No matter how involved and supportive my son’s father is, it often feels like the weight of the big, big decisions—and the small, daily decisions—are perched on my shoulders.
Right before my son was born my mother said something to me that, at the time, didn’t make much sense. She said: “Your husband will love you and support you and will appreciate all of the sacrifices that you are making in raising this child. But in the end, you will be all alone with every big decision, every crisis.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially recently as the three of us—my son, my husband, and I—were sitting in the emergency room of our local children’s hospital. That morning my 5-year-old woke up and wasn’t able to walk. We thought it might be a cramp from sleeping in a funny position and things seemed to improve as the day wore on—until they didn’t. So here we were, right around dinnertime, in a tiny exam room, eating graham crackers and oranges the nurses brought us.
My son was entertained by the children’s TV channel he is usually not allowed to watch at home. I was busy showing a brave face as we waited for test results. And my husband, well, he retreated to his “dark place.” That’s the place where our son never goes to another Taekwondo class, spends his life in a wheelchair, doesn’t dance at his prom. The dark place is where my husband doesn’t eat, doesn’t talk, doesn’t move. He sits on that uncomfortable hospital chair motionless and without a word as Sam and I goof around and try to make the best of this scary situation.
I know exactly what my husband was thinking, because I was thinking it too. No, actually, I wasn’t thinking it just then, because I was too busy—with paperwork, with talking to doctors, with finding food, with entertaining Sam. My “dark place” would have to wait until later.
And somewhere between when Sam got an IV—screaming, clinging to me—and switching on another Spongebob episode, it hit me: My mother was right. I am alone. My mate is right here, sitting next to me, but there’s no reassuring smile, no jokes, no emotional support. He is not even talking to the doctors when they are in the room. He is scared to death, I get it. But when am I allowed to be scared to death?
I have always felt that being a mother was a lonely profession. It’s isolating in the early days with breastfeeding and long nights, when you suddenly go from an independent woman with a life to someone who doesn’t have time to go to the bathroom. And later it’s isolating because no matter how involved and supportive the father is, it often feels like the weight of the big, big decisions—and the small, daily decisions—are perched on the mother’s shoulders. Mothers often feel the weight of things more, and mothers are quicker to judge themselves if things are not going well with their child. If only I breastfed, if only I stayed home, if only I hired a nanny…
A lot of times, I try to step back. I don’t always have to save the day—I am happy to let my husband do it. I know that I can be a control freak, so I stop myself from getting too involved when I don’t really need to. But no matter what I hand over and/or step away from, I can never really, truly not be involved. Things keep me awake at night, while my husband snores happily. I get distracted at work thinking about parenting decisions while my husband’s life revolves around his job. “It’s going to be fine,” is his answer to everything and I will want to know how is it going to be fine if I don’t make the right call?
So what is this imbalance? Is this the nine months in the womb—my womb? Some old-fashioned call of duty to motherhood? As soon as a woman becomes a mother, that becomes a major part of her identity. Mother. Can we help it? Should we?
Right there, in that exam room, I wanted to be a ’50s housewife. I wanted to be able to break down and hold my baby and never let him go. I wanted my husband to talk to the big scary men in white coats and I wanted him to raise his voice just a bit after the third hour of waiting for a hospital bed. I wanted to be the one to go to my dark place where our son would never walk again, and I wanted my husband to be the one to pull me back. And I really, really wanted a martini before 5pm.
If I wouldn’t have been brave that night in the hospital, would my husband have stepped up? Probably. In this push and pull of roles, are we always aware of what our partner needs at that exact moment? Are we always clear what role we are supposed to play? No. In the end, this may be as much about personalities as gender roles. Maybe there are husbands and fathers who do not shut down from the sheer terror of watching their child suffer. Maybe there are mothers who never put on a show just to prove that they are brave.
What I do know is that days later, when I came down with the same cold virus that caused my son’s temporary paralysis, I was happy to have a husband who made me tea with just the right amount of honey, who took my temperature in the middle of the night, and who sang to our son because I was too sick to do so. It wasn’t a big crisis, only a cold, but when I was down for the count, he was right there, ready to pick me up.
Zsofia McMullin is a writer and mom to a five-year-old little dude. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Kveller, and Full Grown People. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com.