My husband is an incredible father and partner. He’s kind, patient, and one of the most intelligent people I know. He doesn’t raise his voice a fraction of what I do and when our son asks a million “Why…?” questions a day, he happily takes the time to answer him, explaining complex topics and how things work at length. Yet despite all of his amazing qualities, it’s me my kids most often want.
Whether it’s rocking them to sleep or kissing booboos or reading books, “I want Mama” is a common phrase heard around our home. I don’t think it’s any secret as to why this is. I work from home while my husband works outside the home. His job sometimes involves late nights and lots of travel, and while our 4-year-old is getting to an age where Dad is his best bud and he shrieks with glee every time his car pulls in the driveway, it’s me the kids are used to having around 24/7. I’m the constant, the security blanket, the “default”.
It would be easy for my husband to succumb to their requests for Mama, since that’s typically my instinct when they summon me, but no matter how much our kids call for me, I can always count on my him to chime in “How about Daddy reads the book/kisses the booboo/sings the song/gives you a bath this time?” The older they get, the more they are willing to oblige, but even when they don’t he’s still always nearby, ready to jump in at a moment’s notice. When I’m rocking a fussy baby to sleep he’ll peek in the room and mouth a “Do you want me to take over?” to me. When it’s bedtime he lies on the floor next to our son’s bed while I get to lie in the bed and sing the goodnight song. I imagine it’s frustrating as a parent to be rejected time and time again, and I’ve seen how sad it sometimes makes him, but I always appreciate his continued efforts and I know our kids will too.
When I was pregnant with my second child, I came across an article titled The New Dad’s Guide to Surviving Your Wife. It’s an excellent (and hilarious) piece, but the bit of advice that stuck out to me most was #8:
“Too often I think fathers get shoved to the side and it’s all about the baby, and to a lesser extent, the mom. Don’t worry about it and just be a gazelle in the grassland because you’re in the trenches, and there’s no glory in the trenches. Be like those awesome CIA guys with the silly putty in their ear who silently, seamlessly gets the odd glass of water, loads the dishwasher and does that slow motion body block when your dirty cousin with the cold sores tries to stick her finger in the baby’s mouth. Your work will go unnoticed at first but when the dust settles you’ll be revered and adored.”
I thought to myself that not only is this a great piece of advice for a dad with a new baby, it’s excellent advice for any dad (or mom) who doesn’t consider themselves the default parent–the parent whose “behind the scenes” roll extends past infancy. Your work will go unnoticed at first but when the dust settles you’ll be revered and adored. This was absolutely the case with my own upbringing.
I’m the youngest of 4 children. Before I came along, my dad worked nights at a steel mill and my mom stayed home with my siblings. By the time I was born, he no longer worked nights, but instead had to travel, so more often than not it was my mom who was taking care of us. Just like my kids, I was a mama’s girl. I wanted her to do everything–read the book, make the food, run the bath, and so on. I remember many times my dad asking if he could tuck me in at night, only to be met with a request that Mom do it instead.
Once I got a little older, my dad started his own business, which afforded him a bit more flexibility in his work schedule. Though he still worked outside the home, he took every opportunity he had to take care of me. He was the one to wake me up every morning to get ready for school. He made my breakfast and lunch exactly as I requested (PB&J for lunch with extra peanut butter around the outsides so that the jelly didn’t ooze out, and I want to put the frosting on my toaster strudel). He helped me with my homework and attended family fun nights with me. He took me to tee ball practice, and then eventually softball practice and never missed a single game. When I began 6th grade he started driving me the 20 minutes to school every day, even though it wasn’t exactly on his way to work. We talked about a lot during those car rides–everything from presidents to the purpose of road flares to why water on a spoon splashes more when it’s right side up than face down. At a time when I assume most girls are growing apart from their fathers I had never been more aware of his presence.
My dad stopped driving me to school when I turned 16 and got my license, but the conversations didn’t stop there. From high school through college, he never missed an opportunity to tell me how much he loved me and how proud he was (I still have many of his voicemails and notes saying just that). I’m not sure if he knew at the time how much it all meant to me. I don’t believe I ever came off as much of a “Daddy’s girl” to anyone outside of my immediate family, and being a typical teenager, I assume my outward appearance and too-cool-for-school attitude would suggest much of it went in one ear and out the other (or fell on deaf ears all together), but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
To this day my dad has always made himself available to me. He’s the one person I can call any time and count on him answering or calling back the second he sees he missed me, regardless of what he may be busy with at the time. I once heard him joke to a co-worker when I was in college that I only called when I wanted something (probably money or to fix my car), and that’s how he knew I was doing well. Even still, he didn’t hesitated to drop what he was doing and pick up. I never once had to question how much he cared about me and everything I had to say.
I inherited a lot from my dad–his dark brown eyes, his fondness of cheeseburgers and dessert, and his appreciation of math–but it was his years of “CIA guy” parenting that have shaped who I am today. His actions, words, and consistency throughout my childhood and beyond gave me confidence and helped strengthen my voice. He taught me that what I had to say was important and worth listening to. I knew that I always had his support and that he’d be there to catch me if I fell.
We talk a lot about how hard it is to be the primary caretaker of your children—how it can be exhausting, thankless, and frustrating–but sometimes it also sucks not to be. So to the dads (or moms) out there who aren’t the default parent for whatever reason, who can’t be around as much as they like, whose kids still call for mama, whose teens act like they are too cool to give you the time of day: keep trying, keep talking, keep showing up. Because no matter how small or insignificant your efforts seem now, I can promise that in the future they’ll make a world difference.