Growing up, I loved my own mother for many reasons, but chief among them was that there was a person in my life whom I could rely on completely. It’s not like I was aware of or grateful for this at the time, but isn’t that the beauty of having a mom? She will stop by the post office on the way to work. She will apologize when you shout that she forgot to get Toaster Strudels, again. She will go to three stores to get the exact brand of socks you want. A mom, or my childhood idea of a mom, is conscripted into this sacred duty. The expectation that she will always be there is supposed to be what makes children — humans, us, me — feel secure.
Whether it’s her martyrdom, her unconditional love, or some combination of the two, the mother as soldier-saint is a person I both fear becoming and fear being unable to become. It’s a tired and ridiculous and heteronormative notion, but I feel its pressure anyway. Surely, once there’s a baby, someone has to be the primary caregiver, the default parent — the better parent. And in the case of my baby, it’s supposed to be me.
I say “better,” but I mean more enthusiastic, more willing to get down on the rug and play with the blocks, more at home with a baby on his hip. There is one parent who asks the pediatrician questions and argues with them, and there is one who sits there, smiling and a little embarrassed.
I am the embarrassed one. My partner, Dustin, is the natural, the one who taught the baby to wave hello before I woke up this morning. I came downstairs and they showed me, then Dustin asked me what was wrong and I said, “I’m tired!” and collapsed on the couch.
If motherhood is an identity, then fatherhood, conventionally, is more like a very enriching side project. It’s voluntary, done in the hours between home-from-work and bath time. Expectations are low and “engagement” is impressive. Submitting to fatherhood gets you bonus points. I was born to be a dad: to be the one making jokes on Twitter about how beleaguered I am while my kid tugs on my pant leg. I want the bonus points. Dustin, however, is the star parent on our team, the “good” one. And nearly every time we spend time around other people they reiterate this to me in hushed tones, as if I have stumbled into the jackpot of the century.
“What a great dad he is! He’s so engaged!” my relatives say. Then we smile over Dustin’s airplane sounds as he flies the baby through the air on the way to the changing table.
Friends laugh and nod their heads toward him. “Did you see this coming?” I say, “Yes,” definitively, and feel good about it. Of course I knew. There is no way I would have done this otherwise. The thought of having a child with someone who was anything but this, anything but fully there, anything but in charge of bath time and diapers and reading the books and singing the songs and giving the toys little voices and I would never have done it.
“It’s the Midwestern part of him,” says a friend who knows us both well. I agree. This is shorthand, something meaning, “he takes out the trash,” or “I feel safe with him.” He cooks for us, makes sure I eat before I get angry. If there are ants, he defeats them. He buys the diapers and the toilet paper and the milk before they run out. That sort of thing.
But I am the one with the breasts and the uterus and the mom smell and my child, when I walk by him, practically leaps out of Dustin’s arms and into mine. He defaults to me, assuming I have what he needs. So does everyone else. I don’t think anyone is pulling Dustin aside and asking him if he knew I would be so engaged with my son. No one is moved by the mere sight of me walking down the street with the baby strapped to my chest. No one is swooning as I sing to the baby on the changing table.
I think part of me enjoys being the slacker parent, as if it were some indicator of my well-roundedness. The identity of mother has not come easily or naturally to me. Partly that’s because I am both too old and too young to fit in my dueling conceptions of it: 24, Christian, suburban, two-car garage; or 36, with flowing blouses and a brownstone and expensive clogs.
I am 30. I have not achieved everything I want to achieve in my life. I am still reeling with ambition and urgency, often without direction. I still haven’t figured out lipstick or my hair color or whether I look better with bangs or without. I keep forgetting how important it is to me to run, to cook, to write. In other words, I have not mastered my life yet, but I have also figured enough of it out to know I am not ready to forget it. I am clinging to this notion of my self, and fearing that everything about motherhood is a mandate toward selflessness. That, as the Catholic theology I was raised with dictates, a mother should “die to self,” and that to cling to “self” will not only make you miserable, it will make you a bad mother.
So while Dustin happily demolishes low expectations, I fear being consumed by motherhood. And whatever I might lack in natural enthusiasm, biology makes up for. I know that no matter what I do, my baby will still be obsessed with me, the food source. He smiles when Dustin enters the room. He laughs. He is filled with joy. But when I leave it, he cries out and turns red and acts betrayed. It isn’t fair, I think: I haven’t earned my son’s obsession with me, my breast milk has.
Over lunch today, between the baby’s new waves and Dustin’s singing and dancing, I mentioned I was writing about this — about how he is the good parent and I am the bad one. “Or the less enthusiastic one!” I corrected myself. I expected him to argue with me, to tell me I was great. “No one will like that,” he said.
“But don’t you think we define ourselves against each other, falling into these roles, like siblings?” I asked. “The good one and the bad one. The one who wants to feed him out of a pouch and the one who wants to steam little carrots and videotape him eating them?” Maybe we both just like defying expectations, I suggested. We are both so stubborn. Dustin agreed.
“It’s win-win for me,” he said — meaning expectations are low so he’s either just a dad fitting into the role or a hero of child stimulation, the champion parent of the playground. He gets to choose, to show up when and where he’s ready. “It’s better to be a dad.”
“EXACTLY!” Maybe my refusal to rise to his level was making up for generations of bad dads. Maybe I was doing it to fight the patriarchy — holding back so that he could atone for his societal advantages by doing more diapers or something.
Or maybe I am just bad at change. Maybe I am coming around slowly. Maybe the first year or so of pregnancy and parenthood is so all-consuming, ready or not, that I take my moments where I can get them. After lunch today I pushed around the stroller thinking about how I won’t be the food source forever — I’ll have to step up my game and my maternal charms. I’ll need to sing more songs and actually read the words on the pages of his board books. Maybe, like Dustin, I’ll add some funny voices.