Later, at the grocery store, Sadie’s in her car seat asleep in the cart and I’m carrying Anna, who is rubbing my jaw and saying, “Scratchy!” and then rubbing my head and saying, “Soft!” It’s a game.
Last year my debut novel won the Washington State Book Award, and my second book will be out next year. I teach writing at night. But this is what my days look like now. I spend a lot of time thinking about diapers, nap schedules. I spend a lot of time trying to put clothing onto the bodies of very small human beings who are thrashing around and screaming.
At the grocery store, I look up and a woman who’s lurking by the dried pasta is smiling at Anna and me. “She clearly adores you,” she says with her Mother Teresa eyes squinting benevolently.
I nod. I want to say that whether or not she likes me, my daughter spends a lot of time howling in sorrow at how infrequently she gets to eat cake. I want to tell her that this little angel—who was completely potty-trained a couple months ago—recently started peeing on the bed my wife and I share when she’s upset, like a dog marking its territory. But of course this person doesn’t want to hear about that. This person is cultivating a narrative about my child and me, and she wants me to participate.
“You’re a hero,” she says.
I muster a halfhearted smile and walk away.
“Who was that?” my daughter whispers, still rubbing the side of my head.
“I’m not sure,” I mutter, scanning for canned tomatoes, one of the two items on my list. In Seattle, where the rain pummels us daily for 10 months of the year, these cavernous grocery stores are an OK place to get the kids to walk miles. I’m not the only parent who spends hours here only to leave, at last, with one jar of olives.
“I want a donut,” Anna says.
“Yeah, me too, but that’s not going to happen.”
She grunts in disapproval.
More or less every week, a stranger informs me that I’m a “hero” for taking care of my kids while their mother, my wife, is at work making the money that we require to continue living in the manner to which we are accustomed.
Never in my life has anyone put the word “hero” anywhere near my name, and at first I was delighted that all these people were so impressed with me. Then I noticed that a lot of people also often referred to me baby-sitting my kids, too. The implication was that it was baby-sitting when I had the kids, but when Jen had them she was merely being a mother.
It goes without saying that when Jen was with the kids for her six months, no one ever stopped her in the grocery store to tell her she was a hero.
“Not once?” I asked her recently. She just gave me a look that said that if I even had to ask that question, I was hopelessly naive. Of course not.
Whereas I can barely leave the house without someone levitating toward me bearing that grin. They often shake their heads slowly and stare at the baby for a weirdly long time, wincing as if she were both painful and pleasurable to behold. If the baby is in a calm zone because we’re far enough from her next nap or feeding or bowel movement, I’ll sometimes fork her over, at which point the stranger raises her up like a holy chalice.
My toddler and I then usually exchange a look that goes something like: Ugh, when can get back to sprinting laps and playing hide-and-seek in the mostly abandoned garden section of this grocery store?
Yes, taking care of kids is difficult and it is underappreciated work, especially if you’re also nurturing a career. But it’s not heroic. Because, if it’s heroic to forgo working so that you can take care of kids, then what if you have to work to provide for those kids? Is my wife un-heroic—maybe even a coward—for passing the kids to me so that she can return to work full time? What about me? Was I lacking in heroism before, when I was working long hours and she was with the kids?
I’d like to humbly suggest that I’m not a bad or good person based on my position with regard to this particular question. I don’t feel guilty or proud of how much time I spend with my kids now, and I didn’t feel guilty or proud when Jen was on maternity leave. I wish that Jen also didn’t feel guilty or proud about this issue, but I know that as a woman she is inundated with judgments.
I get judgment, too, I suppose: I’m accosted by strangers who want to praise me because I’m with my kids at noon on Tuesday. But when I was working around the clock and Jen was with the kids, people applauded my ambition. I’m a hero either way, which is nice for me.
I suppose this is preferable to being a wimp. Certainly, especially to older generations, there’s an emasculating connotation to a man taking a break from his career to raise children. The dreaded implication—which is accurate in our case—is that his wife has more earning potential than he does. The novelty of that scenario is quickly becoming unremarkable. The New Republic even thinks the “daddy wars” are coming.
Maybe it’s because of this shift, or maybe it’s because I look like such a brute, or maybe it’s because I remain moderately active as a writer—I earn two-thirds of what Jen makes as a high school English teacher, but just surviving in this beleaguered profession is now widely viewed as a coup—but no matter what I do, I can’t seem to get this thing wrong. Meanwhile, Jen is always wrong. At home with the kids, she’s an anachronistic housewife; at work, she’s ditching her kids to nurture selfish professional ambitions. Somewhere, lurking at the root of this all, is the tenacious idea that men should have a career, whereas women must choose between a career and being at home.
The reality is that no parent I know—regardless of gender—has the luxury of making a choice about how he or she will balance the demands of work and childcare. The decision isn’t heroic or cowardly. It isn’t even a decision. No, this here—this is economics.