It was just after 7am on Monday and I was simultaneously making breakfast and lunch for each of my three preschool children. That's six meals. When I was single, I would sometimes not make that many meals in a week.
I had just placed a single spoonful of muesli in my mouth when my wife, standing there, not doing much, said: "You can't eat breakfast. I never eat breakfast before you go to work."
That was my first indication of how much support I could expect from her over the course of the coming week. A few days before, she had shared with me a document called "My week", covering in banal detail the activities of her previous week, which she expected me to at least roughly emulate.
I had opened the document but shut it again, unable to go on after seeing, at its top, "3x loads of laundry". Because my oldest child is only 4, it's not a stretch to remember the time when three loads of washing was a fortnight's work.
I made two pieces of jam on toast for Tallulah (4) but then she'd gone to have a shower, and when she came back to find it cold, she'd refused to eat it. As I spread jam on two new pieces, Clara (2) yelled at me to give her a banana and Casper (1) arrived at my feet, grabbed on to my legs and started crying, so I picked him up and spent a while trying to make toast one-handed. It proved impossible, so eventually I put him down, which meant he cried again and demanded to be picked up, but he's not the boss of me — that's usually Clara.
I slid Tallulah's toast across the bench and got a banana for Clara. I cut the skin to make it easier for her to open. She burst into tears and screamed that I shouldn't have done that, so I got her another. When she couldn't open it, she burst into tears and demanded that I do it for her. When I did, she screamed that I shouldn't have.
Casper disappeared. I tracked him frantically to the bathroom, while the girls' voices struck tiny blows in my back — "Dadda! Dadda! Dadda!" — as they demanded some meaningless crap. I found Casper standing with both hands on the toilet bowl, looking at his dummy floating in the sea of unflushed night wees and toilet paper. He was making little high-pitched sounds of surprise, as though they might convince me of his innocence.
I didn't have time to get a slotted spoon or pair of tongs — I was a stay-at-home dad of three and my bare hands did not have the time to be above this kind of thing.
It was quickly apparent we were basically out of food. Zanna does our weekly supermarket shopping online because it's emotionally impossible to survive a physical trip to the supermarket with three preschoolers. On the list she'd left me, entitled, "ON MY LIST FOR NEXT WEEK", the first item was, "Do supermarket order Sunday night."
Well, I hadn't done that. When would I do that now? I had a urine-soaked dummy to sterilise, whining children to placate, various emotional uprisings to vanquish, lunches to finish making, a shower to take, bags to find and pack, shoes and clothes to find and put on, a kindy run to make, three loads of washing to put on and, at some point in all that, I had to also do some paid work.
These tasks, while obviously plentiful, may appear to a casual reader to be the types of things could be fairly easily accomplished through discipline and application. Allow me to illustrate how they are not with the simple statement, "I got my children dressed".
Clara wanted to wear a dress. Instead of asking me to get her a dress, she whined, "Pick me uuuuuuuuppp," causing a dramatic increase in my emotional load, then ordered me to carry her to the far end of her wardrobe, which contained jackets. Slowly, one by one, she went through the jackets, none of which she had any intention of wearing: "No, no, no, no…" she said, sliding each one along the rail as she rejected it.
"Come on Clara," I said. "We have to hurry or we're never going to get Tallulah to kindy." She completely ignored me. Garment by garment, we moved along the wardrobe, eventually reaching the dresses. Clara weighs about 17kg, roughly the weight of a fully laden suitcase. "No ... no ... no ... " she said, as we went through the dresses. "No ... no ... no ... " she continued. I wanted so badly just to grab a dress and tell her to wear it but I didn't have the time or emotional capacity to deal with a 5-10-minute toddler meltdown.
While in the wardrobe, I began to worry about Casper's whereabouts and activities. Is he on a chair that he's about to fall off? Is he eating something off the floor that will poison him or cause him to choke? Is he shutting himself in the drawers under the television again? The longer I was in the wardrobe with Clara, the greater the physical risk to Casper, the greater my parental anxiety.
