My husband made the job of stay-at-home parent look so easy, I almost wanted it back.
The Easy Years
If my husband, Pat, or I had any passing thoughts that Mr. Momming might be emasculating when he took over the domestic reins from me four years ago, they were quickly replaced by the stunning realization that at-home dads are total chick magnets.
"Whoops. Sorry I'm running late. Nicole asked me to stay for a glass of wine," Pat says, as he walks in the door. Nicole is a member of Pat's mom-posse -- they all work and hang out together at our local cooperative preschool. Pat's just picked up our sons, Spencer and Murphy, from a playdate over at her house.
Now, he tosses the keys on the bookshelf, drops his backpack on the sofa, and ambles off to our bedroom where, if this afternoon follows precedent, Pat will lie on our bed, alternately dozing and playing Sudoku while the boys flop around him or chill out in their own rooms.
Most of the time, this picture of total domestic ease fills my heart with joy. On the occasional day that my work has been plodding or fruitless, however, this exact same scene will fill me with unfocused rage. Inglorious and unbidden thoughts zing through my head: Why does he get to lie around on the bed after having a glass of wine while I still have all these e-mails to answer? Why can't he hang his backpack in the hall instead of flinging it on the couch? Shouldn't he be cleaning or cooking something? What the hell does he do all day?
In truth, I know what Pat does all day because our roles were reversed for the first four years of our parenthood -- or as I call them, "The Hard Years" (Pat's subsequent four years at home are, of course, termed "The Easy Years"). During The Hard Years, Pat worked at an office as I managed our sons and household, stealing hours to write in the evening. After I sold a book idea, it became clear that I was going to need more time, so Pat and I switched roles. He stayed home with our kids, who were then 4 years and 6 months, while I sat and pounded out my book in a rented office.
The first year of The Easy Years was nothing short of enchanted. I wrote and Pat enjoyed his freedom from office drudgery. We embodied nouveau bohemia, making enough money from our art to raise our children in a lovely apartment in a cosmopolitan city. We were like John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Sean -- only without the mega-millions, floppy hats, or fame.
Shuffle of Duties
By the second year, our routines were established enough to allow for a certain amount of informed objective assessment. By me. Of Pat.
"Murph seems overtired before bedtime. Maybe we should move his second nap up a little bit," I said.
"Murph's only doing one midday nap," Pat replied calmly.
"Spence always took two."
"Murph doesn't seem to want to do two. He's a big-nap-smack-in-the-middle-of-the-day kind of guy."
"Well, sometimes you have to do a little bit of coaxing," I suggest.
Within seconds our voices have attained that unmistakable "not-in-front-of-the-children" edge, with Pat pointing out that he doesn't tell me how to write, and I shouldn't tell him how to do his job.
Truth is that I love our complete shuffle of duties. My better self knows that while Pat doesn't handle the household the way I would, he brings different skills to the parenting arena. For example, I'm a talker, not a player. My sons often say to me, "Mommy, let's chat." The boys have never, however, suggested that I do "play on the bed" time, which involves a lot of wrestling, teasing, rolling off the bed, and giggling. It's Daddy's purview and I can't, for the life of me, understand its rules or logic.
So Pat's tenure as at-home parent has been hallmarked by chaos and a lot of unmade beds. The boys couldn't be happier. And lately, as a result of some tension-filled marital negotiations, Pat has even stepped up his housekeeping chores and I have learned to relax my already lax standards even further. It's not that Pat is unwilling to do housework; it's simply that he honestly feels his time is better spent with the children. This is a hard point to refute.
So why do I still find myself plagued by ungenerous thoughts when Pat flops on the bed with the kids? It's simple. I?m envious. I had expected him to feel as overwhelmed and isolated as I had felt during The Hard Years. I'd expected him to feel like an outsider, as I had, at the preschool co-op -- not the village Casanova. I didn't exactly wish him ill; I didn't want him to suffer per se; I simply looked forward to a lot of commiseration -- and a new sense of appreciation. Of me.
I must admit that some of that commiseration has taken place. On my end, I now understand the particular stresses that come with earning the lion's share of the family income. For the most part, though, Pat doesn't need too much commiseration because he is to Mr. Momming what Matthew McConaughey is to naked drumming -- a natural.
I learned this much when I substituted for Pat on our workday at the preschool co-op a few weeks ago.
"Your husband makes the best snacks for snacktime," beamed a mom friend of Pat's. "Mine doesn't know a frittata from a sonata."
Even outside the confines of the co-op, Pat's parenting skills are praised. When we stayed with my parents at Christmastime, my father gushed about Pat to several friends at a party, "He's a master parent. Everything becomes a teachable moment. Yesterday, when the boys threw stones in the lake, Pat compared the ripples to sound waves."
As the kudos keep coming, a new thought occurs to me. Is it possible that I'm not so much envious as I am?...?frustrated? My parenting strengths go by largely unnoticed because they are expected from me. I am a woman. Parenting is a mother's job. I'm supposed to be the natural. Pat is expected to be the clunker, the poor dude who is all thumbs when it comes to changing diapers and missing in action at bedtime. If he pokes a straw into a juice box, he's going to be considered some kind of superstar.
The Benefits of a Domestic Revolution
Even as I try to grapple with my negative feelings about Pat's totally awesome success, I do see the many benefits. Our household is part of a domestic revolution in which old norms are upended on a daily basis. My sons witness Daddy doing the laundry and Mommy going to an office, so they don't perceive work or responsibility to be exclusive to one sex or the other -- except for dusting because, as they've pointed out to me, I'm the only person in the house who actually sees the dust.
I walked in from work today to find the house a wreck. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich sat, plateless, on the edge of the coffee table. I sighed and looked around for someone to blame, but no one was in sight.
Laughter erupted from the bedroom. I sighed again and followed a trail of plastic animals through the hall to find our pup tent erected in the middle of our bedroom. The whole structure wobbled from the disjointed elbows and feet that pressed against the fabric so that it looked like an animated being -- one that giggled. I leaned down to unzip the tent.
"Oh, hi, Mom," said Spencer, sitting next to his father and younger brother. They were all in their underpants. "We're picking teams," said Spencer, "and Murphy wants to be a Bear and a Colt."
They laughed hysterically as though the idea was preposterous and therefore hilarious.
"A Bear and a Colt," I repeated. "What's the matter with that idea? Can't he be both?"
"Mom," Spencer said, "You definitely can't be both."
I got it and smiled.
"Why'd you all take your pants off?" I asked.
"It's hot in here," Pat said.
Right. I stifled my practical mom urge to ask -- then why are you in the tent? Instead, I crawled in with my guys. Practicality and heat be damned. It felt good to be home together after a long day.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Parents magazine.