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The help

December 9, 2010

Remember how my brilliant headshrinker solved my angst about the cottage with a single utterance? The proper phrase, it seems, will set you free. I have not been back to see her in months, mostly because I cannot afford it. But the sort of help I look for from a shrink can apparently be summoned without one.  I’ve got a new mantra.  Before I tell you what it is, though, consider yourself warned:  you’re all going to think I’m a sexist bitch and want to rake me over the coals.  I don’t care.  I welcome your coal raking and agree wholeheartedly with your censure.  I am a git, a prat, a jerk, a pig, a selfish twat, and whatever else is left–I admit and embrace it.  But what I’m not, ever since I re-defined my children’s father in a totally reductive and anti-male way, is boiling over with pointless, irresolvable rage.  Get ready to despise me, and I’ll tell you what I came up with in order to calm down.

And while you’re finding the rake and firing up the coals, I’ll try to explain what my ex-husband has done to reduce me to a seething, wrathful mess in need of a mantra. Nothing big, mind you. The big issues don’t bother me any more. Where big issues are concerned, I’m transcendently calm and poised, a model of detachment. I either find a way to live with them (so Zen!), or I confront my ex-husband head on, having (finally) figured out that confronting him is never as bad as I fear it will be. Anyway, speaking seriously for a moment, I don’t ever take our post-marital détente for granted. I know several divorced couples who live to thwart each other. Stuck in a tight orbit of mutual hatred, they remain absolutely fixated on their ex’s misery at the cost of their own happiness. We, thank all the gods, are not like that.  And when it comes to the kids, things are even simpler.  Just like the good old married days, I’m the maker of big decisions, and he–lacking an agenda or ideology that conflicts with mine–shrugs, and goes along. Big issues are fine.

It’s the little issues–the biting, unswattable gnats, as it were, of shared custody–that really suck me dry.  And these last few months have been, for lack of a better way of putting it, a virtual swarm of minor irritations.

We’ve been separated, with the kids going back and forth, back and forth, for nearly three full years now.  When they’re with me, I run the ship.  It’s not a terribly tight ship, but–since I no longer have a first mate or even a bo’sun–I’m both mistress and commander.  Which means I don’t call my ex-husband every ten seconds to ask him some stupid question whose answer, so help me fucking god, should be obvious by now.  I don’t call him to ask how much Tylenol one gives a fifty-five pound slightly feverish child (it’s right there. On the box.) I don’t ask whether one keeps a slightly feverish child out of school (yes.)  I don’t ask whether one really has to dial the school’s attendance line to say that the kid’s staying home (yes), and I don’t even ask for the school’s number, because we’ve had one kid or another at that very school for over a decade now, so I know it by heart.  And if I didn’t?  It’s on the first page of the school directory. Each of us has one.  I know this because, you see, I ORDERED AND PAID FOR TWO DIRECTORIES AND SENT ONE TO HIS HOUSE at the beginning of the year.  I even know where his is.  In the kitchen, next to the microwave.  You’re welcome, I’d say, except that–whoops!–somehow, I rarely get thanked.

And I don’t ever ask whether someone else could call the school for me, though it IS much easier to have another person dial some numbers and leave the kid’s name on an answering machine than to hang up and do it yourself.  Even if the person you ask to make the call has been rudely awakened on one of her rare child-free mornings.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Shel Silverstein:

How Not To Have To Dry the Dishes

If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful, boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor—
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore.

A caveat:  I’m used to the dropped dishes by now.  Sometimes I can even just laugh and say “no” when my ex (the sly dog) feigns incompetence, the better to stick me with an awful, boring chore.  What drives me right up a fucking tree are the wee inconsiderate acts that strike me as not only lazy and annoying, but also bizarrely unparental.

Why does he show no interest in the kids’ grades or evaluations or what-have-you?  Why, when they’re sick on my watch, does he only rarely call to see how they are?  Why can’t he transact a simple permission slip, a note to the teacher, a fucking birthday party invitation without calling, texting, sending me a tedious e-mail?  Why does he bombard me with communication about stupid, obvious shit when the kids are with him, and yet vanish from the face of the earth when they are not? Why do I often find myself piecing together strange narratives that are just this side of worrisome–you got stung by a bee when?  And Dad was…where?  And then your coach drove you home and what?  For how long?  And wait–you were at whose house for supper?  And your brother was…with you?  Or with Dad?  And when, exactly, did you last see your brand new winter coat?

