So, What Do You Do All Day?
A Beginner’s Guide to Toddler Wrangling, Daddy-Style
My beloved, Claire, returned home from New Zealand yesterday. She turns 40 in July, and had expressed a degree of regret that she had never been overseas.
So, I secretly arranged for her to travel to the Fiordland National Park in New Zealand’s South Island to hike the iconic Milford Track.
Everything was planned, booked and paid for, before I cracked and told her all about it. My inner “excited puppy” makes me crap at keeping secrets; so it was only a very limited matter of time before I explained what I had arranged.
As it turned out, we were very lucky. One must book the tickets for trail access and the huts in which you stay along the track, months ahead, on the NZ DOC (Department of Conservation) website. It is all very easy, but the popularity of the trail means that it sells out far in advance of prospective travel dates. When I checked availability, there were only two days of availability remaining. I chose the penultimate day of the season, as it began on the weekend, included the Monday public holiday, and maximised my availability to toddler wrangle Tallis – 2 years and 5 months old, today – during Claire’s absence.
This was the longest break that Tallis and Claire have thus far had from each other. While Mummy got her adventure on, Tallis and Daddy stayed home to get to know each other better, from Saturday morning to Thursday afternoon. 6 days and 5 nights of bonding.
The following is a little of what I learned along the way.
You can get shit done, but every “ticked box” has a cost
There exists a triangular model in project management, that illustrates a trade-off between competing constraints. While it takes various shapes, the version that best describes my week with Tallis looks like this:
You can “get shit done” fast, good (sic), or cheap. Pick any two.
You can do things fast and well, but at what cost?
You can do things fast and cheaply, but quality will suffer.
You can do things cheaply and well, but it will take longer.
My “sweet spot” for achievement while toddler wrangling tends heavily towards the latter, by involving Tallis in the process as much as possible. You will probably have to repeat yourself; physically, verbally, or both. You will probably have to slow down, paying attention to more than just the task at hand. You will probably have to improvise ways to enable your toddler to become involved and engaged in the process.
It will take more time. Vastly more time. But at least you will “get shit done”. Without the “cost” of a pissed off toddler. Without the “cost” of trail of pissed-off toddler destruction. With an acceptable level of quality, because given enough time and patience, toddlers are generally more capable than most of us give them credit for.
Toilet time is reciprocally absent of privacy
There is nothing that feeds one’s performance anxiety on the toilet like a screaming toddler on the other side of the door. The looseness of one’s bowels are inversely proportional to the volume and intensity of the screaming.
Sharing a shower with said toddler has no apparent effect on the toddler’s ability to loosen their bowels.
Toddler wrangling is exhausting
Despite consisting of mostly low intensity movement, minimal apparent intellectual demand 1, early nights, and regular bouts of respite 2, it is fucking exhausting! Just so tired, all the time.
1) It is actually far more intellectually demanding than you might think, to keep a toddler’s day fun and nondestructive. In the right frame of mind, it can also be quite intellectually stimulating. Unfortunately this adds significantly to the exhaustion
2) Sure they nap. But even when one sits down to rest and read, the nagging voice of “doing the doing” gnaws away in the background. My strongest advice is to tell that voice to shut the fuck up, and rest while the resting presents itself. As per the above, there will be plenty of time to slowly do a crappy job of not much, when the toddler wakes up.
Four seasons in a single day
A toddler can go from content to catastrophe instantaneously. You know what you did; don’t try to deny it. If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.
That piece of apple has a tiny speck of stem on it. Don’t just wipe it off. You’ve ruined the whole thing now.
Grazed and bleeding knees are but a trifle annoying. A blade of grass on the toddler’s toe, however, may precipitate a full scale meltdown. Dirt does not appear to possess the mysteriously devastating power of grass clippings.
Stifle your “inner Virgo”
Be prepared to settle. Settle for enough for now. Hell, just settle for enough.
As long as you chip away at your TODO list(s), you will usually find a way to tick some boxes. Some days, you won’t; and that is OK too.
