The company I work for, Automattic, has an annual all-hands meetup with a tradition of sharing a 3-4 minute “flash talk” about any topic you wish at all. It took me awhile to get the video, but in 2016, I did mine on the intersection of having a child with food allergies in school.
After the Morning Routine a couple of days ago, it begs the question, what about the evening?
Well. If you gave me a gold star for our morning organization, you can take it back now.
There is some variation day-to-day but generally, we try to stick to the following:
At 5:30 p.m., I sign off of work. I’m a workaholic, so it’s usually more like 5:45 p.m. after V has sent the kids into the office to ensure that I can’t work anymore.
We’ll start dinner somewhere between 5:45 and 6:15 p.m. A couple nights a week, V attends exercise classes at the YMCA that start at 6:30 p.m., so I may or may not be solo for the night.
For dinner, when everything goes right, we try to have some civil conversation. What we most regularly do is “thumbs up and thumbs down” where each person shares the singular best and worst part of their day.
Dinner usually has an extra layer of stress compared to breakfast. Someone will eat their food so slow, it is in danger of mold growing on it between the time they pick it up off their plate and when it reaches their mouth. The twins will probably insist they need to go to the bathroom, but then refuse to do anything once they’re on their potties.
In any case, we try to set an endtime to dinner and stick to it. We’ll head upstairs, bathe some subset of the kids, and get everyone into their nightgowns.
Typically, this is a mess of activity. We try to have everyone in some order layout their clothes for tomorrow, brush their teeth, stop the twins from throwing every book off of their bookshelf, everyone using the restroom.
Either V and I will split between the younger three and the older two, or I’ll have the older two read in their rooms while I put down the younger three. This typically consists of a couple of short stories, singing a couple of church songs—their form of prayer right now—and rocking the twins.
For the older girls, sometimes I’ll read to them, but increasingly the girls read to me. After reading or, fairly often, we’ll be running late and forego the reading, O will read out of kid’s devotional book she bought at a book fair last year and then we’ll pray Night Prayer together.
Then the light goes out, ideally between 7:45 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Daddy zones out for about 15 minutes.
Then the work of resetting the house begins. V will put in any laundry newly sorted since the last load and I’ll start tackling the dishes and cleaning the kitchen.
This will usually take us until 10 or 10:30. Many nights, V has orders for the bakery and will begin on them while I read, hack around on something, or write a post.
We’ll both stay up too late, but I’ll try to be upstairs ready for sleep around midnight.
While this isn’t anything nearly as organized as our morning routine, we’re still kicking, I don’t get a headache every night, and my hair isn’t fully grey, so I’ll count it as a win.
Yesterday was the first day of school for O and MC and now, twice a week, T, A, and D will be in pre-school. How do we get five girls ready and out of the house by 7:15 a.m.?
As said in the quote above, being prepared is halfway to our victory. Our morning routine starts on the weekend. We have the girls pick out what outfits they want to wear for the week and we hang it up in their closet, ready for go for the week ahead. As they get older, they have both more and less say in their clothing options. V is big on teaching style, so there are plenty of “discussions” involved. But, in the end, there isn’t a question each morning what will be worn and we can have arguments about clothing on Sunday, not during the morning crunch time.
The other morning task that previously generated fighting was preparing lunch, so we moved that to Sunday too. The girls are responsible for preparing and packing their own lunches for the week, up to their ability to prepare and the food’s ability to keep. For example, they will peel and cut carrots for the week but they’d make a sunbutter and jelly sandwich the morning of.
To help ease the process, we have a monthly lunch calendar and adjoining shopping list already prepared.
The engineer in me loves the modular nature of the LunchBlox container but the attached lid of Mr. Lid has ensured everything makes it home every day. Flip a coin and pick whatever works best for you.
Whew. All of that and we’re not even into the morning yet.
For now, my alarm is going off at 5:15 a.m. The last time I was on a regular workout program, it was 4:45 a.m. and I should go back to that. But, for now, 5:15 a.m. In the next 45 minutes, I get ready myself, we start whatever parts of breakfast we need to—starting the oatmeal, turning on the coffee, etc.
