At dinner we go around and tell one another our favorite part of the day. Most days, my daughters both say the highlight is “Capture the flag with Daddy.” The bigger part of me is so pleased to hear that they have a new ritual they adore, one that gets their yayas out so they might actually go to sleep at a reasonable hour.
A small part of me feels a little bitter. That’s because the coronavirus has revealed a tiny fault line: I am not the fun one. I am not the one doling out corn chips for breakfast on occasion (“Blue corn is a vegetable,” my husband said), and I’m not the one who will do a 400-piece puzzle over several days, or lead a pillow fight. I am the one who cooks nutritious meals, makes sure my children have leggings that fit and kisses boo boos created by pillow fights. I’m well aware that this is a non-problem right now. But still, it irks.
In heterosexual couples, the “fun” parent doesn’t cleanly break along gender lines, said Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab at the New America foundation, which focuses on work-life issues. Some of being perceived as the “fun” parent has to do with the specific interests of your children, and how they align with yours. Tons of moms are out there building cardboard forts and playing Wiffle ball. And dads are much more involved in child care than before, on average. To his everlasting credit, my husband has taken the lead on my kids’ distance learning.
Still, when you look at the time-use data, what is gendered is the time-intensive organizational and emotional tasks, which tend to fall more on mothers. There’s a body of research from the past two decades about heterosexual couples that shows dads are more likely to engage in “recreational” play with kids and more likely to be with their kids when their partner is present than moms are. Moms are more likely to do the day-in, day-out work of diaper changing and clothes buying, and they spend more time with children alone, according to studies.
Leah Ruppanner, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology and the co-director of the Policy Lab at the University of Melbourne, said that the emotional and organizational heavy-lifting that moms do in normal times may feel especially intense right now. In situations where both parents are working from home, Dr. Ruppanner wondered: “Who’s working at the kitchen table and who is working at the home office? Whose work day is constantly interrupted?” If mothers are trying to hold the family and their job together, it doesn’t leave that much room for “fun.”
So where does that leave moms? I asked Jacob Towery, M.D., a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist in Palo Alto, Calif., if having my husband be the more “fun” parent affected my relationship with my children. “I don’t think every parent needs to be excitedly snowboarding or skateboarding with their child nor do they need to be the life of the birthday party,” Dr. Towery replied in an email. “If at least one parent is modeling playfulness, that is healthy for children.”
If you and your spouse are at odds about the division of responsibility in your households, “don’t sit and simmer and stew on resentment,” said Sinead Smyth, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a master trainer with The Gottman Institute, an organization with an evidence-based approach to couples counseling. She recommended setting aside 20 minutes each day, away from your children, to connect and commiserate with your spouse, and try to repair any imbalances. Smyth also said we should take time to compliment our partners, for we’re all under a tremendous amount of stress. “If we don’t pause and look for the good and things we do appreciate about ourselves and our co-parent, we’re not going to see it,” Smyth said.
I’m trying to be kinder to myself on that front. As Jancee Dunn, the author of “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids” and a frequent NYT Parenting contributor, advised me, I should carve out a different kind of fun with my kids that doesn’t necessarily involve physical play or board games. The truth is, I don’t actually want to play capture the flag. I just want to want to play, because I want to be able to give my kids joy during a time when their normal excitements are canceled. I can continue to bake with them, read with them and do sticker mosaics with them endlessly.
The worst thing you can do as a parent is try to force “fun” when it’s not actually fun for you. Drew Magary, the in-house columnist for Medium’s GEN magazine and the author of the novel “Point B,” said if you’re trying too hard for rule-breaking fun, you’re no longer a parent. “You’re the uncle who’s introducing your kids to cigarettes,” said Mr. Magary, who has three kids, ages 14, 11 and 8. Nobody wants to be that guy.
P.S. Today’s One Thing comes from Elizabeth Kitchens, mom to a 4-year-old and 2-year-old in Los Angeles. She and her kids made puppets out of paper plates and straws, then hung a blanket over a baby gate to create a D.I.Y. stage for their puppet show. “It was hands down the most successful quarantine activity yet,” she said.
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
Made musical instruments out of Tupperware, rice, bottle caps, and rubber bands. My 9 month old enjoys these for a few minutes every day. Sometimes my coffee is still hot. — Breana Timlin, Denver
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