I have a long, long way to go with this one. In fact, I suspect it will always be a work in progress.
It’s the little things
Going for a walk, on toddler-time. Noticing the world at his speed, on his terms.
Being there as his vocabulary develops; as he learns new skills. Nap time.
Cooking together. Building stuff together. Moving our bodies in the backyard together.
Cuddles. Did I mention cuddles?
Toddlers are much smarter than they let on
It is almost like they are born with an innate and nuanced understanding of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”.
Tallis has made great progress with a number of developmental milestones recently. Despite the aforementioned lack of privacy, one of the most rapid changes has been with toilet training.
He went the entire six days with me, wearing only a night nappy. He was otherwise almost continuously in control, alerting me whenever he needed to urinate. We experienced only one mishap, when I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to Tallis and his request for assistance, “Wee-wee…?!”.
That Tallis has become aware of our delight in his urinary control, was apparent when he dragged me outside 1 with his customary “wee-wee?”. It was clear upon arrival in the backyard, that he at no stage ever intended urinating – only to get me to kick a ball around with him.
1) Tallis is encouraged to pee either in the toilet, or outside on the garden, at his discretion. The latter is a) usually more successful, b) will be more independently repeatable, and c) the garden could use the trace elements.
Priorities become more fluid when toddler-wrangling. Take silence, for instance. I have always cherished serenity, but this week have taught me the potential allure of serenity’s more stringent neighbour, silence.
An abruptly woken toddler is just no fun at all.
Within a couple of days, all squeaky hinges in our home were oiled, to squeak no more.
“Life is too short to be taken seriously”
With thanks to Oscar Wilde.
Have a bit of fun. Remember that you and your toddler are in this together. The more you put in, the more you will both gain in return.
Tallis and I had a ball, “constructing” random nothings out of spare timber and screws. We hammered, we screwed, we drilled; until we had produced two stunning pieces of wood that were drilled, screwed and hammered together. It was all about the journey, not the destination.
Getting shit done is all about “ticking boxes”
There; I said it.
I’ve never been one to make lists – partly because I generally resist the idea of planning – but probably also because I’ve almost always been surrounded by people who love lists as much as ticking off the items within.
I suppose that makes me some kind of “list vampire”, and I’ve been OK with that, in as much as one can be while completely oblivious to the fact.
Yet, the “missing organisational link” of ticked boxes is gradually featuring more heavily in my arsenal of planning tools. It started as a way to organise my thoughts around the growing magnitude of my ultra-endurance ambitions. But it has taken hold, and fully solidified in less than a week as primary carer for our little boy.
Every TODO item makes the list.
Everything done, but not listed, is subsequently listed and ticked.
Acknowledging My Position of Privilege
My investment is, thus far, finite
My almost week with Tallis was an absolute joy. I wish it hadn’t ended so soon. I hope that, in partnership with Claire, we can manifest a way for me to be more continuously involved in Tallis’ upbringing and development.
That said, I am aware that my finite involvement affords me a “rose-coloured” perspective. Sometimes, being responsible for a toddler is hard; really fucking hard. But no matter how hard it gets for me, no matter how long I am in the driver’s seat of his guardianship, there is an end in sight.
Usually, it is a few hours; occasionally overnight; and this time, 6 days; maybe at some stage, it will be a couple of weeks or a month. But it is always fixed, and finite. Being the primary at-home caregiver for a toddler is an entirely different kind of investment – one that I must admit that I cannot truly fathom.
I’m not lactating
Also assisting my journey through a week of toddler-wrangling was my lack of lactating breasts.
“Lacktation” – henceforth, the official term for the lack of lactation – allows me the luxury of sitting on the ground and laying on the bed, without the spectre of a small person latching on and pinning me to the ground.
What may have been seen as a hinderance – one of Tallis’ main food sources, and major source of comfort, being removed – was actually a contributor to our success as a parent/progeny team.
“So, what do you do all day?”
