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What Do People Do All Day?

What Do People Do All Day?

What Do People Do All Day?

by Fiona Button




6.30 up, breakfast
7.20 Tom to Westway, football squad training
7.45 Eliza into school, choir practice
8.15 Alexander to school, on bike. Talk to Mr Finch – kicking in playground??
9.00 Pilates
Home, shower
Discuss room arrangements with Therese
Confirm lunch with Simon tomorrow
Go through diary dates with John
Lunch – soup and salad
Find babysitter for Weds – Sheila
Cancel Pilates class x 2 Tues / Thurs
Find babysitter for Thurs – Fran
Vegetable box delivered
Go through emails – reduce inbox by 25 (yay)
Go to Post Office, buy spaghetti, washing up liquid
Buy earrings for Catherine birthday
3.30 Collect Alexander; quick play in the park with Nicholas
3.50 Collect Tom
4.00 Collect Eliza
Home, snack, homework (maths x3)
Cook supper (beef pasta)

1. On Being Altricial

Though a human baby might be weaned from their mother as early as six months or one year old, they remain nutritionally dependent on others until at least five years old, and somewhat dependent until adolescence. They are not physically mature until their mid (or late) teens, and their brain continues to develop into their early twenties.

In comparison to other species, including other primates, this is an extremely long period of dependency. We are classed as an altricial species, meaning that babies are born in a relatively underdeveloped state. Kangaroos, rats and dogs are also altricial; by contrast, precocial species achieve adult-like competencies much sooner. A foal is up on its feet and learning to walk within hours of birth, but a child cannot cover any distance unaided for several years.

What possible use is this lengthy childhood? Surely there would be a selective advantage in maturing earlier, so children are less vulnerable to predation and mothers are freed up to have more children? Counter-intuitively, it seems that a long childhood is key to our success. Humans can (and do) live in almost any habitat on earth; our ecological niche is a broad one. We are omnivorous and flexible. Unlike precocial species, most of our behaviour isn’t hardwired. We can learn to live anywhere, but it takes years to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills: which plants are safe to eat, how to catch the available prey, where to find water, how to keep warm or cool, where it is safe to rest and give birth. Our long childhood is necessary so that we have enough time to learn how to survive.


7.45 Eliza to school early (maths clinic)
8.15 Tom and Alexander to school
Coffee, home
Email Therese and Matt; confirm details about room
Order school sibling photos x 1
Fill in flu vaccination forms x 3
Order kids’ artwork Christmas cards x3
Email school about dentist appointments tomorrow
Order 6 Christmas presents (puzzles)
Organise playdates x 3: Nicholas (Sat); Leo (Sun pm) Ella and Henry (Fri after school)
Phone sister. No reply.
Book haircut for Tom next Tues
Reply to architect, structural engineer re: meeting tomorrow
Pay deposit to architect, structural engineer
Confirm with Rachel: see Tom on Weds / Thurs this week
Set up Zoom link to call Bruce tonight
1.30 Lunch with Simon. Discuss financial plans (2 hours)
Go to butcher – chicken, lamb
Sainsburys – milk, biscuits
3.30 Collect Alexander; quick trip to playground
3.50 Collect Tom
4.00 Collect Eliza
Home, snack, homework
5.15 Tom play with Leo till 6.45
Cook – chicken thighs, rice, spicy salad
E – maths practice (online)
7.30 Zoom with Bruce; discuss secondary schools

2. On Menopause

Women are optimally fertile between the ages of around fifteen and thirty-five. By forty, fertility starts to decline, and usually tapers off completely by fifty. Is this adaptive, or an artefact? Some argue that, under pre-modern conditions, a woman would be unlikely to live much beyond fifty, so the menopause is simply an artefact that is only now visible because we are living long enough to see it.

Some data suggest otherwise. The risks of childbirth increase with age, so stopping having children at a certain point makes sense, if the woman is to be around long enough to raise her existing children. If a woman has her last child at forty, and her ‘natural’ life expectancy is around sixty years, she will live long enough to see her youngest child safely into adulthood and independence, all being well.

