian.
Up to now, my daughter has chatted away naturally to these characters as if I wasn’t there at all, telling them her news and letting them know in no uncertain terms what she thought of her parents and their unreasonable demands.
Often, she would ask to speak to one or other of them specifically in order to share a particularly exciting piece of news. The roles were demanding, of course, but I like to think I performed each part more than adequately. I especially enjoyed playing horrible Mo-reeese.
But this time, my daughter said: “Can you just be Dad?”
So now I have to face it: she’s growing up, and what’s more, growing out of those little daughter-dad games we used to play. Plus, she’s almost too grown up to hold her old father’s hand.
Later, I lamented this new grown-up-ness, this loss of innocence, to my wife. Just being Dad isn’t so bad, is it, she said. You can always go back to holding my hand, she added.