It was the type of scream that would have woken the neighbors. Instead it came at five o’clock in the afternoon, about the time my husband would be leaving work. To my left, the dining room table was a rainbow of Play-Doh balls, the seams of cherry wood a river of smushed dough. To the right, more mayhem – a jumble of LEGO bricks and jigsaw pieces littering the living room floor.
“You had better clean up your toys before your father gets home,” I told my four-year-old, turning fast on my heel to avoid the impending face fall, the pleas for more time. This wasn’t going to end well, and my patience had worn well past thin and toward cocktail.
It was dirty. But sometimes in a battle of wits with a pre-schooler, you realize you’re the unarmed opponent. You’ve got to pass the buck. Preferably to the parent who isn’t there to defend himself.
Dirty or not, it worked. The mystery of what might happen when Daddy got home lingering over her head, puzzle pieces began piling up fast in the giant plastic bin.
When in doubt, I’ve learned, be vague and let them fill in the blanks. Daddy won’t do anything horrible when he gets home. Ours is a non-spanking household, and he is a calm, genteel Southerner (I’m the hot-blooded Yankee parent).
For the stay-at-home parent in a two-parent household, playing the heavy is your job day in and day out. Works Outside of the House Parent comes home laden with treats picked up on lunch break like a bath time egg that will melt to reveal a duckie inside.Work-at-home or Stay-at-home Parent drops them in the bath after they’ve coated the walls and themselves in pudding.
It is the nature of my husband’s job, rather than a failure to step up to the parenting plate on his part, that has carved out our roles. I am home when the cat’s pulled across the room by his leg, the sink overflows, the wall is revamped with black magic marker. It’s my responsibility to protect the four-legged, the floors and the market value of our house.
He is at work through the dog being locked in the bathroom, the yogurt drink being snuck out of the fridge, the cheese crackers being smashed onto the couch cushions. Hence he’s cast as bestower of fantastical surprises from the store (even those requested by Mommy in a mid-day phone call), the parent who will indulge in an extra story before dinner because he’s eager to make up for lost time with his girl.
It’s tough being loved for wiping a kid’s butt and doling out PBJs when he’s got the rock star status closer aligned with her love for the UPS man and his magical brown van full of toys.
So you’ll excuse the guilt-ridden glee in letting loose the words “Wait until your father gets home.” I’m momentarily passing the torch as the overseer of discipline, but with that power I also pass a bit of the heavy load off the weary at the end of a long day at home. I became a parent but I didn’t sign up for evil hag married to prince on shining steed.
Behavioral experts tell us we should be worried that warning our kids about dad’s impending return will create anxiety as the day goes on. It’s true that painting him as a bad guy is no fairer to her than it is to him. She shouldn’t fear her father or look to 5:30 like it’s high noon at the whipping corral.
For friends growing up, those were the words that foreshadowed pain of butt-sized proportions. Mom may have been charged with settling sibling squabbles, but misdeeds were tallied up at day’s end and handed off to Dad for the official dressing down. Walking in to a laundry list of complaints did little to engender a positive relationship between father and child. So he did what Mom was often unwilling to do - took the little brats over his knee and gave them what for.
It’s a reminder to her that Daddy’s return will not signal her excuse to abandon clean up or regain privileges lost.
It was not, as those same experts advise, a united front on discipline, and it did give me pause the first time I set his homecoming as a deadline for a behavior change.
So why say it? Because my husband will never march in the door ready to take out the anger of the day on his kid. Instead, it’s a reminder to her that Daddy’s return will not signal her excuse to abandon clean up or regain privileges lost.
A united front on discipline means letting your kids know that both parents agree on a course of action. Just because he’s not here to send her to her room for acting out or pull out the wet paper rag for scrubbing down a markered wall doesn’t mean he wouldn’t.
Coming home to a living room that resembles a bomb blast at Toys R Us, he’ll shrug off his coat and back me up.
“You had better clean up your toys before your mother and I are done making dinner.”
Who’s the bad guy now?