Why does he make a huge deal about having to “cover” for me for two lousy afternoons (because he is so very busy with work, you see) when I’m out of town at a once-yearly family meeting that I’m required to attend, and then call the day after I get back–the very next working day, mind you–at twelve thirty in the afternoon (!) to remark that he is about to leave his house for work (!!!) and should he drop yesterday’s forgotten mittens off on his way?  (My ex-husband is a scientist.  He makes his own hours.  When we were together, they were very long hours, and I am still conditioned to expect that he will work from morning till night every day at his lab.  But the truth is, he has not worked that way since we split up, which was nearly exactly when he got tenure.  I don’t blame him.  No one wants to work horrible post-doc hours, or trying-to-get-tenure hours, and he has earned the right to a mellower schedule.  But here’s the rub: these days, my ex-husband reverts to his extremely busy, overscheduled self only when it is inconvenient for me. It happens over and over again, and it’s so extreme and so predictable that I bet I’d even find it funny if my head didn’t accidentally explode before I remember to laugh.)

If my ex-husband wanted a true fifty-fifty custody arrangement, he is one of the very few working parents I know who could easily tweak his hours to suit his childcare obligations.  I haven’t explained this to him per se (see under: Dream Cottage, Fatal Mistakes), because I’d actually like more time with my kids, not less–but trust me.  His teaching and mentoring obligations are minimal; his ability to fix his own schedule is nearly unlimited.  So what’s the problem, you say?  If I secretly want more time with my kids, if I’m used to being the primary parent, and if I welcome the authority in a way–sounds like I’ve got it made, right?  Why, then, am I so pissed off?

And while we’re at it, we should point out that it’s entirely possible I brought this whole state of affairs on myself. When I think back to our married days, the division of labor in our house (which worked very nicely for us) came roughly down to this–I was Head Parent.  He was Backup Parent.  We made a decent team.  No one seems to talk about this very much, but if you are a female who has decided for whatever reasons to spend a few years hanging around with your kids, you sometimes start to cop a little attitude about it.  I know I did.  Call it what you will–power trip, or earned competence–I was, and still am, pretty sure I’m better than he is at managing the kids.  Never mind that we started out on equal ground (grad students, same university) when we married; the minute our older son was born, I glommed on to that fat bald baby as if my very life depended on it.  My husband, somehow, managed both to love the baby and to spend long hours at the lab.

No one ever said, “I’ll take Drosophila; you handle midnight croup.” But divisions of labor are insidious; as his career trumped mine, I got a tiny bit proprietary about raising the kids.  The fact that I have ten million younger siblings and an affinity for babies in general skewed things even further.  And then there was the whole science (with its eventual potential for a living wage) versus humanities (with nothing of the sort) scenario.  It made sense.  It made us both happy. I chose the baby (O lucky me!), and he chose the fly lab.

But now we’re divorced, and since I’ve had to abdicate part time, I want that time to be as free of petty child-wrangling as possible.  Oh, I’m far too anal ever to detach completely.  My spine still tingles every day at the exact time the school bus arrives, no matter where I am, and I keep a fairly accurate running tally of their games, their dentist appointments, their lessons, tests, art classes, parent-teacher conferences and the like, whether I mean to or not.  But I’d like to be able to remember a science project and then realize, with a happy little frisson of freedom, that someone else might deal with buying the posterboard and coping with the pipecleaners.  I’d like to just assume someone’s getting the birthday present for the party that’s set to occur on one of my “off” weekends.  I’d like to chill out a bit, is what I’m saying.  Problem is, unless their father steps up, I can’t in good conscience let go.

It’s no fun standing on a street corner in the freezing cold, desperately shouting into your cell phone, heart pounding, a hundred miles from home on a day that isn’t yours, listening to your children’s father freak out because he was a few minutes late to meet the bus and now your younger son isn’t there and he doesn’t know what to do, or whom to call, or what happened, or how to fix it.  There are the frantic few minutes of utter panic and impotent worry, and then (after the kid is located–he’d gotten off a stop early to walk the rest of the way with a friend, and came around the corner a few minutes later, no big deal) there’s the impotent rage.  What if I hadn’t answered my phone?  Why should I HAVE to answer my phone?  What, exactly, was I supposed to do, given that I was Not On Duty and also Out of Town?  Why wasn’t there a fucking apology for nearly giving me a heart attack when a) he should have been on time and b) he should have called the school transportation number right off the bat, not his ex-wife’s cell phone, if she was miles and miles away?

