Sunday, November 9, 2014

Day 1,520: I'm Not the Default Parent

Now don't get me wrong, I don't think he is either. But I just had to write about this one.

This blog post about The Default Parent has been all over my social media feeds recently. It's one of those things that as a mother I am instinctively supposed to relate to, to understand. But I just don't get it. What, exactly, does it mean to be a default parent? Neither Gabe nor I feels that either of us is more default than the other. Now, he is a softie, and I am a hard-ass. But that doesn't make one of us more maternal than the other.

I am as default as my husband and vice versa. I find this article to be both troubling and enlightening. I didn't know there were parents who did not know their children's teachers' names. I did not know that as a parent, it was optional to be on the hook for the physical and emotional needs of your children. I did not know that as the one "with a uterus," all of the "crap jobs" would be mine and mine alone.

I was going to address the specifics of how we do things around here, but that seemed too much like trying to justify myself for not being the right kind of woman or mother or cancer patient or whatever. I have had women tell me they are surprised I still worked after cancer. Don't I feel guilty? Um, about what? Potentially dying? Well, um, So, I'm not going to get into too many specifics. I will say that from the first paragraph of this article, I was baffled. She thought it was bullshit that her husband didn't move to deal with the crying baby when they were both engaged in the same task. What about asking "hey, who's going to get the baby?" I mean, if you are the one who takes care of business, you don't get to complain about it later. You got up to get the baby--fine. If you didn't want to do it the next time, you should just say, "hey buddy. baby's crying. what are you going to do about it?"

Now, we all do this to some extent--we do things and then carry resentment about it, as if it's the fault of the world that we did something. Sometimes I wish that there was such a thing as truly reversed gender roles. I am the one who travels for work. This means that my husband has to figure it all out when I'm gone. That means all of it--getting them to and from school, homework, music lessons, sports, meals. I know when I am out of town that the kids eat spaghetti and sloppy joes. I know the laundry won't get done. I know we are both kind of envious of each other--he is envious of me and the time I get to spend in a hotel room by myself and I am envious of him getting to put the kids to bed. I know that the kids will start to miss me on the second day and will start to have attitude on the third. I get annoyed when I come home and the house is kind of a mess, because I would really like to come home to a clean house one of these days and oh if only I had a WIFE! For those who think traveling is glamorous, maybe you all get to go to some warm and exotic locale but I am usually stuck in small midwestern airports and trying to decompress at the hotel bar at happy hour while married men who have removed their rings try to get me to meet up with them later. It's not appealing. So when I get home, I might get really annoyed at the piles of paper everywhere, but you know what?

My husband will be waiting for me, with a glass of bourbon in his hand. He will say "hey honey I missed you!" and offer to rub my back. Oh, how emasculated he must feel!


I told him about this article and he said "I think the idea of a default parent is a copout for women who let the guys off the hook and just take all the burdens on themselves. Plus, there's the idea that all this stuff is a burden, and it's not. There are rewards. It's rewarding." He also says this: "I think our parenting is pretty equal. I mean, there are things we are better at, or worse. The kids come to me for things a lot of the time, but when they really need to calm down, they go to you. Because you're better at distracting them."

Gabe is the one who plays with the kids more, who takes them to birthday parties and sports practice, who is in charge when I'm away, who is nurturing and cuddly and who lets them eat Lucky Charms for breakfast. He does the yardwork. I'm the one who cooks and does laundry and goes grocery shopping and buys their clothes and lays out Augie's clothes in the morning. He helps with showers and I address wounds. But here's the thing. No one expects him to feel guilty or inadequate because there are things I do well that he does not do. However, it is assumed that if I am not doing most of the stuff with the kids, I am not a REAL mother. I am just...secondary.

No matter that we both work full time, that my job is more specialized, or that I make more money. From a practical perspective, Gabe has always said that my job comes first, and he would need to make his work around mine. No resentment, no weird gender role thing happening, just reality. He began claiming flexibility at work when I was going through cancer treatment. He just told his office that when I had chemo, he was going with me. He stayed home with Lenny two days a week when she was three months old, as did I. He was in charge of Augie by himself for a month when I went back to work when Augie was six months old. They were shocked that he actually claimed paternity leave, but whatever. He leaves work early every Tuesday to deal with the kids' after school activities. Now, I pick them up every other day of the week, so, why should we assume that his Tuesday is more relevant? No one is getting a cookie for taking care of their own kids. Not him, and not me.

And let me tell you, we have BOTH asked the other what is going on when we find ourselves in charge of doing something the other one normally does. Gabe has thrown up his hands at me when I didn't feed Augie dinner BEFORE basketball. Was I out of my mind? I have had to roll my eyes at him when he has called me from the grocery store totally flummoxed as to what we might need. Um, has he looked in the refrigerator lately?

