By Lisa Earle McLeod
Excerpted from Blindsided by a Diaper by Dana Hilmer
Were we blindsided by a diaper?
Speaking for myself, I think I was bonked over the head with one, and it was full at the time—full of prime-time dads, storybook endings, and feminist fantasies that I had swirled together into such a little bundle of unrealistic expectations, I can now only laugh at my naïveté.
Others may have begun their parenting journey with a positive pregnancy test and parenting book, but I started mine in front of the television. Years of senseless sitcoms and empowering perfume ads had convinced me that I knew exactly what the perfect family was supposed to look like and I was determined to create one.
My own perfectly planned pregnancy occurred when I was twentynine years old. We’d been married for eight years, since the fall after N I graduated from college. My career was well under way, and after checking off the Get a Good Job, Get Married, and Buy a House boxes on my perfect little life plan, I was ready for phase two—a family.
As a big-bucks-earning consultant happily wed to an enlightened modern man, I assumed that our prebaby fifty-fifty workload split would continue after we became parents. After all, my charming man had enthusiastically cooked and cleaned during the entire ten years I’d known him without ever uttering so much as a murmur about woman’s work. Being nine years older than I am, he actually began our marriage as the more domestically skilled member of the family. He’d lived on his own for several years, grocery shopping, doing his own laundry, and watering the plants. He continued this delightful behavior after we married, and so I naturally assumed that his transition to fatherhood would be just as smooth and easy as his conversion to being a husband.
On the surface, our parenting journey actually did start just like a sappy movie: the happy couple joyously watching the little blue line show up on the little white stick and then breaking the good news to Mom and Dad over the phone before we headed out to Barnes & Noble to pick up some best-selling expert advice.
But unbeknownst to my poor husband, by the time we made it to the bookstore aisle, I had already been crafting our parenting story for years. And my version was decidedly different from his. In my version, he, the dad, would come home every night in as good a mood as Mike Brady and as eager to jump in with the kids as Cliff Huxtable. We would be totally “equal”—an interchangeable mom and dad, who would share all parenting duties and household chores equally. And of course there would still be all sorts of time for us and the white-hot passion we have for each other. It’s clear to me now that I spent way too many of my formative years parked in front of the boob tube.
I was also convinced that our perfect little family was going to be entirely different from the one in which either of us had been raised. He comes from conservative parents in the Deep South who gave big huge parties and were often served by maids. I grew up in a boisterous family outside Washington, D.C., that made a regular practice of passing out Save the Beaver Pond leaflets during soccer practice.
Both upbringings had their merits, but after eight successful years of marriage, we were convinced that we had completely left our own parents’ lifestyles behind and were creating our own. Our parents may have slid into traditional roles that left Mom in charge of it all and Dad as the good-time guy, but not us. And while we’d seen other lesser couples derailed by a baby, we knew that we were going to be different.
Or rather, I should say, I thought we were going to be different.
I’m not sure he had given it much thought at all.
My first clue that there might be trouble ahead came when I was three months pregnant. I was at lunch with two friends, and as I announced my impending arrival, one of my friends burst into laughter and told me that she was actually due on the same day.
What an unbelievable coincidence.
As the two first-time moms-to-be giggled and twittered about how wonderful life was going to be after our babies were born, talk naturally turned to the subject of husbands. When we both launched into descriptions of how things were going to be so different for us than other mothers because we had men who were already skilled at domestic duties, it was our other friend’s turn to laugh.
An experienced married mother of two, she shook her head knowingly and said, “You two don’t have any idea of what you’re getting into. Your husbands may be smiling and nodding now, but just wait until after the baby is born.” At the time I assumed she was a cynical jaded woman who was married to one of those lazy guys who never did a thing.
Little did I know that one year later I would reflect back on that conversation and think that she was probably one of the wisest women I ever met.
It wasn’t so much that my husband didn’t help. I can honestly say that he did almost everything I asked. The trouble was I always had to ask.
Yes, he made a few unsolicited runs for Pampers and he sometimes remembered to bring me a glass of water when I was nursing.
But for the most part, I was the master keeper of the “list”—the mental Rolodex of what the baby needs, when she needs it, which neighbor or book to consult when there were questions, when she was supposed to be doing what, how long she needed to nap, what foods she could and couldn’t have, and how many times she had pooped each day.