Once upon a time, consoling-windows friend and I went away for a long weekend, just the two of us.  On the last morning of our trip, we were peacefully drinking coffee when her husband called her, a little bit grumpy, from his car.  A long conversation about the logistics of getting various children various places–it wasn’t terribly difficult to figure out, but it did require a bit of planning–ensued.  When she finally hung up, before she’d even finished rolling her eyes, the phone rang again.  “I forgot to ask,” her husband said.  “Are we out of half-and-half?”

So, are the coals ready?  Rakes poised?  Here we go.  I’ve decided not to think of my ex-husband as my children’s father any more. Instead, he’s their au pair. A treasured family retainer, the best babysitter money can buy.

Oh, but I’m obnoxious and condescending, aren’t I? Listen. That’s the sound of steam NOT coming out of my ears. I swear to god, I’m calmer than I have been in ages.  Think about it.  If he’s the au pair, what do I care what he does on his days off?  He can go to work at five p.m. if it suits him–it’s none of my business.

A babysitter doesn’t necessarily think to ask how the kid’s science test went, or even whether the strep test came back positive.  I’ll tell him, of course, because he’s intimately involved with the kids, and should be kept in the loop as far as their welfare is concerned.  But I won’t get resentful if he doesn’t ask.  After all, he’s just the au pair!

“Well, he’s not my favorite person in the world, but the kids really like him, and that’s what’s important.  And while he sometimes doesn’t have the best instincts, his heart’s in the right place.  Really, I think he’d do anything for them.”  Try saying that instead of “What the hell is wrong with him? He’s supposed to be their fucking parent!”  Which one gives you an aneurysm? Which one makes you feel cozy, peaceful, and reassured?

“He still needs a fair bit of direction,” I’ll tell my friends, all of whom will be secretly plotting ways to hire him away from me.  “But it’s good if he comes to me if he has questions.  I’d much rather know if he’s wondering about something than have him guess, and possibly guess wrong.  I’m the parent, after all.  He’s an excellent babysitter.  I’d trust him with anything. Well, almost anything. And god knows it’s so hard to find good help, especially these days.  If it weren’t for my au pair, who takes the kids…well, let’s call it a third of the time…I don’t know how I’d ever get any work done.  Or any time to myself, to do as I please!”

I’ll just lie down on the coals now, to make it easier for you, shall I?  Rake me over them, rake me on over.  I’ve got so much inner peace, I probably won’t even combust right away.

56 Comments leave one →
  1. Anon for this permalink
    December 9, 2010 1:09 am

    I don’t have an ex-husband, but I do have a brother and a dad with Alzheimer’s. And my brother is completely useless with my dad. He doesn’t help make care decisions, he doesn’t provide emotional support, he has never offered financial help. The only way for me to let go fo the corrosive rage was just to let go of any expectations that my brother would be useful. It’s not fair that my husband and sister-in-law do more for my dad than my brother ever has, but it’s not something I can change. I just think of my brother as defective and ignore the idea he has equal obligations to me.

    So I think you’re 100% right. You can’t change your ex, and the only way to make him step up is to put your kids at risk. Thinking of him as a babysitter will keep you sane.

  2. December 9, 2010 1:11 am

    I don’t know, maybe I’m insensitive, but I think you’ve hit on a brilliant strategy! More power to you for reframing the situation in a way that results in peace in your heart, not murder and mayhem.

  3. December 9, 2010 4:35 am

    Tell me, who did all these thing when you where still living together? Who ran the household/family/kid/school stuff?

    If you didn’t share, that’s a huge part of the answer.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      December 9, 2010 8:22 am

      I did them, as I said, and you’re right, that IS a huge part of the answer.

      • December 10, 2010 4:37 am

        Sorry, I just managed to miss that bit in your text. I sounded awfully smug and also a bit thick;-)

        • irretrievablybroken permalink*
          December 10, 2010 2:33 pm

          Not at all! It was a long post, I can hardly blame anyone for skimming. Also, you should know that I read A Farewell To Arms all the way through (and boasted about how quickly I had finished) WITHOUT REALIZING THAT JAKE BARNES WAS IMPOTENT. Talk about thick…

          • Mare permalink
            March 18, 2013 8:53 pm

            Wait- wasn’t that The Sun Also Rises?? Now I have to go back and take a look!

