Parenting means a lot of insulting questions from people you’ve never met. But there might be no more insulting question to a spouse who travels for work, or to a single dad, than being asked: “who’s helping you take care of your kids?”
This is a question I have personal experience with. My wife travels as often as once a month for her job, leaving me at home to ensure our two boys don’t burn the house down. And on numerous occasions, she’s been asked with all sincerity who was taking care of her children. As if they didn’t have a father at home, ready to do anything that needed to be done. To be fair, I know that families can be made up of all sorts of relationships – exes, steps, grandparents – but I’m pretty sure that’s not what they mean when they ask me that question.
Pop culture depictions of dads on their own would seem to provide a major reason to ask, however. For decades, TV shows, films, and commercials have tended to portray fathers as either bumbling oafs like Homer Simpson, or cold and uninterested workaholics like Don Draper.
In reality, the partner left at home is being asked to step up more and more – and ignoring the kids isn’t an option. According to Department of Labor statistics from 2017, 75 percent of mothers work outside the home, and at least 40 percent are the primary earner in the family. While there’s no reliable statistics about what percentage of those mothers regularly travel, it’s clearly a substantial portion. Plus there are a whole slew of single dads who go it alone whenever they have their kids. In fact, 24 percent or more of American households are headed by single dads.
How do partners at home deal with the challenges of temporarily parenting alone, even for just a night or two? And what do the traveling spouses say when asked this dumb question?
I asked working moms and dads and got a variety of tips and tricks to get through these challenging times. Because let’s face it, whether you’re a mom or dad or grandparent left behind to hold down the fort when your partner in parenting is away, or even non-existent, it’s not easy to go it alone.
The Mess Can Wait
Dad Tim Dube told me that when their son was born, they were both traveling for work as much as once a month. They travel for work less now but developed a system for how to handle things when one was gone.
“My first rule is that almost any mess can wait until he’s asleep,” Dube told me regarding his son. “While we now ask him to be a part of clean up as part of the daily routine, when he was younger, it wasn’t worth fussing over toys all over the place as long as I could safely get him upstairs to bed.”
Preparation Is Key
Dube also tried to do anything he could to prepare for the morning or next day at night after bedtime, adjust his commute and routine, and if it was a short trip, he’d pick up dinner on the way home. “If we go straight home, he wants to play which makes cooking dinner difficult,” Dube said.
Embrace The Routine
Other dads I talked to had similar routines when their partners were traveling. In fact, many emphasized the importance of routine. Keep things normal, keep things moving, and don’t make every moment mom is away a special treat that turns mom into the bad guy.
At the same time, it’s important for the kids to know that dad isn’t mom – and that parents can have different styles that are each effective.
“I’d say a major thing is to try and not be mom,” dad Christian Christiansen told me. “Find what makes it work for you, and stop trying to emulate what normally happens.”
“You’re not your partner so don’t try to parent like them, parent like you,” Ross Becht added.
Use Time Wisely
General tips from dads I talked to were about making better use of time, and not putting yourself in positions where you couldn’t supervise the kids. Most dads especially tried to simplify dinner time. Crock pots and slow cookers are popular tools, and sometimes, you just have to order in. Better that than getting stuck cooking a long meal that you have to prepare, serve, and clean up all by yourself.
Other tips included getting up early to get things done before the kids wake up, get adventurous and do things with your kids that will occupy big chunks of time (especially on the weekend), let kids play by themselves whenever possible, and try to get the house clean before your partner gets home.
Or as dad Mac Booker put it to me, “No matter how much of a bumbling dolt you are, all will be fine if the house is clean when your partner gets home.”
Don’t Let Gender Stereotypes Get You Down
As for the comments about who’s taking care of the kids, most parents I talked to were pretty ambivalent. As much as we’ve come to expect more from dads left at home with kids, many people still live in a world where dad works and mom stays at home. And so, most dads take the comments in stride.
When Rich Moffitt’s wife was competing in a skating competition, she left him on his own with their daughter. When they tried to go see her compete, Rich got some good-natured ribbing from arena security guards. “They’re giving me crap about my bag of diapers and milk being over the size limit. Also, the comments were priceless and insulting: “Are you sure you need to take the baby into the stadium when her mom could take her instead?”
Every dad I talked to emphasized that with a little planning, and honest expectations, being a dad at home while a working partner travels or when a divorced dad has the kids on his own just isn’t a big deal. And it can even be a lot of fun.