Charting Calvin

READER essay

Heather and I had to learn a new language when we took our 6-month-old Calvin out of daycare. We had to discuss Calvin without seeing or talking to each other.

Call it Modern Parenting.

On paper, we both went down to part-time work to take on the full-time job of child care: Heather works 30 hours-plus as a nurse and builds her home business as a network marketing nutritionist; I teach, write, edit, tend bar and turn off lights that aren’t being used.

The hardest part hasn’t been money: it’s been communication.

I have a tendency to communicate in grunts and groans befitting a 1-year-old. Or a caveman. We needed a system we both could understand.

As with most parents, time together is as rare for us as a spotless kitchen. At least two days a week our time together consisted of a kiss in the car as we swapped roles. Going to work became a nice break. And at home the waking moments together were consumed by budgeting, scheduling and plans. A sample conversation:

“Calvin took his first step today.” Mom.

“Yeah, that’s fine, but which train stop am I picking you up at after the post office and the bank and the gas station before we swap?” Me.

“Well, we need to get milk and wipes and Cheddar Bunnies…” Mom.

“Didn’t we just get those? Who left the bathroom light on?” Me.

“And we have to get the gift for someone’s shower this weekend…” Mom.

“He needs new shoes. He took his first what?” Me.

The obvious day-to-day happenings were getting lost in all the coordinating. We weren’t communicating what he was eating, how he was pooing and when he was napping. Without understanding the essential factors of child care we had no way to discern the growth and patterns of this creature that was our child.

Taking away something from daycare other than ear infections, we began using a chart.

The neat, one-page printout hangs from our increasingly cluttered non-stainless steel fridge. One part feeding, one part napping, one part excretion, the chart is segmented by the seven days of the week. It is the clearest indicator, aside from the Tupperware and the Cheerios on the floor, of what kind of day it was.

The chart helps us establish a routine. We can compare the correlation between napping and feeding times, the balance between the fluid intake and the solid intake and reference it in the frequent bouts of parental amnesia. It enables us to rely on a consistent form of communication and accountability, a frame of reference that narrows the extreme changes that can happen when I don’t see the boy for a day.

For the trial and error that is parenting, the charts give us something concrete to detect patterns. For instance, there were certain amounts of formula and food that guaranteed a peaceful house. For one month anyway.

The chart gives sitters more information and more confidence. When Calvin’s Busia sits, she can compare previous days to ascertain that his fourth poo of the shift is more annoying than it is abnormal. It’s also made doctor visits an interactive experience, instead of the drive-thru feeling we usually got. We use it—whether intentionally or not—to set goals:"He had one strawberry and half pancake on Monday, by Friday he’ll have¾ of a pancake, by Sunday prime rib.”

The silly notes, symbols and drawings that I add are a way for me to tell my wife I was thinking about her.

We’ll keep using the chart until Calvin learns our language and can tell us to stop worrying, that his daily intake has had plenty of iron.

Robert Duffer is a freelance writer who teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. He lives in Chicago with son Calvin, now 16 months, and his wife Heather. They are expecting their second child.

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