The female dad

He calls me Mama, but who's he kidding?

Published January 9, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

I've always wanted to be a mommy. When I was 18, I swore a private oath to have my first baby while I was in my 20s. When I came out to my parents, I assured my dad that he would be a grandfather. When I began dating my wife, I asked her if she wanted children. If she'd said no, I would have broken up with her.

I've always wanted to be a mommy, and for six blissful months, I was one. I loved it. I loved staying home. I loved nursing my baby. I loved taking care of the house. I loved having dinner ready when my wife got home. But as my maternity leave ended, we looked at our financial situation. I made more money. Ellen could be on my health plan, but her employer would not give me health insurance. The choice was obvious; I would go back to work and Ellen would quit her job to stay home with the baby. So I took on a role I had never imagined for myself: I became the female dad.

Now, I am that mythical '50s father. I commute during rush hour. I wear suits at work. In the evening, I come through the door to kiss my wife and my son. And I kind of like it. I get a feeling of power when I think, "I have a wife and child to support." It's great to be able to have a fantastic career and show off the pictures of my adorable toddler to my colleagues. I have it all.

Ellen is now the mother that I always wanted to be. When our son cries at night, he doesn't want me to comfort him. If I try to pick him up, he says, "No, no, no," and pushes me away. He jumps out of my arms and runs to Ellen's side of the bed. When he's cranky in the evening, I can't coax him to eat a few more bites of dinner, but if she's holding the spoon, he'll finish it all. Sometimes it's all I can do not to be devastated. I wonder why I so easily gave up my dream of motherhood.

Early on Sunday mornings, I take him to the park, and we see all the other toddlers there with their daddies. I feel a kinship with these men. We are all doing the same thing, giving the moms a break for one morning a week. We push our kids on the swings a little awkwardly, and struggle to decode their baby talk. We enjoy our children, but we don't know them intimately. We know they love us, but we also know that we aren't The One.

Though it makes me a little sad to be one of those dads at the park, I know that it's what I truly wanted all along -- not for myself, but for my child. All those years I dreamed of being a mother, what I really wanted was for my child to feel secure and loved every single day, and to know that no matter what happened, Mommy would be there or Mommy would come back soon. My son does have that now, and he has it only because of my salary and my health insurance. If I weren't the daddy, he wouldn't have his mommy at home. Part of adulthood, and parenthood, is learning to compromise to get what you really want. I learned to accept the compromise of being my son's female dad.

When he turned one, Ellen taught him to call her Mama. "What's my name?" she would ask. "Mama!" he'd reply with a big smile. He called her Mama for weeks and weeks, but he didn't call me anything. One night, I was giving him a bath and I poked him in the tummy. "Hey, what's my name?" I whispered. He looked right at me and said, "Mama." He didn't say it with the same enthusiasm he used for Ellen, but he did not hesitate. He knew. I wanted to make sure, so I asked him again.

"What's my name?"


By Sara Keiko Sarasohn

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