            • irretrievablybroken permalink*
              April 2, 2013 3:49 pm


  4. Ellie permalink
    December 9, 2010 6:12 am

    I fully support your coping strategy. My husband is a tenured full professor who chooses to work extremely long hours, pursues a time consuming fitness schedule, and travels often. When he is home he can rarely be bothered because he is working from home, about to go to work or to go workout (this “I’m about to leave” limbo can last hours on a Saturday while he reads the newspaper), or he’s too tired, or (rarely, but nevertheless) drunk. His time is only flexible when it suits him. He assumes without asking that I’m always available so he can work, workout, sleep, drink whenever he wants. It’s absolutely not a question of my willingness to >share< parental or household responsibilities, big or small. He has made himself unavailable most of the time, he does not ask about school, homework, drs. appointments, etc. and rarely shows an active interest when I raise such topics. He he does not participate in decisions about day care, school, health care, extracurricular anything, not because I exclude him, but because he just does not respond when asked, he's too busy now, etc. I believe he chooses not to participate so that he need not feel responsible or accountable. I too modify my expectations in order to preserve my sanity and not be consumed by anger and frustration. He's my children's recalcitrant older brother…..non-communicative, irresponsible, often disrespectful to me in words and actions, thankless, sometimes fun. As long as I don't expect him to act like a parent, I can deal with it. His kids adore him, although I think it is in part because they miss him when he is physically or mentally unavailable.

  5. Ellen permalink
    December 9, 2010 8:54 am

    Brilliant. My au pair is also a scientist, and he goes up for tenure next year. I don’t anticipate a change in hours or responsibility. He will remain the au pair (live-in), and I’ll remain the decider.

  6. Bethany permalink
    December 9, 2010 9:11 am

    This is so refreshingly honest. THANK YOU for writing it.

  7. December 9, 2010 9:22 am

    This is very much how I have to deal with my (Aspergers) husband. Not quite as extreme, but, yeah. Very familiar.

  8. December 9, 2010 9:28 am

    Looks like none of us are going to rake you over the coals! Sounds so much like my husband! Who sometimes gets mad at me for not putting the laundry away – you know, after I washed it all by myself and all.

    Sometimes I think the main reason I’m still with my husband is that even if I left him, nothing would change. Your post pretty much reinforces this (and yes, I’m exaggerating a bit).

  9. December 9, 2010 10:07 am

    Now, see, I love this. No coal-raking here.

  10. December 9, 2010 10:20 am

    Whatever works, sister!

  11. Pinkie Bling permalink
    December 9, 2010 11:09 am

    Good for you!!

  12. frances permalink
    December 9, 2010 12:44 pm

    have you read I Don’t Know How She Does It by allison pearson? an excellent novel with a less than awesome (however accurate) title. it is the story of a marriage, parenthood, working–life. and it echos everything you have written here. highly recommend it as a great read, regardless of similarities.

    i am not married and have no children. i am in love with a great guy yet when i consider children, this is what fear: shifting from a partnership to a head and backup/assistant. quite similar to my parents roles and others i see around me.

  13. Sarah permalink
    December 9, 2010 12:50 pm

    Well done — achieving some mental peace for the lone responsible adult in the family is a huge victory for you and the kids. Possibly also for the au pair. Do you worry about what your boys are learning about how to be fathers? Or is that an older loss, long gone and grieved for?

  14. December 9, 2010 12:56 pm

    No vitriol from me. I reckon that you just do what you need to do to get you through the day. It doesn’t matter whether other people approve or disapprove. It’s what works for YOU that counts.

    My partner is also my ex-husband (too long and tedious a story to go into, but if you buy me several gins and tonic, I can be persuaded to reveal the whole sorry tale).

    Merchant Navy wives seem to work to two blue-prints. The first is – assume your husband is an absolute duffer and take responsibility for EVERYTHING, yourself, ALL THE TIME. This way the jobs will get done. Properly. Child-rearing, selling houses, relocating to Guam.

    The only drawback about this is that the returning men tend to find that they have no place in the home any more. They turn to drink, golf or massive model train sets in the attic. Or perhaps another woman who seems to need them.

    I opted not to go down this route. I am hideously undomesticated and proud of it. Feral really. I do all the house-hold stuff that is needed to get me through the period without Tertarus and when he comes home I gladly hand him the Eastern European Tracker Fund paperwork and a list of stuff that he needs to fix.

    And he is as happy as Larry with that arrangement.