There are other theories too around the menopause, including the grandmother hypothesis. This states that, as well as menopause being evolutionarily advantageous for a woman’s existing children (because she does not die in childbirth, or of old age, whilst they are still dependent on her) it is also advantageous for her grandchildren. Once she no longer has a baby or young child of her own to care for, she has more time and energy available to help with caring for the next generation. Interestingly, this effect is seen more strongly with her daughters’ children, where she can be more certain of her genetic investment. Why waste your time caring for your son’s children, when they might not even be his (and therefore yours)?

We don’t yet know whether menopause happens because it conveys an evolutionary advantage. The fact that it happens to all women, regardless of environment, at an average age of fifty, suggests it is likely to be adaptive. It seems to be a biological acknowledgement that raising the next generation, and the one after that, requires years and years of work, and more than a mother can do alone.


7.30 pack PE kits x 2; sort laundry and bring downstairs
8.30 leave; get bus
To Post Office: collect parcel (book for Eliza)
9.30 Dentist x 4, Bayswater Road
Walk back to school, drop off
Hand in flu vaccination forms
Coffee, home
11.00 To Therese’s: set up table / desk. Check top is screwed down
Arrange playdate for Alexander (Friday after school, with Robert)
1.00 Home, lunch
Phone sister (45 mins)
Start supper (tagine: chop veg)
Piano practice 10 minutes
Wrap earrings for Catherine; write card
To Post Office: post present to Catherine; post Eliza’s letter to pen pal
3.30 Collect Alexander
3.50 Collect Tom
4.00 Collect Eliza
Home, snack, start homework
5pm Josh here: piano lessons me / Alexander
5.30 Piano lesson Tom
6pm Piano lesson Eliza
Finish making tagine – total refusal from kids
6.00 Sheila arrives – cook lamb meatballs instead
Pack up tagine / wine etc
6.30 To school for quiz night
9.30 Home, pay Sheila, bed

3. On Making Sense

The human brain is a meaning-seeking machine. From birth, a baby gets a constant, overwhelming stream of information about their environment. It is the brain’s job to unscramble this input and to deduce meaning, to dis-cover causal relationships. We need to work out what is information and what is noise; we need to know what to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore. We need to make sense of the world.

We are so driven to look for meaning that we tend to invent it even when it isn’t there. Most modern people would agree that analysing animal entrails and the flight patterns of birds is not a reliable way to predict the future, yet before anything more robust was developed, the ancient Greeks found this useful when making decisions. Creation myths can be understood as an attempt to construct meaning (literally – to make sense) before science enabled us to see with a longer lens.

How do we make sense of the world we are born into? Learning through direct personal experience is valuable, but it is slow and sometimes fatal. Nor have we always been able to rely upon texts, as many of us do now. The first writing and counting systems emerged about 5,000 years ago, but the global literacy rate did not hit 50% until around 1945. The vast majority of people throughout history have had no access to written texts.

Our primary source is and always has been the people around us: our family, our peers, our wider social group. We constantly look to others to gauge their reactions: agreement, approval, disgust, anger, fear, laughter, desire. This is what tells us whether what we are doing (or about to do) is a good idea or not. Facial expressions are so important for our survival that human faces are highly privileged objects in our universe: babies preferentially orient towards faces within minutes of birth.

Language offers ever more elaborate and precise ways of conveying information from one person to another, and thus knowledge accretes generation upon generation. Every individual doesn’t have to learn afresh, by trial and error, how to knap a flint and use a throwing stick. I didn’t have to invent the wheel or the microchip or anaesthetics in order to benefit from them. We are taught by the previous generation and they hand their technology down to us, person to person, face to face.

Insofar as anything is hardwired into us, it is this: we are programmed to learn from other people. We have to watch and listen and learn in order to make sense of the world.


