Caroline went away last Friday, leaving me alone with our four children for the weekend. Given that they’re aged eight and under, and I’d never been in sole charge before, it was something of a test. Could I cope?
I hadn’t realised quite how regimented my children’s weekends are until I sat down and digested the three pages of instructions Caroline had left. Saturday mornings, for instance, are parcelled out into 30-minute slots, with tennis lessons, karate lessons and God knows what else. If I was late for one appointment it would create a domino effect, throwing the whole schedule out of whack. There was no room for error.
Friday, by contrast, should have been a doddle. Caroline had arranged for Pippa, a mum she shares the school run with, to collect the children from school and meet me at the local sports club at 4 p.m. Piece of cake, right? I was leaving the house at 4.05 p.m, thinking ‘ten minutes late won’t be a problem’, when Pippa pulled up in her people carrier. She wound down the window, gave me a pitying look, and said, ‘Fell at the first hurdle.’
Saturday passed off relatively painlessly, thanks to Caroline’s meticulous instructions, but things went pear-shaped on Sunday. I made the mistake of taking the children to Westfield, London’s largest shopping centre, to see Johnny English Reborn. We were on our way from the car park to the cinema when I remembered I’d forgotten to get Caroline a birthday present. We had 15 minutes to kill before the film started so I thought I’d nip into La Senza and pick up some underwear.
Unfortunately, when we were about halfway there I realised I’d lost Ludo. Now Ludo’s a fairly robust customer with a red belt in karate so I wasn’t too worried. I told the other children to wait by Mr Pretzel and set off in pursuit. Sure enough, I found him in the Lego store. I reunited him with his brothers and sisters and frogmarched them into La Senza, telling them to stick to me like glue. After spending £45 on a pair of knickers, I then assembled them into a crocodile and headed up the escalator to the Vue. ‘There’s nothing to this parenting lark,’ I thought, but then it dawned on me that I’d lost another child. This time it was four-year-old Freddie.
Panic stations. I parked the children outside Byron and raced back down the escalator, scanning the crowds for any sign of him. I had a horrible premonition of Caroline’s return: ‘It all went swimmingly, really no trouble at all, apart from the fact that I’ve lost Freddie. He’s gone, but it’s no biggie because, look, we’ve still got three left.’
Thankfully, I spotted him five minutes later standing in the middle of a large atrium, crying his eyes out. A security guard was squatting in front of him, trying to find out where his parents were, while a gaggle of mums stood around tut-tutting. ‘There you are, you naughty boy,’ I said, grabbing him by the hand and trying to imply that it was all his fault. The mums weren’t buying it. I might as well have had ‘useless dad’ carved on my forehead.
Needless to say, when Caroline got back that evening I pretended it had all gone off without a hitch. I wanted her to be pleasantly surprised by how well I’d coped. But as I rattled off the list of things I’d achieved — ‘I even managed to get you a birthday present, darling’ — I realised it wasn’t going down well. Far from being impressed, she became angrier and angrier.
‘So what are you saying?’ she asked, face like thunder. ‘That looking after the children is easy? How’s that supposed to make me feel?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t say it was easy, exactly…’
‘Thanks a lot. I now feel completely redundant. You’re obviously so capable of managing without me I might as well just pack up my bags and go.’
I’d made a schoolboy error. Caroline didn’t want to hear how easy I’d found it. On the contrary, she wanted me to fall at her feet in gratitude, telling her what a complete nightmare it had been in her absence. I immediately started back-peddling, telling her the truth this time, but she didn’t believe me. She’s now decided the only thing to do is to go away for a whole week and see how I cope then. I don’t suppose there’ll be a single child left by the time she returns.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.