My one and only weekend as a parent

Is parenting a cushy job or sleepless hell? And is being child-free really all mimosas and lie-ins? We find out what’s happening on both sides of the fence.
Hard being a parent

Motherhood came into my life suddenly and without a warning.

Unlike other women, I didn’t have months to plan and organise, to get my head around being responsible for a four-year-old and a six-month-old. Instead, I became a mother in the time it took to drain a bottle of wine. My friend Anna was telling me how exhausted she was, how two kids under four had robbed her of her sanity and much-needed ‘me’ time.

“Surely you’re exaggerating,” I replied, with the naivety of someone who doesn’t have children.

“Why don’t we swap lives for a weekend so you can see?” she suggested. “You look after the kids and I’ll spend two days in a hotel sleeping in, having long lazy brunches and reading a book without being interrupted every two seconds.”

Which is how I found myself in charge of Liam, his younger sister Tilly, an elderly cat and an enormous rabbit. It couldn’t be further from my life. By choice, my only responsibilities are a husband and a small dog. I’ve never wanted kids and secretly resent parents who complain about how difficult their lives are. Seriously, I want to reply, how hard can this parenting lark be?

Swap and change

When I arrive, Anna and her husband Duncan look exceedingly pleased with themselves. “You have no idea what you’re in for,” smirks Duncan. Anna, thankfully, has prepared a two-page list of do’s and don’ts, of the kids’ exhausting schedules and instructions about who can eat what and when. Her parting words? “Just please don’t kill them.”

They leave with indecent haste, ecstatic to be going somewhere where the hardest decision they’ll have to make is whether to have fish or lamb for dinner.

Liam, who I’d been warned suffers from separation anxiety, starts to cry. He won’t be placated, even by a chocolate fish, which he flings across the room. Tilly, previously happy on the rug, senses the changing dynamic and joins the chorus of screams.

I’m not sure what to do but, thankfully, Liam perks up when I tell him it’s time for his swimming lesson. I gather togs and goggles and struggle with the logistics of a baby and a toddler, a bulky bag filled with nappies, bottles and snacks, and a stroller the size of a small car. I can tell Liam’s not impressed with my abilities and keeps saying, “But Mummy doesn’t do it like that”.

‘I’ll spend two days in a hotel sleeping in, having long lazy brunches’

Let them eat cake

We’re halfway down the street when Liam decides he wants to ride his scooter. “We don’t have time to go back and get it, we need to get to the pool,” I say.

He looks set for another meltdown so we turn back.

Five minutes later, he’s had enough of the scooter. I briefly consider hiding it behind a hedge, to collect later, but he won’t hear of it. So I end up lugging it over my shoulder. Thankfully, things get better at the swimming pool where Liam happily joins in his lesson.

I sit with the other mothers, trying to shake the headache that’s worming its way into my frontal lobe. On the way home, Liam suggests we stop at a café for a fluffy and cake. It’s the best $20 I’ve ever spent because it gives us a chance to bond. Sometime in the past hour Liam has decided I’m okay and his poor wee mouth can barely keep up with this thoughts.

“Why are you so old? I want to be a dinosaur when I grow up. Why is that bee dead? Can we make it un-dead? I want more cake.”

I’m not used to answering so many random questions, or the way Liam’s mind ricochets from one subject to the next. But it makes me laugh and both the café patrons and I are thankful for his good mood.

When we get home, it’s time to feed and change Tilly and put her down for a nap. Anna had assured me I’d have no problems with Tilly. “She’s a really good baby and is super chilled out,” she’d said.

I’m still nervous, though. I haven’t had much to do with babies and the thought of picking up a six-month-old fills me with dread. Fortunately, she isn’t bothered by my clumsy nappy changing efforts and I’m rewarded with a gummy smile at the end.

The Disney Channel becomes my new best friend and Liam is happy to give himself over to it. I even get a chance to flick through a magazine. A couple of hours later, Tilly’s awake. She’s vomited all over herself and the bedding. I guiltily wonder if it was the cake crumbs I fed her at the café.

The mothers out there will laugh but I’m a wuss when it comes to bodily functions that aren’t my own. I try not to gag as I undress Tilly and strip the cot. I’m ashamed to admit it but I wipe her down with a sponge I find in the bathroom because it’s easier than giving her a bath.

A home of many moods

When Liam insists on chocolate for lunch, I plead with him in my best Supernanny voice to eat the sandwich I’ve made. He’s not impressed. “You eat it,” he says. And so I cave, because it’s an unwinnable battle.

