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Careful What You Wish For: My husband always envied my staying at home. Then he lost his job

I have long been convinced my husband was the superior parent.

His patience is more extensive, his stamina – for “one more” reading of Olivia or “two more minutes” in the bath or fifteen bedtime stories – far superior to my “one and done” attitude towards almost everything regarding parenting – one story, one hug, one kiss.

This attitude has its perks – it is Rob our daughter requests in the middle of the night, his presence she demands when she falls down. “Daddy!” she cries when kisses are required after she has skinned her knee.

For the first two years of her life, Sam’s heart was broken every morning when her briefcase-toting father walked out the door. Sometimes it was easier and I could tempt her away with a treat, a walk, a trip to the park. And other days were more difficult as she slumped against the door, her sobs slowly giving way to pathetic whimperings that could last up to an hour.

I think both Rob and I had become comfortable with this. Me playing the bad parent, the one resigned to doing the lion’s share of the child-rearing while my superhero husband – “the most amazing dad” as many of my friends called him – brought home the bacon and provided our children with the bulk of their emotional reassurance.

I was the set designer who provided the framework and the structure for the play Rob acted in, basking in our daughter’s love while I nursed our infant son, made her lunch for the babysitter or typed out the craft sheet for her co-op pre-school.

And even though I felt guilt and sadness that I was failing at something that seemed to come so naturally to other women, and was humiliated at her second birthday when she demanded to be held by daddy and told mommy to “go away” when I presented the cake I had spent four hours baking, I accepted it. It was understandable, I thought. After all, he was the superior parent.

At lunchtime, I would tap my toes while my daughter dawdled over her pasta, swirling the whole-wheat spirals through the tomato sauce and turning each morsel into a four-bite experience. My computer, its light flickering, always beckoned me. I always wanted her to hurry up, for my husband to come home so I could get peace, thirty minutes away from their endless demands, a long run away from my son’s constant cries for more milk, Sam’s chatter – so cute and sweet, but so endless – “Mommy, what happened? Can I watch TV? Can I draw? Read to me. Play with me. Can we go to the park?”

No. No. No. I was a bad mommy.

And my husband – who is happy to sit at the table with her for an hour – wouldn’t let me forget it.

Often, I would go to him for support. “This is so hard,” I would cry when he walked in the door at six p.m. before I’d showered, put on clothing or brushed my hair.

He learned quickly not to ask me what was for dinner, lest I snap. He learned to let me go for a run immediately, to work off the stress from my day. But he never did quite get the hang of what not to say to the harried mother who has just been drained all day by her two – lovely and endearing – vampire children.

“I wish I could stay at home with them and do what you do,” he would often say, imploring me to suck it up and be appreciative. And I was. And I am. I know I am lucky to spend so much time with my children, but it is hard, harder than I ever could have imagined in my childless days when I thought of motherhood as an occupation that included perks such as well-behaved children with great fashion sense.

Truth be told, I sometimes longed to smack the smug off his face by leaving for a week, maybe two, just so he would know. But even then it would be finite and my husband is nothing if not industrious and creative. He can endure anything with an end point. Even on the days I left our children with him, he would say it was manageable. Hard? Yes. Tiring, even. But never impossible. He always came home smiling, encouraging me to become a bestselling author so he could leave his job and care for our children.

A few weeks ago, one of his wishes came true. Unfortunately (and frighteningly and terrifyingly and all other manner of adverbs-ly), he has become one of the unemployed 8.5 percent, a statistic in this scary economy.

When I first made the decision to quit my job two years ago, one of my biggest fears was that his company – a fledgling pharmaceutical – would tank. And now, along with our health insurance, comfortable income and security, it has.

It is his turn to bask in the chaos. The first couple of days were spent in abject terror, but after reviewing our situation and banking his generous severance, we have been able to take a step back. While he sends out resumes, finishes his dissertation, interviews with new companies and takes care of our children, I am writing, working, checking my email forty-two times in a single hour.

It is his turn to bask in the chaos that is raising a toddler and infant simultaneously.

And from the first day, he is ready to quit. “Where are her clothes?” he asks me as our clinging, diaper-clad toddler wraps herself around his leg, imploring him to play. I am supposed to be writing, but he keeps asking me questions that pull me away.

“Does she have any clean onesies?” he asks, opening and shutting her drawers and flinging the dirty clothes from her hamper.

“Did you do the laundry?” I ask. He glares at me. Then Sam throws a fit and Alan starts to cry.

“I need to work,” I tell him. Then I try to ignore the chaos from the kitchen as he runs interference between our toddler and infant, who are at war this morning.

“Is everything alright?” I call into the next room. “I am trying to focus.”

“It’s fine,” he snaps. But then they both cry again and he, defeated, says, “I need help.”

And he has needed help every day since. He needs help when Sam whines for her bottle, but the milk will spoil her dinner and we are trying to wean her from the bottle anyway. He needs help when she demands to “pee in the potty” five seconds before we will be running late to a pediatrician appointment. He needs help when both kids become over-tired and he is torn between feeding our daughter and comforting our infant son. “You have to wait,” he snaps at our toddler, the first time I have ever seen him be short with her. It won’t be the last.

As his time home with us stretches from days to weeks, his patience – like our bank account – stretches thinner. Of course, some of this is the stress of the unknown, the weight of all those potential failures we could encounter before we have a stable income again. But some of it is just the truth, the one he has been avoiding all this time: staying home with babies is hard.

Of course he loves them. I do, too. But the combination of guilt and stress and the sense of being pulled in fifteen directions are finally catching up with him. I am stressed and scared, but this aspect of the layoff is an unexpected surprise.

“Hard, huh?” I ask him. “It’s hard, isn’t it?” I ask him after his first three days home with the children.

“I am just stressed,” he assures me. “And Sam is not normally like this.”

I nod, but I know the truth. She is normally like this. And I am the one who knows what outfits she likes, how to wrangle her to get dressed without a fight, how to run a comb through her hair without massive tears. I may have been behind the scenes, but without me, this show would not run. Before I felt small in my family, insignificant, as though if I left (along with my stress and bad attitude) they would fare just fine. But now? I know better.

Smug? Maybe. But oh-so-vindicating. “Hard, huh?” I ask him five days later after our daughter has forced him to lie beside her in her toddler bed for a half hour before her nap, cramming his 6’2″ body into a bed just four feet long.

He nods his head, conceding defeat. “I can’t wait to go back to work.” The Wizard of Oz is just a small old man. Superman is just Clark Kent.

And somehow amidst this terrifying economic crisis we have been given a gift we never would have received otherwise: true equality.

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