7.00 Sort and pack Alexander swimming kit, Tom football kit.
Pack book bags, after school snack x 2
Shower, dress
8.00 To school second hand uniform sale; find 2 x summer dresses for Eliza, gloves for Tom. No shirts.
Coffee, home
9.00 Structural engineer here. Discuss steels, drains plans. Drainage report.
9.45 Leila here
Find old drainages plans, drain survey report; email to architect/engineer
Order new shirts for Tom from M&S
To Therese’s: set up new WiFi, check it is working
Home for lunch – leftover tagine
Delivery – Christmas presents x 5 (one missing)
Back to Therese’s
Email school to notify about Eliza senior school tour tomorrow
Email school: Alexander going home with Robert for play date tomorrow after school
Order plastic boxes to store Lego in – big ones out of stock, huh
Pay Therese for November
Order individual school photos x3
4.00 Collect Eliza; hot chocolate in Café Nero
4.45 / 5pm collect Alexander (board games club), Tom (football club)
Sainsbury’s: buy cheese, macaroni
Home, homework
Make macaroni cheese with leeks and bacon
6.30 Fran here babysitting
7.30 Taxi leave: dinner with Kate and Hans (no Hans)
11.00 Home, pay Fran, bed

4. On Being Social

We are a fundamentally social species. To care for each other defines who we are. It is one of the organising principles around which our species has evolved. We cannot survive alone, and not just because a singular, puny human body is vulnerable to attack. We cannot survive alone because we need to share the burdensome work of raising and teaching our children. We need to share the housework.

We exist in a complex web of reciprocal obligations. For this to work, we must build up a detailed knowledge of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of individuals. One recent study calculated that, on average, people can tell apart 5,000 unique human faces. Compared to other objects we might frequently encounter (for example: birds, dogs, trees) this is an astonishing skill. This ability to recognise and remember individual people forms the basis of our relationships. We have to keep track of who we are related to, who we have helped, who can be relied upon to help us, who is wise, who is brave, who is flaky, who is best avoided, who is downright dangerous.

Maintaining these social relationships and nurturing the important ones occupies much of our time. We are exquisitely tuned in to other people and where we stand in their estimation. If we offend too many people we risk being cast out, being excluded, being driven off. This is a sanction equivalent to death.

We care for the elderly too, when evolutionary theory suggests that the burden of caring for them has no survival advantage. Why? We don’t know. It might be an artefact: the social compulsion to care is stronger than the marginal waste of time and resources. But it is also possible that it is adaptive. Even if their short-term memory has gone and they are totally dependent on others, a very old person might just be the only one still alive who remembers where we found water last time there was a drought this bad, many decades ago. They might be the vessel that carries the information that ensures our survival.


7.30 Pack PE kits x 2 (football studs and shin pads)
8.00 Eliza leave for senior school tour with John
Bring down laundry for Dolores. Leave cash.
Put bed linen out for laundry to collect
8.15 Tom and Alexander into school. Drop off Eliza’s bags. Book look x2
9.00 Coffee with Kelly, Ladbroke Grove
Home, more coffee
Vegetable box delivered
Start clearing boys’ room
Put toys for charity in car
Buy chocolate, flour
John: Buy bread, dips, logs for fire
Make banana and chocolate muffins (use up rotten bananas)
Alexander collected by Robert’s mum
3.50/4pm Collect kids x 5 Eliza, Tom, Ella, Henry and Allie
Home – snack: muffins and chocolate
Leo here to play with Tom and Henry
5.00 Mahira here; open wine
Sewing: take nametapes off old shirts, label gloves
6.30 Order Five Guys burgers for kids
Alice here; more wine, dips
John to collect Alexander from Robert’s house
8.00 Leo, Ella, Henry, Alice go home
Mahira to collect Maddie from party, home with Allie at 9.00

5. 7200 minutes

So, what did I do all day?

I kept my children alive and safe and dressed. I got all three of them to school each day, with the right kit and bags, and I collected them at the right time each afternoon. I bought them the items of clothing they were lacking, sewed on name tapes, made sure they were washed and ironed.

I bought food and cooked supper each night and checked we had enough bread and milk and butter in the house for breakfast each morning. I baked muffins for when their friends came to play, which they said were horrible. I ordered take-away burgers and milkshakes as a treat, so their friends would think we were cool and coming to our house was fun. They absolutely refused to eat my vegetarian tagine.

I looked after their health. I took them all to the dentist and I filled in the forms to ensure they would get flu jabs this winter. I booked a haircut for Tom. He’s missed quite a lot of school recently, so I arranged for him to have a chat with the school counsellor, Rachel. Alexander has been kicked in the playground twice by the same boy, so I had to talk to his teacher Mr Finch.

