Why does Dad have more — and other lessons

2012-02-13 00:00

“WHY does Dad have three sausages?” Anna asked, staring down at the small sausage on her plate.

“Because he is three times our size,” Lael replied, looking up from the one sausage on her plate.

“One day,” Joah added, having counted the one sausage on his plate, “Jedi, Samuel and I will be dads and we will also be able to eat three times as much as our children.”

“What about us?” Anna asked Lael, staring anxiously at the half sausage on my plate.

“Oh,” Lael reassured her, “Moms like to leave food for their children.”

Fairness is a constant concern for our children. And that means everything has to be divided equally. Everyone gets five minutes with the toy, five turns on the iPad and five sweets from the pack. If it’s not equal, it’s not fair.

So when Lael finds herself alone in the schoolroom with 20 more maths questions to go, she asks in surprise: “Has Joah finished his work already?” Which is a polite way of asking, “Why am I in here, when everyone else is out there?”

Or, after all the kids are in bed, and I am rustling around in the freezer for something sweet, Anna will tiptoe through and say: “Oh, is that ice cream?” Which is a polite way of saying: “What kind of a hard-hearted human being eats treats without her kids?”

I’ve tried to explain that not everything has to be divided exactly in half to be fair. When you are older, you get to stay up later, but you also get more maths homework. When you’re an adult, you get late-night ice cream, but you also get to wash the dishes. Fairness doesn’t always ask: “How many do you have?” or “Who had it first?”

I began to learn this lesson, one cold night on top of the Drakensberg mountain range. A group of us had just summited Rhino’s Peak. It had been a day of strenuous climbing, and now it was dark, windy and almost wet. From our backpack, we pulled out our only comfort — a bag of snacks and treats. My husband, who fortunately wasn’t holding the treats, proposed that they got divided according to weight. There were three of us weighing in at 60, and he at 100. I laughed and he didn’t. For a few long minutes, in high-pitched voices, while the darkness closed in around us, we debated what fairness looked like at 3 000 metres above sea level, with only one bar of chocolate between four. Eventually, we tore the wrapper open, got four-and-a-half pieces each, and went to bed with our minds racing: somewhere out there, in the crisp night air, wandered a dangerous new thought — maybe equality wasn’t always fair?

Having children plastered this lesson in place. My first child stole my fair share of sleep, and my fair share of time. I tried telling her that it was unequal and unfair, but she fell asleep with her mouth open. And so, slowly I’ve learnt to say: “Look, I did actually have this first. I did have a body before you came along, I did have a large, comfortable bed, I did have Sunday afternoon naps, I did have lots of time to read and to have uninterrupted conversations with adults ... but I do want to share and so here, you can have it.”

That evening, four-year-old Anna spent a few more minutes looking at my plate, looking at her dad’s plate and then looking down at her plate. Finally, she sighed and said: “Then I don’t think I’ll have children.”

My husband and I looked at each other and laughed. We used to know how she felt.

• Sarah Groves is a freelance writer based in Pietermaritzburg.

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