Fearless Mother/Fathering, in the Bedtime Battle and Beyond

20 Jun

My dad just about drove my mother crazy with his saying that he was “both mother and father” to his children. It kind of made it sound like he was a widower, a single father, taking care of his poor motherless children, which was not at all the case. But I think what he was trying to say was that he did- and was willing to do- whatever was necessary to give his girls the best life possible, the best that he could give, without concern about whether it was a Daddy role or a Mommy role. For example, he cooked dinner- often and well. He coached our girls’ sports teams. He took us shopping for our before-school shoes. He taught us photography (and was pretty successful with my sister, though not as much with me). He grew up without a father, and was therefore extra determined to do right by both of his children, totally off-script, making it up as we went along. Maybe it was a bonus that he didn’t have a role model to copy; maybe it left him freer to invent his own role, to just be the kind of dad that he might have dreamed of.

Conan is a triply fearless soul. First off, he agreed to be the stay-home parent when Lucia was two. We all know that this is a rewarding but also frustrating, usually thankless, and sometimes mind-numbing job. He gets double points because he devoted himself to this in a time and place where it’s completely unacceptable, socially, for a man to be a stay-at-home parent. I could beat around the bush and say it’s just not common or something, but that would be excessively polite, even for a Kentucky girl like me. It’s shocking and threatening to the entire patriarchy of Southern Oaxaca, and yet somehow he not only rocks it but also still has a bunch of male friends. (“He seems so laid-back,” people think, totally unsuspecting of his big ole feminist streak.) Finally, his triple crown is due to his supreme perseverance in stay-at-home parenting even when the new baby came along. He is being  both mother and father to his kids, as my dad would say- something many moms already do, too, something that gay parents and other nontraditional families are already negotiating, but that’s not quite as common among straight fathers, even in more liberal areas of the world. He’s survived and grown (and kept our kids surviving and growing) for two years now as a stay-at-home dad.

We’ve been experimenting with our roles from the get-go, and today, I want to applaud him a little more specifically. I’m ready to state, out loud, that my husband is a much better parent than I am- at some things. (For sure, absolutely, he is a fabulous papi, all comparisons aside, and I’m a damn good mama, if I do say so myself. No need to put anyone down.) Even though I’m a gloriously subversive feminist, he is good at some things that I thought would be my role, and I’ve been surprised by how much of a challenge it is for me to let go of some of my expectations for myself and encourage those traits and actions in my partner.

Bedtime is one of the things that he is a natural at, although neither of us realized it until recently. The Bedtime Battle in our household has been almost as epic as the striking teachers’ drama here in Oaxaca. Since my 4-year-old was 5 months old, I’ve been fighting the good fight to attempt to calm her excited, joyous, curious mind enough to nap and sleep every day. I’ve spent ungodly amounts of time online, searching for solutions. I’ve read books and consulted experts.  I’ve cried my little heart out, tears of desperation and frustration and anguish. I’ve thrown my own tantrums. I’ve blamed genes (Conan’s insomniac genes and my overactive-mind genes). I’ve blamed our (my) parenting and tried to instill and reinforce routine, routine, routine. I’ve done everything I could possibly do for these two bright-eyed, bushy-tailed children, and half the time I still fail at my mission of helping them sleep enough or go to sleep at a reasonable hour.

The scheduling drama due to my job certainly wasn’t helping matters. With my 8-1 then 4-7 shift, I’d spend my lunch break trying to cook, get chores done or run errands and spend some scant amount of quality time with the kids. I’d attempt to put them both down for a nap around 3 or 3.15- Lucia in the hammock, Khalil in my arms. Then I’d go back to work.

I’d get home by 7.20. I’d throw together or reheat something for dinner (cooking is not something that Conan thrives at, unfortunately.). We’d sit down and eat (often at 8pm by the time I got the table cleared, got the drinks, got hands washed, etc.) Then it would be the mad dash to try to bathe both the kids and myself at the same time, get everyone in pajamas with brushed teeth, prep my coffee to survive the next morning, and usually attempt and fail at some other needed chore like getting diapers out of the washer, hanging up clothes, etc. I spent my entire evening after work running around like a chicken with my head cut off, neither taking good care of the children nor myself, trying to do everything and thus accomplishing nothing. I was hurrying at everything to get the kids to bed at a reasonable hour when I already knew it wasn’t really possible.

Meanwhile, Lucia’s fight against her nap was becoming more and more intolerable, partly because her nap was happening too late in the day, after she was way too exhausted, because of course I wanted to see her for as long as possible before I went back to work. I couldn’t put the kids to bed until I was also ready for bed because Lucia was often able to stay up for ages, thanks to her late afternoon nap. Khalil was falling down with sleepiness by the time I could get him into bed. My showers, dearly anticipated in this heat and humidity, were not half as enjoyable as they should have been, because I was scrambling to bathe the three of us all at the same time, as quickly as possible.

