Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time with my boyfriend and his 3-year-old daughter, Ronia. We flew together to Minnesota, spent Sukkot with his parents, and then returned to New York City, where we took Ronia to my shul, to several playgrounds, and to a time-honored New York tradition—Sunday morning brunch in a bar.
On planes, trains, and automobiles Ronia is mistaken for my child. People gave up their seats on the subway, so she could sit next to “her mama” and said things like “Aw, she loves her mommy” when I carried her after a particularly exhausting day. And of course, Ronia does love her mommy—I’m just not that person. I’ve learned not to jump in with a correction in these situations. Our story is personal and complicated, and the history of our new family need not be explicated to everyone who feels the need to comment on my interactions with Ronia.
But it has been weird to me how often people address their comments to me, rather than to Jesse, the one of us who is actually a parent. Sometimes he responds to comments that have been posed to me, or I deflect the question to him, or we just decide to just play along and answer together. But it’s clear that as the woman, I’m assumed to be the parental authority, and Jesse is just Mr. Mom.
And we do hear people using the term Mr. Mom as if it’s a novel and cute way of describing fatherhood. (It was even in a New York Times headline recently.) But Mr. Mom was the name of a bad movie in the eighties. Even the humor of it is hopelessly outdated. It’s supposed to be funny because “Mr.” implies a man, and Moms are WOMEN. Get it? Not exactly a knee-slapper.
Jesse isn’t playing at being a mom when he parents Ronia. He’s being himself—a dad. A dad who stayed home with his daughter when she was a baby (he wasn’t pretending to be a mom then, either), and who now makes pancakes for breakfast and macaroni and cheese for dinner, who does load after load of laundry (Ronia’s princess dresses, and my jeans and cardigans), reads stories, sings lullabies, cuddles, and watches, rapt, when Ronia swings happily on the playground.
In this 21st century world, where we all know tons of non-conventional families, it seems everyone still wants to cast me as the mom, and Jesse as the Mr. Mom. I’m thinking about investing in t-shirts. His can say, “I’m not Mr. Mom. I’m Dad.” And mine can say, “Ladyfriend.” And then when people ask, I can just refer them to my chest. Wait, that might not actually be the best plan…