In 2005, writer Ayelet Waldman set off a shitstorm of controversy when she admitted to loving her husband more than her children. Appearing in the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, she begged fellow mothers to judge her:
I do love [my daughter]. But I’m not in love with her. Nor with her two brothers or sister. Yes, I have four children. Four children with whom I spend a good part of every day: bathing them, combing their hair, sitting with them while they do their homework, holding them while they weep their tragic tears. But I’m not in love with any of them. I am in love with my husband.
It is his face that inspires in me paroxysms of infatuated devotion. If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother. I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children.
Unfortunately, Waldman goes on to discuss her sex life with her husband, fellow writer Michael Chabon, in painfully baroque detail (“During the course of these meandering and exhilarating conversations, we touch each other, we start to make love, we stop”). But forgiving that distasteful smugness, Waldman’s point holds true: Romantic love and maternal love need not jeopardize one another.
The same should hold true for fathers. Naturally, I love my son madly and deeply, but the human soul is not a finite container. I still adore and remain devoted to my wife. This is precisely why I will never call her “Mommy.” Not to her face, that is. Not when I’m speaking to her. She is Neena, my darling and, occasionally, sugartits.
When I hear parents address each other as Mommy and Daddy, part of me dies inside on their behalf. To allow one’s identity to become completely subsumed by parenthood does no one any favors. I didn’t marry my kid’s mother; I married my girlfriend. Just because we’ve since spawned doesn’t change the love and affection I feel for her.
I understand where this self-infantilizing comes from, especially for larger families with older kids: After a decade of nonstop Mommy-Daddy-Mommy-Daddy, it’s natural to take conversational cues from your kids. And hey, maybe it works for you.
My wife and I go to great efforts to retain our identities. We’re thrilled, for example, when our son’s daycare is open on a national holiday, giving us the day to ourselves. And, even as my son nears 4-years-old, we’re desperately clinging to naptime as a ritual — solely because we want a break from him on the weekends.
In some circles, this is unthinkably selfish. More than once, we’ve drawn silent tsk-tsks from other parents when we crow about ditching the boy for the afternoon.
For those parents who invest everything in their children, I say just wait until your kids grow up and begin striving for independence. How will you react when they become anxious to shake off your parental yoke, when your deeply invested identity teeters toward obsolescence? Are you looking forward to an empty nest in 15 years’ time, or do you fear an awkwardly silent home where it’s too late to stoke the fires of romantic affection?
Personally, I can’t wait for my son to leave the house. I’ll finally have time to play video games again — and bang my wife on the couch.
When kids dominate every single hour of your day, it’s not easy to keep hold of your identities. I loathe the term “date night,” but I champion its importance. Once a week, religiously, we go alone to dinner or a movie, or we just play cards at our local bar. Even when we have nothing spectacular planned, it’s important to spend time together, away from the kid.
We also have an unspoken rule that working after-hours should be the exception, not the rule. In our house, that means not disappearing into our phones or laptop after the kid’s asleep. Instead, we watch TV together. We watch movies. We enjoy a late dinner that doesn’t include chicken fingers. We do whatever it takes to feel like Jeff and Neena, not Daddy and Mommy.
It’s worth noting that, with a second child on the way, our lovely little routine will fall to shit. But even if we don’t watch another R-rated movie until 2020, or if we’re AWOL long enough for our favorite bartenders to forget our drink orders, my wife will never be “Mommy” to me. She will always be my wife, who also happens to be the mother of my sons.