    When he comes home he cooks, he cleans (yeah, again that’s a whole nother story about control freakery – but who the hell cares? He makes the meals. I hate hoovering. I am a happy bunny), he fixes things. I look after our son with varying degrees of success.

    We play to our strengths. It’s not perfect and a lot of the time I want to stab him to death (I founded the Jaggy Knives Wives Club for like-minded souls who share the desire to get a kitchen knife busy)

    After that lengthy diatribe….here’s my advice. You are not going to be able to change a single thing about the way your ex-husband behaves. Just has he’s not going to be able to change you. All you can change is how you react to it. I know, fecking, new age clap trap. But it’s true. Get something by Byron Katie from the library – The Work – and give it a go. It’s about just being able to keep the inside of your own head straight. It works for me. Most of the time. I mean, I’ve not stabbed him to death yet.

    Ali x

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      December 23, 2010 10:52 am

      Not stabbing to death is an admirable goal, and I shall strive for it. One must think of the potentially fatherless children! she says, sheathing her weapon.

  15. SarahB permalink
    December 9, 2010 1:00 pm

    I think this is great. Whatever makes you feel better and able to function won’t bring in judgment from this reader.

  16. Anne permalink
    December 9, 2010 1:38 pm

    I am hesitant to admit this, but my fear of what you termed the “Head Parent”/”Back-up Parent” situation (trap?)was a small part of what kept me working full-time after my children were born. It was not the main part, or even a sizable-minority part, of my decision, but to deny that it was not there, in the back of my head, when I was contemplating trying to work only part-time, would be dishonest of me. I felt that, if I were to stay home with the kids, it would be too easy to fall into the rabbit hole.

    As it stands, I still do a lion’s share of the “organizational” work of parenting: I research doctors and schedule appointments, I look into extracurricular activities and fill out the registration forms, and I do 90% of planning of birthday parties, etc. And, like you mentioned about “glomming onto the baby”, I usually enjoy this role. I am extremely organized (or obsessive, if we are going to be less charitable about it) and don’t necessarily want to have to negotiate with my husband about whether we are going to have yellow or chocolate cake at the party, ya know? I know I can count on him in a pinch, and therefore this system usually works for us.

    However, (and I hope you don’t mind if I treat your story as a cautionary tale!) because my husband has been in school part-time this semester (while also working full-time), I thik I have gotten a little TOO used to managing the extras by myself, and therefore I am going to make a concerted effort during winter break to carve out more time for myself….

    LOVE the au pair analogy, by the way. Go for it!

  17. December 9, 2010 2:54 pm

    Oh. Oh wow, this hits home so hard. Yet I’m still married to my children’s au pair. And get this…he works from HOME while I work outside the home yet I still do 90 percent of the housework and probably closer to 95 percent of the childcare. I’ll admit that for years, I had a 65 mile commute, which we traded for an 85 mile commute for him, but I honestly don’t expect to see any changes when he’s in our current house full-time now that he’s sold the old house. No, it just is how he is. And I can either drive myself insane trying to change him or I can accept that he’s the au pair and get on with it.

    Thank you for this. I’m totally taking it as my mantra too.

  18. December 9, 2010 3:17 pm

    OMG I LOVE this. I will chuckle over this for DAYS (and, er, reconfigure it to my own use, as may occasionally be necessary).

    May I just add: Furthermore, the au pair’s free. FREE. Really, you can’t thank that agency enough.

    • J. F. permalink
      December 21, 2010 8:46 pm

      Free, and quite possibly worth every penny.

  19. December 9, 2010 3:37 pm

    I reckon if he ever did decide to change his spots you would be livid! I think we all do this a bit – decide on a role which could be the kids, the finances, the cleaning whatever and make it our own and then get resentful that a) the partner whether live in or not doesn’t do their bit but also b) complain bitterly if when they do try it they get it wrong or rather not how we would do it so they never try again. Also if there isn’t something else to fill the role filled by whatever it is we have decided to own as our thing then if someone else is equally competent at it then it does all sorts of unpleasant things to ones self worth etc.

    All that said you don’t have to live with him anymore and you are not going to change him so if him being an au pair is what it takes to get through the day then so be it.

  20. December 9, 2010 3:57 pm

    But do you say ‘thank you’ to the au pair? It was pointed out to me that by thanking my husband for covering for me, I was relegating him to the role of babysitter… and yet, I have a really hard time walking in ten minutes late from work and not acknowledging that I just made him cover for me.

