My kids in LA

An Imbalance of Joyful Parenting: Moms and Dads Are Different

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Dads play, moms complain.

In my experience as a married man with two kids, I was always amazed at the stereotypical dad role that I saw play out in couple after couple. Dad was the playful one. Dad jumped in the pool when the moms sat in small groups talking to each other. Dad was usually the one who agreed to play Monopoly the 100th time, even when the games often ended in tears and frustrations. Mom would often take that time to get some chores done or enjoy some alone time.

Why Dads Play

But why is it that dads play and moms don’t? I heard a lot about how I was irresponsible in my marriage. But it wasn’t the correct work, really. What my then-wife was saying was, “You get to play while I do all the work.” Not accurate. But it was expressing something about her own struggle. I was a good chore-mate, I was happy (or at least compliant) in doing the dishes each night before beginning the kid’s bedtime routine. I even took on more chores as my then-wife continues to express anger and frustration at her plight as my partner.

What it took me a long time to understand was this: I was wired differently than my wife. I enjoyed time with my kids doing whatever *they* wanted to do, regardless of my own needs or desires. I didn’t LOVE Monopoly. But I did love playing a game, any game, with my kids.

I got the nickname in kid circles as “he who makes the pool fun.” I was always the first dad into the water with the kids. I had several ways of tossing them in the air that always gathered a crowd. I’d end up throwing every age-appropriate kid until I couldn’t lift my arms. I was that dad.

Why was my wife, then, that mom? The one that resents the playfulness of the day. The one that sees naps or games as a waste of time. The one that complained during the last 5 years of our marriage about how hard it was being a parent. Some people love being parents. Some people resent it, as their lives are forever changed by the reordering of priorities and budgets. But why?

What is Different About Dads?

Do men learn to play in different ways than women? Sure, in the earliest stages of parenthood, moms are often recovering their energy, their bodies, and their time alone. In those days, my role was playing with my kids as a relief parent, while my wife “got things done.” But her list was never done. And she felt some hopelessness that her list would never get done. Even if she enlisted me, there were still going to be chores we didn’t get to. The list of chores became an albatross of misery. Even as I helped clean the house, fold the laundry, and paid for a daily nanny who cooked and cleaned, my wife was unhappy. The house was never presentable, in her mind. Throwing a party at our house was a weeklong slog, trying to get things up to some imaginary standard.

Okay, so men might not care about the absolute cleanliness of their homes. And perhaps men do not view a messy house as a reflection on their parenting or adulting skills. Women, on the other hand, seemed to feel the appearance of the house reflected critically on their life skills if it was not perfect. She could get more wound up the day of the party, than she was on her wedding day. Amazing.

Maybe, there’s something else going on here.

Dads grew up playing with their dads. Or, in my case, with their sister. I loved playing as a kid. I learned sports. I learned to play in the backyard and woods by myself. I learned to keep myself company from an early age. So, as a man, I am hardwired to PLAY. Even with pets, men are different than women. It shouldn’t be a bad thing, but it seems the stereotype is mostly true. Men play and women complain about the men not doing enough to manage the list. The never-ending, un-completable, list. I’m still not quite sure why that prevents most moms from jumping in the pool, playing roughhouse on the bed, or playing Werewolf in the twilight of a Sunday evening.

Where Responsibility Ends

When my wife renigged on our 50/50 shared parenting plan, she was making a selfish decision. She knew I was the primary bringer of joy and play in our house. She was the task driver. She had to be outsized in being the responsible parent because I was such a child. But that’s really more of a story she told herself, sort of like the list that was never going to be completed. I wonder if moms in general are conditioned to think their playful husbands are irresponsible. Sure, there are plenty of irresponsible men, but I wasn’t one of them. So why did my wife take more than half of my kid-time away?

Well, it was a bit like the list. At some point, she had told herself that she was the responsible one. She told the parenting plan therapist that she was the nurturer. She argued that the kids needed their mom more than their dad. And, even when I brought books and science to show that a 50/50 shared parenting plan would’ve been better for our kids, she took the *divorce brochure* and let me know we would go to court if I disputed her custodial parent demand.

So, my kids got 1/3 of a dad. It sounds trivial, but I’ve done the math, it’s a BIG deal. In addition to the very real experience, where kids never feel like dad’s house is home when they are only there two weekends a month.

The imbalanced schedule they were assigned by my wife’s actions, meant that I was going to be a marginal character in their lives. And as my co-parenting struggles began, they were not going to be provided with any bonus time with Dad. My ex-wife would rather hire a babysitter to start dating again, rather than offer me the night with the kids. In our parenting plan, I was *supposed* to have the first right of refusal when child care was required. Not once did that happen.

Why Would a Mom Withhold Joy?

In the same vein, my ex-wife only co-parented with me for a few years, while the kids were still in elementary and middle school. And then, she just stopped including me in any family decisions. She didn’t want my input. My options were to tough it out or sue her. I was not about to get back into legal expenses and my ex-wife knew this. So, she did whatever she wanted and parented however she wanted.

I don’t think she started jumping in the pool with the kids, however. I don’t think she suddenly became a warm-fuzzy parent. In fact, I’m guessing she pushed the list onto her kids. Fun and play would be allowed only AFTER all the chores were done. But here’s the rub, the chores will never be done.

Why would a mom withhold the joy of her kids from her ex-husband? How can the anger of a single mom continue with such heat, two years, or even twelve years, after the divorce? Yes, moms are different than dads, and in divorce, they should be treated equally. That’s not the way it is in Texas or more than half the states in the US. I was told I would lose if I tried to fight my then-wife for joint custody and 50/50 shared parenting. So she took the child support, the house, and the lion’s share of time with the kids. In her mind, was she doing the right thing for her kids? Or, was she just doing a selfish grab?


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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*image: the last good summer in LA with my kids

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