It’s strange, but becoming a father has given me a new perspective on motherhood. In all of the families I saw in my young life — all of the ones I really knew well, anyway — it was always the mother that was the central figure of the family.
My mother’s mother, sitting at the diningtable surrounded by her daughters while her husband played solitaire in front of the television. Or my father’s mother, who planned every party, cooked every meal, and can still tell you every detail of her seven grandchildren’s lives. Or my own mother, who, after the divorce when I was two, worked two, three, or four jobs at a time to make ends meet; in many ways she was the family.
It’s not that any of the men in these pictures — my grandfathers, my father, my stepfather — were bad men or bad parents, or that they weren’t key figures. Not at all. But if I had to identify the unifying element, the driving force in each of these families, it would always be the mom.
It’s not an unfamiliar paradigm. Consider the somewhat silly example of the American family sitcom. Sitcoms aren’t an accurate representation of real life, of course. Nevertheless, you can tell a lot about a society by the jokes it tells itself. In the sitcom family, the mom is almost invariably the schedule-keeper, the listener, the lunch-maker, the nurturer, and the disciplinarian.
When she gets sick or has to leave town for some reason, the dad assures her confidently, even arrogantly, that everything is under control. It all falls apart by the second act: one kid shows up late for school in mismatched clothes and carrying a can of tuna fish for lunch; another is seen standing in the rain after soccer practice, sadly waiting to be picked up; in between, the dad shows up to work with an iron-shaped burn on the back of his shirt. Exaggerated? Obviously. But humor by exaggeration only works when it’s based on something the audience recognizes and can relate to.
I got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the whole thing. Once the baby is born, I told myself, a father can do everything a mother can — other than lactate. A father can nurture and comfort and teach, too. He can cook and clean, change diapers, dress his child in clothes that match, and tell bedtime stories. A father can bond deeply with his child. All of the stereotypes are just that: cultural artifacts or, even better, generational ones.
All of that is true, but as I’m finding out, it’s incomplete. The thing is, there are things that my wife can do for my son that I can’t, not because I’m physically incapable but because he wants different things from us. He’s not even two years old yet, but already he has very different relationships with each of us. My wife reads certain stories and sings certain songs better than I do. And lately in the mornings my son has been refusing to be taken out of his crib by anyone but his mom. He’s even particular about which one of us watches Sesame Street with him, and where we sit when we do.
Even in the things we usually do together, I’m not a substitute for my wife. Take our bedtime routine, for example. I give my son his bath, brush his teeth, put his pajamas on, and brush his hair. But then my son always asks to brush his mother’s hair, and then mine. (And then sometimes his stuffed panda’s.) Finally, my wife reads him a story or two, then puts him down. On the occasional nights that his mom is out of the house at bedtime, my son will still get to sleep without her, but it always takes some extra explaining and cajoling when we get to the point where he should be brushing her hair. She gives him that extra little something that I can’t.
Before I had a son, I think I wanted to be the kind of parent who could do and be everything for his kids. Maybe it’s because I wanted to live up to the example of my own mom, who had no choice but to do it all. Maybe I was just insecure. What I’m learning now, though, is that mothers are necessary, but knowing that doesn’t take anything away from me. On the contrary: my wife and I complement each other, and having her around makes me more and better than what I’d be without her.
“Felted Hearts Fabric PC” CaZa to Ma @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
Did you enjoy this article?
Please let the author know by leaving them a comment below!
And, subscribe to our free weekly digest!
Simply add your email below. A confirmation email will be sent to you.