I once said something stupid during my junior high home economics class. When my teacher asked whether I helped out with the dishes at home, I quipped, “No, that’s my mom’s job.”
“Oh, really,” said my teacher, who reported the comment to my mom.
It’s not that I was being snarky. In my mind, I was stating a plain fact: My parents had forged a division of labor in their marriage, with my dad working outside the house, and my mom working inside. Nor was I suggesting that dishes were strictly women’s work. Little did I know what was ahead — a bit of karma for being a smart-alecky teenage chauvinist.
I was now Mr. Mom, and, yes, I had plenty of dishes to do.
Fast-forward two decades to the arrival of my first child, Sophie, and the realization that I had taken on a huge responsibility as a stay-at-home parent. I was now Mr. Mom, and, yes, I had plenty of dishes to do, along with all those diapers to change.
That first Mother’s Day after Sophie was born, my mother-in-law commented that it should be my day, too. I smiled but demurred — I wasn’t going to detract from my wife’s well-earned position as a mother.
Still, I had taken on a role that I never would have aspired to when I was 14. The youngest of four boys, I grew up in a family helmed by a dad who was born and raised in the South, taught us the chivalrous acts of Southern gentlemen and liked to joke that children should be seen and not heard. My dad also had a penchant for recounting the patrilineal line of descent in his family, as if my oldest brother stood in line to inherit a dukedom.
Patriarchy may have been the established vehicle in our family, with my dad being the keeper of the keys, but motherhood is what really kept the household wheels greased. It wasn’t until I took on many of the roles of traditional motherhood, however, that I truly appreciated the job my mom had done.
Not just with the diapers and dishes, but with the doctors and dentists, the tending to bruises on the exterior and the tending to bruises on the interior, the refereeing of sibling spats and the Zen-like ability to be in the moment when one child is having a meltdown while the other is trying to feed the dog a chocolate bar.
I used to chuckle at the fact that my mom taped the Golden Rule to our family’s bathroom mirror, where we’d see it every day while brushing our teeth. But she knew that raising four boys really just boiled down to how you treated others.
My mom is 87, still going strong and providing a role model for me. Every week she drives a friend’s husband to kidney dialysis, just so her friend can have a break. She likes to come over to our house and weed the garden. She does whatever she can to help others — to nurture them, to treat them how she would have them treat her.
Sometime after my second daughter, Ava, was born, my dad told me he could have never done what I did. I took this statement as the highest compliment possible from a man whose perspective on gender roles had softened over the years. He had called my mom a saint on numerous occasions, in part because he knew how valuable her unpaid job was in our family.
What’s more, I see in my wife — a woman working in the tech industry and pursuing her dream as a musician — a person who demonstrates for our daughters what moms can achieve in this world. I’ve learned, too, from all the mothers I’ve known over the years, just how multifaceted the concept of motherhood can be.
And I’ve realized, many times over, that the karma I earned back in junior high wasn’t the bad kind but the good. I consider myself a very lucky dad.