How Mr. Mom got his gig

Dear Friends,

If you’ve known me a while or followed me from my previous blog, you already know the story about how Mr. Mom snagged his gig. If not, I’m reprinting it here so you can catch up.

This essay was first printed in an anthology of Oklahoma writers. If you’ve ever struggled with your own choices, or wondered how in the world you might balance home and work, or navigated the rocky terrain we call marriage, perhaps this essay will resonate with you.

With gratitude {and all good wishes for your own journey},

Joan

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Cat on a High Dive – 2006

In my dream, my son is far ahead of me, just around the corner, I think. I can’t see him, but I hope he is there. I move faster, my eyes scanning the horizon, ravenous for any glimpse of his small silhouette as proof he is not lost. He’s been gone for hours, but I control my panic and tell myself if I just keep moving, just keep looking, I will find him. When my fear can no longer be suppressed and I am on the verge of hysteria, I awake abruptly. Sometimes I am nauseous, always near tears. Often I get up and walk down the dark hall to stand over his sleeping form and calm myself. The moonlight barely illuminates the pile of toys beside his bed, much less my psyche, and I am left to wonder, “What am I so afraid of?”

The carefully composed drawing I find in the study — small in size but enormous in import — answers for me. I am not in the picture. There is a a pickup truck on a winding country road, complete with birds and trees. My husband is driving, and my son is riding in the back. I know the identities of the stick figures included in this illustration of my son’s life because, lest there be any question, he has labeled them “Dad” and “Me.”

One night I ask my husband if he has noticed my son’s drawing. He says, “No,” so I describe it. He tells me that on a recent weekday afternoon he took our son on a slow drive down some back roads near our home. A boy of vast persistence, my son was obsessed with the forbidden delight of riding in the back of our pickup. My husband relented and the resulting adventure was so thrilling as to merit documentation.

I want to be relieved that my son’s picture represents an actual rather than imagined experience, as if that somehow gives less emotional consequence to my absence. Then I am reminded that I am absent because I am . . . well . . . absent so much of the time. I am not in the picture because I am unavailable for such spontaneous jaunts in my children’s lives.

I am a working mother, with all the same fears and guilt triggers of every other working mother I know. The difference for me is that, as of a year ago, my husband is no longer a working father. He left his job to care for our son, Parker, and our daughter, Kate. The modern, two-working-parent family has a litany of flaws, according to popular literature, but the arrangement offers a soothing emotional salve we rarely contemplate. When both parents work full-time, both are more or less equally connected to their children’s lives. Now that my husband is staying home, he has ascended to the throne of preferred parent and I have been relegated to the second string — a brutal blow to the maternal ego.

My demoted status was hammered home recently when my daughter came down with a sore throat while my husband was away for a few hours playing tennis. While I was scrounging in the medicine cabinet for Ibuprofen, my daughter’s faithful assistant and brother ambushed me with the question at the top of both their minds: “When is Dad coming home?” Parker blurted out, “Because Kate is shivering!” The clipped words that I think came out of my mouth were something like “I’m fully aware of that, and I’m quite capable of handling a fever.”

For the record, I usually try to avoid exposing my insecurities so fully to my children, not because I’m a mindful role model, but rather because they are masters at exploiting them. The stark reality I’m facing is that the parent who is home most, rules. It’s a comfortable, instinctive role for a mother to fill, but I can’t fight the math. I can compile chore lists, establish laundry guidelines, and suggest nightly menus but, frankly, I can’t enforce a damn thing. I’m Barney Fife — a deputy with no bullets in a town where the sheriff is both beloved and wise.

For the first 12 years of our marriage, my husband and I both worked, he to build his business and I to pay our bills. My mother provided our child care. As households with two working parents go, ours seemed comparatively calm and functional. Because my mother shouldered a great deal of the domestic burden, my husband and I were reasonably free of the typical worries of working parents. When Mom’s age and health forced her retirement, my husband and I were abruptly awakened to the reality most our friends had already confronted: this daycare thing sucks! We stitched together a patchwork solution and spent a year fretting over its deficiencies. As we faced our first summer — the Grand Canyon of daycare scheduling — my husband made a radical suggestion: he could sell his business and raise our kids, rather than turning them over to a surrogate.

On the surface, it was perfectly logical. I made more money than my husband, and my employer provided our health insurance and retirement benefits. My husband, on the other hand, had 100 percent equity in a business with a willing buyer. The new arrangement would require a higher level of budgetary discipline since the sale wouldn’t make us instant millionaires, but the idea wasn’t financially impossible. Surface assessments aside, however, his suggestion was mired in a field of emotional landmines I had no idea how to traverse.

I’m a child of the ’70s, which is to say I’m screwed. In fifth grade I watched Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs and felt strangely empowered. My favorite television show was the Brady Bunch. I wouldn’t realize until many years later just how conflicted these two influences made me feel. On the one hand, I identified with Helen Reddy and her feminist roar, yet I still wanted Mike Brady to complete my picture (and to foot the bill for what I expected to be a solidly middle-class life).

My career advancement always had more to do with financial imperative than personal desire. I was fresh out of college when I discovered the first law of career physics: once you get on the treadmill, acceleration is tolerated in direct proportion to compensation. As long as my daughter was dressed in Laura Ashley and my son enjoyed the latest PlayStation game, I didn’t seem to mind the running so much. With every new promotion, I bought more Martha Stewart books and dreamed of making marzipan fruit at Christmas. Then a friend gave me a box of tiny sugared oranges and attached a note that read, “Real women buy marzipan.” It was a disingenuous way of saying,”You can have it all.” Every working mother I know understands that’s a load of crap, but the illusion was secure because there was no alternative on my horizon.

