When it comes to parenting, “father” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Sadly, it’s not the second one either. While out to dinner with work colleagues, Lucy noticed her in-laws at a nearby table and walked over to say hello. After chatting for a moment, the father-in-law asked Lucy who was babysitting her kids. “Your son,” she replied. “And he’s not babysitting.”
When my wife Brandy shared that anecdote—courtesy of her BFF—I was just beginning a three-week stint as a stay-at-home dad. There had been a few consecutive days here and there, but never before had I taken care of our two sons for an extended period of time while Brandy worked. I had all manner of father-son activity scheduled. Frolicking through beach surf. Running through sprinklers. Napping in a hammock. (May I recommend The Greeting Card Guide to Parenting?)
During those three weeks several people asked how the "babysitting" was going. Who can blame them? Nobody uses “father” as a verb, and if you do, you’re either in a DNA laboratory or a Dickens novel. Mother? Now there’s an action verb. A quick reference of the Oxford American Dictionary proves just how different the two words are.
Mother: to bring up a child with care and attention; to look after kindly and protectively, sometimes excessively so.
Father: to treat with the protective care usually associated with a father.
As I've said many times before, when it comes to parenting Mom is CEO, and Dad is Regional Assistant Director of Operations. That hierarchy, inherited from countless generations, is the crux of nearly every fight Brandy and I have. I feel like your employee, I say, after filling out one of her vacation day request forms.
I certainly feel I’m doing my part as an equal parent, but that doesn’t mean everything is by the book. It’s easy to see why father and babysitter are used interchangeably: both contingents often overlook some of the nuts-and-bolts aspects of child care. During my term as manny, food groups were skipped (it’s not you, whole grains, it’s me), and the TV didn’t always end up on the most age-appropriate viewing (Fatal Attraction has a number of great life lessons: forgiveness, resolving conflict, how to braise rabbit).
Save for one surreal meltdown (which included two violently weeping boys wearing bunny ears from last Easter), we had a blast together. We played with puppies, shot hoops, observed lizards and tarantulas, and practiced golf on a putting green. Thank goodness Petland and Sports Authority are next door to each other.
What I learned in those three weeks is that mothers and fathers will care for kids differently. Truly it’s easier for one parent to make all the decisions. Dictatorship is simple. Democracy is complicated. Brandy’s method of parenting — nutrient-rich and cognitively stimulating — would earn her raves from any parenting watchdog group. Her instincts, and more importantly her execution, are impeccable. My method — rated-R thrillers, loitering in retail outlets — would earn less checkmarks, but it worked. In the end they got what they needed: love. All you need is love, right? Well, love and whole grains, 10 hours of sleep, vaccinations and covers on the electrical sockets. But mostly love.
If I could forever balance the mother-father hierarchy by carrying a baby in-utero, would I do it? Absolutely not. I’m not mentally or physically equipped for that job, no more than I am for lumberjack or astronaut. Babysitter? That I can handle, although a cooler job title would be nice.