Dear Dave

Wednesday 20 February 2008

Nobody expects the Spanish I/O error

Dear Dave,

Some things didn't really change when I became a housedad. Bringing up kids is very like running an IT project - for some reason, I'm always behind schedule.

With IT projects, the difficulty is that there are always unexpected snags. Typical issues range from a logical inconsistency in the specification (i.e. you've been asked to do the impossible) to a discovery that the highly paid contractor brought in to handle the tough stuff was bluffing all along and has spent six months playing Minesweeper. If you're really unlucky, the project will simply open up a vortex in the very fabric of nature that sucks in time and money and dumps them out beyond the galactic rim. (That's never good).

Obviously, it's possible to figure some leeway into the production timetable but, if you don't know what the problem is going to be, it's difficult to know how much time to allow for solving it. Maybe it will only require someone nipping to Curry's for a cable. Maybe it will send the whole project back to the drawing board. Who knows? Probably best to allow twice as long as you're really hoping, though.

Of course, putting vast amounts of blank space in the schedule 'just in case' gives a bad impression, so it doesn't usually happen. Then, halfway through the project, someone leaves the team or the customer suddenly needs the product in a hurry and management has to cut corners in order to get the job done. The easiest thing to do is remove from the schedule the time and manpower set aside for contingencies. Voila! The whole project is back on track... as long as nothing goes wrong. Management may argue that this is the kind of emergency that all the padding in the schedule was for, but the truth is that these are management problems that should have had padding of their very own. In reality, what's gone is all the time required to cope when it turns out that the software you've bought in from another company doesn't do all the things the salesman said it would, doesn't work at all or has manuals that are written entirely in Danish (apart from the bits in Braille).

Somehow, management is surprised when the project over-runs...

Maybe it's an unwinnable battle. If, by some quirk of fate, a project did ever come in early, the customers would simply start trying to think of 'little' bits to add on. These would almost certainly involve starting again from scratch and the project would end up over-running anyway.

Similarly, with children, being late can be inevitable. If, on a good day, it takes ten minutes to get everyone's shoes on and get them out of the house for school, there are going to be other days where it takes twenty. Setting aside twenty minutes is asking for trouble, though. You don't want to be waiting outside the school for ten minutes in the rain. Equally, you don't want to be hanging around at home for ten minutes - the kids will complain loudly about being bored, take their shoes off again and then lose them. They will arrive very late for school, wearing their slippers. Yep, leaving too much time for a task can make you later than leaving too little. You'd be better off allowing fifteen minutes on a regular basis and simply accepting the fact that you're going to be five minutes late on any day that one of the children gets distracted and tips his milk into his ear rather than his mouth.

That said, with a little knowledge and planning, it's possible to avoid being horrendously late all the time. Bearing this in mind, here are a few tasks that I've found unexpectedly hard in the past. You've probably encountered most of them yourself already but they may not have seemed like that big a deal. Please remember, however, that the time taken to solve these issues is proportional to the square of the number of children you have. Thus, now you have two, you need to allow four times as much space in the schedule for:
  • Getting them to wear appropriate clothing. I tell my kids that it’s raining and they’ll need to put their raincoats on.

    Without looking out a window, they say, ‘No, it’s not.’

    I argue for a bit, they don’t put their raincoats on and we step out of the door. They immediately start screaming that it’s raining and run around in a panic like they’re the Wicked Witch of the West and someone’s just dumped a bucket of water on them.

    I say, ‘It’s almost stopped. You’ll be fine.’

    They argue for a bit and demand their raincoats. Eventually, I give up and they go in and put their raincoats on.

    The rain stops, the sun comes out and they complain it’s too hot in their raincoats.

    They refuse to take them off.