Here's the deal. If you are normally the one who takes Lucy to jazz class, it is not out of the question for someone else to ask you what time said class ends. Why should another person keep that information in their minds, if they don't normally have to use it? This is where women are making things too hard.

This is where sometimes motherhood becomes a contest in martyrdom. The Default Parent author claims that the Default Parent/mother does not have her own calendar, but rather keeps everyone else's calendar. But I have to ask, why is that? When did the kids or the husband ask you to stop planning things for yourself? We have this argument in my house all the time, but in reverse. I am the one who goes to the gym, who takes walks by myself, who announces my plans: "I am going to go do XYZ." I do not ask permission. I am almost 40 years old, and I don't have to ask permission. My husband is TERRIBLE about making his own plans. The truth is, he was terrible at it before we had kids. When we were dating, he was bad at it. Sometimes he gets sullen and resentful and is all "I don't get to do anything on my own without the kids." Well, honey, why is that? Are you waiting for your scheduler to do that for you? I am happy for him to do whatever he wants, but I am not going to be the one to schedule it for him. And the funny thing is, I've tried.

Let me give you an example. One day last fall I was a day out of chemo. I put on my pjs and so did the kids and we got ready for a cozy night of watching Monsters U. I told Gabe sure, he should go to this wine tasting event that was happening across the street. He could go hang out with other adults, get drunk, walk home. The kids and I would just stay in and go to bed early. He got ready to go. He went upstairs. Then he came down in his pjs and said he wanted to hang out with us instead. and I said: "OK, but then you can't complain later that you didn't get to go out."

And you know what? HE DIDN'T. He admitted that he was lame and he liked being with us more. He was choosing to have less of a social life. So husbands of the world who go hang out with the guys and then deal with wives who are angry with you, I'm WITH YOU. I know you are not lying when you say you don't care if she hangs out with the girls. You just legit don't understand why she doesn't do it.

I don't think anyone is asking us to do everything. At some point, the people who feel overwhelmed need to take responsibility for that feeling. If you don't cook, someone else will. Or they will eat spaghetti. Folks won't starve. I have to acknowledge that my annoyance with the messy house is my annoyance only. My husband and kids legit don't care. They don't see it. They don't think it's important. That hangup is mine, not theirs. So I pick up after people and then I yell about WHO DO YOU THINK IS GOING TO PICK THIS UP, THE MAGICAL CLEANING FAIRY? And the whole family looks at me like, who cares? The answer is that I do.

Also, I have always felt completely clueless as to how parenting leads people to stop taking care of themselves. So many women say that if you are a mother, you don't have time to shower, to go to the bathroom by yourself, to wear decent clothes, to get a haircut. If life was like the Internet, parenting would just be one long string of puke in your hair and dragging kids to the grocery store and taking a shit in the presence of others.

Nope, no, nein. My husband and I have always showered by ourselves, gone to the bathroom by ourselves, and left the kids with the other one while going to the store because it's hella annoying to take kids to the store. We claim every single evening as "Katy and Gabe time" after the kids go to bed. If I need a haircut, I walk to the fricking salon. If he needs a haircut, he buzzes it himself, because he's cheap and doesn't want to pay a barber.

When I was growing up, my mom stayed home. If we even thought of bothering her while she took her bath (every single day of our lives my mom took a long leisurely bath) or read the paper, there was hell to pay. She never sacrificed her own personhood or boundaries just because she stayed home with her kids. She hated the park, so she didn't go. She was the only one with a drivers license, so we could each pick one sport at a time, because she didn't like playing chauffeur.

I also don't see parenting as this inherently gross, unglamorous JOB. It's not just drudgery. And truth be told, I have never had puke in my hair that wasn't my own puke. That's not because I didn't take care of my sick kids, but because I figured out how to get them to puke elsewhere. I've never had conversations about disgusting diapers. Diapers are what they are. We all had to use them and we all probably will again. There's no martyrdom there. And when my kids have been disgustingly sick, and I've written about this before in what still stands as one of my favorite posts ever--I didn't feel disgusted, I felt bad for them. Their projectile vomiting was not about what parenting is like for me, but what illness was like for them. If there was vomit on the car upholstery, I'm not sure I cared. I was too busy being terrified my baby might aspirate.

I just don't understand the appeal of talking about how much parenting sucks, and then reiterating that you are the only one actually doing it. Now, if you are a single parent, you HAVE to do all of these things yourself. There is not one to take up the slack for you. That would be hard. Your life's calendar would have to take a backseat. I get that--it would be hard. But if you have another parent in the house with you, and you do everything, I just can't relate--sorry. I think it's time to either stop being resentful, or stop doing the stuff you resent.

This is what men do.