At 6 a.m., we wake up the girls. The eldest takes a quick shower some days, all of them dress, brush teeth, clean up their rooms, and we are downstairs at 6:30 a.m.
Either now or after breakfast, they do their chores for the day. Surprise! We have a chart for this too.
We eat breakfast, finish chores, and V will do their hair.
At 7:15 a.m., we’re in the van and rolling to the elementary school. After drop-off, we’re either back at the house or dropping off the little ones at the pre-school.
Now that we’re at a closer elementary school, I’m home no later than 8:15 a.m. I finish up breakfast dishes, maybe make another cup of coffee, then head into work.
This took a lot of practice. It sounds like a well-oiled machine, but it has taken us a few years to figure out how to make this work for us and train the kids to roll with it. We have bad mornings where MC would rather lay in bed until 6:20 and be in a sour mood since she’s late to breakfast. There are still those weeks where we’re busier than normal on Sunday and don’t prepare for the week ahead, which leads to a hard week.
In the end, this routine results in my yelling roughly half the amount I would without it. I’ll take it.
We’ve been watching The Great British Baking Show via the PBS app with the kids. Sometimes, we watch an episode by ourselves without the kids and watch it again all together. The other night, we sat down to watch the finale together.
Vanessa: I was not super impressed by the finale.
MC: I was not super impressed by you watching it without us.
I probably should have checked her tone, but watching a first grader laying it down like that…
I haven’t worked in an office since 2010, but when I did, I would get off at work at 5:30 p.m., jump into the car or head to the bus stop, and have a solid 30 minutes alone in my own thoughts. I could push myself to finish up everything and had a built-in buffer before walking in the door, becoming again “husband” and “father”.
Now, I work in the office off of the dining room. I leave work at 5:30 p.m. By 5:30:01 p.m., I need to be in husband and father mode already. The twins are already each wrapped around a leg yelling at me to show me whatever craft they made that day. The older three are often yelling to get my attention to talk about school or camp or whatever filled their day (or they’re yelling at each other). V is giving me orders on what’s outstanding to get dinner on the table.
In distributed work, one of the often overlooked differences compared to conventional environments is the need to create a buffer between your work time and your home time. Even if we have the discipline to keep the phone in a drawer and the laptop on the dock, allowing us time to mentally leave work before needing to mentally enter back home is hard.
Fairly often, I’ll have a tense conversation in the last few minutes before the end of my day. Another difference from my conventional office life is at the office, everyone is going to get off around the same time so no one brought up a major issue in the last few minutes of the day unless it was critical to be addressed then. When in a remote environment, it may be the end of my day, but a solid portion of the team may still have a few hours left in their day or may have just started it.
I don’t have a magic solution to this problem. I have to try to think harder before I speak or react than usual. No one at home knows what conversation I’m replaying in my mind because it didn’t go as expected or what may have just dropped into my lap on my way out the door that will change the rest of my week. It isn’t their fault and they don’t deserve to be the recipient of my raw feeling.
In addition to thinking harder before speaking, if I can’t get something out of my head, I’ll excuse myself to a paper notebook—specifically not my phone or my laptop—to write out quick notes on what is stuck in my head. “Respond to Joe and ask about the data’s source”. I do this on paper because it gets out of my head, I can leave the physical paper on my keyboard so I can pick it up in the morning, and I can’t get sucked into continuing a conversation or being diverted by another ping that I would see on my phone or computer.
What tactics to you use to help instantly build a wall between your mental state and work when you walk out of your office?
Our oldest has a number of food allergies—dairy, eggs, tree nuts, and peanuts. They’re legit allergies—we do annual skin tests and blood work. Once we thought she might be up for eggs in baked goods based on the tests, so we did a food challenge.
A food challenge is where you’re advised to bring something made with exactly the allergen being challenged (in our case, muffins made with eggs), they weigh it, then give it to you over a period of time while waiting for a reaction. In short, it’s a few hours of playing Candy Land with your kid, watching them eat pieces after pieces of muffins waiting to see if their bodies flip out.