Anna had suggested we pick up a present for a birthday party Liam is attending the next day. Just the thought of walking into town makes me exhausted so I call a friend with kids who arrives with car seats already in place.

Something that would normally take me five minutes turns into an hour as Liam pokes and prods every item in the shop. I bite my tongue and realise that not everything has to be done in a hurry. My friend tells me that kids help you to “live in the now” so I consciously slow down and let Liam take as much time as he wants. I’m expecting a meltdown when I won’t buy him the toy he wants but thank goodness my friend, a child whisperer, is able to pacify him.

Back home, I’m pleasantly surprised I enjoyed the experience more than I thought I would. During dinner (fish and chips, which I get my husband to drop off) Liam is especially talkative. So talkative that he doesn’t eat much. I wonder if I should be worried and check Anna’s notes but she says he’ll eat when he’s hungry so I shrug and scoff his leftovers.

His good mood runs out, however, when I try to wrangle him into the bath. Nothing will persuade him it’s a good idea. I would no doubt be arrested by the parenting police but, in the end, I give in, figuring it’s only for one night. He does concede to brushing his teeth so I don’t feel too bad. I’m halfway through reading The Story of Ferdinand when Liam falls asleep.

I run to the kitchen with a speed I didn’t know I had in me and crack open a bottle of wine. I’m shattered.

Liam, apparently, is a good sleeper but Tilly is the opposite, waking every few hours. So much for the easy baby; Tilly has clearly picked up on the fact that all the routines are out the window.

I follow Anna’s instructions in a fug of sleep and bad temper, heating bottles, changing nappies and rocking Tilly back to sleep. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m not cut out for this.

Mum’s the word

I’m woken at 6am by Liam asking for breakfast and cartoons. He tells me pancakes are a Sunday ritual and that he usually helps. While he’s busy decorating the bench with flour, Tilly loses her dummy and proves there’s nothing wrong with her lungs. She refuses three other dummies (it turns out she’s a one dummy girl) and we eventually find it but not before she’s screamed herself a bright shade of pink.

As I’m trying to persuade Liam not to squeeze the cat into one of Tilly’s dresses, the phone rings. It’s a neighbour offering to take Liam to the birthday party. I’ve never met this woman; she could be a serial killer for all I know, but in my sleep-deprived state I hand him over. I take Tilly for a walk, relishing the fresh air. When Liam returns, high on sugar and testosterone, he asks if we can go to the park. I lie and say it’s closed today. Instead, we sit in the back garden where he annoys the rabbit and I have to stop Tilly from eating handfuls of soil.

It’s almost 4pm when Anna and Duncan waltz in, looking hungover. They’ve had a fun time and laugh when I tell them why both I and their house are in such a state. Fortunately Liam doesn’t rat me out as the incompetent I am but he’s probably as pleased as I am that this whole ill-advised parenting experiment is finally over. He does, however, give me a goodbye kiss, which is very sweet of him.

More of a dog person

What did I learn? That it’s impossible to get highlighter stains out of a sisal rug, that too many episodes of Dora the Explorer will mess with your head and that some people should never be allowed near children.

I also learned that parenting is one of the hardest, most thankless jobs in the universe. I now have a profound respect for parents and their courageous ability to navigate the highs and lows of child rearing. I am truly in awe.

As for me, I’m going home to the only ‘child’ I can cope with: one with four legs, fur and a bark.

From Anna’s perspective

Like every parent, sometimes I need a break from the little darlings. I’m a better mother when I have time out.

So when Sharon questioned how hard motherhood is, it was the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: she would get to live my life and I would spend an indulgent weekend with my husband away from the chaos and noise. I’d get to wear nice clothes and heels, eat meals cooked by someone else and not have to answer to anyone.

We checked into a Wellington hotel and spent the weekend shopping, eating and wandering aimlessly around the city. It was glorious. What I loved most is that Duncan and I actually got to have proper conversations. About something other than the kids. It’s so easy to lose sight of that in the day-to-day rush. Of course I missed the kids but it was great to feel like an adult again.

Was I worried about Sharon looking after two of the most precious people in my life? She kept saying she had no experience with kids but I think she was exaggerating so I’d let her off the hook! Besides, I’d left instructions and phone numbers and had arranged for friends to call or pop in during the weekend to make sure she was okay.

I was a little worried about how Liam would behave. He can be hard work and hates being separated from me. But apart from a few meltdowns, Sharon says they got on quite well.

Overall I think it was a win for everyone: we got to have some time out and the kids got used to someone else looking after them. And Sharon had it confirmed that she should really leave the mothering to someone else!

Words: Sharon Stephenson

Related stories