One slave many masters

By Fiona Russo

My husband and I had a bit of a ‘discussion’ last week. Neither of us meant for it to happen, but we somehow got into one of those ‘my life is harder than yours’ competitions. I was lamenting the state of my calendar, complaining that I didn’t have a single day available for PhD work without some type of appointment or scheduling problem in the mix. I was trying to work out how I could pick up the two older children from opposite sides of the city just half an hour apart without leaving anyone stranded or unsafe. I had four very different articles due (as a freelance writer) by Friday, and only three half-days’ worth of child-free time.

He was lamenting his priority list at work, talking about how there were never enough hours in the day and he was going to have to forego some important tasks because he was too stretched to fit them in. I started to say (quite stupidly, I realise) how much I envied him the luxury of dropping some items off the list. ‘You know, since your single taskmaster [his employer] can obviously understand that you are but one man with a limited amount of resources at your disposal’. Ha!

I suppose I was looking for some understanding about how difficult it is to balance being one slave to many masters. I feel like I can’t afford to drop ANY balls, because each comes with reasonable demands that are equally important/urgent. My problem is that there are just too many of them. In return, Michael explained that he feels similarly at work, not because he has ‘many masters’, but because he feels the pressure of being our primary breadwinner. He feels that he has to overachieve and outperform everyone else all the time, more so because he wants to be available to the family in the evenings and at weekends.

Luckily, this potential pressure-cooker situation wasn’t so awful. We were both being very careful not to descend into argument territory, but it was a close thing. Sometimes it’s really tough to see each other’s perspective when we’re too busy keeping ourselves afloat.

This week, we had the chance for some role reversal. He had just finished a major project at work and had put in significant overtime. He was taking a well-earned couple of days off and had offered to facilitate the kids’ schedules so that I could spend some uninterrupted time in the office. This is an opportunity I don’t often have, so I gratefully downloaded the information he’d need:
“In the morning, Dylan feeds the cat and packs the snacks, Emily makes the sandwiches, and Susannah packs everyone’s bags. You’ll need to leave by 8.15am to drop off Susannah [6] by 8.30am. Dylan [12] and Emily [16] should be dropped off by 8.45am – they can’t catch a bus to school because there aren’t any at the right time in the mornings – they can bus home in the afternoon. Charlie[5]’s ECDP sessions [Early Childhood Development Program for children with disabilities] don’t start until 9am so you’ll have to double back for that drop-off – she’ll need to wear her Theratogs there, I’ll show you how to put them on later but factor in about fifteen extra minutes for that – Nanna does pick-up on Tuesdays so don’t forget to leave the wheelchair and parking pass. On Wednesday Charlie’s off to kindy but you’ll need to pick her up at 1pm and take her to the hospital to get her new AFOs [orthotics] fitted. You can drop her back at kindy after if you like. On Friday morning, she has speech and occupational therapy in Ipswich at 9.30am for an hour. Dylan should be home by 4pm every day – if you’re not home, ask him to text you to let you know that he got home safe, Susannah goes to after school care on Tuesday and Wednesday but needs to be picked up at 2.45pm on the other days, Emily has Music Extension on Tuesday afternoon until 5pm – she’ll ask if she wants a lift home – she’ll bus home around 5pm on Wednesday and then she’s going straight from school to work on Thursday and Friday so make sure she packs her uniform please…”

…I trailed off. Michael was looking at me with his mouth open, blinking rapidly.

“Are you okay? Is this too much? I can do some of the morning runs if you like – the timing takes some getting used to.”

“No, no, I just think we’d better write some of this down. I can’t believe you hold it all in your head.”

To add insult to injury, Michael’s week of ‘relaxation’ came with a side of nasty illness (always the way, isn’t it?). To his eternal credit, he didn’t succumb to the dreaded lurgy and did all of the running and ferrying and fetching and managing as promised, getting himself some antibiotics and snatching the odd micro-nap along the way. He made copious notes about schedules and appointments, and worried the whole time about the growing pile of work on his desk in the city as he deliberately avoided his phone and emails.

As for me, I was wracked with wife-and-mother guilt as I went to work in the morning without having changed a nappy or made a single breakfast. I tried madly to meet every goal I’d set for myself that week. I turned myself inside out trying to format my lit review without worrying about whether Dylan got home safely, or organise my reference material and not wonder whether Michael remembered to leave the parking pass at school for his Mum, or attend a meeting without feeling guilty that somewhere in the same building (I have a hospital-based supervisor) Charlie might be feeling scared as they plastered her little legs, or listen to a lecture and not feel anxious about Susannah forgetting to go to the front gate after school on Thursday.

I think we each got a good taste of life in the other’s shoes, and by Friday evening we were having a different kind of discussion.

“I’m completely knackered.”

“Me too.”

“Movie in bed?”


(five minutes later) “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz……”