At the end of the day, no. She’s still allergic to all of that. Allergies often—and they hoped it would—go away by age 5. As we approach age 8, the blood work indicates she is more allergic to nuts than before.
Initially, it was a badge of honor. She got to wear the special allergy bracelet to school, despite an uniform code disallowing jewelry. But, as the year go on, it is no longer a good thing to be different. She’s the weird one in class. She’s the one that just wants to be a kid, yet always has to be mindful of whether that thing will set her off on, at best, a day or so of feeling crummy.
Hell, even when in the hospital for an asthma attack, she wouldn’t go to a Christmas Eve dinner for kids and families in the hospital without her hospital tray of food because she was afraid they wouldn’t have anything for her to eat if she didn’t bring food she knew to be safe. And that was only after asking me multiple times if the hospital understood her allergies.
As hard as it is to have five kids 7 and under, as hard as it is to have two-year-old twins, the most painful part of fatherhood for me so far is seeing O struggle with this. A classmate’s birthday is this weekend, so there is a pizza party at school for him tomorrow. This is great! It’s such a sweet thing for his family to bring pizza and ice cream for the class. Everyone can celebrate—it isn’t excluding any of the kids who can’t attend a party over the weekend. I’m happy they’re doing something for the class. But, O can’t eat any of it.
I’m tired too. Yes, I could enquire about where they’re getting it, if from the one place in town we know has a dairy-free cheese option, could they add on a pizza that she could eat, or where are they getting the ice cream from. If Amy’s Ice Cream, they have ices that are dairy-free, etc, etc. Pipe dream, it would be from the all-vegan Sweet Ritual, which is the ice cream version of Vanessa’s Que Bueno Bakery. But I’m tired. And O needs to accept that life sucks and sometimes she just can’t have what everyone else is having. I have to pick my battles.
What I wouldn’t give to take this burden off of her. I mean, it’s stupid on one hand. Children are literally being blown up—or seeing their parents blown up—in Syria right now. She lives in a beautiful house in a picturesque neighborhood in a city where the biggest issues are traffic and if the State will override the city’s ban against plastic bags. On the other hand, I am more and more aware that this is an ever-present thing on her mind.
She’s 7. She should be able just to eat pizza with her classmates. Or eat at a holiday dinner in a hospital. Or be able to eat ice cream without care. Enjoy tacos, or pizza, or eating anywhere without needing to call a manager, explain specifics, reiterate those specifics—grilled in butter does violate a dairy allergy—and hope the cook and manager understood each other (this is why we stick to the places we know). But alas, she’s telling me at bedtime, teary-eyed, again, that she doesn’t understand why her body hates her.
So yes, in the end, I just want her to feel normal. I want her to be able to be able to walk into a situation and not have to play through her mind how to handle it with her allergies. I want to take away her self-doubt, her feelings of isolation, and her realization that she will never fit into her peer group.
There isn’t a damn thing I can do that does anything more than mitigate things a tad. And that’s the hardest thing of fatherhood so far.
Editor’s Note: I started this post two years ago, but never finished it.
On the eve of Father’s Day (granted, a made up celebration only to serve as a complement to Mother’s Day, equally as invented), while putting MC to sleep, she told me she hated me.
My offense was telling her to go to bed and she’s a stubborn three-year-old.
One weakness of fatherhood is we are all biased. We all have had some experience of fatherhood already that leaves us with baggage as we search for fatherhood with our own kids. Some of us lacked a father figure at home at all, others of us had flawed fathers dealing with their own demons, perhaps still others had picture perfect fathers and struggle to meet that expectation.
I was not hurt by her saying that. As harsh as this sounds, I know she is a senseless child who doesn’t know nor means what she says, at least today.
Fast forwarding two years from then until now, MC doesn’t say she hates me often anymore. Now, she says that I hate her when I stand my ground on something she doesn’t want to do.
I fear it isn’t just a phase. I fear she’ll think any attempt to advise her is originated out of hate, not love. Of all of the difficult moments of fatherhood, those moments are the ones that dig at me the most now. Oh how I wish she’d call me names instead of thinking I hate her. She’s only five, so there’s time, but what are the teenage years going to be like?
Never mind, don’t answer that.