My first few free summers as a teacher were like watered-down scenes from HBO’s Entourage – pool parties, rooftop bars, late nights with good friends. Then I moved in with a girlfriend, who would become my wife the following summer, and who would give birth to our daughter the next. We were not ones to waste the fleeting summer season, apparently.
Before starting our family, Erin and I worked together, but when Maddie arrived, we made a family decision for one of us to stay at home. Every day, I would roll out in wrinkled khakis and scuffed loafers, and head to Roxbury for a full day’s work.
Erin, with her chestnut hair tied back, lounging in yoga pants, would spend the day with Maddie, my little cherub, chubby-cheeked with sprouts of soft, blond hair just now growing. I felt pangs of jealousy as I would walk out the door and see the two of them snuggled on the couch, or when I would pick up Maddie and she would cry for Mama. Erin would get to gaze all day into our baby’s bright blue eyes, and I would get to look at…teenagers. But this was what we had decided.
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I’d rush home and wrap my arms around my family. Usually, I’d be received warmly. Sometimes I’d arrive to an empty house, the girls clearly executing a very busy social calendar.
“We’re at Rachel’s house. Everyone’s here and I can’t leave just yet. Can you start dinner so there is food when we get home?”
Really? Someone was at work all day, and now I am the chef? Just wait until you go back to work. I’ll make a three-course meal and still have a smile on my face. Next time, I’m definitely going to be the stay-at-home.
As the school year wrapped up, Erin gleefully accepted a position teaching summer school. I, equally excited, accepted my role as primary caregiver. How hard could it be? There were already infant friendships, established play times, and classes scheduled. I was always involved, rushing home from work and gladly taking Maddie on our own excursions. Erin was the one in for a shock – back to the working world and separation from our little one.
How wrong I was.
I can still remember our first day together, dropping Erin off at work. As Erin kissed Maddie goodbye, confusion filled the car. First, little peeps and whimpers, and before long, wails of anguish, punctuated with one of the few words Maddie knew: Mama. Once we got in, we ate a measly lunch, mostly consisting of avocado landing on the floor and sweet potatoes thrown on the counter. Naptime was a welcomed reprieve – until I realized the amount of work I needed to do around the house to clean up the messes we had made.
I hoped that that would be the most challenging part of the day, the meltdowns of a one-year-old. However, it was my time with other adults that pushed me harder. Heading to the park, I thought I could easily slip into the community Erin had built on our behalf, a group of moms I was acquainted with and who I thought could easily provide me support. But I was entering a sacred sorority, built on complete vulnerability and trust, a group of first-time moms who expressed every emotion that comes with motherhood. And I was…no mom.
Conversations were pleasant, but I was an outsider. I couldn’t, nor wanted to, contribute to conversations about the pains of breastfeeding or postpartum. I looked blankly when they asked me about brands of chia for baby smoothies. Most of all, I had no inside stories and jokes, no shared moments of struggle and triumph. These were Erin’s friends, her network, and I needed to remain on the periphery to keep that world hers. I could escape back to the working world of adults, but Erin needed these women to continue her own adult relationships.
The park was a bust. There were no dads there to commiserate with, goof around with, or race our babies to see who had the future Olympian. I was a novelty to people I didn’t know, referred to as “cute” for “babysitting” my own child. There were jokes that “daddy daycare” better live up to Mom’s standards.
I had doubts about my abilities as a solo parent, but I wasn’t babysitting. Madeline was my daughter, and I was her parent. No one paid me to watch her, nor was I some hero for caring for my own child on my own. It did feel good to be admired for strolling the streets with my daughter. The problem was that I didn’t see anyone admire or lionize the mothers who cared for their kids. They were just normal.
When Erin arrived home that first afternoon, I felt everything I could. Ecstatic my partner was back to help, angry that she was what I felt to be late, jealous that Maddie toddled over to her with a toothless smile, irritated that Erin wanted to sit on the couch for a minute. And then, overwhelmingly, I felt disappointed in myself for feeling so many negative emotions.
Regardless of my feelings, my action most days was not to first ask about Erin’s day, but to pass the baby to Mom, dress shoes on with math books in hand.
“I need a break. Do you know what I mean?”
Silence. I guess she did.
And then I’d ask, “What should we have for dinner?” with the clear insinuation of, “What are you making for dinner?”
Moron. I am a moron.
As the summer rolled on, Maddie and I hit our stride. The tears were fewer, the messes smaller, and playground dynamics more bearable. Most of all, though, I gained a perspective that every parent should have – the role his partner plays. I learned to appreciate the incredibly hard work my wife did every day, because I was now doing it. That summer not only made me a better dad, but also a better husband.
I didn’t see Erin’s job with Maddie as a job…until I did it. And because of my ignorance, I battled with resentment for a choice we had made collectively, and that I had pushed for hardest. Additionally, Erin had made the true sacrifice – a proud Smith graduate who put her career and professional endeavors on hold. Without Erin at home during Maddie’s first year, I would have fallen apart; she made the house a home, the proverbial castle. She kept me floating as a first-year dad. Erin took on my stresses at work, softened the blows at home, and continued to support me. I had to think, Did I do the same for her during this time of complete upheaval? Did I understand the monumental job she was doing every single day — without a prep period, without a lunch bell, without the freedom to stay a little late, just to catch a breath? Did I always “rush home” like I romanticized myself as doing?
This summer, Maddie is a toddler and a true twonager. She has mastered the art of “why?” and can count to 14. I have yet to master a proper ponytail, and her white-blond hair usually just stays matted in the mane of curls that she wears like a princess crown. Her eyes are the same blue color, though I can already see them starting to roll when I tell her that popsicles are not a proper lunch. She is a true little lady, exclusively demanding to wear her Frozen dress… and sunglasses… and bracelets… and tiara. Somehow, Erin has her outfitted in catalog-worthy styles; I look like I pushed her in the closet and spun her around. I guess some dad stereotypes are born from truth.
Erin will be teaching middle-school summer school again, and I am home, ready for Round 2 of domestic work. And now, with some perspective, reflection, and conversation, we continue to see the hard work we both do separately and together every day.
I’ll try to let Erin at least take her shoes off as she comes through the door this year. I’ll try.
Mike Andrews is a father of two daughters and a middle-school English teacher living on Cape Cod. He enjoys prepping now 5-year-old Maddie for the Kids’ Baking Championship and 2-year-old Margot for loudest dinosaur impression.