After minutes in the wardrobe, Clara finally chose a completely inappropriate dress. I told her she needed to add something warm, which she didn't want to do and which took us to the very edge of a tantrum. Once that was negotiated I had to wait while she went through all her warm clothes ("no, no, no, not that one, no") and then through her shoes ("Nope/no/I don't like those shoes/those aren't shoes, they're boots") and socks, etc.
After all that, one-third of my children were dressed. The week was like this: I would start work on one apparently manageable job and it would grow, open out like an accordion, spawn other jobs, metastasise, and eventually envelope more of the day than I could ever have imagined possible.
"Hurry is the enemy of love," Zanna once told me, obnoxiously. I thought that was fair enough at the time, but most of the time for the stay-at-home parent, hurry is just a basic necessity.
It's not just about the stacking of task-based obligations but the awareness that some individual emotional needs — crying and whining, yes, but also physical affection — must go unmet in order to meet the wider needs of the family. Children don't yet understand the value and importance of collectivism and where am I supposed to find the time to teach them?
"I know I've told you this before honey but I just need to warn you again. You do not want to come into a Tuesday without a plan." — Zanna.
I would have loved to have come into Tuesday with a plan but planning is something that requires mental space and parenting leaves none.
The day started with a dream, which initially seemed pleasant enough: I saw an interesting cloud and said to my kids, "Doesn't that look like a muffin?" Then I said, "No, it's more like a mushroom." Then I saw it was growing and I realised that nuclear war had started. I couldn't believe it. I wondered if it was a dream, so I woke myself up but it was still real. I woke myself up again — still real. Again and again I woke up to nuclear war, until finally I woke into what I have to assume was reality.
Tuesday was Monday with additional obligations. We had cleaners coming at 10am, which required me to have the house completely tidied, meaning not just neglecting the children but also actively preventing them doing anything. Clara was horribly sick with croup, oozing goop from her eyes and snot from her nose and emotionally projecting her suffering on to her siblings and me.
The task was so grand and vast that I felt myself coming unmoored. If I hadn't let it go, it would have taken me with it to places unknown, psychologically.
"How are you feeling?" I asked Zanna. "I'm not feeling good."
"Me neither," she said. "I've definitely got croup. Would you like me to stay home?"
"No," I said, choking back my desperate desire to say otherwise.
"That's the right answer," she said.
By about 7.30am, I was so fully mentally, emotionally and physically engaged that it felt like my body was vibrating. It was a cold morning and I was wearing a T-shirt but I was sweating.
I started trying to keep a rough running total of the number of times someone said "Dadddddaaaaaa". It was impossible — there was no mental space — but by 10am it was easily in the hundreds. Every one of those Daddas is a small emotional load — a burden of care that needs to be discharged — so the cumulative effect is debilitating. Nuclear war sucks but it's not the only problem we face.
I got Casper buckled into his car seat at about 9.30 and we finally left just before 10. I must have gone back inside 10 times to get drink bottles, the nappy bag, snacks, my shoes, some of my children.
We went to a playground. Clara asked me to push her on the swing, which I did, which made her cry. "Not like that!" she screamed at me.
"Like what?" I asked.
"From the back!" she shouted. I was already at the back, but I moved slightly and tried again. She cried again, yelled again. I had no idea what her major malfunction was. "Both hands!" she yelled at me.
Meanwhile, Tallulah was circumnavigating the playground on her scooter. "Chase me, Dadda!" she yelled for many minutes, until I couldn't ignore her anymore. Eventually I took Clara out of the swing while she cried and yelled at me to leave her. I started lumbering after Tallulah carrying both Clara (17kg) and Casper (10kg).
"Not like that, Dadda!" Tallulah yelled at me. "Run!"
"I'm trying!" I yelled back. Clara was crying because she wanted to go back on the swing. She cried an estimated 20 to 50 times during our 90 minutes at the playground. Later, at home, I showed her a photo I'd taken of her. "That's not a good one!" she yelled and burst into tears.
