Damned to diaper duty

If the devil's in the details, why is it always mommy who's possessed?

Published April 16, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

My husband and I had a fight recently while vacationing with our baby
daughter, Isabelle. He sounded reasonable and calm. I sounded like a shrew.

We were on our way to dinner, having left the baby with my mother, whom we
were visiting. I'd covered while Bill had dressed, then he'd left me 20 minutes
to get ready while he watched Isabelle. It hadn't been enough.
Scrambling, I'd showered, slapped on lipstick and steamed carrots for her
dinner. Whisking the baby from my husband's arms, I had run upstairs to
change her diaper (he offered but he's slow). Back down to the oven for the
carrots. Upstairs again for a few flips of the curling iron -- this was our
one evening out alone, after all. Down to the living room to talk to my
mother, who was setting up "Lawrence of Arabia" on the VCR. Barking
instructions at my husband: "Tell the restaurant we'll be late! Find her
sweater!" Now, in the car, I realized I'd given my mother almost no advice
about putting our active 1-year-old to bed. "Lawrence of Arabia"? I turned
to Bill angrily: "Did you ever find her sweater?"

Oh my God, I thought, I'm becoming one of those kind of women.

When we travel, it seems to take 10 times as much brainpower to keep the
details of Isabelle's little life straight. My brainpower. Heading to the
restaurant, Bill remained irritatingly calm and centered, blissfully
unaware of the laundry list of things I'd run through. How could he be aware of them? He
doesn't do them. He doesn't even think about them.

Like so many women, I handle most of the details of child care.

I don't mean to. Supposedly I don't want to. Bill and I are committed to
equal parenting; as he is an academic with a flexible schedule and I'm a
freelance writer, we've been able to bring it off. Or so I had thought. We
put in equal shifts with the baby. He has his own areas of expertise, like
getting Isabelle to bed. We routinely congratulate ourselves on our 50-50
arrangement. I constantly brag about what a great father and partner he is.

But traveling recently I realized that something is missing. A
thousand and one things, actually, that I do in a semiconscious Mommy-driven state. While these things remain oddly invisible to my husband, they
keep me in a constant state of motion and distraction, always feeling that
I'm forgetting something -- which I usually am. At times, especially when
traveling, it's hard (did we pack the baby nail clipper?) to think (the
ear thermometer?) a straight thought about anything else (will the hotel
have a crib?) for all the details of child care.

So after a year with Isabelle, we've established a pattern. I do these
little things all week. Bill does his assigned tasks and shifts with
Isabelle. Then we go out for our weekly "date" and I yell at him for not
having cleaned the squished peas off the highchair seat.

The devil is in the details.

There are several problems here. First, you can't appreciate what you don't
do. And you especially can't appreciate what you don't even know is being
done. My husband doesn't thank me for keeping Isabelle equipped with
Pampers, wipes or Desitin. He doesn't see me cruising Walgreen's, baby on
hip, itemized list in hand. What he sees is a woman who suddenly explodes
when he mentions that we're out of diapers. He sees the detail that broke
mommy's back but not the 1,001 tiny tasks that led to the outburst.

Adding insult to injury, some husbands (luckily not mine) actually believe
that they are doing these things. We know that this is not true. Our
spouses may handle garbage and recycling, but it's our agendas that are
filled with baby appointments and play dates, our purses that are stuffed
with pacifiers and Mylicon Drops. A recent MacArthur Foundation study found
middle-aged men much more likely than women both to overestimate their contribution to child care and household chores and to underestimate how
fairly chores are divided.

Pat Schroeder hit the nail on the head in an
anecdote in her book on her 24 years in Congress. Asked soon after her
election how Schroeder's new job had changed his life, her husband told a
reporter: "I spend more time involved in things like taking the children to
the pediatrician." Reading this, Schroeder immediately called her husband
from the House cloakroom. "For $500," she asked, "what is
the name of the children's pediatrician?" Schroeder's husband stammered
something about having been misquoted. Busted!

