My husband, Erick, has what we jokingly refer to as Daddy Ears. Here’s what I mean:
In a house with three children, we have plenty of “Miss Clavel” moments — Miss Clavel being the nun in charge of the Parisian girls’ boarding school in Ludwig Bemelmens’s classic book Madeleine. Remember? “In the middle of the night, Miss Clavel turned on her light and said, ‘Something is not right!'”
In our house, there are cries in the night, and bumps, and potty emergencies. The noise announcing these crises may range from a whimper to a shriek, but I can guarantee that noise will pull me out of a sound sleep and send me running down the hall.
These days, our dog, Gracie, is always a few steps ahead of me. Gracie usually sleeps in her doggie bed downstairs, but she has the sharpest ears in the house and she loves her girls, so she comes barreling upstairs at the slightest sound of upset. (When she knows that things are really bad — a terrifying nightmare, say — Gracie plops herself down next to the bed in question, where she’ll sleep protectively for the rest of the night. Never have I understood so well why the Darling family in Peter Pan used a Newfoundland as their nanny).
Guess who never, ever comes running, who rarely cracks an eyelid at these moments? Erick. Once I’ve put out the fire in question and returned to bed, I’m impressed if he turns to me and mumbles, “‘It okay?” Usually he’ll slumber on, blissfully unaware.
That’s because Erick has Daddy Ears.
Point of clarification, before I get in trouble: We call them “Daddy Ears,” because in our house it’s always the mommy who comes running in the night, while the daddy snores. This may not be the case in other houses. I’m sure there are some daddies who are the first responders. For that matter, there are plenty of homes in which there’s only one parent, and it’s up to that particular mommy or daddy to handle all nighttime emergencies.
But in our house, we have Daddy Ears.
One more point of clarification: Erick is an amazing father. Really, I couldn’t ask for a better co-parent — when he’s awake. During the daylight hours, Erick is fully engaged with his daughters. His job keeps him busy, but he makes a point of being home for breakfast and dinner. He tries to limit his weekend work, and frequently takes all three girls out of the house on Saturday mornings to give me a break. When I have moms’ nights out or book club meetings, Erick has no problem handling the dinner/bath/bedtime routine solo.
When Fiona was born, we got a lot of advice about how to include Erick in the newborn experience — like introducing the baby to the bottle as soon as possible, so that Erick could take over one middle-of-the-night feeding. Erick gamely went along with this plan, and since Fiona was such an exceptionally tiny baby that she had to be fed through a dropper for the first few weeks of her life, his help was invaluable. Of course, we were both completely wasted with exhaustion, but I was such a believer in this equal-opportunity parenting that, when one wise family member (and experienced parent) advised us: “Do NOT make Erick do nighttime feedings; someone has get sleep!” I was horrified.
It wasn’t until we were expecting our second child — who, thankfully, was less tiny than the first — that Erick and I began to re-think our newborn parenting duties. And the re-thinking stuck.
In this time and place, we (rightly) strive for equality in the division of labor within our relationships. Having children, like marriage, forces us to wrestle with what “equality” actually looks like. At the beginning of my marriage, I defined “equality” as “doing the same things.” In other words, if I was cooking and cleaning, then Erick should be cooking and cleaning, too. It soon became clear that this wasn’t a good model for us; Erick is the better cook, I am the better cleaner, and our ability to complete these tasks shifted based on who was working and when.
The same proved true when we had kids. When Campbell — and later Georgia — arrived, Erick no longer participated in nighttime feedings. Since I nursed the girls for most of their first years, Erick was of limited usefulness to begin with. Then there’s this: I can function with far less sleep than Erick. Also this: When Erick did nighttime feedings and the baby woke up in the night, I’d shake Erick awake, then lie awake until I knew the baby was fed and back to sleep. Nowadays, there’s also this: Erick has to report to work in a public place every morning. And Erick himself will honestly tell you that no matter how many nighttime bottles or daytime cuddles he gives, he never feels very connected to any of our children until they’re about one year old.
And that is why, when our fourth child is born, Erick will not be taking paternity leave.
This arrangement makes sense for us. Do I sometimes glare at Erick across the breakfast table after I’ve been up every two hours all night? Of course. Do I sometimes feel snarky when Erick comes home from work and I ask, “How was YOUR day?” — meaning, really, “Did you enjoy sitting at a desk, eating leisurely meals, and interacting with adults?” You bet. But I’ve learned that Daddy Ears work just as well as Mommy Ears, they just function at a different frequency — like when a tickle pile is required, when chocolate chip pancakes need to be made, and when Mommy really needs a break.
So, there will be no paternity leave with Kiddo 4. On the contrary, about one month after this baby arrives Erick will spend three weeks conducting research in Africa. And I’m really okay with that. I’ll have lots of help: We have two sets of amazing grandparents who’ll be here for most of the summer, and we have a very supportive community of friends. (I’m seven months pregnant, and people are already bringing us meals, which is either an indication of how kind they are or what a mess I am).
Then, by late summer, I’ll have a pair of Daddy Ears sleeping next to me again, although it may be a few more months until he realizes there’s a fourth child in our house.