For my husband to suggest that we could and should change our personal paradigm was monumentally unsettling. I had imagined this crossroads all right, but in my version of the dream I was the person “retiring” from the rat race. After all, everyone knew I was the expert cook, chief organizer, and self-appointed arbiter of domestic style. I am the mother, for God’s sake.

So it was the mother in me that wanted to look him in the eye and ask, “Are you out of your mind?” Did he really think he could master the science of craft making, the intricacies of ironing, the nuances of Crock-Pot cookery, the Zen of bed making? What could he possibly bring to the task?

What I’m realizing is that the task isn’t defined by the home, but by the heart. Working mothers — at least this working mother — want desperately to check all the boxes on the endless to-do list that is our lives. If we can keep everything tidy, everyone fed, and all events on schedule, then maybe our children won’t hate us or blame us for our choices.

But my husband carries no such burden of false assurances, nor is he shackled by the societal expectations attendant to housewifery. For him, parenting comes first; and parenting is about cultivating a relationship, not keeping a home. He is neither bothered nor distracted by the bread crumbs, junk mail, and dirty socks that litter our lives. He is in the picture, delivering homemade cupcakes to classroom parties; attending school assemblies and field trips; coaching soccer, tennis, and basketball; and patiently explaining the mysteries of nightly homework.

While I’m mourning the end of motherhood as I knew it, my husband is staring down his own demons. Since he’s no longer employed, he’s lost most of his social currency. We live in a state where the citizens have voted to ban gay marriage. Suffice to say, a lot of folks that populate our lives aren’t comfortable with domestic arrangements that fall outside the norm. That in our lifetime we’ve known many gay, lesbian, and straight couples, but none like us, adds to our unease. Notice I say “like us” because a marriage like mine doesn’t yet have a social label I’m aware of.  Individual role reversals, such as female firefighters and male nurses, are well documented in today’s popular culture. But marriages that involve role reversals are still largely unexamined. Our marriage is an oddity to strangers and a curious amusement to acquaintances. Because we so strongly defy easy definition, only those closest to us ask questions beyond the most superficial.

In a recent conversation, a stranger asked my husband, “What do you do?”

“Not much of anything,” my husband replied with a smile and a chuckle that led the stranger to believe he was joking.

“No really,” came the reply, to which my husband mimicked, “Really.” The conversation ended abruptly then; and when my husband retold it to me later, he seemed disconcerted by the stranger’s uneasy reaction and immediate disinterest.

I suggested to him that to make people comfortable, he needed to give them a label they could understand.

“Just say you’re a stay-at-home Dad.” (Read: “pussy.”) “Or say you’re retired.” (Read: “independently wealthy.”) “But when you say ‘nothing,’ people can’t put you in a box and that makes them nervous. For all they know, you’re a freak. Or a sociopath.”

What I realized then is that my husband is like a cat on the high dive. Everyone looks up, but no one expects to see him there. The first reaction is disbelief — What’s he doing up there? — followed by morbid curiosity: What do we do? Should we help him? What if he falls? Good Lord, won’t that be something when he hits the water!

I used to think that everything I knew about marriage could be written on a grain of rice. My family has marched in a parade of spectacularly unsuccessful unions, and I grew up in a sea of marital flotsam. As a young girl, I figured marriage was like a nasty virus, and we weren’t a particularly hardy clan. I waited far longer than most my peers to give it a try; and, even then, on the cusp on my 30th birthday, a nagging inner voice reminded me that it’s a bit of a crapshoot. More than a decade later, I realize that the best unions are a grand improvisation. If you’re willing to forgo the security of a script, you just might find the marital equivalent of a hundred-dollar bill tucked into an old coat pocket. I sure as hell didn’t set out to be my family’s breadwinner. My husband surely didn’t plan to be our family’s caretaker. But here we find ourselves, filling roles we didn’t imagine, on a journey we didn’t plot, in a life we wouldn’t trade.

Comments

  1. Hey, thanks for the blog post.Really thank you! Fantastic.

  2. Enjoyed every bit of your article.Really looking forward to read more. Really Great.

  3. Great article post.Really thank you! Great.

  4. Thank you for this. I stayed at home with two daughters until they were 4 and 6…now I’m a 4th-year med student and my husband works part-time. The last 3.5 years have been cat on a high dive x 2. I have tried to explain this to people – the hardest part of med school isn’t med school. It’s trading roles. It is incredibly heartening to read my exact thoughts and feelings in your words.

  5. Brandi — it is so gratifying to hear you say my words resonated with you. I wish you well on this journey. I wrote that post not long after my husband and I made the transition and I was struggling with the role reversals. Today, 10 years later, I have no regrets and I understand it was the best decision for our family. I hope you find the right balance for your family as you move from med school into your practice.

  6. New Here :)

    I love your writing already and I can’t wait to read more. Recently, my job moved about an hour away, and my husband had to take on all of the school drop offs and pick ups, and most field trips, etc. I can already see where the kids are leaning more on him for things, and it kind of breaks my heart. However, if I can let go of my feelings a little it really makes me happy that they have someone to rely on. It could be so much worse, for SURE.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] you read this essay about how Mr. Mom got his gig, you know I suffer from nightmares about losing my [...]

  2. [...] cleans and runs errands and cares for children and generally makes my life easier.  If you read this post, you know there were many years of our marriage when our roles were reversed, when he worked very [...]

  3. […] made the transition to working mom and caretaker dad, here is a blog post I wrote about our story. How Mr. Mom got his gig ? Debt of Gratitude Joan, aka the Magpie "I've never been to heaven, but I've been to Oklahoma." […]

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