‘Ok here we go,’ I thought, as Learner Dad’s name flashed on to my phone.
I’d been waiting for this call.
“How did he go?” I asked nervously.
There was only silence.
And then a sniffle.
“Are you there? What happened?” I asked in a panic.
Then… “I can’t do it.”
It was Lil Fatty’s first day at childcare and it seemed it wasn’t Lil Fatty who was struggling with it.
“What do you mean?” I whispered, glancing around the office and covering the phone slightly.
“He just doesn’t suspect a thing,” Learner Dad said between sniffles. “I feel so mean leaving him here.”
After weeks of debate, Lil Fatty was enrolled for one day a week of childcare.
Learner Dad didn’t like the idea one bit.
I liked it a lot.
For a start, I’d been ready to take on another day of work a week.
And secondly, Master Nine had loved childcare.
He’d learned more about sharing and hygiene than I’d ever taught him.
And it filled the arts and crafts component of parenting I had always lacked.
“Do you want me to come and walk him in with you?” I asked my husband. “I’m sure Nathan would understand.”
Nathan was my boss.
And Learner Dad’s.
There was no way he was going to let me tell Nathan he was crying in the car outside Lil Fatty’s childcare centre.
“No, no, I’ll do it,” he said.
And, to his credit, he did.
Two hours later we were called to collect an inconsolable Lil Fatty.
Both flat out at work, we picked him up and took turns looking after him at the office.
Over the following weeks, things barely improved.
Learner Dad had the ugly job of dropping Lil Fatty off.
I was the hero who picked him up.
Learner Dad would leave him waving tearfully at the window.
And I’d find him in the same place seven hours later.
Of course he didn’t spend the whole day at the window.
A large portion of it was spent on the toddler room couch, clutching a rainbow abacus and screaming at any kid who came near him.
And so, by the time I was heading off on maternity leave for Fairy Floss, I was under the assumption Lil Fatty would be taking a crèche sabbatical too.
But the tables had turned.
Learner Dad was starting to see social improvements in Lil Fatty.
He no longer cried when his daddy dropped him off.
He’d begun venturing outside to play.
And he was, of course, a big fan of the hot lunch.
“If we take him out, we’ll have to go through this all over again,” Learner Dad said, referring to my inevitable return to work.
“You shouldn’t put him through all this again,” Lil Fatty’s carers reiterated.
And so he stayed.
I doubt I’ll ever feel comfortable watching Lil Fatty and his dad roll out of the driveway on a Friday morning.
But he waves cheerfully to me now as he leaves and he no longer cries when he gets there.
And nor does Lil Fatty.
Care Factor part 1 was written prior to my return to work in 2013
After a busy morning picking Weetbix out of the carpet, holding the shaky feet of a toddler trying to climb a small fort and rock-a-byeing a bear on repeat, Master One is finally down for his afternoon nap.
I sit down with a toasted sandwich and a cup of tea and start the fifth season of the West Wing. He’ll be down at least two hours and nobody deserves the break more than me.
I give myself a pat on the back.
Fast-forward to 2013.
It goes pretty much the same, except this time it’s Lil Fatty.
The now-Master Seven is at school so I have to cap Lil Fatty’s sleep at two hours to go and pick him up.
I get back home with my two boys and take a coffee break.
Nobody deserves it more than me.
I give myself a pat on the back.
Fast-forward to 2015.
My morning is spent being dragged around by one child, while trying not to drop another.
That’s after I’ve taken the third to school.
I pick Weetbix out of the carpet, wipe pureed fruit off the lino and scrub poo off the couch.
I hold the shaky feet of a toddler trying to get on to the trampoline while a baby tries desperately to sleep in my arms.
Baby sucks furiously on my boob while I hold the potty under the bum of toddler.
I bath baby and make my bed, only to have toddler wee on baby – on my bed.
Toddler rolls out of towel while I try to put a nappy on baby.
Baby rolls out of nappy while I try to re wrap blue-lipped toddler.
I do the HotPotato, mashing potato. Mashed Banana, peeling bananas.
And desperately eat what’s left of their Cold Spaghetti for lunch.
Before a visitor arrives, I clean the toilet.
Then find a half-filled potty under the coffee table after they’ve left.
I put one child down for a nap only to hear the other wake up.
Right on cue.
I was standing at the back door talking to my 70-year-old neighbour recently.
With Fairy Floss dribbling down my arm and Lil Fatty holding my free hand (and, with his free hand, his doodle), I moaned as I described the giant leap from two to three children.
But she already knew.
She had three herself.
“And I had to have the house clean, dinner cooked, and the kids bathed and ready for bed by the time my husband came home.”
That’s how it was done in her day.
I get one out of three.
Learner Dad invariably comes home to a hot dinner.
He also comes home to wet towels on the floor.
To kids that smell like poo, or wee, or spew, or all three.
To a bench strewn with carrot peel, blobs of ice-cream, stripped corn cobs.
His wife may or may not have washed her hair that day.