When Zanna came home on Wednesday night and I presented her with a package of dinner from Uber Eats, she told me that I had turned to takeaways too early in the week. I told her it was in no way early in the week.
Zanna asked me before I left for Playcentre this morning how many of the 11 items from her to-do list I had completed. The answer was two. She asked if she should do Tallulah's school enrolment stuff, which was number four on the list.
"No," I told her, "That's my job."
"Okay," she said, "But what I'm asking is, 'Is it going to get done?'"
"No," I said, "Probably not."
At lunchtime, the pantry door fell off in my hand and hung there, attached by a single hinge. Unable to let it go, I sent Clara to find Zanna, who was doing some work downstairs.
"What would you have done if I wasn't here?" she asked obnoxiously as I unscrewed the door. I ignored her.
"You'll have to organise a handyman to fix that," she said. I ignored her.
For several minutes after that, she stood around annoyingly in the kitchen, inexplicably doing nothing and saying nothing while I made coffee for both of us.
"I know you probably think this is annoying, honey," she said, "but actually for a stay-at-home parent, this is a real treat."
The horrible thing is that she was right. I was so grateful for her annoying presence I would have done almost anything to have her stay. Every night when she came home just after 5, I was flooded with joy and love. I understand the value of all and any adult contact now. The world of children is so relentless.
Later in the afternoon on Thursday, she sent me a link to a video that had been automatically generated by Google Photos. It was a montage of video clips of Clara from throughout her 2.5 years of life. "Google photos has fully manipulated me with this!" she wrote. "They call it, 'They grow so fast'. #tears"
I too became highly emotional as I watched the collected videos of the little life of Clara. It reminded me of the video montages of rugby league highlights set to Tina Turner's Simply The Best, which made teenage me want so desperately to become a professional rugby league player. What I didn't understand at the time was that the reality of rugby league life is remorseless hit-ups, painful tackles, career-threatening injuries and concussions, only occasionally punctuated by the occasional no-look pass or miracle offload.
In the morning, as I tried to get everyone ready to go to Playcentre, Tallulah and Clara started fighting about something pathetic and then, poised on the edge of cataclysm, they suddenly disappeared into the lounge and started playing some adorable game of imagination. They shut the door to the lounge in Casper's face, but you can't win them all.
"That's the cutest isn't it," I said to Zanna, "When you're aware that you've done something to turn them into something wonderful just minutes after you've been convinced you've turned them into something terrible."
"It's the greatest when they go in there and close the door when you're trying to get ready," she said. "You don't care what they're doing."
That was probably closer to the point I was trying to make.
At the start of the week, I had told Zanna a mutual friend had asked what she would be doing while I had charge of the kids.
"That's what everybody says," she said, "And it really pisses me off because I have a whole heap of work to do on top of being a stay-at-home parent and that's what I'm going to be doing."
As it turned out, she did a day and a half of paid work, spent another full day cleaning and organising our Airbnb, another full day doing our taxes, ran a bunch of errands, organised Tallulah's school stuff, did some supermarket runs, bought some clothes. But she also went to a movie — and I have never once done that during my working week.
The question of whether parenting is a job is a topical one but if it is a job — and it is — it brings with it multiple human rights breaches and severe psychological endangerments: endless non-rotational seven day rosters of 14-plus hour days of physically and emotionally demanding tasks that multiply faster than they can be completed and continue to multiply even after you have nominally clocked off for the night, all of which require significant forward planning that you never have time to do and that would, anyway, be undone by the crises that are both entirely random and depressingly regular.
On Saturday morning, I welcomed Zanna back into family life with relief and immediately began to burden her with the problems I had been unable to solve for myself. "Where's my warm top?" I asked her.
"I don't know," she said. "I'm not your mum."
As I left the room, I heard Clara say to Zanna, "You're not my mum."
"Who's your mum?" Zanna asked.
"Daddy's my dad," she said.
Are you a parent in New Zealand? We want to hear from you. Join our parenting group on Facebook.