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Dad's Side: The Alphabet Theory

I have a selective memory. I can go to the store to buy diapers, but instead return with potato chips and lightbulbs. In fact, on various occasions I have come back from the supermarket to find that I have forgotten to buy not only diapers, but also the baby bottle liners and baby food I was asked to pick up. My wife really appreciates this.

When I actually do remember that I have to buy diapers, I forget the brand name and the size I'm supposed to get. Same goes for all other baby-related products. I've purchased four-ounce bottle liners long after we had moved on to eight, and I once stood in the baby aisle for more than ten minutes trying to remember if I should still be buying jars of single-ingredient solid foods or if our daughter was already sampling pureed mini meals with two or more ingredients.

My wife, Susan, and I call our dilemma the "alphabet theory." Basically, if she asks me to do something related to our children or family life and doesn't spell out each step for me in very explicit terms, it won't get done.

And I have a feeling I'm not alone.

I'm sure that many new mothers despair, thinking that their parenting partner's ignorance means that he hasn't bothered to fit the baby into his life. This man must simply not care about his children, you might think.

And maybe you're right. After all, maybe the man you married is a cretin. But hopefully (and more probably), he's like me  -- not a creep, just a bit of a clueless cluck. (Feel better now?) In the spirit of my wife's and my alphabet theory, I'll try to give you the ABC's of why we dads sometimes have a wobbly memory when it comes to childcare:

A is for Amnesia. First, some men really do have bad memories, and I'm not afraid to admit that I have rotten recall. If I ever had to pick somebody out of a lineup, I'd be terrible at it. I remember being 10 years old and playing with a new kid in the neighborhood for two hours one day. We agreed that we'd meet after lunch to continue our game. But when he showed up that afternoon he was wearing a different outfit, and I had absolutely no idea who he was until he called my name and motioned for me to follow him. It was then that I knew I had a problem.

Geoff Williams is a Babytalk contributing editor

The male brain decoded

It took me three years to memorize my mother-in-law's phone number (which we dial every day) and seven years to master my checking account number. When it comes to my parents' birthdays, I know the months but get fuzzy with the actual dates. Our wedding anniversary is September 7th, but I sometimes confuse it with September 11th, since that ominous date gets so much attention  -- deservedly so, of course  -- around that time of year. ("Interesting logic," Susan later told me when reading this. "By the way, our anniversary is September 9th.")

My point is, before deciding your husband is a moron for not remembering things, ask yourself: Does he only forget things relating to the baby, or does his memory lapse in all areas of his life? If it's the latter and he's just absentminded, maybe you should give him a break. But if it's the former, maybe he should wake up one morning with a note pinned to his pillow that says you've taken his debit card to the mall, and if he doesn't shape up, the credit cards are next. Trust me  -- you'll get his attention.

Granted, my amnesia defense is weakened when my wife sees what trivia I have stored in my memory banks. When Don Knotts passed away earlier this year, Susan noticed that somehow I could remember the name of every movie and TV show he'd ever been in, including the more obscure ones (1967's The Reluctant Astronaut, anyone?). And yet, I can't tell you our daughters' sleeper sizes to save my life.

B is for Buying power. I think this is my strongest defense. My wife isn't just the primary caregiver (she's a stay-at-home mom, while I work full-time from my home office) to our two girls, Isabelle and Lorelei. Susan is also the primary grocery shopper and clothes buyer. I'm not quite sure why, but even women who have full-time jobs seem to always end up the assigned family shopper. When I go to the supermarket, I feel like the substitute teacher who comes to class unsure of the lesson plan for the day. Yes, I should know what brand of diapers our own baby uses, but we frequently take them out of the bag and divvy them up among a diaper drawer, a baby bag, and what have you, so I'm not looking at the packaging that often. As our children have grown, so have the diaper sizes, and occasionally Susan has changed brands on me, without mentioning the new name at least eight times (remember, I have a bad memory; once won't cut it). So if I go into the store without a detailed grocery list, I feel like I'm on the receiving end of a cruel joke.

C is for Can't take care of myself. Never mind the baby for a moment. How capable is your husband of taking care of himself? When I was a bachelor, I made a lot of last-minute trips to local drugstores to buy new underwear because I'd run out, and didn't want to resort to rooting through a pile of dirty laundry to find the least offending briefs. For a long stretch of time after college, I didn't own a pot, and I was kind of afraid of the stove, so I'd put water in a ceramic dish, stick uncooked spaghetti in it, and pop it into the microwave while hoping for the best.

In other words, I take care of my two little girls as well as I do myself. That's kind of scary, but it's reassuring to my wife that at least I'm not forgetting the details of my daughters' lives because I'm so consumed with my own.

D is for Duh. Of course, maybe your husband just isn't very bright. It is possible that you simply married beneath you. You know you've been thinking that.

E is for Explanations and Excuses. The reasons I've laid out for a father's memory lapses are explanations, not excuses. In other words, I don't think dads should get a free pass to remain oblivious. (F is for Free pass. Please, somebody stop me.)

In the most ideal situation, a baby deserves two parents working as a team, both trying to create the best living environment possible. Fully understanding and believing that, I have strived mightily to make improvements on my end.

While my track record is still rather shaky, there are days when I'll be driving past a grocery store and  -- without being asked or reminded  -- I'll do some quick calculations in my head: "We have four diapers left for Lorelei, only two baby wipes, and there's barely any milk in the refrigerator." Suddenly, I'm veering the car over a median and into the store's parking lot.

It feels terribly adult to shop like this, and in the end, maybe it's the "adult" factor that makes so many dads resist remembering that they're an equal partner in the parenting adventure. You see, when my younger brother and I were little, we played with our Star Wars action figures, or I'd pretend I was a detective and assign my brother the role of the bad guy. I imagined my future in a macho wonderland, where I'd be the quarterback making a touchdown or a renegade CIA agent trying to save the world from annihilation. As a boy, the last thing you fantasize about is pushing a squeaky shopping cart through the supermarket aisles, looking for cantaloupe and a new sippy cup because the old one has a broken valve. But I think most dads ultimately realize that the responsibilities of parenthood are what make them real men. After all, G is for Growing up.