Read the first part here: Taking Care of Mama Bird

Cardinals mate for life.  The male collects sticks for the nest, gathers food for the female, feeding her beak-to-beak, and occasionally even sits on the nest.  Sometimes they sing to each other. I had no idea. I’ve never seen the male sitting on the nest or flying up into our stoop. But Wikipedia told me they do, so it must be true.  If that’s the case, both are needed to make the family work on a daily basis. Then maybe papa bird feels the same tension between caring for his family and caring for himself that mama bird does.  I know I do.

As men, our temptation takes the form of duty.  Most of us fly off to the office every morning not because we love it but because we need to, because our family needs us to.  They need us to so much that we may come to love it. The long hours and late nights ay be a result of wanting to be where we feel most useful.  Competence at making money and providing food may become an avoidance of a perceived incompetence at caring for kids or preparing dinners. However much we complain about Mondays or off-hours work emails, we can’t give up our duty.  If we do, what else will we have left?

Not all men are like that.  We’re evolving from the era of office-bound fathers and domesticated housewives.  But though our roles may shift, our hearts don’t change. The temptation is still there.  I don’t have a high-powered job or throw myself into my work. I don’t go to an office, wear a suit, or shave everyday.  I put in my hours, work as best I can, and get on with my day. This lets me spend time watching or playing with the kids, cooking dinner, doing housework, or on whatever else needs to be done.  I prefer it that way, if sometimes I wish for more from my job or get tired of doing the dishes. But not obsessing exclusively over work does not absolve me from my sense of duty. It broadens it.

I was never one to adhere to strict roles in the home.  I did laundry and cleaned and cooked some. Christine paid the bills (i mean that literally, she wrote the check and put it in an envelope; she never made any money until recently).  She’s never in her life made me a sandwich. I’ve never asked her to. There wasn’t much housework to do, honestly, when it was just the two of us in tiny, one-bedroom apartments. When Christine went on bedrest a few months before our first child, we had just moved into our first house.  Now I started to do all of the cooking, cleaning (not much), laundry, dishes, shopping, and whatever else couldn’t be done from the couch. It was a lot more work at first, but I was happy to do it for my wife and unborn daughter. It was only for a couple of months until the baby was born, right?

Not exactly.  Christine had severe postpartum problems.  She was in a bad place physically and mentally.  There was more work and less sleep than ever with three of us around, but it wasn’t exactly a good time to suggest she help wash the dishes or fold the clothes.  She had her hands pretty full just nursing the baby. So I did it. It was my duty as a husband a father. I couldn’t give it up. I couldn’t just do less. I was working on my Masters degree at the time, so I had gotten into the habit of going somewhere over lunch to write or edit.  I remember feeling so guilty asking Christine for an hour or two to work on the weekends, when Virginia wasn’t in daycare. I didn’t want to put any extra work on her. I often wouldn’t go until I was sure Virginia was down for a nap.

If was draining (and it was), it was also a source of pride.  I may have started it for noble causes, but I kept it for myself.  The more I did, the more I carried the burdens for my family, the better husband or father I must be.  That’s why I’m still doing it, why I still try to do everything and still feel guilty asking Christine for anything.  Pride traps us like that. I will get bitter if I don’t feel appreciated or supported, but I won’t ask for help. I will steal a few minutes of personal time, but I’ll never admit I do less than I could.  Regardless of the reality, I am committed to the idea of myself as someone who does more than the common man and who is therefore particularly essential and worthy of respect.

So I find myself washing dishes, shoulders slumping as I realize that the dishwasher still needs to be emptied first, muttering about how Christine never does the dishes (she does) or how I wish she would do this or that for me (she does a lot more now at home and work than ever), followed by sharply remanding myself for having those thoughts, telling myself it’s my duty to do these things so she doesn’t have to, before starting the process all over again.  I still feel guilty going out and leaving the kids with Christine, who happens to be their mother.

As much as the most workaholic father, I struggle with giving anything up.  I can’t do less, not because the family really needs it or because no one else could do it, but because my identity is tied up with how much I can do.  I don’t trust Christine to be capable enough on her own, and I don’t trust her or my kids to love me outside of the service I provide, even as I resent them for not loving me as much as I think I deserve.

Maybe you can tell the answer isn’t to try to do more.  As with the mama bird, my wife and kids don’t want or need my sacrifice at their expense.  All parenting involves sacrifices, of course, (sitting on the nest, gathering food for the chicks), but it doesn’t involve giving up your whole self.  My family would be better off with dirtier dishes and a more satisfied dad, with less money and more joy.

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