Due to a confuence of events largely beyond our control, including the horrible hailstorms that spawned tornadoes and ravaged the South a couple of weeks ago, and the death of a loved and terribly missed family member, I need to fly to our hometown to pick up a new car and drive it back. I am, frankly, unable to process the devastation, the emotional and atmospheric tumult that led to this necessity, and so I am focusing on the positive. For three days, I am on furlough from my job as a stay at home mom (which I have chosen, and am not currently complaining about). I am pretty pleased to get a little solitude, a little time with friends, an opportunity to sit on a plane and finally finish the latest Steven Pinker tome the library now considers lost. However, the responses to this simple decision have been enlightening and challenging.
There has been quite a range of responses, in fact, with one common thread. Despite the fact that everyone I know agrees that my husband is a wonderful dad, no one believes that he can survive for three days with the kids without me. My grandmother, my mommy buddies, my neighbor and a selection of strangers have, in varied ways, explicitly and implicitly, shown that they simply cannot imagine a dad, however wonderful, keeping his own offspring fed, entertained, and clean until the return of their prodigal mother. The thing that truly horrifies me, though, is that I have been acting, just a little, like I think so too.
My grandmother's response was, as often, the most candid. "Are you deranged?" she demanded to know, over a bad cell-phone connection. "Can't he come and drive the car back? Why are you leaving your children and putting yourself in danger? What are you still trying to prove?" The beauty of my grandmother, is that she is the perfect foil for my self-righteousness, setting me up nicely to admit that the children are as much his as mine, that even when we are both in the car I do most of the driving, and besides, he has gone away many times, and not it's my turn! She left me feeling pretty good.
But then the offers of help started. Mind you, individually, they were all thoughtful and nice. My friends were making sure my husband would feel included in our regular playgroup. They were asking whether he would need anything. They were offering to help him as needed. My daughter's teacher offered to braid her hair. My neighbor reiterated repeatedly that she was just next door. Everyone wanted to know whether I had been able to stock sufficient food for them, as if my husband is unable both to place a chicken in the oven and dial Domino's. In all of this well-meaning concern lurked the unstated thought that men, even my admittedly excellent one, cannot care for children to the standards set by women.
All of my mommy friends have spent time alone with their children, sometimes days, sometimes weeks. Our husbands work, travel, take necesary time to deal with family emergencies away from the nest. We are all cheerfully there for each other, but everyone takes these in stride. We commiserate with each other's loneliness, the lack of private time, the necessary effort, but no one has yet offered me a casserole just for spending a weekend with my children.
To be frank, I was feeling pretty superior about my relationship and my willingness to co-parent equally after all of these. Having heard several women of my acquintance admit that they would not trust their children's fathers to be adequate unsupervised caretakers even in the short term, I was feeling pretty enlightened and smug. And then I had The Conversation with my husband.
It started innocently enough, with me passing on the location of the playdate on Thursday morning. Easy. Done. Except then I felt it necessary to specify what toys the kids like to bring. OK, fine, he hasn't been to that particular park too many times, and might have forgotten that it accommodates riding toys. But I did not stop. I shared my suggestions for possible picnic lunch options, ideas for most appropriate time allocation, best plans for spare time on other days, and menu options for meals taken at home. The more I talked, the more minutiae came out.
Did I truly believe that a man with a PhD would be unable to properly match a pair of doll-sized shorts to a tiny-tiny T-shirt with a dinosaur on the tummy? Did I imagine that he would allow our children to wander the world, starving except for the kindness of strangers and the odd ice-cream cone? Of course not. Truly, none of what I mentioned was in any way necessary or productive. And yet there I was, micromanaging away, excited but terrified to let go.
This is certainly not a new observation. Daddy discrimination rears its ugly head all the time, on playgrounds and at mommy-and-me classes, in restaurants and doctors' offices. I know women who literally never leave their children with their husbands, for fear of what might happen (they might eat a cookie! miss dinner! put on a pair of polka dot pants with a striped top!) There have been discussions on Motherlode in the New York Times, in books and in blogs. I thought I was beyond all that. And yet here I am.
A few years ago, on one of those TV shows I claim not to watch, Supernanny, I think, I heard a really wise thing. The mother at the center of the episode complained that the father could not seem to take care of the children right. She complained again and again. And then the nanny, exasperated, stopped her. I forget the exact quote, but the gist of it was wonderful. She said that if every time her children yelled for help while with their father she ran to their rescue, they would internalize the idea that he is someone they needed to be rescued from. And so would he.
My husband is a good father. He is a pretty good mother too. That does not undermine my parenting -- it enhances it. My children are better off with two competent adults to love and care for them. If tomorrow I get run over by a bus, I will go knowing that my precious little monsters will be just fine with their daddy. And so I will work to stop undermining his sense of worth as a parent. I will take the three days I have coming to me. I will eat sushi and read long books and play the radio louder than necessary. And our kids will have a great little vacation from me.