I attended to their education. I helped them with their homework. My oldest child Eliza will be going to secondary school in September, so I’m doing my research. We Zoomed a friend, Bruce, whose children are a bit older, so he could tell us about his experience of local schools, and I spent one evening at dinner gleaning information from another mother on the same subject. I booked Eliza in for a tour of a prospective school on Friday morning. I supervised their piano lessons and made sure they practiced during the week.

I spent time maintaining wider social relationships, mine and the children’s. I phoned my sister, checking up on my niece, who has some sort of lingering viral infection, and the health of my nephew. I spent two hours with my uncle Simon, encouraging him to talk to his children and step-children, my cousins, with whom relations are strained at the moment. I bought and posted a birthday present to my god-daughter Catherine, the child of my oldest friend. I went to the school quiz night to Make an Effort with the other parents and show I was a Good Sport. I had coffee with my friend Kelly who is waiting to find out whether her son needs to have a bone marrow transplant. I organised playdates for all of the children, including the extra pick-up and drop-offs. Two friends came round on Friday night and we sat down and drank wine whilst our children played upstairs.

Then there is the longer-term planning. It’s November, so it’s time to start getting organised for Christmas. I ordered some cards and bought a few presents. In advance of this, I tried to impose some order on the house. I cleared out some old toys to take to the charity shop. I ordered a stack of new plastic boxes to put the Lego in. I emailed my sister-in-law about food plans for Christmas day, and what we should bring.

Part of the longer-term planning involves re-organising our living space. Our house is getting too small for us, so we have got permission to extend the side of our kitchen and create another bedroom upstairs, so each child (teenager) can eventually have their own room. I’m trying to finalise the plans with the architect and structural engineer, but it seems we have a problem with our drains.

I didn’t do it alone. My husband John did several of the school runs, lots of washing up and dishwasher stacking, plus help with breakfasts, baths, stories and bedtimes. Dolores came and took the laundry and ironing away and brought it back at the end of the week. Leila came on Thursday and spent four hours cleaning the bathrooms, changing the beds, hoovering and dusting. I booked babysitters for Wednesday and Thursday, so we could go to the school quiz night and out for supper. I do not have any family close by – parents, in-laws, aunts, sisters, cousins – who can help, but I can afford to pay other women to come and help instead.

And there were a few things I did for myself. I went to a Pilates class, once. I tried meditating. I played the piano for about 17 minutes. And my morning coffee on the way back from the school run was a vital punctuation mark.

6. Is That All?

I’d like to say I kept this detailed diary for a week as a kind of time-and-motion study, a one-off. However, the truth is I write down what I do all day, every day, and I have done since my third child was born five years ago. I use a black A5 hardback diary and each page is a list of tasks completed, just like those above.

I’d also like to say I have no idea why I keep such detailed records of each email, each phone call, each school pick up, each supper, but this would also be a lie. I know exactly why. I do it because I want to make the work I do – the work of caring – visible to myself. So much of the work of caring is unseen. I don’t just mean that it is taken for granted that women do housework – the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry; certainly, this work is undervalued, whether we do it ourselves or pay other women to do it for us.

It is the mental and emotional work of caring that is so hard to see. Knowing who is meant to be where with what clothing and when they need picking up, deciding what to cook, cooking something else when they refuse to eat it, checking up on those who are ill or struggling, planning celebrations, remembering birthdays, facilitating friendships, listening, organising our space, buying the right sizes, researching, planning, booking, anticipating, problem solving, coping. It is all work, and it is my work. An artist cannot get someone to paint their pictures for them; you cannot get someone to raise your children for you. I must do my own work.

There was one other thing I did for myself. For a small rent, I arranged to use a room in my neighbour Therese’s house. It has a desk in front of the window and a view of the street. I can use it on the days that her long-term lodger, Matt, isn’t here. Once I have finished writing this, I will fill in the hours I have spent in my black diary, close my laptop and return to my own house. It isn’t exactly a room of my own, but it’s a start.

Fiona Button is a writer living in London. She has worked as a copywriter, editor and literacy teacher for many years. Her work has previously appeared in The Guardian and the food journal Fire and Knives.