The Problem Sweet

Dave Milligan

The Problem Sweet


Yesterday I found myself with an unexpected childcare dilemma. Actually it wasn’t a dilemma at all – my four-year-old daughter got chicken pox last week, and naturally she couldn’t go to nursery as she usually does on a Monday. I reckon she’s past the infectious stage, but rules are rules and we have to wait. Normally this sort of thing is fine – stuff happens and we deal with it. But on this particular Monday I had way more work to do than I should ever have taken on, and with my wife working in the US for two and a half weeks, my options were… well, limited.

I’m faced with some large-scale music to write and arrange; brochures, postcards, posters & CD artwork to design and multiple rapidly-approaching deadlines… and instead of the free day I thought I had to heroically nail each and every one of them, I suddenly have a spotty, but otherwise very happy, active, energetic and eager child to entertain.

So. I made a brave, but ultimately foolish decision to attempt to do both. That is, work and care for my daughter at the same time. The first hour or so was bearable for both of us – I probably got about sixteen bars written and she got dressed up, made tea and cakes for all her toys, followed by some half-hearted colouring. But as lunch time approached, it became clear that neither of us would make it to the end of the day on that particular course, so there was only one thing for it. “We’re going out!” I said with great resolve.

After a bit of wandering and a few dawdles in to various shops, I had a great idea. The Zoo! We hadn’t been for over a year, and what better way to spend the afternoon? I would just have to abandon any notions of prolific creativity (there’s always night time, right?), and Ella would have a hugely exciting adventure – “Think of all the amazing animals we’ll see!” I said to her in the car. She seemed pretty excited.

When we arrived I paid the small fortune it costs to park and enter the zoo, thinking – “It’s worth every penny”, “she’s going to love this” etc. etc.

We wandered in, and the first enclosure we came to was empty. Ella peered through the glass and said, “What is it?”

I read out the sign that informed us they were preparing for a new exhibit: ‘coming soon’ it said. “But look over here – Flamingos!”

“I don’t want to see Flamingos,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t like their beaks.”

“Oh. Well look at these guys over here – they look pretty cute, don’t they?”

“What are they?”

“Um…” I read the sign: “Oh, they’re Chinese Goyals. They look a bit like…”

“CLIMBING FRAME!!” screamed Ella, as she started running toward the play area.

Temporarily resigned, I sat and watched her for a few minutes on the climbing frame, trying to compose some music in my head. The part of my brain that processes musical ideas and remembers them was continually being interrupted by the part of my brain that processes the fact that I’d just paid over £30 for Ella to clamber up a climbing frame and hurl herself down a slide, over and over again – an activity that can be done for free within a 5 minute walk from our house.

“Come on Ella. Let’s go see the penguins!” I said, virtually rubbing out the score in my head.

“But I want to play here”

I hunkered down to her sightline, and tried to convey the very adult-orientated notion of going somewhere that costs money and making the most of it – and not spending the time doing things we can do almost anywhere, any time. I could hear myself talking and wasn’t even buying it – it’s no wonder she wasn’t.

But we made our way toward the penguins. We got about 100 yards, and Ella sat down on the knotted roots of a large tree by the side of the path. She was in full role-play mode now. “Pretend this is my house, and you’re a monster coming to visit me for tea.”

It’s one of the things I love most about her – her ability to completely inhabit any make-believe world she conjures up. But I’d hit a wall of tiredness. And frustration. I wanted us to be looking at penguins, because that’s what I’d paid for. I wanted to be spotting weird and wonderful creatures we’d never seen before and saying “what is that?? Wow!!” And I really wanted to be getting my work done.

I sat down on the grass next to her. “I think we should just go home Ella.”

“But I don’t want to go.” she said, busying herself with her new house. I realised that I probably hadn’t made a very good job of hiding how distracted I was all day.

I lay down on my back and looked up into the tree. I’m pretty sure I sighed.

Then she did something amazing. Now, when Ella is in role-play mode she very often ‘chats’ in a sort of adult-mimicking way. She acts out the motions of having quite an expressive and animated conversation, and it rarely makes any sense. This is exactly what she was doing here, but what happened next made more sense to me than anything else that had happened all day. The conversation went like this:

Ella: “Dad?”

Me: “Yes?”

Ella: “I want to talk to you.”

I sat up.

Me: “OK…”

Ella: “There’s problems. You have problems. Everybody has problems.” She was waving her arms about.

At this point I wonder if she even knows what the word ‘problem’ means. I said nothing. Ella reached up toward a branch of the tree and pretended to pull something off it.

Me: “What is that?”

Ella: “It’s a problem sweet.”

She put it in my mouth. I pretended to chew it and made the obligatory ‘Mmmm’ sound.

She looked me very intently in the eye, arched her eyebrows and said: “Do you have a problem?”

I stopped chewing and shook my head.

She pursed her lips, gave her head a firm nod and said: “Good.”

I smiled. The pointed, knowing look in her face turned back into the wee cheeky one from a few moments before. “Can I have an ice cream?”

The rest of our day was beautiful.

Once she was fast asleep in bed, the very fact that I sat to write this down instead of furiously scribbling new music tells me that, once again, my four-year-old daughter has taught me a valuable lesson about what’s important in life.

I think it might be ice cream.