    • yammeringon permalink
      December 9, 2010 4:28 pm

      I dunno about that. My husband and I thank each other constantly for covering/dish-doing/laundry-folding/butt-wiping/etc. It would probably seem overdone to an outsider, but it is absolutely sincere, and part of a code of civility that maintains a remarkably peaceful marriage (12 years). Of course, while he is definitely not the au pair since he’s achieved tenure, I do feel like his secretary more than I’d like.

  21. Ellietoo permalink
    December 9, 2010 4:31 pm

    By the way I love your writing and I have tried to read as much as possible since you appeared on Babble. This made me think of Britney Spears hiring her ex-husband to baby sit his own two boys while she was on tour… I’ll keep reading

  22. Anom for now permalink
    December 9, 2010 5:14 pm

    LOVE the au pair. What I used to say was “Gee, I never had/have that problem. How will you solve it.”
    No coal raking from me.

  23. December 9, 2010 6:15 pm

    If this is working for you, go with it. It’s way more important that you are not angry all the time than that your coping mechanism is somehow politically correct.

  24. December 9, 2010 8:54 pm

    what a great post!! and totally great insight!! this is a perfect solution to maintaining one’s sanity. i’ve been doing almost the same thing – never expecting anything – which leads to my not losing my mind, and also being able to actually laugh about some of it. thank you for the terminology! perfect!

  25. December 9, 2010 9:13 pm

    LOVE the au pair analogy. If only I could trust that mine had his son’s best interests at heart, every great once in a while…

  26. Celeste permalink
    December 9, 2010 10:30 pm

    Comin’ atcha coal-free.

    I agree that if your ex can adjust to being divorced, he can adjust to being a more deeply involved parent. I hate to say it, but what it would take for him to step up is for you to not be available–not physically or by any technological means. If his kids absolutely depended on him, he’d figure it out even if he wasn’t as good of a mother as you are. But because you’re available, he chooses to keep you on the clock. His passive aggressions towards you are his knuckle-dragging way of saying you work for him. But I hate to see you upset yourself over the childrens’ welfare by enacting some time in maternal witness relocation. It also kind of smacks of that “Surrendered Wife” shit where they say you’re supposed to cease all nagging and criticism (no matter how well deserved) and let your tall child of a man just fail at whatever it is he won’t listen to you about. Ugh.

    I like the au pair reclassification. I probably would have looked for something a little more insulting, like bystander. That conveys a bit more contempt.

  27. Maria permalink
    December 10, 2010 5:03 am

    That’s really really BRILLIANT! It fits my situation 100% and it’s absolutely liberating. Thanks!

  28. Apple permalink
    December 10, 2010 11:02 am

    ditto to Maria’s comment! i have been struggling with the mental fight for what seems like forever, and recently i’ve realized it isn’t helping me any to think “What the hell is wrong with him? He’s supposed to be their fucking parent!” [your words]. i never had an au pair before, i think i will give it a try!

  29. Maggie permalink
    December 10, 2010 1:23 pm

    I think this is brilliant! I know this perspective is going to help me deal with so many things in the future. Thank you!!

  30. Ms V. permalink
    December 10, 2010 1:28 pm

    OMGSH. Did you also marry my ex husband?

    YES! The au pair. And, I tweeted this post. BEAUTIFUL!

  31. December 10, 2010 5:27 pm

    No judgment at ALL. I have had similar odd mantras to help get me through things. (Calling an annoyingly cheerful classmate “Mrs. Smiley” in my head, so that instead of getting annoyed at her blatherings I can just say to myself, “Oh there goes Mrs. Smiley again…..”).

    (Annnd I have never told that to anyone. Wow. Thanks, internet…?)

    Larry David has said, “I have a lot of anti-social thoughts during the day.” (Which he channeled into the George character from Seinfeld). I think it’s normal. Another poster put it more succinctly, it’s better to have your sanity than to have your thoughts be somehow politically correct.

  32. Celeste permalink
    December 11, 2010 9:02 am


  33. December 11, 2010 10:35 pm

    That is brilliant. I remember that you thought at one point that your husband might be a little Aspie-ish. I bring this up because some of the things you mentioned sound like an Aspie parent- I know this because my husband is an Aspie. Officially and documented. He drives me batshit crazy with his lack of figuring out basic shit (like medication dosage) when he is so incredibly smart.