Whichever the case, it’s in a ‘mun’ (mum-bun).
And she’s most certainly wearing the same track pants her baby vomited on three days ago.
It’s not that mums of today are less capable than our predecessors.
It’s that the emphasis has been tipped from ‘good wife’ to ‘good mother’.
Instead of ironing hubby’s shirts, we watch our kids play on the trampoline.
We fuss over cupcakes rather than rump steaks.
And we make Lego cities that render vacuuming simply impossible.
If our husbands dare complain, they are quickly put in their place.
Which, in Learner Dad’s case, is eating his rapidly cooling dinner while balancing one child on his lap and reading a story between mouthfuls to another.
While mummy sits down to anything not on ABC4Kids.
And gives herself a well-deserved pat on the back.
I walked into the kitchen.
The bench was littered with the remnants of dinner.
Li’l Fatty’s high chair was covered in globs of sweet mashed potato.
Master Seven’s school uniform was a crumpled mess nearby in the loungeroom.
Downstairs the bathroom floor was a chaotic mixture of used nappies and wet towels.
Among the chaos were my three men.
The littlest was perched on the lap of the biggest, arching his back and crying.
The middle one was doing a naked crab dance on the floor, mouth wide open and eyes bulging indicating a state of complete hyperactivity.
“You’re going to struggle next week,” I said to Learner Dad, referring to his upcoming first days of solo parenting.
“What do you mean?” he answered defensively. “They’ve had dinner, had their baths.”
I looked around and sighed.
I go back to work tomorrow.
And Learner Dad becomes house husband, for the two days a week I’m not home.
Make no mistake, he’s had plenty of time alone with his boys.
But the fact I’m the milk supplier has always guaranteed a time limit, a deadline for mummy to come home lest her boobs explode.
On this occasion I’d actually half cooked dinner and run the bath before I left for a one hour jog.
Usually, if I haven’t done this, I’ve at least left instructions – when to feed, what to feed, when to bath, who to bath etc.
So although not physically there, my presence is always felt.
“You’re on your own when I go back,” I said to Learner Dad.
Although it sounded menacing, I actually meant it in a nice way.
I wasn’t going to set out a structure for his time with the boys – he needed to establish his own routine, his own rules.
I knew that by lunchtime he’d be laughing at the simplicity of the job.
Master Seven at school, Li’l Fatty asleep all morning – plenty of time to sit back and relax and enjoy the perks of being an at-home dad.
But then Li’l Fatty would wake up.
He’d be hungry.
Then he’d poo.
As soon as he had a fresh nappy.
Then he’d do it again.
Only this time he’d put his hand in it.
Then it’d be time to hit the shops – because if you haven’t run out of toilet paper, you’ve run out of washing powder.
Then it’s time to pick up Master Seven, who’s always last to leave the classroom, even though you’re the only parent carrying an extremely heavy baby who’s trying to hurl himself out of your arms so he can crawl among the stampede of departing students.
Then, if there’s no after school activity planned, it’s home time.
Li’l Fatty smells again.
Is hungry again.
Fights sleep vigorously by standing up in the cot and screaming.
Poos just as he’s about to go to sleep.
Master Seven starts his hour on the Wii.
Time to start preparing dinner.
Fifteen minutes after he finally passes out, Li’l Fatty’s awake.
Crawling around your legs as you balance pots of boiling water, and eating any bits of raw onion you drop on the floor.
Master Seven’s hour is up.
He starts crying.
The six-year-old neighbour comes over.
He’s always hungry.
You send him home when the wrestling actually turns violent.
You shovel dinner into Li’l Fatty while Master Seven shovels most of his on to the floor.
Then it’s bath time.
“Can I hop in with Li’l Fatty?”
Sure, why not?
After twenty squealing-infused minutes of Li’l Fatty either pulling out the plug or pulling on his penis while Master Seven covers his baby brother’s face in bubbles, bath time’s over.
Then it’s dressing one (who poos the moment his clean and powdered bum is freshly nappied) while urging the other to dress himself (when all he wants to do is jump around giggling and parting his crack at you).
At about this time, Mummy will walk in the door.
Like a magnet, Li’l Fatty will be drawn to her breast.
Then Master Seven will insist Mummy read with him tonight.
And then, while Learner Dad scurries about cleaning up the mess in the bathroom and kitchen, Mummy will have to sit and quietly eat dinner alone, with only a magazine or the television for company…
Bring. It. On.
“What do you mean I have to come back?”
“It’s his second runny poo Alison. I’m sorry but it’s the centre’s policy to call parents to pick up their children if they have had two bouts of diarrhoea.”
I was on the phone to Master Two’s childcare centre.
I’d just got to work.
On my first day.
At the Herald Sun.
It was my first job in Melbourne.
It had been hard to get.
I put down the phone and sighed.
I looked at the clock.
I’d been there less than an hour.
Shit shit shit.
I went into my manager’s office.
“God Tim I’m so sorry to do this but I have to go,” I said. “Master Two’s carers just rang. It seems he has gastro.”