All information was possessed by me, and no matter how many times I repeated it, it never seemed to become integrated into my husband’s brain.
As the baby grew, the list gradually morphed from bodily functions to signing up for Gymboree, hiring a sitter, and figuring out which shots she needed. I had expected my husband to be a coparent, but I got a reluctant assistant instead.
Control freak that I am, having an assistant wouldn’t have been so bad if he had acted like one of those chop-chop, think-ahead, on-call-24/7 assistants Donald Trump hires. But my husband seemed to think that parenting was a part-time job only done when the boss made a specific request. And if the boss didn’t ask in just the right way or show enough appreciation when he was done, he acted like the most put-upon man alive.
Stay home and watch the kid while he traveled for three days? No big thing. But one twenty-four-hour round of child care while I was on a business trip wore the man out for three days.
Now he wasn’t some Neanderthal who thought watching his own flesh and blood was a charitable act on my behalf. But there was the distinct feeling in the air that much of what he did for the house or baby was a favor for me.
In the beginning it was cute to give him some positive reinforcement.
We were both nervous and I wanted him to know how much I appreciated his stepping out of his comfort zone. But one month into the job when he was still expecting kudos for giving her a bottle, my energy for being his personal rah-rah girl had begun to fade. Two months later when he was bragging about being the only guy in the office who rolled up his sleeves and gave his own kid a bath, my resentment had reached a slow boil.
And by the time I went back to work full-time and happened to overhear him boasting to the neighbor that he was home first to relieve the sitter two days a week, I about murdered the man.
To make matters worse, my husband wasn’t the only one who thought I should be grateful. On business trips people told me how lucky I was that my husband would actually watch our baby while I was away. The other moms at Baby Gymboree fawned all over him because he was the only dad who regularly came to class. And his family thought the fact that he knew which end of the baby to wipe made him a candidate for Father of the Year. I could change thirtyseven dirty diapers in a row without anyone batting an eye. But let him change one in front of his mother and I had to hear her brag about it for a week.
It was like my mothering bar was a hundred, his fathering bar was zero, and any deviation off his preset mark was a gift from heaven above.
Looking back, I feel like a bit of shit for not being nicer to a guy who was doing his best and only wanted a little praise from his wife.
I now have a clear vision of an eager husband taking his baby out for a walk and coming home hoping that the woman he loves might N boost his ego a bit with some heartfelt thanks. But instead he found an evil witch who wondered why he wanted a medal for something she did without notice every day.
There were many times during that first year in the stressed-out mommy zone when I felt like screaming, “If it’s going to be such a big f——ing favor, don’t bother.” Now that I think back, I realize I didn’t just feel like screaming that, on several occasions I actually did.
In the words of Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I had a beautiful baby and motherhood had been the greatest gift of my life. But I was beginning to wonder if my marriage might bite the dust. I may not have been actively considering divorce, but the high hopes I’d once had for my husband to be the perfect coparent had been dashed. And I wasn’t sure if things would ever be the same again.
If he wasn’t going to adhere to my vision of partnership and parenting, where the heck could this marriage possibly go? I wasn’t sure I could embrace another script so different from the TV one I had clung to long ago.
One day, down in the dumps about the whole thing, I found myself back in the same bookstore where we had delightfully purchased What to Expect When You’re Expecting a mere eighteen months before. This time I sneered at the happy little pregnancy tomes and found myself in the relationship section instead. I’ve always believed that the right books come to you at the right time.
So when I saw the The Transition to Parenthood: How a First Child Changes a Marriage, by Dr. Jay Belsky, I immediately grabbed it off the shelf. And when I read the book jacket describing how so many men and women felt alone and adrift inside their little families of three, I knew this book wasn’t just for me, it was about me.
I took it home and read the entire thing in one long tear-filled night. Couple after couple had experienced the same pain and disillusionment we were feeling. And I didn’t just weep when I read the woman’s side of things. What haunted me most were the voices of the men, father after father describing with great passion the kind of dad he wanted to be. Men who were determined to be better fathers than their own dads, but who felt criticized by their wives every time they even tried.
One of the book’s most interesting insights was that while a woman measures her husband’s efforts against what she is doing, most men measure their contributions against what their father did.
