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90'S FAMILY

The Other Parent

She thought she had the monopoly on parenthood. Until she witnessed the kind of joy only her baby's father can bring him.

May 26, 1996|LAURA-LYNNE POWELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Honey, I have a confession to make. We made a pledge and I broke it.

We had promised not to live by the tired old assumption that a woman is somehow a better parent just because she is a woman. We knew firsthand that it was inaccurate. Remember when our son was born and you--and only you--fed and changed him for the first 24 hours? I was terrified. I didn't know what to do. It was you, his new father, who seemed urged on by some invisible instinct to cradle that tiny life, to nourish it.

We were in a somewhat unique circumstance, of course. We adopted our baby. So you were as pregnant as I was, your labor was as intense as mine. We stood together as they handed our son to us for the first time. Parents side by side. Partners.

And yet. . . .

I have been alone with our baby boy most days for months now. We decided together it would be this way. I left my job and made a profession out of seeing to the baby's constant needs. You were tied to your desk eight or more hours a day pursuing a career we both respected and bringing home a paycheck we both depended upon.

In those first hours and days and weeks that our son and I were alone, a special relationship developed. I stepped into a role that was separate and independent of the one you played in our son's life. I became his mommy.

I learned to read his cues and recognize his fast-changing moods. My days became an endless cycle of meeting his needs. I calmed him with song when he fought efforts to change his diapers. I smuggled green vegetables into him by mixing them with the sweeter foods he preferred. I balanced each day with outdoor play, socializing with his little friends and quiet time at home.

I am a good mother. And yes, in the shadows of my most private thoughts, I began to believe I was somehow a better parent as well.

I cringe writing the words, but they were my true thoughts.

An arrogance clouded my vision. I didn't notice the time you spent with him. There was so much less of it that I automatically assumed it was of diminished importance. And when you two were together I was often away taking a needed break from mothering, out shopping or seeing a movie.

So when did I see that I was wrong?

Perhaps it was the recent evening you came home from work and took our 1-year-old son outside into the dark to show him the moon. Or the time the two of you spent 20 minutes in the driver's seat of the parked car touching all the buttons and turning the lights on and off. Or maybe the weekend breakfast when I overheard you explaining to our boy how to eat a banana with just the right amount of peanut butter on it. He cooed and hummed in a way that indicated he understood just what you meant.

Those events showed me how differently we parent our son. You have a way of sharing the world with him that would never have occurred to me. It's spontaneous and fun. His eyes shine and his breath quickens during your lessons. He loves what you teach him.

Remember that Saturday night when you turned off all the lights in the house and the two of you ran around carrying glow sticks you had bought? It was dinner time and father and son were too busy giggling and yelling and bumping into the furniture to notice me standing by a broiled chicken, appalled that dinner would not be on the table at the time I had scheduled.

The only response to my lament was the sound of a 1-year-old's relentless laughter.

I looked away from the platter before me and listened more closely. Our baby was happy. He was experiencing a joy that only his father could bring into his life. Tears filled my eyes.

I was happy for him. But I felt something else as well.

Envy.

I wanted to be the one who made him laugh so. I wanted to be the source of all his joy.

But that's impossible. I might wish to play with him in that spur-of-the-moment gleeful way that I saw is uniquely yours, but that's just not my style. Our son would surely recognize that and see the impostor his mother had become.

That doesn't mean I'm not a good mother. I fill his days with lessons and love and security in my own way. My routines are as important as your bouts of playfulness.

Standing there with the platter of chicken, I realized that one of the most important things I can do for our son is to allow him to enjoy his father.

In the weeks since that night, I've been thinking about why that phrase "It takes a village to raise a child" is so popular. Our society is recognizing that one parent isn't enough for a child. Two parents aren't enough. A child needs a community around him to satisfy his curiosity and all his various moods. A village is needed if a child is to learn even a fraction of life's lessons.

And now, as our nation prepares to honor families on Father's Day, I want to celebrate what our family has become. Now our roles in our son's life are more clear, and we respect the separate and unique relationships we each have with him. Now I look forward to your excursions with our son. They allow me to see my husband and my son in a different light, a light that shines only when the two of you are together.

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