Five days a week, 4 o’clock finds my son waiting by the window for his mom.
"Do you want to play?" I ask him. "Read a book? Have a snack? Go for a walk?"
Every question prompts the same response, half-whispered with a seriousness born of concentration: “Mama.”
When I leave him in his vigil by the window, he follows me around moaning for mama as if, like a cheddar bunny, I could produce her from the pantry. Sometimes I put on a song and dance routine – or the television – to distract him. But usually I just sit with him and repeat again and again, “She’s at work.”
To which he echoes, “—ork," and then "hug."
He scrunches his little brow in thought for a moment before returning to the top of the routine with a “Mama.” And so on until she comes home or the repetition wears me down and I pull him, screaming and crying, out of the house to take his mind off of her.
Worse are the days – few and far between, thankfully – when it’s as if the clock has stopped at 4 p.m., and he starts asking for her the minute she leaves, a chorus that he returns to throughout the day. But at least I’m a factor in these equations, if a powerless one, unable to grant his wish.
Because when Mommy is home, on the weekends or days off, I’m chopped liver.
He's so happy having her around for the whole day that he doesn't leave her side, or at least, not without thrashing on the floor in a full-on tantrum. You know, the kind you'll do most anything to avoid.
My wife feeds my son's need, but not only because she wants to avoid a meltdown. She feels like it's her responsibility to shoulder the majority of the parenting when not at work. She wants to make up from being away from him (as if supporting us financially weren't enough) and give me a break – a sentiment that in the conventional American household would not have been shared by the breadwinning father. After all, that guy would argue, childrearing is her job all the time.
Most weekends, this leaves me an intruder in my own family. Out for Sunday dim sum, I’ve been left alone at the table because my wife doesn't think twice about running to the bathroom with the tot rather than leave him with me. Last weekend, he said "no, no, no" and waved me goodbye when I went to accompany them to the Prospect Park Zoo. My son's obsessive mommy-centricism, and my wife's jumping in response to it, can make hanging out as a family more a chore than a pleasure.
Hey, don’t think I’m all complaints here – come the weekend, I want to catch up on sleep, exercise, and the backlog of writing. But honestly, a part of me does shrivel. I can’t help, with my fragile male ego, feeling a bit rejected by my workday buddy. Just as I'm insulted by my wife's insinuation that I can't handle being the primary caregiver 24/7. Nor am I happy seeing the woman I consider an equal partner acting as the subservient wife.
I tell myself that my son is simply exhibiting the traditional “Dad’s more fun than Mom” phenomenon, but with the sexes switched. You know – how daddy’s the less familiar of the parents, the one who comes home from work excited to play and too tired to have the patience of sticking to routine.
It was my exhausted wife who started the tradition of television at dinner, while I’m the one explaining at lunch that we don’t sit in front of the tube at every meal. She’ll feed him chocolate and sweets, leaving me no recourse but to hide the cookie tins when he's throwing a fit for a treat. She takes him on fun trips to the and buys him baked goods from the farmer's market. On my watch, I try to keep us within a budget, putting the kibosh on what could easily become daily extravagances.
Of course, sex plays a role too. There is undeniably a special bond between a child and his or her mother. And this comes to play much stronger when she’s been away for him for 40 hours a week.
As for my wife's part in the whole affair, I can only blame her innate guilt and her overachieving perfectionist's attempt to nail the roles of consummate professional, supermom, devoted wife, and healthy independent woman all at once. It not only seems impossible that anyone – male or female – could juggle all of these jobs, it doesn't even seem desirable that one would want to. And of course, at the end of a weekend, my wife often feels like she hasn't done a good enough job at one or more of these things – most often the caring for herself.
I'm to blame as well, pulling back both out of respect for her need to spend time with him, and also – let's be honest – because no matter how my son's rejection of me stings, it's easier and far more enjoyable for me to stay out of the way and head to a yoga class.
We've resolved to improve our weekends by spending more time together as a family, and with me stepping forward more and my wife pulling back for some essential recharge time. But it can be hard, and leaves me feeling that our weekends are just as tightly scheduled as our weekdays. What happened to lounging around on lazy Sundays, hanging loose?
As a parent, there are no days off.