From Chicken Soup for the Working Mom's Soul

Are They Your Stepchildren?

I glanced sharply at my husband’s uncle to see if he was kidding. His benign expression clearly told me otherwise.

“Nope,” I answered. “I’m their birth mother.”

Now it was Uncle Jack’s turn to be shocked.

I felt around on my nose. No telltale evil-stepmother wart. I have the vertical classical C-section scar to prove that I had shared my umbilical cord at one time or another with all four of my children, but I wasn’t exactly keen about rolling up my shirt for Exhibit A.

I was mildly amused, yet puzzled over his question. Why on earth did he pose such a question?

We were into the second day of our visit in the home of my husband’s aunt and uncle who lived in a quaint town two hours north of us. We had promised for ages we would come and visit, and finally we made good on our promise. Our boys explored their acreage for adventure and fished in their pond. Our baby daughter snuggled in her granddad’s lap. While relatives buzzed with news and cooking, Uncle Jack was out in the breezeway, chain-smoking with his ever-present grin.

I inventoried the events from the day before. We had arrived in a van filled with kids and in-laws, suitcases and gifts. We had thrown a surprise celebration in honor of my father-in-law’s eightieth birthday, complete with balloons, potluck cuisine, and a huge birthday cake.

Then it dawned on me. I could see it all from Uncle Jack’s vantage point.

My husband, Stephen, had been tending to the kids most of our visit there, filling their plates, changing the baby’s diaper, putting her down for a nap, disciplining the boys when it was called for.

What was natural to us—Stephen’s hands-on approach to the kids—must’ve struck Uncle Jack as rather odd. After all, his was a generation mainly raised by mothers, not fathers. Stephen’s role as a househubby had transferred itself into everyday living, even down to a family gathering such as this.

Stephen and I often compared our roles with what was traditional in the 1950s.

I now understand a man’s attitude at the end of a long, mind-draining day at the office, followed by a forty-minute tangle with rush-hour traffic. I know, I know, you’re probably thinking I come home to chilled martinis, pressed newspapers, and those pink feathery slippers. But that’s not all that my husband wears.

Stephen now understands a stay-at-home mother’s attitude at the end of a long day. He wants a real conversation with a grown-up other than “I’m not telling you again! Quit eating dirt!”

Working a full-time career outside the home made me lose sight of minor details, like the birth order of our kids. Stephen knew all the words to the Barney song, their favorite hiding places, and the perfect antidote to rainy-day blues (playing pirates with Dad on a pile of cushions, blankets, and pillows).

The height of my cooking involved mixing sliced hot dogs with macaroni and cheese, while Stephen’s cooking would have Julia Childs begging for his culinary secrets (what zest a teaspoon of peanut butter brings to spaghetti sauce!).

While I fought deadlines, Stephen fought clotheslines. He clutched his chest one day when he saw me toss underwear into the washing machine along with bath towels. Imagine my chagrin. Up until then, I didn’t know I was laundry challenged.

As a working mom, much like the working fathers of the Greatest Generation, I also lost sight of major details. I missed my kids’ first toddling steps, first loose tooth, and other heart-tugging milestones.

I would be curious to know if, back in the 1950s, anyone asked a father, “Are they your stepchildren?”

Stephen called me the other day at work, whispering, “You’ve gotta listen to this. Madison is singing in her crib.”

I sat at my desk with its typical clutter of pens, steno notebooks, bottled water, a mess of flowcharts and phone messages, and my family smiling at me from several framed pictures. As Stephen held the phone over the crib, I swiveled away from the watchful glow of my computer monitor. Tears welled up in my eyes as my beautiful baby girl serenaded me.

The times, Uncle Jack, they are a-changing.

Jennifer Oliver

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