A Mommy Wonders If There's a Daddy Track

Does honor at work have to mean no dinner at home?

My husband was notified he is one of three California finalists for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching Elementary Mathematics. Our four daughters and I were planning to honor him with the Red Plate - "You Are Special Today." But that was if he had been home for dinner. The price of having an award-winning husband and father is that, frankly, we don't see him much.

One would assume that, as a teacher, he would have plenty of time for the family. After all, his children go to his school, and his commute takes all of 10 minutes. Teachers' hours look good on paper - 10 months of work for 12 paychecks, paid holidays, in class from 8 to 3 - but in the flesh more is involved. Every teacher puts in countless hours of planning, grading, conferencing, creating the classroom environment, evaluating, and soul-searching. That is normal. The everyday, unsung hero- of-a-teacher doesn't get nominated for this award. This award goes to the overachievers.

My husband, besides working on his master's degree at night, is the district's math mentor teacher. He is responsible not only for his own class but for keeping all the elementary teachers in the district current on new methods, innovations, and frameworks. He presents workshops, attends conferences, joins in seminars, and belongs to every math organization in the state.

He loves this stuff

Don't get me wrong - he loves this stuff. He is hooked into a math network on the computer, and they actually gossip in math-speak. He never minds when a student calls (usually while the soup is hot) to question or discuss a solution to a problem. That's why he gives them his phone number. He enjoys the barrage of his work. To him it is all a gift.

And yet I see the hurt twisting his face when the baby won't kiss him goodbye as he is leaving for another conference, because she has deduced in her own mathematical logic that, if she doesn't kiss him, he cannot go. The father in him just wants to stay home and frolic. When he has to choose between his daughter's birthday party and a fraction presentation, or a piano recital and a graduate lecture, he wears his guilt like a scarlet letter.

But the professional obligation always gets the nod. If he misses these commitments, he will not be taken seriously, he will be branded undependable, he will be out of the loop. The family events, by nature, will come around again. He will catch the next recital; he will be the popcorn-meister at the next sleepover. The first snow will be cajoled and adorned into the first snowman again next year.

My life seems much simpler. As a writer I can schedule my own days, jigsawing it all together so that each piece clicks into its place in the puzzle. As a woman, I am expected and encouraged by societal convention to put my children first. And I do. I would not fare well in my husband's mode of existence.

The male as caregiver

I would not want to be a father today. Fatherhood is undergoing a wrenching (dare I say seminal?) transition in our society. My husband walks a fine line between professional dedication and involved parenthood, and he has no map to follow. Men are expected to excel in their away-from-home careers at all costs. Being male supposedly requires the single-minded pursuit of being male. For all the drum-banging in the woods, ask a stay-at-home father, if you know one, about the emasculating judgment he faces as a result of his choice to be the primary caregiver. He becomes Mr. Mom. He is considered an oddball who has probably failed in his real career.

At the same time, modern fathers are supposed to be there for their children and to allow their nurturing instincts some expression - to shed the idiot-father stereotype personified by Homer Simpson and Fred Flintstone and every dad on every commercial who can't manage to get any brand right. We impress on fathers their importance as role models for their children. But increasingly they must wonder, as my husband does, what should they model? Do they serve best by exemplifying, like their fathers before them, the relentless, challenging climb to the top of their profession? Or by turning down a promotion or opportunity in order to give their families the precious gift of time? Is there such a thing as the Daddy track, and are the men who choose it committing professional suicide?

In a perfect world, we would all devote ourselves to the art of family-ing, rather than mothering vs. fathering. We would practice the balanced art of living, rather than achieving vs. parenting. Individual success would not come at the expense of well-roundedness, with the tax paid by children who crave their daddy's presence. A perfect world.

I get to accompany my husband to Sacramento, where he will be honored and photographed and luncheoned as a state finalist for this award. I will delight in the glory bestowed on his hard-working, beloved brow. He richly deserves this recognition. But the price our family pays is written in the dust gathered on the Red Plate, still in the cabinet.

* Valerie Schultz is a writer based in Tehachapi, Calif.

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