I was torn, because I wanted to see my kids as much as possible, but it was getting more and more painful for everybody to work with my schedule. I was getting resentful, comparing my life against that of dads living with stay-at-home moms. Why didn’t the stay at home parent in my life cook dinner? Why didn’t the stay at home parent in our household get the kids ready for bed? Why didn’t he institute clean-up time? Why didn’t he do x, y, and z like moms on TV? If I were the stay-at-home parent, then I would (fill in the blank with whatever I was resentful about in that moment).

Some of the problem was poor communication on our parts, but in part, too, I didn’t want him to do all of that. I wanted to be the one to read the kids their bedtime story and sing them their lullaby. I wanted to do all the things that my mama had done, things that I still cherish tenderly in my memories of childhood. I wanted to be responsible for the jobs and roles that I had so anticipated in the time between when I decided that, yes, someday I wanted to be a mom, and when I actually became a mom. I had imagined that I would be a stay-at-home parent for a while when they were really little, and then work part time for a while, and then someday get a full-time job. I had it all planned out in my dreams.

Of course, though, plans are often shattered by reality, especially with children involved. I work full-time, and Conan takes care of the kids full-time. It’s not exactly what either of us had in mind, but our kids are not only surviving but thriving. Us grown-ups are constantly learning and adapting to our lack of gender roles. When you don’t have a typical gendered family structure, negotiations are required on a regular basis, so everyone knows what the hell they’re supposed to be doing and what the other person is going to take care of.

The thing is, Mommies and Papis are not exactly the same. There are a couple of differences we can attribute to physical sex, such as the ability to produce breast milk or to carry a baby around in your uterus (yep, you need a uterus for that one, although you can identify as male and have a uterus, of course). The rest of our differences, however, are all about character- how you were raised and who you are that’s not determined by your sex. The rest of our differences- between Mommies and Papis- are on a similar plane as the difference between two different dads. They’re different people; they were raised differently; they have different values; they have different ideas about their roles.

That said, it seems like there are more differences between Moms and Dads than between different moms because to some extent or another, two people raised as the same gender are likely to have been raised with very similar expectations for how to behave.

I’m a much better cook than Conan is, but it’s not because I have a uterus; it’s because I’m actually willing to cook (first and foremost) and I have a passion for healthful, sensuous indulgence. I’m pretty sure we can’t attribute that to my fallopian tubes, although people do so every day. I don’t parent our kids in exactly the same way that Conan does. We don’t give our kids exactly the same things. For example, I’m much more permissive about letting them try something for themselves even when I know they can’t do it yet. I’m much stricter about how much junk food they ingest. Mommies and Papis aren’t exactly the same, just like no two dads are the same and no two mamas are the same. It’s not about our maleness and femaleness, and it’s not just about our gender roles, either.

I’ve been saying all these things, to anyone who will listen and also to myself, but I guess I only believed them about 80%. Or maybe I believed them fully as long as they applied to everyone else, because the reality is that I did not / do not want to give up my role of Most Intimate Parent- which is typically a Mommy role in every realm of the universe. Surely I would get to witness all their firsts, first steps, first words, give them their first food, etc. I wanted to be the one to kiss most of their ouchies. I imagined I’d be coordinating their outings. I insisted on going to all their doctors appointments. And I really, really wanted to be the one to tuck them in to bed at night, to read the bedtime story, to pat the backs, to sing the songs passed down from my mama.

The harsh reality, however, is that I can’t be out of the house, during the daytime, more than 40 hours a week and still do and be all of that (and all of you who somehow do so are to be worshipped). Slowly but surely I started to let go and rely on the Papi. Even though the nurses interrogate him about the child’s shamefully absent mother, Conan takes them for their vaccines. Conan learned really fast how to warm up the milk for a crying baby and feed him. Conan has proved himself perfectly capable of taking the kids for doctor’s visits. Conan can put the baby down for naps just fine. Slowly but surely, I am giving up the hidden, patriarchal complex that I carry in me, that ideology that teaches all of us that men cannot adequately take care of their own children.

It’s that same sexist message that teaches us to say things like, “Dad is babysitting tonight,” although babysitting is taking care of children that are not your own. It’s demeaning to men to assume that they can’t be loving, responsible caregivers. No, most of them have not had nearly as much training in it as most women have, but that doesn’t by any stretch mean that they can’t or don’t want to learn. But we’re all profoundly influenced by our culture and these intense messages in our world. Even if you question everything and your heart rejects obligatory gender roles and stereotypes, those messages still seep through the cracks.