No wonder my husband expected to be treated like such a big hero. His dad might have taken him on great camping trips when he was ten, but I don’t think he ever gave him a bath in his entire life.
Using this criterion, if my husband did thirty percent of the household chores and his father only did ten percent, then he feels like he’s doing three hundred percent because he’s doing three times more than his dad ever did.
Meanwhile I, the overworked wife, am doing the other seventy percent, and spending my time dwelling on what I perceive to be his halfhearted effort because his thirty percent is still less than half of what I’m doing.
Talk about a wake-up call. Measuring yourself against a man who’s been dead for ten years (and who’s fathering you personally thought was bit lacking) might not make much sense to me, but a quick conversation with my husband revealed that was exactly what he had been doing.
As I recall his comment was “I do so much more than my dad ever dreamed of doing, and yet you never seem to notice.” Ouch.
Of course I didn’t notice how different he was from his dad. I wasn’t around when he was growing up, so I never knew how his dad behaved. His father died the year before we were married, so I barely knew the man. Just like the other wives in the study, I had been comparing my husband to me, not his long-dead 1950s dad.
All of a sudden my lens on the situation changed. Instead of being angry that he wanted so much praise, I got off my high horse and realized how easy it was to give it to him.
Thinking back to my own upbringing, I also realized how hard it is to change course from the parenting you received as a child. I might not have wanted to emulate my mom’s version of mothering, but judging by how often her words kept coming out of my mouth, it was a little harder for me to adopt a different mommy model than I wanted to admit.
Applying that same principle to my husband helped me see that compared to his dad, he had evolved faster than a pig who learned to fly.
And here’s another thing that hit me like a ton of bricks. Apparently there are two primary factors that determine whether a marriage will improve or worsen after a baby. The first is the husband’s ability to put his own needs aside and support his wife in her new all-encompassing role. And the second is the wife’s ability to forget about the baby now and again and pay attention to the man.
Truth be told, my husband might not have been doing as well as I thought he should on task number one, but at least he was trying.
I, on the other hand, was making no effort whatsoever on task number two. I was waiting for him to perfect his part before I even started on mine.
I still don’t completely understand why men need so much praise.
And why doing stuff for the kids counts as doing something for the woman. It must go back to some primitive caveman instincts. Perhaps if it wasn’t for their innate need to please women, men would have bagged hunting altogether and just sat around eating grubs all day. The cave kids would have starved, and Mom would have left Dad for a guy roasting a good juicy yak over his fire pit.
Is the male need for approval survival of the fittest or hopeless immaturity? Who knows and who cares? I have different answers depending on which day you ask me. But I do know that when I started thanking my husband with a smile on my face, things began to get better.
And while I’m still the keeper of the master list, I’ve come to realize that with my multitasking brain, life works better that way. We don’t divide things equally. For the most part, I figure out what needs to be done and then decide who’s going to do it. It’s sort of like powerful monarchy and indentured servanthood at the same time.
Is it the happily ever after I scripted for myself when I was a kid?
No, it’s not. Cheerful Mike Brady is nowhere to be seen, and my husband’s job doesn’t pay nearly as well as Cliff Huxtable’s. My husband works harder than his dad did, and I put in more hours each day than my mom. Why two people who are doing more than their parents did aren’t further ahead is something I can’t explain. Sure, we may have nicer furniture and fancier cars, and our kids have seen a few more museums than we did growing up. But neither of us ever remember our parents frantically measuring their time in minutes.
But then again, who knows what it was like for them. When you’re a kid your perception of your parents, not to mention life, is never an accurate picture.
We were both blindsided by the effect a child had on our marriage.
But now, our notions of equality have changed and so have our perceptions of each other. I can honestly say that I love my husband more now than when we first had the baby. But now I love him like a grown-up. Someone who knows that the other person isn’t ever going to conform to her TV-influenced version of perfect, but who has decided to love him anyway.
Five years after baby number one, we had baby number two. The challenges weren’t as surprising that time, but they were still just as hard. In fact, in many ways, becoming a family of four was even tougher on our marriage than becoming parents for the first time.
But we do have a happy marriage, and we’re raising a great family.
It might not make for a memorable sitcom, but it’s happy enough, for today.