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Equality Now: Today's men do it all. Where does that leave women?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a baby must be in want of a helpful husband. This was the dream of my generation. Why should fathers be off the hook?

Well, ladies, we did it. We are now probably the most helped, most supported, best understood generation of mothers America has ever known. The government and business world may be lagging behind, but individually, husband by husband? A lot of us got what we wanted.

So how does it feel?

A few weeks ago my daughter, almost four, said to my mother-in-law, “Mommy doesn’t know how to make dinner.” My husband, who does most (okay – all) of our cooking, was going to be away for a few days. My child was worried about who would feed her. When she told her grandmother, I was embarrassed. I stamm ered something about how I used to do more cooking (four years ago), but lately, well, no. “But I do all the laundry!” I reminded them.

Most days I feel blessed to have a husband who wants to cook. He enjoys it and he’s good at it. We’ve come up with what seems to us an equitable sharing of family and household responsibilities, so why can’t I just admit that I don’t cook? I used to have a pathetic little routine in which I claimed to be the “sous-chef,” but I stopped that the night I couldn’t find the colander.

For a long time I believed the question of how much help I would have in motherhood was up to me – a matter of desire on my part, not ability. I wanted help from my husband, I got it, but then at some point I looked around and wondered if I would be able to manage everything if I had to. Sometimes I think I could handle the house and children, but then I wouldn’t be writing at all. Or I could write more, but then I’d need more help with the house and children. (I won’t even mention the yard. What an overrated, burdensome contrivance that is.)

I know how privileged this all sounds. I’m one of the lucky ones, a mother who gets to choose whether she works or not. My husband, a law professor, provides the steady income. I’m a writer, the wild card. I’m working on a second book and freelancing, but for the moment the pressure is personal, not financial. What a luxury it must seem to single parents that I have time to wring my hands over how much my spouse does. All I’m saying is, the parenting package I signed up for turns out to have a few costs I hadn’t expected.

For example, just about the only thing I do exclusively in our house besides laundry is put barrettes in my daughter’s hair – and she doesn’t even like them. It turns out that accepting help from a willing husband is a slippery slope – before you know it, the two of you possess identical skill sets and have become nearly interchangeable. Sometimes when my daughter falls, she cries for me. But often she cries for Daddy. What astonishes me is that I wish she wouldn’t. I thought I’d always be the one she’d come to for that kind of comfort, a sudden hurt needing soothing. That she thinks of me fI’m still surprised that having a capable husband doesn’t just mean more time and freedom for me.irst only some of the time has been a blow to my confidence.

There’s been a lot of talk about the many highly educated women opting out of careers to be full-time mothers. Maybe it’s just too hard for them to let go of the fantasy we have of being the primary parent. I had to work at it. Ultimately, I wanted help from my husband more than I wanted to be the essential comforter, but I’m still surprised that having a capable husband doesn’t just mean more time and freedom for me. If my husband and I were going to be equal partners in the parenting adventure, I secretly thought of myself, like the former Chief Justice, as first among equals. As the mother, I figured it went without saying that I was the primary parent. Unlike Rehnquist, it didn’t occur to me to sew special stripes on my bathrobe to prove it. (Good thing, because I can’t sew.)

Early on, my husband played a secondary role brilliantly. Pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding seemed to him a tyrannical triumvirate and he was happy to simply step in wherever he could. He started doing more and more, but for a long time I was still able to pretend I was in charge. Then, suddenly, my daughter was old enough to start talking about the arrangements as she saw them, and not just with her grandmother.

“You’re kind of the baker,” she told me recently when I offered to make cupcakes for her birthday.

“That’s right!” I said, my delight at her seeing me in this traditional role eclipsing any concern I might have once had about her seeing me in this traditional role. “That’s right. I bake. Baking’s nice, don’t you think?”

“But Daddy’s the cooker, which you have to do every day.”

Ah ha. Well, with all my extra time, I poured myself a drink.

Another problem: having two parents equally “hands-on” (as my mother refers to our arrangement) leaves open the question of discipline. My mother stayed home with me, and if I didn’t behave we both knew what would happen: when my father came home from work, the day’s grievances would be aired and punishment would be administered. This kept me in line, apparently, but more interesting to me now – it gave my mother a last resort. I don’t have this advantage. When my husband comes home, his arrival is less like the coach’s walk to the pitcher’s mWhen my husband comes home, his arrival is less like the coach’s walk to the pitcher’s mound than another player, a popular one, joining the team for a round of high-fives.ound than another player, a popular one, joining the team for a round of high-fives. We’re all in the dugout, telling stories. And when the little girl resists bath time? I guess that’s why our generation invented the time out. In my experience, it’s not as effective.

My mother likes to point out that she didn’t have the help I do. My “hands-off” dad (I’ll forever picture him with his hands up, shoulders shrugged, expression surprised), didn’t change a single diaper. When my mom tells me these stories, I feel sorry for her – and guilty. Sometimes she asks how my work is going, and I know I sound defensive when I answer. It’s my deepest fear, after all: where’s the proof of the extra time I have?

“I’m working on a few things,” I say. “It’s going pretty well.”

But productivity shouldn’t be the point, or at least not the only goal. What about happiness? It seems to me, motherhood is full-time no matter what you do, so what’s wrong with adding other work into the mix, whether for money or sanity? Every mother should be able to aim for a work/mothering arrangement that suits her. People often talk about a balance of these things, but that doesn’t seem quite right, because it implies equal parts. They’re more like puzzle pieces fitting together in different ratios. “Every person’s puzzle is different,” I say to my mother. “And maybe some puzzles have only one piece,” I add, my voice petering off.

“Right,” she says. “Well, I know I couldn’t have written a book when you were little.”

Is she saying she was a better parent? I don’t know. But that’s the kind of thinking I’m susceptible to. Because with all the strides we’ve made toward equality, there’s an enduring double standard. When my husband makes a mistake – buttoning a dress on backwards, or mismatching the sippy cup tops – it’s funny. We have a name for these errors in our house: the Classic Daddy Mistake, and they produce peals of laughter in my girl. But when I make a mistake? Somehow it’s not as funny. My daughter will ask if I’m tired or if I forgot to pay attention. Exasperated, I asked her once why Mommy mistakes weren’t funny. Why was she so worried?

“You don’t make mistakes,” she said.

I can only infer that she means I should not make mistakes.

When my son was born last May, my daughter said shMy daughter was concerned I couldn’t handle two kids.e was concerned I couldn’t handle two kids. Where on earth did she get that idea?

“Probably listening to you on the phone,” my husband said.

Oh.

So I don’t get to be the favorite comforter, but I’m still supposed to be supremely responsible? It’s a hard road. Still, whatever my girl may grow up thinking of my mothering, I’m glad there are days when she sees me return from work, other work. She runs to me, tired, for the moment, of her father and his rules, and I get to be the popular player returning to the game. She asks me if I worked well. I say, “Yes, thanks for asking.”

For the moment, I like this arrangement, in spite of all of its compromises. As much as it’s affected the way my daughter sees me, it’s also changed the way she sees her father. The other day she announced, “Boys don’t carry purses.” Before I could craft a response, something fair and open-minded, she added, “Just diaper bags.”

That’s my girl.

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