From Alpha Dude to Primary Caregiver

Man of the House

From Alpha Dude to Primary Caregiver

Being Mr. Mom was never my plan, but then my wife's career took off and I found myself on the frontlines of the realignment in traditional gender roles.

Written By Nick Morton
Illustration Adam Nickel

I guess I had unrealistic expectations of what it meant to be a dad. From what I had seen growing up, fatherhood looked to be more or less an appealing mixture of paddle tennis and Scotch. Maybe that’s why when my wife and I started talking about kids, I came down with the stronger case of baby fever. I was always the one waving at newborns in the grocery store while my wife hissed at me to stop “creeping everybody out.” Still, when our first child was born, I retreated into the traditional male role of incompetent swaddle-wrapper and repository for spousal ire while my wife took on the more rigorous duties of motherhood. Even so — that initial, tempered dose of parenting pretty much wiped me out. By the start of my daughter’s fifth day on Earth, I was done. I got out of bed, walked halfway to the shower, stopped in the middle of our floor and wept. I was not cut out for fatherhood.

And yet — here I am, 10 years later at 6:30 a.m. on a summer Monday groggily assessing the contents of my fridge. My wife has already fled our house in the Hollywood Hills, and it is now up to me to make two breakfasts (one vegan, one normal), two lunches (one vegan, one normal) and get two children (one female, one male) together and out the door to camp in time for me to still make it to a meeting in West Hollywood by 9 a.m. My daughter, 11, is going to a horse camp in Atwater Village and my son, 9, to a sailing camp in Marina Del Rey. If you are not familiar with the geography of Los Angeles, just know that this journey alone would make for a memorable season finale of The Amazing Race. I will do it every single day this week because, you see, in the years since my children were born, my wife has become an Emmy Award-winning costume designer blessed with an all-consuming career, and I’ve become the Primary Caregiver to our two young kids.

This was never the plan. As a producer, screenwriter and stand-up comedian, I am always on the cusp of “something big” i.e., life-changing stardom that will negate financial worry for generations to come. Once the real money starts pouring in, I imagine, an army of well-trained char-persons recently liberated from Reese Whitherspoon’s employ will descend on our household and take up all the menial tasks of effective domesticity. Then, my wife and I will be free to impart nuggets of hard-won parental wisdom as we duck in and out between yoga retreats.

Here is the thing nobody tells you about the gender re-alignment currently going down in primary childcare: For women, the question has long been “Can you have it all?” For men, the answer has fast become “Boy, you better.” The challenge is not just that you are expected to show up at “mommy-and-me” events and maintain your cool as the other parents complain about their raw nipples and hemorrhoids; you are also expected to have a traditional Alpha Male career (I do, sort of), separate the laundry into seven different micro-categories (I don’t) and braid hair (I try). You are also still expected to tend to the traditional manly duties of home repair, refuse removal and financial planning. Gone are the days when one person cooked and the other did the dishes. In our house, the other is so wiped out from her 4 a.m. call time that she usually goes right to bed leaving her empty bowl of farm-to-table summer risotto for someone else to clean up. It’s O.K. I got this.

In the meantime, someone has to maintain our health insurance. So about a year into my daughter’s life, my wife returned to work. Her schedule can be brutal, leaving scant time for sleep, so I took on the soul-crushing 5 a.m. baby-minding shift of spooning macrobiotic super-gruel into my daughter’s open maw. My grandfather once warned, “Don’t ever get too good at something you don’t love.” But once my mastery of Jessica Seinfeld’s cauliflower mac and cheese propelled my wife to an Emmy nom, we both realized that maybe I was the one better suited to scraping dried sweet potato from the folds of my daughter’s neck. And that’s where I’ve been ever since.

"Here is the thing nobody tells you about the gender re-alignment currently going down in primary childcare: For women, the question has long been 'Can you have it all?' For men, the answer has fast become 'Boy, you better.'"

Though I guess the truth is more complicated, even if you are willing to squeeze in your Sunday tennis match at 630 a.m. so you can get to Trader Joe’s and the farmers’ market before your wife has to leave for a vintage clothing fair. Even if you are willing to sneak out for Arborio rice while the kids nap because you love risotto, too. Even if you can say to yourself, “Hey, it’s just one more dish.” Even then — you are still going to falter somewhere.

