Wednesday, February 14, 2007

They Call Me MISTER Mom!


After functioning as the sole breadwinner of our household for most of a decade, about five years ago I reduced my counseling practice to part-time and became the primary at-home parent during the week. The reason this dramatic change took place was that my wife began full-time employment at an HIV clinic after earning her masters degree as a nurse practitioner. This shift in roles has become a pretty well-established routine by now, but initially the adjustment, while ultimately beneficial for the entire family, was a big change for all of us.

My current routine is generally variations on a basic theme. After driving my second-grader to school (my strapping middle-schooler now navigates himself to and from school without much help from his parents), I head straight to my office. I’m generally sitting with my first client by 8 a.m. and often work straight through until mid-afternoon, at which time I’m off to wait in the carpool line for school to let out. Then it’s home for snack, homework and some free time for Twirl-a-Whirl (one of my daughter's numerous nicknames; just ask my son Whack-a-Mole). I take a half hour or so to return some calls and emails before emptying and refilling the dishwasher, carting the laundry, and doing a modicum of straightening around the house. Before long it’s time to steer the ship of state toward dinner.

For the first couple of years I was more industrious than I now seem to be. It seems like the kids were involved in more activities back then and I was constantly carting them around in the car. But we’ve scaled back: no more twice a week swimming lessons, and I’ve finally accepted that my daughter is not enthused about me putting her into a team sport every season. I also find that I’ve gradually reduced the quality and quantity of some of the tasks I perform around the house. I used to plan dinners with more forethought, often trying out new recipes several nights a week. Now I tend to rely more on the old standbys, but I’m proud to say we all gather around the dinner table every night to a meal that’s nutritious, healthy and tasty (for at least some of us. I no longer have any qualms saying “If you don’t like it, feel free to make yourself a bowl of cereal or peanut butter sandwich.”

Sometimes I don’t seem to get much done by the time Gina gets home from work, but my minimum standard is to make the bed. Even when dust bunnies traverse the hallway, seemingly on some important mission and often large enough that I want to take their picture, I count the day a success as long as I get that bedspread back into some semblance of its proper place by the time she’s pulling into the driveway.

I also don’t keep up with the laundry as much as I used to do. Although I’ve never been completely checked off on the procedures for actually washing or drying the clothes, at least I could pass muster on folding. After all, it’s kind of hard to mess that up. The truth is that the mysteries of laundry have always fundamentally eluded me. I never quite recovered from college days when my goal was to cram as much into one load as possible, pour in a healthy amount of detergent (if one cup is good, two must be better, right?) and come back hours (OK, days) later to see what happened this time. We’ve tried a number of systems to streamline the learning curve for me, including the use of three hampers for sorting hot, regular and delicate wash. I could handle the first part: white towels and washcloths go in hot, along with socks and white underwear, but beyond that point of certaity all was booga-booga to me: did a spandex tanktop go in ‘regular’ or ‘delicate’? What are some of these fabric blends anyway? (Sometimes I stare gape-mouthed as Gina watches different garments being hawked on QVC. I listen to the styles, fabrics, and colors being described and while I recognize the words as English the sentences sound like secret incantations.)

A number of years ago a sociology professor by the evocative name of Pepper Schwartz wrote a book entitled Love Between Equals: How Peer Marriage Really Works. One of its findings was that even among couples who described themselves as living egalitarian, non-hierarchical marriages consciously devoid of traditional notions of gender roles, i.e. “peer marriages”, studies show the woman still typically engages in more housework than the man. I think this is true in my home. No matter how hard I’ve tried to carry my weight around the house, I’m just not as capable as my wife in getting as much done that truly keeps the household functional. I’m not sure how much of this may be biologically driven and how much stems from the subtle and overt training that boys and girls tend to get regarding the expectations of adulthood. But the fact remains that after five years I still don’t generally notice when the toilet could use a quick scrubbing. Last week, when my daughter failed to meet her Girl Scout cookie quota, I had to face the reality that while I may be an exceptional dad, I'm still just scraping by as a mom.

Another major issue I’ve found myself facing in countless ways over the years has been the subtle differences in what feels natural for an at-home mom to do compared to me as a male primary parent. For the most part I feel just about like another one of the girls in the PTA or shopping at the grocery store. But there’s still a barely visible barrier (I call it the panty line) separating me from the moms. Nobody raises an eye if one mother invites another over for coffee after the kids are off to school, but for me to ask that same question carries a very different connotation. Even when I know that my motives are benign, I wonder what the woman would think I was doing, or her husband, or the next-door neighbor. I’m not sure of the way out of this limiting paradigm, but it results in greater isolation than I’d like to have. I know there are other at-home dads both locally and nationally, but the percentages are still small and I know no other man nearby in a similar situation.

I think the kids benefit tremendously from seeing their father on a regular basis each day, involved in the ongoing tasks of daily life. I know the ups and downs of their lives and moods, and they (for good or bad) sure know mine. I enjoy a rich, textured relationship with both of them, as well as with my wife who appreciates my efforts. Sometimes I think she misses out on some of the small pleasures of the daily grind, and when the school principal doesn’t recognize her but knows me by first name she is aware of how our lives differ from many of our friends. But for the most part we are both happy with our arrangement. I sometimes joke that she cooked for the first ten years, I'm cooking for the second, and we're going to thumb-wrestle for the third. I may just take a dive when that times comes and throw the fight.

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P.S. Somebody recently said something to me about the title to this piece that showed me not everybody regonizes it as a variation of Sidney's Poitier's famous line in "From the Heat of the Night" in which he declaims to Rod Steiger, "The call me MISTER Tibbs." I'm just sayin'.

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