  34. Mary permalink
    December 11, 2010 10:53 pm

    Brilliant! I’ve on more than one occasion referred to my husband as my “3rd child.” Strangely, he doesn’t appreciate that. See how much better “au pair” is! And less, politically incorrect too. Don’t get me wrong. My husband is a lovely man and does amazingly well at his paid job. But like you I’m the “head parent” and he’s the “back-up parent.” And sometimes the head parent would like a day off. On those days, I’m going to hand things over to my au pair. Even if he doesn’t speak French

  35. December 12, 2010 3:35 pm

    I have just deleted a rather long and frothing comment in emphatic agreement – no coals here! – having decided that The Path Of Wisdom for a still-married woman currently in prolonged and torturous couples therapy does, in fact, lie that way. I shall, instead, smile widely and stay schtum!

  36. Leigh permalink
    December 13, 2010 5:10 pm

    I agree with and relate to every word of this post. It’s all true for me too, except I’ve always worked full time and was the primary breadwinner. I also know still married moms who have exactly the same complaints.

    So the Head Parent/Back Up Parent is a not uncommon dynamic in many situations.

    If I thought of my ex as the au pair I would have fired him by now, as his detachment is even more pronounced since our son became a teenager. It’s hard to see what purpose he serves except to disappoint. It makes me sad. But after 14 years of divorce, the one thing I know is that I can’t change a thing about him…

  37. victoria permalink
    December 13, 2010 5:46 pm

    I love you. I too, met my husband while he was mutating Drosophila genes and I was studying humanities in grad school. I, too, saw my career take a bit of a back seat to his rocket-like shot to stardom (well, compared to my job).

    We didn’t have kids, and I sometimes think we’re still married because we didn’t, but man, oh, man, my guy makes yours look like Nanny McPhee.

    A few weeks ago, for reasons too lengthy to describe, he had me drive 1.20 hours in rush hour traffic to spare him 4 blocks’ walk in downtown Seattle (he realized, shortly before he had to make the journey, that he didn’t want to walk outside because there was a risk of rain that evening).

    Because I had to shoulder these last-minute chauffeur duties in light of the risk of rain (by the way, we live in Seattle; it was November; rain was a certainty not a risk; he’s lived here for seven years and knows this; he had known for a week that he would have to get downtown that evening), I wasn’t able to buy a new pair of shoes and had to stick with the really painful new shoes I’d been wearing all day.

    He had to come downtown because we were staying in a hotel for a few days while our floors were being refinished, and I hadn’t packed another pair of shoes, and was stuck with my painful ones.

    I developed a deep blood blister. All because he talked me into sparing him the risk of 4 blocks’ weather exposure. Needless to say, I was a little annoyed with myself for giving in to his unreasonable request.

    Fast forward a few weeks. The blister, since popped, is now a painful, swollen, infected toe. It’s 3:00 pm on Sunday. The dog must be walked, presents for his family must be bought (this is the last shoping day for us). I’m exhausted from spending the whole weekend with remodel chores and really not feeling well.

    “I can’t both buy the presents and walk the dog,” I said, “my foot just hurts too much. Could you please either walk the dog or buy the presents for your family and I’ll take on whichever task you like less?”

    “No,” he replied.

    “But both these things have to get done,” I insisted. “The dog has to be walked. Your family has to be gifted. My foot really hurts.”

    “No,” he answered.

    Fortunately, I was still vividly aware that I had been suckered into spending 1.20 hours in rush hour traffic to spare him a brief exposure to Seattle weather a few weeks ago: the pain in my foot wouldn’t let me forget.

    So I said, “OK. I’ll walk the dog, and you’re on your own vis a vis your family’s gifts.”

    I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it was huge for me.

  38. Anne permalink
    December 13, 2010 11:26 pm

    Oh, man–Victoria, I know this is absolutely none of my business, but I have to ask: what was the outcome of making your husband buy the presents for his own family? (Your story is a cliffhanger!)

    …and bravo, by the way!

    • December 14, 2010 9:11 am

      I know, I want to hear how that came out, too. Because you know he will buy nothing, so what do you say to the in laws?

  39. December 14, 2010 9:31 am

    I’ve had to struggle with something similar to this because my husband has been deployed twice. The first time I was 2 months pregnant and my other kids were 4 and 2. My husband was gone for 15 months. The second time my kids were 2, 5, and 7. Both times I had to drop everything and become a single parent, which was incredibly difficult.