So finally, one day, there was one desperate, tearful nap time struggle that broke the camel’s back. There had been too many nightmare-ish bedtimes. Finally, I broached the subject with Conan. What if we cut out Lucias nap time and Khalils second nap? We could put them to bed earlier, I suggested, waiting for his cynicism because I’m always talking about getting them to bed early and it never worked. I wanted him to think about the possibility of getting the kids ready for bed. But I would still put them to bed! Me, me, me- dont worry, I told him. You just give them their dinner and bathe them. Ill come home and immediately read their story and whisk them off to bed. He agreed with a minimum of cynicism (extra point for Conan). So it began.

I am brilliant at bedtime, in my way. I’m an excellent story-reader, adding hand-gestures, putting emphasis on the most interesting parts, making different voices, letting Lucia ask 10 thousand questions and make 500 comments about every page. I’m not bad at teeth-brushing. I’m a terrible singer, but I know a lot of good sleepy songs. I rock at bedtime in certain ways.

But I’m not patient. I don’t feel relaxed when I’m trying to make my kids relax and go to sleep. The longer my kids take, the more tense and angry-feeling I become. Then they sense my irritation and agitation, and it surely doesn’t help them relax. Lucia always asks for a drink of water right as she’s about to fall asleep, just to fight the sandman off a little longer. Or she’ll have really, really pressing questions, like, “Why does fire burn, Mommy?” One night I successfully reminded her that it was sleepy time, and therefore we weren’t going to talk. She let it go- until bedtime the next night. “But why, Mommy?” she repeated. “Please tell me!” She urged, like it was a pressing need to be resolved in that moment. Bless her little heart. I can’t shrug off her familiar mix of anxiety and curiosity; I feel the need to answer her. She reminds me so damn much of me, which I both adore and abhor.

The reality is that I’m not the best parent to put my children to bed. Conan is, hands-down, a better choice for the job. Even with him getting them ready for bed and me coming home and attempting to get them to sleep right off the bat, they were still going to sleep at least an hour later than I wanted. It wasn’t working, but instead of him saying, “I told you so,” he took it upon himself to get them to sleep himself before I got home from work.

It worked so well that we decided he would do it like that all the time. Still, I kept checking in / questioning him. Did you remember Lucias medicine? Did you brush Khalils teeth? Did you really read them both a book? I didn’t really think about the fact that I was questioning his ability to handle the bedtime routine, and thus questioning his ability to parent them equally. I was needlessly worried about the transition. Maybe he didn’t do everything perfectly, all the time, at first- but I certainly didn’t either when I was the one putting them to bed.

Once Conan took over the responsibility for bedtime and we put their early bedtime into effect, I suddenly had happier children. Lucia doesn’t get bags under her eyes, and is much less cranky than before. Khalil is falling asleep easier. There are fewer meltdowns all around. And my life is 60 billion times better because of it. My evenings are calmer. I can prep the food I’m going to cook the next day at night, and shower in peace, alone. I don’t feel half as exhausted when I wake up in the morning, although I’m sleeping the same amount of time. My kids wake up happy and rested, and therefore I am able to spend pleasant moments with them before I go to work instead of fighting with them. I can get Lucia dressed and read a book while I brush her hair, for example. So I’m not missing out on all her reading time. I can give Khalil his first meal of the day and maybe chase him around the house for a bit, starting my morning off with giggles and delight instead of tantrums.

It’s a miraculous change for all of us. It’s something that I dreamed of, that I didn’t think could happen, because I secretly didn’t want to give up one part of my prescribed gender role. Because I didn’t think Conan would be willing to take on even more of the parenting responsibility, when he’s already the one who’s with them 24/7 most of the time. Even though he volunteered for the job of stay-at-home parent. Even though he’s a perfectly capable and loving father. It’s amazing what can happen when two people are both finally willing to let go of their gendered expectations and be the most practical, best parents they can they be.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there who are giving it their very best. You’re amazing, and imperfection is part of the deal, so just roll with it. Happy Father’s Day, to my dad in the Great Beyond, who wasn’t afraid to do some Mommy jobs, who was way ahead of his time. Happy Father’s Day to my partner, Conan, who is so quietly but steadily radical in his thoughts, words and deeds. Who is doing his very best and even teaching me. Conan, you are a fabulous, fearless father, for bedtime and beyond, and my dad and yours are surely both so proud.

One Response to “Fearless Mother/Fathering, in the Bedtime Battle and Beyond”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Mother’s Day Homage to my Feminist Bad-Ass Hombre | exile to mexico - May 14, 2017

    […] peer pressure and shaming that he put up with for that brave endeavor, right up till last November (read about it here a bit). It was a situation that was really practical and beneficial for our family, especially for […]

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