Dear Dave

Wednesday 9 September 2009

The housedad knowledge

Dear Dave,

Looking after children takes more thought than you might imagine.

Well, I guess you don't have to imagine - as you read this, you're probably going over a mental list of household tasks you have to perform in a minute. There's a good chance you're also wondering how to entertain Daisy for the rest of the day. Perhaps you're even deciding whether to take a few moments and finish your coffee in peace or to give in and immediately investigate the strange smell and mysterious giggling coming from upstairs.

Speaking of which, if you feel a need to put me on hold for a bit and just go check, I'll understand...



Sorted? Child, furniture and pets back to their normal colour and fragrance? Great.

Shame your coffee's gone cold. Never mind - that's what microwaves are for. Want another forty-five seconds?


OK, right. As I was saying, looking after children takes a surprising amount of brainwork. Obviously I'm not talking about raw computing power here. Making their tea isn't rocket science. It does present a constant barrage of decisions, however. How many grapes constitute a portion for a particular size of child? What are the odds of them all liking ham today? Is the bread brown enough to placate the child who likes brown bread but not too brown to put off the child who's less of a fan? Is potato a vegetable? Does pizza three days running count as a balanced diet if the toppings are different? Is jam healthier than honey? Where's all the cutlery gone? How mouldy is too mouldy? What is that smell from upstairs?

The list goes on. When they ask me how many sweets they're each allowed for dessert, saying 'a few' is never adequate. They want an exact count. Stating an actual number sets a precedent for next time, though, and is liable to cause arguments when they realise they're not getting the same. (I make every effort to treat my children equally but, the fact is, Fraser is twice Marie's size and so has a higher tolerance for sugar. Honestly, she's bouncy enough as she is.) Thinking up arbitrary, and yet consistent, answers to this type of question can be a struggle.

And then there's the cups.

We have a stack of plastic cups in a variety of colours. They're not piled in any particular order - when they're clean and dry, I just plonk them on the stack at random. When the kids want a drink, I pull the first three off the top and fill them up. It's not hard. The problem is, who gets which cup?

It used to be easy. Pink for Marie, green for Lewis and whatever was left for Fraser. If there wasn't a green one, Lewis could probably cope with something different. If there wasn't a pink cup... well, I'd usually hunt through the stack to find one and avoid an argument. Gradually, all the pink cups found their way to the top. This made life simple.

Marie has laid claim to everything pink in the house. Fuchsia is apparently her divine right. Unfortunately, she's begun to realise that if pink stuff is clearly hers, then people may take it into their heads that other stuff is theirs. She's not so keen on this idea. She's begun demanding different colours of cup on rotation in an attempt to establish ownership of all of them. Fraser is also at an age where he believes himself allergic to pink. Lewis just prefers to have whatever he had last time.

Life has become more complicated. Every time I fix them a drink I have to have an internal debate over which cups I can get away with. Sometimes it seems obvious; other times I get dealt two light blues and a yellow. What am I supposed to do with that? The kids eventually get hungry and come looking for food, only to find smoke rising from the oven and me staring blankly at a stack of plastic cups. Then they're confused when I tell them it's all their fault...

My nemesis - a big stack of differently coloured cups.
Orange is out of favour at the moment.

I suspect it's not just me. Children simply have a knack for ensuring there's an awful lot to think about in any task, however mundane. Even the cutest kids can hide an awkward streak. In fact, I always make sure to give extra sympathy to parents with happy smiley babies. Mine were like that for strangers, too. It was usually because they were feeling satisfied with a long night of quality screaming and arguing. They were delighted to be out of the house and able to smugly show off an exhausted parent to anyone who was prepared to take an interest.

You've been doing this housedad thing long enough now that you may not notice all the minor decisions anymore. Nonetheless, someone else stepping into your shoes would quickly be swamped in a thousand minor technicalities, from where to store the jumbo crate of bargain loo roll, to who gets which spoon at breakfast. Taking care of kids isn't tricky but there's plenty to keep on top of. That's why your children frequently return from their grandparents with socks full of cheese and why Liz always looks a bit stressed when you ask her to help out and fix the little darlings' lunch. The choices involved in childcare can be overwhelming for those who aren't used to them. Try to be understanding.

Now, hang on, didn't you finish that coffee a couple of paragraphs ago. Haven't you got work to do? Better get to it. (That way, you'll have time to sneak off for a chocolate biscuit and a lie down later.)

Good luck with the rest of the day. And remember, look after yourself... or leave really detailed instructions.

Yours in a woman's world,


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