Outside of an experiment that lasted a few months after the birth of our fourth (I won’t say last, but I’m thinking it) child, my husband has been the primary parent while I returned to work following maternity leaves of varying lengths. The decision was made fairly early on during my pregnancy with our eldest daughter, mostly due to the fact that being at home without another adult to speak to, or without work to focus on, turns me into a raving lunatic.
We found this out completely by accident when I became ill during my first trimester, and was told I would need to take it easy for a few weeks. Slowly, I began to become more and more obsessed with the schedules of our neighbors.
“The Steiners must be having some sort of party. He’s home at 3pm again today, and she’s been cleaning nonstop for four hours. He never gets home until 5:30pm on a regular day!”
My husband put up with this gamely for the next few weeks, until I was feeling better, although I do recall one of my neighbors stopping by and asking me to thank him for telling her about peeping toms in the area, and for reminding her to close her shades. But as we were deciding what to do regarding childcare, he firmly advised that it would be easier on me and the baby, not to mention himself and the neighbors, if I returned to work with all due speed.
Before we had kids, housework was split evenly between us. Which is to say it was shirked frequently by both of us. My husband is definitely the more thorough cleaner, but his comfort level regarding dirt is higher than mine, so the state of the house would fluctuate between neat and untidy much like the cycles of the moon. However, once I returned to work and he became parent-on-duty, I admit that I dropped the ball on a lot of my cleaning duties. I reasoned that I was basically just asking my husband to do the same thing that all the neighbor wives were doing, except for breastfeeding. I mean, that was hardly worthy of a medal, right?
But, apparently society, especially Jewish society, still considers a man who takes care of the kids and the home to have made a supreme sacrifice, surrendering his masculinity in the face of his partner’s need to wear the pants. If my husband fastened a diaper wrong and half the contents leaked out, my friends thought it was adorable how hard he was trying. A stain on the counter left over from breakfast in the morning was nothing to be embarrassed about, our friends concurred, especially considering how busy he was looking after first one, then two, then three, and finally four kids.
After watching this, I decided that I also wanted to have a few pats on the back for my parenting skills. Ain’t I a woman, to steal from Soujourner Truth? Anything he could do, I certainly could, and better probably, too! So, when I was given a chance, I stayed home with my youngest, and sent my husband out to work instead. Immediately, I noticed the difference between how our friends treated my efforts to be a homemaker. They kept giving me subtle tips on cooking and cleaning, and they were not subtle at all about my mothering skills.
“You dressed him in that?! It’s too (insert hot… cold… humid… dry, often all four, on the same day, sometimes from the same person) to wear that. Or, “He can’t be home with you all day. He’ll get bored. You should put him daycare.” This last comment would usually come from someone who had spent the last five years congratulating my husband on how great it was that my kids got to spend so much time bonding with him.
I finally realized I couldn’t win after confiding in a friend a few months later that I missed my job and wanted to go back to work. “You just don’t like your kids much, I guess.” She quipped. I asked angrily if she would have said that to a friend who was a man, and sheepishly, she admitted that the idea hadn’t even crossed her mind. Because men who want to stay home with their kids are saints, and men who want to work are providing for their families; while women who want to stay home with their kids are leeches, and women who want to work are two minutes away from acting out the hanger scene from Mommie Dearest.
And so, we’ve now gone back to what works best for us, with my husband taking the reins as far as watching the kids. Teachers have learned not to call my cellphone, because there is a perfectly capable father at home. I’ve come to terms with the fact that a skinned knee is more likely to elicit a cry for Tatty instead of Mommy. And when someone makes a smart alecky remark about my maternal instincts, I just let them know that, at least in our family, a beard makes for a better housewife.