Just last night, I was reminded of this difference between men and women. I was lamenting to Gabe my current body. I've gained about 7 pounds since my second bout of cancer and I can't lose it. I was blaming hormones for a while and I think that's true to some extent, but last night I admitted to him that it's because I don't do all that strength training anymore. That training changed my metabolism. I still spin 5 days a week, take hour long walks every day, and do 20 minutes of abs. I exercise more than most people. I have strong arms and legs, but I am not as toned as I was even pre-chemo in the summer of 2013. At some point, I think it was because I worked out so much and then, well, it didn't matter. My cancer came back anyway. I had no other risk factors outside of being female, having breasts, and getting my period at age 11, but most of the risk factors related to weight and alcohol and everything didn't matter anyway because I am triple negative and the estrogen inducers aren't relevant for me. But then I thought, God, I did all that, and it was so hard to find the time, and then, well...for what? Maybe it's time to kick back and eat a damn sandwich. But it bothers me when my clothes fit differently or when I see pictures of myself in bathing suits a few years ago. And Gabe said this:

"You don't look any different to me than you did when we met. I think you look great. But the thing is, you can't complain about how you look and then say you no longer want to do the thing that led you to look like that, whatever that was. Either you have to be comfortable with yourself, or you need to go back to doing what you did before. I think you should be comfortable with yourself, and just let it go."

And there it is--just let it go. If you want to schedule and plan everything, do it. If you don't, stop doing it. If you find it mentally exhausting, clear your mind for something else. Recognize that your kids and your spouse are real, corporeal human beings who are separate and can do things for themselves. Go away for your weekend and don't leave instructions. I don't do that. I just leave. My husband does the same. We figure the other one has their shit together and can figure it out. Now, I did pick out Augie's clothes for picture day before leaving for a business trip, but Gabe got him in them and took the picture to send to me before walking him to school. The only reason I picked out the clothes is that Gabe has terrible fashion sense and I didn't want to look at a picture of my kid wearing something ridiculous.

But let me end with this. I hate the idea of a default parent for a reason that has nothing to do with gender, or the mommy wars, or working or staying at home or whether my husband has feminine qualities and I have masculine qualities or philosophical arguments about what any of that actually means. I hate it because if I am being honest, I wish that he WAS the default parent. I wish the kids didn't rely on me for anything. I wish he was the default parent because I am the parent who might not make it to their adulthoods. Back when I was first diagnosed with cancer, Gabe showed me an email that included well wishes for me. I scrolled down and read the whole chain, which I suppose he wasn't expecting. The email was from his ex-girlfriend, the only real significant "other" he has ever had. In the beginning, he was telling her about my cancer and his grief, and he said "I don't know what I will do if I have to raise the kids by myself." And the thing is, men feel that way. Women who have husbands with cancer feel grief and despair but they are rarely expected to wonder how they will manage if things go badly, because everyone assumes they will manage. My husband was terrified not only of losing me but of being left alone to raise our family. I could have been mad. I could have been jealous that he wrote to his ex. I could have gotten all wrapped up in gender roles and the high rate of divorce for women who have cancer. But...I didn't. He had the right to those feelings. The whole thing was shitty. I know he feels guilty to this day that he wrote that email. But all I can think is, why are we in this place?

Every time they get a crappy meal because I am on a trip I get pissed because I wonder what would happen if I never came home. I'm glad every time they go to him when they are scared because I know they would have someone to go to if I was dead. I carry that martyrdom with me, and I did not CHOOSE it, and I do not revel in it. I am jealous of his security in the idea that he will see them grow up. I am jealous that he says things like "when they go to prom, we will have to break this picture out!" and I say things like "If I'm still around when they go to prom..." or "you have to promise me that when they go to prom..." I was the parent who couldn't cook or even eat, who was skinny and tired and bald and maybe even dying, who couldn't hug my kids right after the mastectomy. They had to learn to be on the giving end of comfort. Gabe had to be a caretaker for me, even as I was doing so many things with the kids and work and everything else all in the middle of cancer. I am the one who has had chemo brain and actually couldn't keep track of everything even if I wanted to; I have felt frustrated and angry at my sudden forgetfulness. If there are mothers who feel overwhelmed at having to keep track of everything, there are some of us who are overwhelmed at losing the ability to be able to do so right smack in the prime of our lives. If there are mothers who feel responsible for their kids' emotional security, there are others who feel responsible for their kids' emotional troubles, and the latter is worse than the former--by a long shot. I was the parent who had the crushing job of telling both kids when my cancer came back. He didn't do it. He said he couldn't do it. I told him that I would do it, but that he needed to figure out how to have those conversations. He had to have his shit together this time. This cancer was not messing around. Just because we had a beautiful, interesting and eccentric little family did not mean that tragedy would not befall us. We might not deserve it, but we had to deal with it all the same.

At the end of the day, I don't think kids care who is a default parent and who is a back-up parent. I don't think kids think about their parents like that at all. Kids love their parents for being their parents. For all the kids out there who have an actual default parent, because the other one is dead, the only thing they wish is that the other parent was still there, being imperfect, watching basketball and yelling at them about shoes, going out to work or the gym or for a walk, but at least, miraculously, coming home again.

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