There is a lamentably popular misconception that stay-at-home-parenting consists primarily of lounging around the house in your pyjamas all day, eating chocolate and watching daytime television. For some, perhaps this is occasionally true; but for the vast majority, it is neither common, nor desirable. With the exception of the chocolate, which seems to be a reliably consistent mainstay.
There is just so much to do. Balancing the cooking, cleaning, shopping, banking, gardening, laundry, organising etc. with the needs of a developing human being is hard work. Relentlessly hard work.
As difficult as it can be to summon the energy to cope with daily tasks; it is the things of which your life is bereft that makes prolonged toddler-rearing particular difficult:
- Opportunity for meaningful interaction with peers
- Self-worth from contributing to something outside of the family unit
Call to action – impromptu respite
When next you get the urge to ask (or think of) a stay-at-home-parent, “so, what do you do all day?”, try offering them some respite instead.
You will, at once, gain some practical answers to your question; and give the parent a very welcome break. A day to themselves; a few hours; or even as little as 20 minutes to guiltlessly read a book will make the world of difference to their sense of wellbeing.
Rather than indulging your curiosity, try helping by offering some small window of escape.
If you are the partner of a stay-at-home-parent, and your co-parent is not receiving regular respite; make it a priority and make it happen. You may be surprised at the increase in your partner’s libido, and their ability to stay awake to capitalise on it! Regardless, it is its own reward – toddlers can be really cool to hang out with, if you pay attention to their needs and immerse yourself in helping them to be met.
Bonus Toddler-Assisted Gluten-Free Cookie Recipe
The morning before last I decided to do some baking with Tallis. Cooking is one of his favourite pastimes, so sharing my love of backing provides an easy avenue of connection for us both.
NB: No thought was put into this, because it was an exercise in baby baking bonding, not gluten-free gastronomy. Find another time to find the perfect gluten-free cookie flour.
Take any choc chip cookie recipe and substitute: gluten-free SR flour for SR flour; and chopped up ginger/walnuts for choc chips.
- 125g caster sugar (recipe said 50g caster/75g demerara, but how many fucking sugars does a normal person have in the pantry?)
- 100g butter, softened
- 1 egg
- splash of vanilla
- slightly smaller splash of vanilla
- 150g gluten-free SR flour (or almond meal, rice flour, coconut flour or whatever)
- 8 naked ginger cubes
- 1 extra naked ginger cube
- handful of walnuts. possibly 3/4 of a handful, because my hands are tiny
0. Preheat oven to 180⁰C.
00. Grease and line baking trays with butter/baking paper. Get toddler to practise his finger painting.
- Create caster sugar from raw sugar in the thermi, because we have none of the former. Allow toddler to turn on thermi, because a) collaboration has helped to completely desensitise him to the noise and b) “FUCK YEAH!”, said the toddler.
- Soften butter in the microwave, because thinking ahead is for chumps and the toddler has limited attention span.
- Cream butter and sugar. Retrieve toddler from his important side-projects of terrorising the cat and throwing balls around the lounge-room. Get him to finish stirring process, repeatedly reminding him of the importance of keeping the spoon in the bowl.
- Add egg. Get toddler to crack it. Risk is high, but reward is higher.
- Stir vigorously. Not that vigorously, Tallis.
- Add splash of vanilla. Stir.
- Add additional, smaller, splash of vanilla. Toddler knows best. Stir.
- Add flour. Stir.
- Chop ginger cubes. Get the toddler to help, because “knife skills get the girls”! Bribe toddler with extra ginger cube, to resist eating the ingredients.
- Add to batter and stir.
- Chop walnuts. Again, involve the toddler. Stir walnuts into batter.
- Use teaspoon to drop balls of batter on trays. Involve toddler. My experience shows that this produces a cookie to toddler mouthful ratio of approximately 3:1.
- Bake until golden brown.
- Turn down oven, because the stupid fucking thing burnt the arse out of a couple of the first tray. Stupid fucking oven.
- Repeat 12/13 as necessary.