“It was a rainy sort of morning. Mother had gone to work and Father was doing the dishes.”
With those eighteen words, my worldview changed. Eighteen words and a picture of a dad, shown only from behind, apron around his waist, at the sink, scrubbing the dirty saucepans and plates. Mother had gone to work. Father was doing the dishes. Don’t ever underestimate the role picture books play in shaping a child’s mind. When I was a little boy, the above passage shaped mine. I’m forever thankful that it did.
If you haven’t heard of Don’t Forget, Matilda, don’t worry, you’re in the majority. It was written in 1978 and has long been out of print and difficult to find. There is even a copy on Ebay listed for the farcical price of $193.82. The author is Ronda Armitage, the illustrator her husband David; if you have heard of the Armitages, it’s likely because of their best-known book The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch, and its sequels. Don’t Forget, Matilda is, ironically, largely forgotten. But not by me.
I grew up in a small town in rural Victoria, where most families functioned with dad as the breadwinner and mum looking after the children. Not, to borrow a line from Jerry Seinfeld, that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s fine if that’s who you are. I had a wonderful, caring mother, who had worked as a primary teacher in her youth but stayed at home once she had kids. Dad was a dairy farmer; it was hard work but because we lived on the farm, he was always around. I saw loads more of him than many kids whose dad worked in an office. I had a terrific childhood.
Still, I thought I had a pretty clear view of how the world worked, no doubt moulded in part by television, books, and the examples of other families I knew. Fathers went to work in the morning and mothers looked after the kids. And then I came across Don’t Forget, Matilda, where the mother worked and the father stayed at home looking after little Matilda. And I had an epiphany. I remember it vividly. I thought to myself, if I ever have kids, I’d like to stay at home and look after them. Matilda’s father does it, maybe I could too.
Thirty-odd years later, at least a few days a week, I do exactly that. These days, lots of men do. There are plenty more who would if they could, but for whom it is just not a realistic option. I get that. I am acutely aware that I’m in a very fortunate employment situation. But I know also that some men (and I suspect more men than society cares to admit) would still baulk at stepping back from their careers to stay at home with the kids, while they think nothing of their wife or partner doing so. It's a sad reflection of the fact that raising the next generation, while invaluable work, remains widely undervalued.
It’s also a shame, because they’re missing out on one of life’s great opportunities – and so are their children. Don’t get me wrong, looking after Heidi and Fletcher is not all smiles and swings at the park. Toddlers are emotionally complex and tantrums frequent. Then there are the endless nappies, loads of washing, meals,
faces and hands and tables everythings
to clean. Juggling two kids aged three and under is challenging, tiring work. But it’s also
priceless, hugely rewarding, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m sure Matilda’s
father would say something similar.
Don’t Forget, Matilda is a day in the life of a little koala named Matilda Elizabeth Bear. Throughout her day, everyone seems to forget something. Father forgets the pushchair when they catch the bus to the shops, Grandad pretends to forget Matilda’s name when she visits for lunch, Matilda forgets to take her handkerchief and can’t stop sniffing, and Granny forgets to put Matilda’s shoes on when they go to the park. The next day, Father and Matilda miss the bus to the beach, but realise that in any case Father had forgotten to pack their lunch.
Mother appears only on a single page, nicely dressed, picking Matilda up from Granny’s house on the way home from work. Father seems to be the primary carer, with help from Matilda’s grandparents. That may not be especially remarkable today, but remember that this book was published in the late 1970s, when most picture books reflected a society still tethered to the traditional roles of men and women. And what strikes me now, looking back as an adult, is how normal the Armitages make the situation appear. Importantly, it is not presented as a novelty.
I wondered why the Armitages – Ronda is a New Zealander and David from Tasmania, though they have lived in England since the 1970s – chose to make Matilda’s father the primary carer. And so I asked them.
“The book was based mainly on our early years in the UK,” Ronda Armitage says. “With our two young kids we left New Zealand to continue with some travelling for a couple of years but once our first book, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch, now 41 years old, was published, our original publisher wasn’t keen on our being 12,000 miles away. So we drifted into remaining here.
“Don’t Forget, Matilda was based on our daughter Kate, who was looked after by either one of us before she went to school ... David is still slightly upset that when, as the only male, he took Kate to playgroup, the mothers would immediately stop chatting and sort of draw together. They never spoke to him, although a woman once picked him up when he and Kate were walking home in the rain. So sometimes we shared the care of the kids and sometimes either one of us would work full-time.
“We fell foul of a Swedish publisher for the opposite reasons with the Lighthouse Keeper books. Not only was Mr Grinling (the lighthouse keeper) too ugly but they were also a very traditional couple. The male looked after the lighthouse and the female did the cooking. But David certainly valued the time with his kids, just as we both have with our one grandchild, whom we looked after regularly until he went to school.”
The Armitages might now be grandparents, but what of the inclusion of grandparents in the childcare arrangements in Don’t Forget, Matilda, back in the 1970s? With one set of grandparents in New Zealand and the others in Tasmania, that was based less on Ronda and David’s reality as UK-based parents than Ronda’s experience as a child. Born during World War II, she spent the first three years of her life being raised by her mother and grandparents in the small New Zealand town of Kaikoura while her father was overseas in the Air Force.
Ronda recalls that living on a farm in rural New Zealand, getting hold of enough books to read was a problem. The first book she remembers loving was Horton Hatches the Egg, an early Dr Seuss book published in 1940. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the basis of that story is a male elephant looking after an egg – child-rearing, essentially – albeit because he was tricked into it by the bird who laid it. All these years later, Ronda still remembers the book’s famous line: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent!”
I repeat, don’t ever underestimate the role picture books play in shaping a child’s mind. Ronda remembers Horton with fondness; I remember Matilda in the same way. I still have my childhood copy of the book, which three-year-old Heidi enjoys nearly as much as I did when I was little. If you ever see a copy, buy it (though not from that outrageous price-gouging listing on Ebay).
“I’m delighted that you would like to feature Matilda,” Ronda says. “We have more queries from parents about the possibility of getting hold of a copy of that book than for any of our other titles. It was a great favourite, particularly in Australia.”
Ronda is delighted that DadReads is featuring Don’t Forget, Matilda; DadReads is pleased to hear that the book is still a nostalgic favourite among parents even these days. Aside from the underlying theme of the father staying at home, it is a fun book that is brought to life by David Armitage’s colourful artwork. He brings a caring touch to Father, dignity to Mother, wisdom to the grandparents and the full and genuine range of toddler emotions to little Matilda. It is no surprise that he remains to this day a well-respected painter in Britain.
Anyway. I have to go. It’s a rainy sort of a morning. Heidi and Fletcher’s mother has gone to work, and their father has dishes to do.