With 3 kids under 5 and my wife Prue about to launch a new business, I rather enthusiastically yet completely naively decided it was time for me to assume the role of Chief Parenting Officer. Three months break was what I was envisioning: lazy breakfasts, coffees, baby cinos and newspapers, afternoon naps (for all), plays in the park. A good opportunity to spend some time with the kids and get out of the corporate rat race for a while.
Or so I thought…
At the end of week one, it became very clear to me that the role of Chief Parenting Officer is not all Pop Tops and Tiny Teddy’s (yes, sometimes I do bribe them to get in the car) …but it would be fair to say that the ROI personally, professionally and for the four people who matter most to me, was something I had not factored in when I suggested I take on this role.
Here’s what I learned.
Caring + domestic work = 2 jobs
I’ve had an awakening now, but my assumption was that because Prue worked part time and was home all day for 2-3 days, it meant she could look after the house as well. When I took the leave I couldn’t keep the house clean (and I mean I couldn’t keep the house clean) as well as care for my 4 month-old and 2-year old and 4-year old.
Don’t ignore the routine.
It would be fair to say that I rolled my eyes a-plenty at routines. I mean seriously, it’s a family not the military. Let’s just say I learned the hard way.
Take swimming class for example. The routine they were used to read like this:
“Swimming: 11am. Start preparing at 10.15. Check the swimming bag for 2 x bathers, 1 x swimming nappy (and extra). Put your bathers on and the 2 older kids’ bathers on. Tracksuits are easiest. Check for 3 towels, 2 goggles, spare nappy and undies for afterwards. The soap there is bad for Freddie’s skin so take the QV. You’ll need snacks: to get them out of the shower after swimming and into the car. DO NOT GIVE THEM TO THEM UNTIL YOU GET IN THE CAR.”
And this time-line doesn’t even accommodate for lost “essential for swimming” toys, tantrums, nappy explosions and “just one more Peppa Pig, pppllllleeeasssseeeeeeeeee”.
The number of times I got to 10.40am and thought ‘crap where are the bathers, where are the goggles, why are there no snacks’ – and ended up missing the first half of swimming and spending $45 on killer pythons and milkshakes at the pool – don’t ask!
Proud to say we eventually got there, and the approach did resemble the original routine, but with a switch: cheesy-mite rolls from Bakers Delight are the absolute bomb!
Dinner time is chaos.
Where do I start…
When I’d sit at work at 5pm reading over a document and fixing the neck-tie around my Egyptian cotton shirt to get a bit more comfortable, I had no appreciation of the chaos that was about to hit at home.
Describing the 5-7pm period as the “witching hour” is a complete understatement. My tip for inexperienced dads – start planning for dinner at 4:30 to give yourself a solid chance of getting it on the table by 5:15 (see learnings above about routine).
And have a back-up plan and a back-up, back-up plan, because they probably won’t want to eat the dinner you serve, or the back-up meal, and then its 7pm when your wife walks in and they’re supposed to be in bed. But no, the kids are still sitting around the table eating toast and honey milk.
It’s fair to say it took me all of 3 months to get my head around how this part of the day works!
You have to include yourself
We have a long way to go to normalise routines that see men at school and kindergarten gates at 9am and 3pm. To start with, this was a real struggle. I felt like a fish out of water when it came to engaging with teachers. Added to which, the “Day off today Ben?” comments from the mums were a constant reminder that I wasn’t conforming to the stereotypes, so initially I stuck with the “kiss and drop” approach.
But that becomes a pretty lonely existence, and your home can start to feel like a prison. Added to which, you have no idea what is going on in your child’s world if you don’t talk to teachers and parents. By doing kinder duty, going to park dates with other parents, and organising play-dates for your kids, I became so much more in tune with my kids’ lives, and I’m a better parent for accepting that it takes a village to raise a child.
I know their secrets too
When I worked full time I relied upon my wife to tell me what was going on with the kids. And I guess I couldn’t have understood what I was missing out on until I experienced them telling me their stuff themselves.
When you take time to walk your kids to kinder/school, sort through the dirty washing basket while they tell you about their day from the bath and counter-offer their unreasonable demands for more sugar and TV with trampoline time and laughter in the sunshine your children tell you stuff.
Kids’ secrets make your heart burst with joy and pride, but they also make you want to wrap them up in cotton wool to protect their innocence from all of life’s more challenging experiences. For me though, it’s these times that I’ll treasure forever, because the experience of love for my children is of a love so deep, it is almost painful.
Without a shadow of a doubt I learned more about myself, about people, about inclusion and exclusion, gained more empathy and better negotiation and organisation skills, became equipped at putting out spot fires and multi-tasking than three months in any corporate could ever teach me.
Ben Gilbert and Prue Gilbert run Grace Papers, an organisation helping to make combining pregnancy with career easier.