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Hail to the Breadwinner

I never realized how hard working dads have it until I was forced to confront my wife about her performance in the traditionally male role of the breadwinning parent.

On a recent evening, after the kids had gone to bed, I hunkered down for a long painful conversation with Karel, my wife of seven years, about the quality of time she was spending with our nearly three-year-old son, Noah. I wanted to stress to her the importance of sharing time with our son, without me, in a situation that was Noah-centric.

Karel spends almost all of her free time with the family as a whole, but the number of one-on-one moments between the two of them in the last eight months can be counted on one hand, and they mostly consist of trips to the grocery store. I gently tried to explain to her that my fondest childhood memories of time spent with my mother do not usually involve purchasing mouthwash and cat litter.

It was an extremely unpleasant conversation, and unsurprisingly, to her ears it sounded like an accusation of neglect. She was defensive, as I knew she would be, and in many ways her anger was justified. There were extenuating circumstances for this lapse of mommy-and-son adventure time.

The trouble started during the later stages of her pregnancy with our second child, an abnormally large (even in utero) baby girl named Josefina. Karel’s third-trimester, Weeble-like proportions meant that she could not be left by herself to tend to the fruits of destruction caused by Noah, who since turning two had morphed into forty pounds of elbows and knees in rapid and perpetual motion.

For painfully obvious reasons, Karel’s inability to handle the unintentional head-butts, very intentional belly flops, and wildly out-of-control pratfalls of our aspiring pro-wrestler/Buster Keaton impersonator increased tenfold in the two months following her C-section. The gut-busting hilarity my son strives for with his acts of physical comedy and derring-do had almost become, literally, gut-busting.

By the time Karel’s body returned to a semblance of normalcy, it was time for her to go back to work. Toddler Madness overtook our house. We witnessed the new-baby regression other parents had warned us about. I became increasingly worried about Noah as he became increasingly sick of me. It was obvious that Noah didn’t just want Mommy to help with dinner and a bath at night, or a family trip on the weekend; he wanted her, without me, and definitely without his new sister. I tried to fill the void, but Noah would accept no substitutes. For her part, Karel, who was struggling to re-adapt to work, just couldn’t see what was going on at home. I felt as though I had all my fingers plugging the cracks in Noah’s emotional levee, and I waited vainly for Karel to come lend a thumb before our son turned into the mental equivalent of the Ninth Ward.

The night I confronted Karel with my concerns about Noah, it quickly became apparent that he was not the only family member on the brink. Because of my focus on the kids, I didn’t realize how thinly Karel was stretched. She complained that she felt like butter spread over too much burnt toast. The idea of trying to find more time somewhere in her week for Noah wasn’t simply daunting; it was terrifying.

And not because of Noah’s recent moodiness, or because of lingering physical issues from the pregnancy, but because she was already balancing a full work week on top of a home life where her attentions and affections had to be split between three very needy individuals. Those three people of varying sizes and desires all missed her equally during the day, and wanted her complete focus during the meager hours between the moment she walked through the front door and bed time.

My wife doesn’t pawn the kids off on me to go out drinking with her buddies after work, she doesn’t leave me hanging on the weekends to watch football while the house gets progressively messier (we both watch Eagles games while the house gets progressively messier). My wife goes from home to work and back again. Her free time consists of her daily commute (of which I am terribly jealous).

The resolution of our conversation was not that she needed to make more time in an already overscheduled week, but instead she needed to refocus some of her energy away from worrying about trying to please me and Josie, and instead redirect that energy toward the person in the family who needed it most at that particular moment. It is not a perfect resolution but it will keep the boat afloat for the time being, and sometimes as a parent that’s all you can ask for.

What I thought about most, though, during the course of our conversation, was that Karel’s story is the same for so many working parents, both men and women, and that it so often goes unappreciated. Their best is simply never good enough.

There is far too little written about the challenges of the working mother. For all the ink spilled about the concerns, frustrations, and challenges faced on a daily basis by stay-at-home mothers, there is far too little written about the challenges of the working mother.

When your world shrinks to the size of a 4T training pant it is easy to get tunnel vision, and while I’m not suggesting that stay-at-home parents don’t make very real sacrifices (I live those realities daily), I would argue that we sometimes forget that the same is true for our spouses.

As a dude who stays at home, I am acutely aware of what I’m giving up and my inner conflicts, but I should never for a minute imagine that my sacrifices and second guesses are greater than those of my wife. It’s sometimes hard to remember that when you’re staring at a mountain of laundry.

This generation of working dads balances domestic duties and child rearing in a way most of our fathers could never imagine. The tight rope between work and family that working parents walk on a daily basis goes unrecognized for the stress it causes them, and for the grace with which many of them manage it; often it is only acknowledged right before they are about to fall.

Between the stress of a bad economy and the increasing demands of the American workplace, it doesn’t take the chaos of a second child to cause working parents to falter. All we can do is try to hold each other up.

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