For me, that place is hygiene. My kids are the tannest in their class. I’m bad at sunscreen. Their school uniforms are the foulest: topographical maps of every chocolate shake and runny nose from the past semester. Dads who might otherwise be suspicious of the facility with which I rattle off the calendar of upcoming school events are put at ease by the grease stains on my sweats. When moms show up to drop their kids off at my house, they sometimes crane their necks in hopes of spotting my wife. I try — with warm soup burbling on the stove — to assure them that their kids are in good hands. But when my daughter inevitably traipses in — her face smeared with crusty Nutella — they know: The dad is in charge here.

They say that God only gives you as much as you can handle. Well, I’m pretty sure God took one look at us trying to get pregnant and was like, “Yeah, better give them some easy ones.” It’s true. We have great kids. Georgia, gregarious and outgoing, is the ultimate wing(wo)man. At 4 years old, she once made me take “one more lap” before we left a celebrity-packed pool party at Moby’s house. Waller is perhaps headier — inclined to use his formidable brainpower to pinpoint the perfect six-syllable adverb to describe the velocity of a fart. But God spares no mortal the indignities of the “morning ritual.” I measure my success mostly on the degree to which I do not completely lose my shit. My kids are first-rate space cadets, and I can usually feel my rage burbling up like a clogged sewer pipe as I ask, again and again, “Where are your shoes? Why haven’t you brushed your teeth?”

This morning is no exception, and I am damn near my breaking point when, halfway down the block, my daughter tells me she forgot her water bottle. Atwater Village can be 105 degrees in the summer so we have no choice: We have to go back. I really want to yell at her, but I take a deep breath and turn the car around. We stop in front of the house, and she jumps out and runs up the path. I hear her shout from the front door that she needs the keys, so — Dammit! — I jump out of the car and rush after her. But before I get there I hear my son shriek from the street, “Dad! The car! The car is rolling!”

“Oh shit!” I toss my daughter the keys to the house. “Get your water bottle!” And I run back to the street to see the car rolling backward. Another car screeches to a halt, and my car rolls harmlessly into the curb.

As far as morning mishaps go, this is a major fuckup — definitive proof that Dads should not parent. What’s worse — there’s a witness. Arrrgh! I feel absolutely terrible. And yet — and yet — because I somehow did not raise my voice nor hurl vile invective at either child, I am completely calm. In fact, I’m fine with this. I load my kids into the car and merrily drive off to camp.

At the first drop off, I run into an old friend from college. It is one of the wonders of adulthood to re-meet people from your youth and get to know them again as parents. He is a finance guy, makes a ton of money and is not terribly involved in his kids’ lives. I can safely say that he is not included in the summer emails I receive that always start, “Hello, Ladies!” He wants me to come on a golf trip to Vegas next weekend. “Come on,” he implores. “Just tell your wife it’s for work!” I can’t afford to go, anyway, but that’s not really the point. Other dads just don’t get it. It is impossible for me to go because I am the Primary Caregiver. I’m not just the Dad. I’m also the Mom. It’s not that my wife won’t let me go. Or that she’ll be mad at me if I do. It’s that there’s literally no one to take care of my kids if I’m not here. “If I go to Vegas,” I think, “My kids will die.”

I tell him, “I’ll try.”

By the time I get my second kid to sailing camp and arrive at my 9 a.m. meeting, I feel I’ve already put in a full day of work. It’s exhausting and I’ll admit like any primary caregiver, I have harbored fantasies of divorce. Not to get away from my wife, but to relieve myself of being the A-Team parent for half of the time. But in truth, even when my wife is free to help, I usually turn her down. Miss out on a single a cappella rendition of “Cellino and Barnes: Injury Attorneys!” shrieked from the back seat at the top of their lungs? I don’t think so. I may wish I could give up half my time as the primary caregiver, but not if it means relinquishing one brutal moment of me being the Dad.

Nick Morton is a film and TV producer living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @mortonopoulis.