Alan lay in his crib napping, and Annie played with her dolls in her nest of toys, stuffed animals and books beside the sofa. I sat down for a minute to relax before starting supper.
“Hello. My name is Dennis.”
“I’m a househusband. It’s been two weeks since an old lady walked up to me while I tended my children. Alan was in the stroller and Annie held my hand. We stood outside on the sidewalk in front of the administration building and…and…”
“Take a deep breath and relax, Dennis. Tell us what happened.”
“Okay, okay. This old lady came up to me with this nasty grin on her face. Alan was crying–he was hot and tired–and Annie was tugging on my hand, whining. My wife, Judy, had a meeting with the dean of faculty. She told me that it would only take a few minutes, and Annie kept asking me where Mom was when we had been standing there fifteen minutes.”
“And the old lady said something to you, Dennis?”
“Yes. Yes. She asked me if I was babysitting my kids that day.”
“No! She said that?! What did you say?”
“I told her that I was their father, not their babysitter.”
“Did she give you that blank look?”
“Yeah–the one where they can’t figure out how a father could be a caregiver. But the worst thing was her attitude of contempt. She looked at me as if she enjoyed the trouble I was having with my children. She relished seeing a man in a difficult situation with kids. It was as if she were taking vengeance for all the women who had ever suffered as mothers.”
“You’re a bright guy, Dennis. Did you really expect some kind of praise from her?”
“No. I’ve had other experiences like this before and I could tell by her attitude as she approached us that she had nothing good to say. But it made me so mad, so mad that–“
“Walk it off, walk it off, Dennis…Okay. Why were you so mad?”
“When am I going to get some credit? My wife is the only woman who appreciates what I’m doing. She gets to have a career while I change diapers, wipe noses, mop floors and read ‘The Cat in the Hat’ for the umpteenth time. All these women, strangers who know nothing about me, stare at me in the park and at the grocery store as if I’m some kind of freak!”
“You’re not a freak. What about the men, Dennis? How do they react?”
“They act like I have a disease they’d rather not catch. Their wives nudge them and whisper, ‘He helps out with the kids–why can’t you?’ That’s when they start to hate me.”
“Yeah, the men. I try to talk to them about sports and fishing, but they just turn away.”
“Do you want their approval?”
“No. I just want to talk to an adult. Judy’s too tired when she gets home from work, and the kids cling to her as soon as she walks in the door. I guess I just feel lonely.”
“Are there other parents at home during the day in your neighborhood? Could you arrange a play date and sit and have a cup of coffee with them?”
“There’s a mother down the block from us. She’s friendly when I see her in her yard but would never have me and the kids over.”
“The neighbors: she’s afraid that people will talk.”
“Even if you visit with your kids in tow?”
“Even if…If I didn’t have you guys to talk to I would be totally screwed.”
“We’re here for you, buddy. We’ve all been there.”
Annie tugged my sleeve and said, “Daddy? Are you asleep?”
I shook my head to wake up as she climbed up into my lap. She held up her Barbie and handed me a pair of tiny black tights. Barbie wanted to change her outfit. I struggled to open a tiny snap on the doll’s cargo shorts (Safari Barbie!), and couldn’t seem to get the tights up over her plastic hips. Had Barbie been indulging in late night snacks? Just as I thought that the seams would rip the cloth slid the final quarter inch–mission accomplished.
Annie wiggled down and scooted off to the kids’ bedroom. She came running back and said, “Alan’s awake.” She held her nose and said, ” I think he needs a diaper change!”
He did. The load had a sticky, grainy texture, and I knew that no amount of baby wipes would completely clean it off. I did the best I could with five wipes, and then hauled him off to the bathroom. Fast running water and lots of soap did the trick.
I diapered him back in his crib. He toddled after me to the carpeted playroom and began to stack and knock down towers of plastic blocks. I got down on the rug beside him and handed back blocks that he had batted out of his reach. Annie came into the room carrying a book about a lazy puppy. I read it to her and Alan crawled into my lap and tried to turn the pages.
I had to get up and start supper and left them in the playroom. I came back every five minutes or so to check on them and listened while chopping vegetables for the sounds of distress.
They were playing quietly together when I came back after getting supper prepped. Alan was trying to pry a little teddy bear out of Annie’s hands, but Annie pulled away and set the bear on the futon by the window.
She asked, “Do you want the bear, Alan?”
He laughed and shuffled toward it, but Annie darted in at the last second and grabbed it up again. “No, Alan,” she said.
Alan frowned at his sister. That was a bad sign. But Annie suddenly relented and said, “Here, Alan. You can have it.” She handed it over and Alan giggled with delight. He stuck the head of the bear in his mouth, and drool ran down his chin and landed on his shirt stretched tight over his round belly.
The phone rang and Judy told me that she was coming home an hour late. I sighed dramatically in hopes of making her feel guilty.
The kids looked restless when I came back into the playroom once again. I curled my fingers into claws and wiggled my digits at them. I said, “My name is Chloe. You wanna wrassle?” Annie ran over and pulled on my belt. I let her take me down to my knees. Alan ran into me with a full head of steam and hit me in the back. I fell on my side and Annie jumped on my ribs. I pushed her off and rolled on my back just in time for Alan to fall on my stomach. I said, “Ooof!”
We wrestled long enough for them to wear out. I turned on Reading Rainbow and retreated to the kitchen to finish supper. Judy came home and the kids swarmed her, and I sneaked away to the bedroom to be alone for a few minutes.
I must have drifted off as I lay on top of the bedspread. I dreamed that I was back at the Househusbands Anonymous meeting. We recited our creed:
- I cannot make my children stop crying when a toy breaks.
- I cannot make other people respect my choice to stay home with my children.
- I cannot always control my children’s poop.
- I cannot earn enough money to feel financial power.
- But I can love my children.
- I can love my wife.
- I can give my children all the patience and kindness at my command.
- When I lose my temper and am harsh and unjust I can apologize and make amends.
- The greatest gift I can give to my children is my time and attention.