In the first of three weekly excerpts from Between Interruptions, a collection of essays by Canadian women, Globe Style editor Sheree-Lee Olson grapples with her role as mother and breadwinner.
I am my father.
Except my father never cried at work. He'd come home and my mother would pour him a Scotch and he'd shout at us instead. I come home and my husband pours me a glass of merlot, and sometimes I shout at him, and sometimes I tell him I cried at work.
"What about?" he asks.
"What do you think? I want to quit. I've had enough."
This is unhelpful to a man trying to wrangle two cranky boys who have a mixed relationship with dinner and homework. This is particularly unhelpful to a man who would rather be doing anything other than what he is doing now, heating up yet another plate of pasta that is destined to remain uneaten while wolfing down his own dinner and trolling through the day's increment of paperwork from the school apparatchiks.
A lot of days, we both hate our jobs.
"The difference is," he says, raising his voice over the machine-gun fire coming from the shooter game on the computer, "you get to come home at the end of the day, whereas I -"
"Whereas you get to be alone during the day," I say. And though I know I'm not supposed to, I wonder what he did today anyway. "Whereas I - Jesus Christ, why is the cat sleeping on my new jacket?"
Some days, it's better for everyone if I just take my wine upstairs.
I take my wine upstairs in search of Zen. Sometimes I find Zen in a British mystery or a Seinfeld rerun; sometimes I find it lying on my bed watching the shadows of leaves play across the wall. I lie there in a cocoon of guilt and resentment, wondering when the cocoon will split apart to reveal what I was supposed to be: a great mother.
I am not a great mother. Instead, I have become the other parent.
But I am not a 21st-century father. I am the father I grew up with, back in the days when fathers were gods smelling of cologne and tobacco, who came home late and tickled their children mercilessly before bed. They never did dishes.
I never do dishes.
I have not done dishes since I went back to work 13 years ago. For 13 years, I have eaten my husband's meals thinking the same thing: that I could do it better. That my boys would be there in the kitchen with me, baking cookies, making omelettes. That their fingernails would be clean. That they would not cry about school.
It's a complete delusion.
It's a delusion because if I ever really had the skill set required to be that irony-challenged creation, a "supermom" - and I doubt that I ever did - they are certainly lost now. The latest brain science only confirms what our pop-psych prophets have been telling us forever: by doing, you become.
My husband, when I met him, was a charming domestic savage who worked in a bookstore by day and hung out in bars at night. He lived in a basement and washed his dishes in the tub. Now, he is an object of neighbourhood respect - a man who has gone the distance. An actual stay-at-home dad!
This is what you learn when you grow up: temporary's just another word for permanent. Our house was an ancient semi held together with duct tape and crack filler. We cycled through periods of despair and absurd optimism; we still do. It'll be better when. It'll be okay until.
I left my baby with a man who had never held one before his own was born. I left him until. Until I could figure something out: go part-time, start a business, sell a novel, any fantasy at all to feed my desperation to stay within that magic circle of first baby love. But we had a mortgage, and exactly one career between us, and it was mine.
Some mothers are happy going back to work, but I was not one of them. I had waited years to have this baby; it felt Kafkaesque to simply walk out the door at the end of my six-month leave, pretending to be okay. There is a surreal disconnect required to resume the role of the competent professional when your breasts are leaking. Perhaps there is no more potent metaphor for the dilemmas of postmodern motherhood than milk. Supply and demand are well-known concepts to the nursing mother.
My son was getting formula during the day, yet I still hoped that he would be waiting famished at night in his father's arms, his little legs pumping with excitement, his drooling toothless smile aimed at my chest.
We both tried. But he had never been a strong nurser, and I was not a letdown queen. There is nothing more crushing than having a small human tear himself off your nipple in howling fury because he isn't getting enough. But he wouldn't take a bedtime bottle from me, because I had followed the advice of the baby books and scrupulously avoided giving him one while I was nursing. Even months later, when I tried to give him one, he would arch and shriek for Daggy!
Daddy was the bottle man. So what was I?
There is a term from horticulture: hardening off. You put a plant outside during the day, and you bring it into the nursery at night. Eventually you leave it out all the time. It gets used to the conditions. It gets used to the cold. When I try to explain to myself how I became my father, that is the term that comes to mind. I was hardened off.
After my second mat leave, I missed the children with what was at times a physical pain. Sometimes, on a long night, I would cry over my keyboard. Other times I would creep into the baby's room when I got home late and lie on his floor and cry.
But there was no way around our separation, and they were in good hands. That's what I told people who asked, and not always sympathetically, what about the children? Didn't they miss me? The answer to the question is this: they miss you, but not as much as women want to believe.
Once, when I told my older son that I loved him, he said he loved me too, "but only on weekends." He was 2. Then, possibly sensing my disappointment, he added that he was "starting" to love me all the time.
"That's okay," I said brightly, swallowing the lump in my throat. "I love you all the time."
The point is, you don't want them to miss you. You want them to be happy with the person at home, whoever it is: Daddy, Mom, Nanny, Grandma. Oh, but this is a hard, hard lesson for women who have been conditioned their whole lives to be Number One to their children.
However absent my father had been in my childhood, I still loved him passionately. That gave me hope that I could forge a similar bond between myself and my boys. My father knew how to choose his moments. He would blow in with cold, whiskery cheeks and hug us hard, and that would answer a week's worth of longing.
What my father never admitted, and what I believe is one of the most closely guarded secrets of his gender, is that it is hard for men to be Number Two. I started thinking about that when a colleague let slip how "upset" her husband was when the children would not cuddle with him but wanted her. In their house, he was not even Number Two, but Number Three, because the nanny was Number One. This was not a sensitive New Age guy, either; this was a hard-ass corporate lawyer. And I thought, That's why they had to be hard. They have always been hurt by the turning away.
Sometimes I wonder if my father ever came home drunk and smoky and sad, as I did when the boys were young; if he crept into our rooms to gaze at us with choked-up love. I think he might have, for he is a man of depths, but if he did that truth is now lost.
This is what I hope for today: that young fathers will not learn to hide their longing. That the ones I see in the sandbox at the park, the ones who pride themselves on being equal-opportunity parents, will not one day refuse a phone call because they are on deadline or turn away because a child has turned away; that they will not become their own fathers.
There is a consolation, after all, in being Number Two. And, at least for now, my boys do not allow me regret. On those occasional evenings when we're all sitting around and I'm three glasses into the merlot, I sometimes bring up my shortcomings. "You're not allowed to judge," my younger one told me the other night. "You're not the kid. I'm the kid and I say you're a great mom."
That's just it: I may be my father, but I'm also their mother. Just not a stellar one, their gallantry notwithstanding. I love them fiercely and fearfully and I know that is not enough, but, like their dad, I am doing the best that I can. Like all parents, I hope they will turn out fine despite us, that they will understand our choices, that they will forgive us.
From Between Interruptions: 30 Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, edited by Cori Howard. Published by arrangement with Key Porter Books.