He looked at me like I was crazy, then shook his head quickly and said: “Of course, no worries. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
Any working mother has at least one story like this.
I have dozens.
That’s my Herald Sun story.
My Network Ten one is that I was the only producer who’d have to bolt out of the newsroom BEFORE the news even finished to get to a then Master Three’s crèche before it closed.
Because of the train system in Melbourne, I was often late and had to pay by the minute.
And those were actually the easier days at Ten.
Before that I’d lived further away from work and so had hired one of Master Three’s carers to take him home for me when the centre closed and make him dinner.
I’d arrive home just in time to read him a story and put him to bed.
That was living and working in Melbourne as a single mother so things were probably a little more extreme for me then.
But even with a partner, wider family support, and the easy traffic of Hobart, life is still tough for working mums.
The Master began kindy at the same time I began working at Win.
But him being at school didn’t make my working life much easier.
It was then the guilt at leaving work before all of my colleagues, in this case before the news even STARTED, so I could pick Master Five up from After School Care.
That guilt didn’t dissipate after I left the newsroom either.
It increased when I ran into After School Care seconds before six to find he was the only kid left, sitting by his backpack, hungry and tired.
Writing this post actually makes me want to cry.
It’s easy to forget the working mum guilt when you’re blissed up on maternity leave, spending all your time with your baby and as much time as possible with his siblings.
You’ve effectively been given permission to be the best mum you can be for 12 whole months.
I know life won’t be as tough for this working mum as it once was.
I have four eager grandparents on standby.
And, more importantly, I have a partner.
Learner Dad works weekends so can spend my working days looking after our children.
It’ll make he and I ships in the night.
But all we can hope for is a happy harbour.
I glanced at my watch.
Where was he?
He’d said he’d finish late but I’d thought he’d be home by now.
I’d done everything – cooked dinner, bathed Li’l Fatty, read with Master Seven, got both boys ready for bed, all after a full DAY of mothering them as well.
And now Learner Dad wasn’t going to be home in time to do the hardest job of all – get them to actually go to bed!
He was at the cricket.
After working a long stretch, we’d been excited at the prospect of him having six whole days off in a row.
Of course he had radio commitments on three of them and had to present the TV sport on two of them but those things were only an hour or so out of each day.
But then he decided to work one of his days off because the last cricket match of the season had come down to the wire.
And of course nobody could cover it as well as him 🙂
And then, on another day off, he picked up two MC gigs.
They’d basically consume another whole day.
I wasn’t angry.
His strong work ethic was a huge part of what I loved about him.
He enjoyed his work.
And I knew he was trying to keep us financially afloat too.
But I missed him.
And, at times, I was jealous.
Sure, cricket wasn’t my thing but how nice to be paid to sit with your reporter mates and watch a game you love.
To not be consumed by nap times, grocery shopping and excursion dates.
To get about in a sharp suit, be given a nice lunch and to actually chat to adults all day.
And then to go back to the office and write about it.
I love writing.
But instead I was writhing.
On the floor with Li’l Fatty.
And reading books about Brown Bears and Green Sheep.
And pulling mashed banana out of my hair.
And washing school clothes.
And, oh hang on that’s right, I was watching cricket too.
And then home to juggle peas and corn and bubble bath and home readers and sleep suits and toothbrushes…
This was getting ridiculous.
Where was he?
He glanced at his watch.
He probably wasn’t going to see his boys tonight.
He felt stressed.
In many directions.
He’d spent the whole day working at the cricket.
An incredible match, fantastic ending.
Now he was on his way back to the newsroom.
Tired and hungry but still with a whole story to write for tomorrow night.
He didn’t know what to do – go home for an hour or so and then come back?
Or realise family time was over and just stay at work until he got it done?
What would she want him to do?
He’d been busy lately.
He felt guilty.
And worried that his absence was why he’d slipped way back into second place at home.
Master Seven lately met his boy’s time suggestions with a shrug and his own suggestion that ‘mummy play too’.
And Li’l Fatty – well he just watched his mother’s every move and grizzled to go to her the moment she walked into the room.
How could he compete when he was at work all the time?
How could any man?
He thought of his future wife, at home in her pajamas watching My Kitchen Rules after a day of trackpants and TV, strolls in the sunshine, coffee with friends and cuddles with kids.
How nice that must be.
To be able to devote so much time to the baby, sunbake or watch TV during his sleep, and be there to pick Master Seven up from school.
Every single day.
In the end, he went home.
A quick goodnight to his two tired and grumpy sons and a cold bowl of pumpkin soup later, he was headed back to work.
All so he wouldn’t have to leave them again tomorrow.
THERE IS NO MORE IMPORTANT PARTNERSHIP IN LIFE THAN PARENTING.
LOVE AND APPRECIATE YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER FOR HIS OR HER CONTRIBUTION TO THE FAMILY, WHATEVER FORM IT TAKES.
YOU’RE DOING A BEAUTIFUL JOB LEARNER DAD x