While more men now know the name of their child's pediatrician, our culture
still does not expect them to be involved in child care -- especially not in
the minutiae of child care. Women, the theory goes, were once gatherers, and
are therefore naturally suited to juggling 15 things at once. Baby on
hip, phone on her shoulder, Mom whirls about the kitchen like a dervish, a
paragon of productivity. Once hunters, our husbands are supposedly designed
only for activities involving single-minded focus -- like stalking a bear or
a good plumber. But how quickly that man evolves once he leaves the house
and climbs into his car! The fellow in the next lane is driving, talking on
his cell phone and tapping the seek button on his car radio in search of a
tune to match his mood. He's a master of dispersion. He hunts only at home.

The idea that women can do all these things without cost is ridiculous. It
takes time and energy to keep track of a child's needs. Worse, it takes
brainpower. What women want is not just to assign their husbands these
detailed tasks (though some of us don't even get that far) but to
permanently transfer them to our spouses' brains so we can think of other
things. We want "buy baby wipes" to pop up automatically on his radar
screen like all those icons on his Windows desktop. We want him to write
"apple juice" on the grocery list. We want initiative.

So when a stranger comes along and offers a little get up and go around the
diaper-changing table we're smitten.

It took me a few dates to fall for Bill. But with my new nanny, Adaluz, it
was love at the first sight of her giving Isabelle a bath. I try to remind
myself that Adaluz is just a regular person. But secretly I see her as an
angel from heaven. Here is a person who, of her own accord, will sort
Isabelle's socks and apply a little spot remover to the bib of her pink
party dress. Recently I told Bill that Adaluz was the best thing that had
ever happened to me. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me," he

Well, maybe my husband does have a few points here.

Women know that details can make life easier: the right toy on that long
car ride, the snuggly blanket in the suitcase. Long before we became mothers
we were details aficionados; in college I used to brag that I could live
for a week off all the things in my purse. Life and the women's magazines
have taught us to accessorize, to find meaning, maybe even a destiny, in
the right shade of lipstick. Now, as we manage tiny beings with tiny needs,
life, more than ever before, seems to be in the details.

But is it? Or do we risk losing our lives in this quest for the perfect
baby bonnet? I hate to admit it, but at times my husband has rescued me
from myself, steering me away from those items marked "mom-invented" in the
baby catalog -- like the tiny suspenders that keep baby's shirt tucked
in, or the device that warms the wipes for baby's bottom. Bill notes that
the $80 baby play yard we spent a Saturday night assembling had a life span
of three weeks before Isabelle outgrew it. (Oh, but those three weeks when
I finally had my hands free!) That special rearview mirror I bought to let me view
Isabelle in the car seat while driving has never made it out of the drawer.

Bill also notes that I sometimes don't let him help. This is true. Knowing
that I can do it faster and better, I take over, leaving him confused about
all those 50-50 commitments we made at our last not-so-romantic dinner
alone. I ask him to dress her, then follow them both to her room to select
the right outfit and pull it over her head. Soon after, he interrupts me
with some inane question about whether to give Isabelle peas or carrots for
dinner. I'm stunned. How did my Harvard-educated husband become so stupid?
But perhaps I've taught him ignorance. I've taught him that there is some
critical difference between peas and carrots, and when it eludes him, he
comes to me to decide. I say I want help but I also want control, of all
these little things I care about and he doesn't.

Recently, though, I've realized that I can't have it all. I can't write
full time and remain diaper-and-wipe chief. I don't feel romantic talking
about baby safety locks. My husband can't learn to feed Isabelle dinner
unless he does it himself.

Bill and I have identified details as the next frontier in our quest to
co-parent Isabelle. At our dinner over vacation we made some new
commitments. I'm in charge of baby clothes. Bill is in charge of buying new
shoes. I have taken the zip-lock bag of Cheerios out of my purse. Recently
he made Isabelle's dinner to leave with the baby sitter.

Last night I noticed her shoes looking a wee bit tight.

By Jennifer Bingham Hull

Jennifer Bingham Hull is a Miami writer who reports on women's issues and international affairs.

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