A systems engineering approach to parenting

Photo of a buggy with a shopping caddy attached to the back carring two large bags of washing

Optimised laundry transportation device

In 2012, as I was preparing to begin my parental leave, one of my colleagues told me about an engineer he knew in New Zealand who quit their job in order to become a full-time parent. As the story goes, within a few months that engineer had all the household systems optimised freeing up lots of time to play golf. Now, knowing very little about the circumstances of the parent in question, their parenting style or their support network, so I took the story with a pinch of salt, but it did plant the seed of the idea in mind that all those processes and routines that make a household tick can be thought of as a series of systems which can be optimised.

One of the big changes I’ve noticed in becoming a parent is a shift in mindset from one in which it is possible to complete a task and move on to the next, to one in which you are constantly in the middle of getting lots of things done. The GANTT chart for being a parent would show a series of overlapping tasks that repeat for years at time within a programme time-frame that lasts around twenty. You are always planning the next thing, or two things ahead, at the same time as clearing up the last.

It is a paradigm shift. You are constantly in operational mode, with very little downtime – tiny variances can cause the system to wobble; winter vomiting bugs can send the plant into meltdown – but you do have some freedom in how you operate that system. And that is what the engineer in me muses on, usually when doing the washing up or hanging out wet nappies. Of course any optimisation process requires a target variable to minimise or maximise. It is tempting to assume, as the anecdote above implies, that target variable should be free time; however I think that fulfilment is a better thing to aim for, because there is plenty in parenting that is enjoyable. The system optimisation should take things that are unenjoyable and either reduce time spent on them, or make them more enjoyable. The system optimisation should also increase time spent on more fulfilling tasks.

In short becoming a parent replaces unstructured time with routine. The aim is to make that routine as enjoyable as possible for you, and to make it resilient enough so that you can every so often throw it to the wall and go to the seaside for the day. Now before I go any further, I don’t mean to say that our system is fully optimised, although I think we are doing ok! But I do want to chalk up a minor victory today, which has prompted me to write this post.

Monday is washday

I noticed a few months back that we were always doing washing. There was always some to wash; some to hang out on the line; some to bring in; some to put away. So, wearing my systems hard hat a few months ago, I decided I would try and crack this nut. Here are the parameters:

  • The volume flow-rate is about five washing machine loads per week, sometimes six depending on the number of nappies we use.
  • The fixed time factor is the wash time, roughly 2 hours per load.
  • Drying time is a variable factor, especially if we put it on the washing line. In the summer washing can be dried in an afternoon, in the winter it can take a few days, or may never dry at all. Then there is the hanging out time, which is enjoyable in the summer, but less so in the winter, in the dark.

I’m a firm believer in batching things to do them more efficiently, so I decided that my Mondays at home with my daughter would become wash day. The idea was to line up all the loads of washing back-to-back in the washing machine, with no downtime between loads, and then to take the whole lot to the launderette for drying in the winter. In the summer there will be a washing line version of this plan.

While the washing bit works fine, the plan throws up a considerable transport challenge: how to get five loads of washing to and from the launderette with a toddler in tow at about 5pm when the clock is ticking before bedtime. I’ve been struggling to overcome this challenge for weeks now, and not for want of trying different approaches:

  • I’ve tried waddling down the road with two laden Ikea bags and a pushchair but the bags are so heavy that this is actually quite painful. A few weeks ago one of the bags split spilling clean washing onto the wet pavement. Sub-optimal.
  • I’ve strapped my daughter into the bike trailer and piled washing up around her, but the capacity is quite limited, so it defeats the object (but she loves being surrounded by warm washing on the way home)
  • Rather than using a push chair, I’ve tried tried to let the little one go by scooter, with me following behind with my laden bags, but the little bean is so slow on her three-wheeled mobile that it took us an age to get there and I had to completely abandon dinner at home and get a pizza next to the launderette.
  • My most extravagant approach: to load all the washing up in the trailer, to attach a separate bike seat to my bike to carry S, and then for us to set off like a mighty laundry tractor trailer down the streets of Highbury. It was fun but it took ages to set up, lock up, unlock, reload and come home.

Then, the solution emerged in two parts. One of the stressful bits is doing all of this to-ing and fro-ing close to the little one’s bedtime. So now I do all the washing on Sunday night and early Monday morning so that we can take it up around 10am. While it is whirling round and round we go off to a music session in Finsbury Park. When the music’s done, the washing is dry.

But the real winner came today when I brought an old shopping caddy into my service. I can just about bag up all the washing and fix it to the caddy with bungees. It is then a doddle to push the pushchair with one hand, and tow the trailer with the other.

So, system improved, which means I’ve got a little more time to spend doing things like writing blog posts.

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