    As hard as it was, there is a certain satisfaction and freedom to making all the decisions in a household and being involved in everything the kids do. The real complications arise when daddy comes back. From my end any help with anything made life easier. From his end suddenly having to do anything was a big deal. We all had to get to know each other again. Having a man around was intimidating for the kids. I had to institute a no discipline from daddy policy for a couple of months as a break in period. So many things around the house were frustrating for my husband after being in Iraq that it was hard for everyone, while at the same time people around us were gushing about how nice it must be to have him home. Which of course it was, but nice implies easy, and easy it was not.

    So now whenever there is an imbalance in the parenting or the housework, it’s hard not to see it as a lingering byproduct of the deployments, even if that may not be true. It’s difficult to tell. My husband feels guilty when there are things he can’t help with because he’s clueless. I assigned him certain people to buy presents for and he drew a blank and I told him ‘never mind,’ bought them myself, and gave him a different assignment. (He gets to stand in line at the post office instead.) I tell him when I get frustrated about such things that I’m not really mad at him, I’m annoyed with the situation. Just like when he was gone. It was useless to get mad at him for not helping when he was in Iraq, and it’s just as useless to get mad at him for not doing things I think should be simple when he’s here.

    In our case we are still married, though, so I have to choose to find it charming and move on.

    • SarahB permalink
      December 21, 2010 12:47 pm

      Just the fact that you’re the assignment-giver is a chore unto itself, because it means that you’re the one keeping track of what needs to get done when and seeing that it’s done, even if you’re not doing every task yourself. I do most of that in our household, and I’m not sure my husband is entirely convinced that this is as big of a contribution as I think of it.

  40. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    December 14, 2010 1:12 pm

    Victoria, I, too, am so curious to see what will happen. Geeze.

    Korinthia, kudos to you for handling an extreme case of head parent/back up parent that had many different stages to adapt to–I think you are quite remarkable to have figured out all the different ways your husband’s re-entry into the family was bound to be difficult (happy, yes, but very very difficult) and come up with ever-changing solutions. And to be sanguine enough to recognize that your frustration is with the situation, not necessarily with him. Extraordinary, and inspiring. Thank you.

  41. superanonymous permalink
    December 15, 2010 7:48 pm

    These comments made me think of a couple I met. The husband was pathologically OCD, and it is clear that his wife is a long time sufferer of his idiosyncracies. Cut to years and years into their marraige, a fancy dinner, guests seated, where he is throwing a hissy fit over the fact that the table is not set the exact way he wanted it. In walks the wife… NAKED. “How about this?! Is this what you envisioned for tonight’s evening?!”

    Makes me laugh. Completely doesn’t relate to rising above the situation. But, I thought she was awesome.

  42. December 17, 2010 5:46 pm

    Do you mind awfully if I take this analogy and tweak it to refer to my co-parent as my Boarder? I cannot honestly accuse him of being a less competent parent – he is not, and as far as schedules allow, he steps up with the kids quite as much as I do. He works long hours outside the home, while my paid work is part-time and home-based, so I end up doing probably 80% of the running around / admin for the kids, but when he needs to do it, he just does, without needing to check in with me first on anything. He knows their schedules, their teachers, their interests, their needs for their activities. He’s perfectly capable of checking gym bags, juggling school runs, administering Panadol, washing three kids after swimming, and helping with science homework without needing to doublecheck anything with me.


    He still appears to believe that all the housework / laundry / food preparation etc occurs by virtue of Magical Pixie Fairies. His contribution to household maintenance is … about what you might expect from a boarder who rents a room. Less, actually, as he doesn’t even do his own laundry. Yes, yes, I’m here more than he is and I work part-time hours, I always expected that I’d do more of it. But 100%? Growwwwwwl.

    Recasting my thoughts in terms of my co-parent as my boarder, rather than my co-householder, will be a useful rage-repelling device!

  43. January 21, 2011 1:54 pm

    I am not divorced, but I am going to start referring to my husband as the au pair as well. I hope you don’t mind but it’s just too brilliant not to steal. Love love love your writing. You must be working on a book, yes?

  44. Bad Mummy permalink
    March 12, 2011 3:02 pm

    Au pair.

    Thank you. You just helped me find a way to resolve a shitload of anger I’m carrying around about having to be the responsible parent, even tho we share custody 50/50.

    Now if only I could say “takes direction well”, instead of “takes every comment or suggestion as an insult”…

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