    When we eventually arrive at our destination, people wonder why we’re wet, late and sweaty. I just shake my head and sigh…
  • Getting them to do stuff for themselves. Marie kicks up a huge fuss about drying her own hands. She's currently lying on the hall floor yelling for help because a small part of her lower arm is still wet. She's actually holding the towel in her other hand but wants me to go through and combine the towel and arm with some gentle rubbing action. Suffice to say, she'll be yelling a while longer - probably for several minutes after the water has evaporated of its own accord.
  • Getting gloves on a toddler. Their fingers go everywhere apart from the right place.
  • Getting them to stop doing stuff for themselves. Of course, if we're in a big hurry and I pro-actively decide to dry Marie's hands for her, she'll absolutely insist on doing it on her own... Really... really... slowly...
  • Going to the shops to buy milk. Between getting them dressed, toileted (including the washing and drying of hands) and actually persuading them to leave the house, going to buy milk can take longer to organise than a trip to Paris without children.
  • Going to Paris with children. Like going to buy milk but with added luggage.
  • Keeping gloves on a toddler. It doesn't matter that it's freezing and you've just spent five minutes getting the things on, the kid wants to see her fingers...
  • Feeding them five portions of fruit and veg a day. It's not so much getting them to eat it, it's supplying it:

    Why I have to go to the shops so often: 5 family members x 5 portions per day x 2 days = 50 portions. We also require around 8 pints of milk and a loaf and a half of bread. Hang on a minute while I just nip to Tesco again...
  • Cheering up a toddler whose hands are cold. If you can just get them to calm down for a minute, you might be able to get those gloves back on. (Briefly).
  • Working out when they're ill. When my kids were small, it was easy to tell how ill they were from the number and amount of toxic substances oozing out of them. These days there's usually less to go on. They'll complain of aches and pains, cough a couple of times and then sneeze. Questioning them uncovers that they've been feeling 'not that great' for 'a bit'. Taking their temperature reveals that one ear has a mild fever and the other is dead. (Repeated attempts cause the symptoms to swap randomly between ears. Shaking the electronic thermometer produces a rattling sound).

    Since I've now spent nearly eight years clearing up toxic substances despite having had various strains of plague myself, I'm low on sympathy for minor cases of the snuffles. Still, I don't want them going rapidly downhill the second they leave the house. I can do without being summoned to school halfway through the morning to explain why I sent in my highly contagious child. (Teachers are scary).

    Coming to a decision always takes forever.
  • Explaining the difference between live-action TV drama, cartoons, documentary footage, the news, CGI and real life. As for theatre, well: 'Yes, those are real people pretending to be the real people who normally pretend to be the pretend people in Lazy Town but if that one falls off the ladder it will really hurt. And, yes, it is just a story, but vegetables really are good for you.'
  • Avoiding drowning in Fimbles. Soft toys. Everywhere. Stuck now. Can't... make... it... to... the... door...
  • Being understanding. This takes a surprising amount of effort. What I really want to say is, 'I told you you'd get cold hands.'
There we go. Hopefully, with this knowledge, you should be able to leave enough time (but not too much) to achieve most goals. I wouldn't count on it, though. The kids are bound to find some new way to slow you down.

At least you can take consolation from the fact that you're not in charge of the software for the government's ID card scheme. I hear that's created a vortex that's spitting stuff out. They're having to deal with giant space spiders, unicorns and sudden downpours of odd socks.

Whatever happens, we're never going to be as late as them.


Yours in a woman's world,



Anonymous said...

I always have the most trouble with the last point. I end up telling the munchkins, "I tried to tell you this would happen."

I never claimed to be a GOOD parent.

DadsDinner said...

I say to my kids, "I said that would happen."

They have two standard responses. They either deny I said it or they deny it happened.

Neither of these responses generally increases my level of sympathy...

Gwen said...

My favorite rule of thumb for estimating how much time something will take is: estimate what you feel is a reasonable number, double it and then move up one unit of time. So, if you think something should take 3 hours, give yourself 6 days... ;)

DadsDinner said...

So a quick 'five minute' fix will actually take ten hours?


I think you might have something there...

Anonymous said...

I think Gwen has discovered the answer to all my time management problems.

Wait. Does this mean our one month remodeling schedule is going to take two years?


DadsDinner said...

Yeah, good luck with that, Jen...

Oh, hang on. What does this mean for my plan to get all the kids moved out in fifteen years?

This isn't good...