Following on from my really rather popular previous tips on how to cope with three children under five and daily life with four children under six, I hereby present ‘Coping with four small children redux’. And if you don’t already have lots of small children, you’re certainly not going to want them after reading this.
There’s really only one way to cope with four children under six, or three children under five, or even two children under eighteen if you feel like it: routine, routine, routine.
If you have a small baby, he or she may not have any routine, but everything else can be taken care of with military precision. So how do you do this?
Perfect your morning routine by doing most of it the night before: lay out everything to wear, make as much of the packed lunches as you can, put everything by the door that you need to go out with (keys, library books, shopping list, whatever), plan the following day’s meal and defrost any meat required, lay the breakfast table and load the washing machine ready to put on in the morning.
In the morning, have a smug cup of coffee until you realise you forgot to wake and feed the baby because, well, you temporarily forgot you had a baby, so you’re going to be late leaving anyway. Run around like a blue-arsed fly until your stress levels are so high that you feel the need to inject caffeine intravenously.
Go to work for a rest. (Or longingly circle job ads at home as your toddler decides to go into progressive meltdown as you stagger through juggling baby, toddler, snacks, nappies, educational activities and lunch towards the highlight of the day: nap time. During nap time you can make all those telephone calls that you can never make when the children are home because world war three likes to break out at the exact moment the person picks up the other end.)
In the afternoons, you get the fun of dealing with picking up over-tired children from school and making them walk home when they have already told you their legs don’t work anymore. When you get home, make the children hang up their coats and put hats and gloves in a basket, hang their school bags and any sports kit on a kitchen chair and empty their lunchboxes into a washing up bowl so the snack boxes start cleaning themselves. Put any paperwork from school straight into an in-tray and sit down with a cup of tea. You’ve earned it: it’s been months and months of hard work training (read nagging) those children to do this stuff. Plus, the evening onslaught is only minutes away and you need to muster all the strength you can.
Realise you forgot to turn the washing machine on this morning so now you don’t have time to do the second and third loads that needed doing today. Think about what doesn’t really need washing (can they wear those muddy, yoghurt-encrusted school trousers just one more day?) and cut out at least one load from the week’s laundry. Feel better.
Cook supper, clearing up as you go because it’s easy to do that when you’ve got the baby slung on one hip. The children take it in turns to have a tantrum. You consider pouring a glass of wine but abstain on the grounds that one of the children is sure to slip in the bath and crack their head open requiring an unexpected trip to the emergency room. Feel smugly perfect-parent. Supervise homework and do more laundry with the crotchety baby refusing to sleep in the sling. Clear up more in the kitchen while the children eat because they clearly don’t need you to sit with them and supply scintillating conversation when they’ve mastered the art of fart-jokes-that-pass-as-conversation. They also won’t mind you hovering to take that plate as they finish the last few mouthfuls. Got a fussy eater? They won’t be if you start clearing up before they finish – they’ll be like spaniels at the feeding bowl, bolting down whole mouthfuls without it even touching the sides. Realise you haven’t thought about anything for you and your husband to eat later. Wonder if your husband will divorce you if you offer the children’s reheated macaroni cheese for his supper. Wonder if you can ‘dress it up’ somehow to make it seem more grown-up. And edible. Realise your cooking skills only stretch to nursery food at best and macaroni cheese cannot, under any circumstances, be anything but macaroni cheese.
Neatly bypass further witching-hour tantrums by telling the children that if they tidy everything away they can play Education City on the computer or read on starfall until bathtime. Award yourself brownie points for a tidy house and now educationally-superior children. Get the oldest child to run the bath while you finish spooning cartons of yoghurt into the baby in an effort to get him to sleep all night (ha! you wish) and then pile each child in the bath in turn with the baby. Realise your plan to keep the baby amused and not crying by giving him a long bath is foiled when he poos in the bath not once but twice and everyone has to vacate the bath like an emergency fire drill (no stopping to get handbags! Or lego boats!). Realise the second time was your eldest son playing a trick on you with the fake-poo he got in his Christmas stocking. Wonder if you should have had that glass of wine after all.
In the evenings you can do all the laundry, cleaning and ironing that you so love. Except you’ve got all that morning preparation to do and you’ll be late again leaving tomorrow anyway so forget it all and sit down with a glass of wine instead. You made it through the day without losing any children; you’ve earned it.
After two glasses of wine, realise your mistake when your preparations for the following day are, well, unprepared. Make plans to hire a housekeeper. Or, better still, a wife.