What did you do with your kids?
You've been working a lot. How are your kids holding up?
Please let your husband know that if he needs anything at all, he can call me.
Over the next two months, I will travel two to three times for work and will attend three local conferences that will involve evening events. I am a senior leader at a global education provider and the mother of two boys under 10. When I travel, or even work late, I am likely to hear one of the above comments if not all of them.
On one hand, this is a mark of empathy on the part of the person with whom I am speaking. I love my children and talk about them often. I write about them, too. I occasionally bring them to work events. Until October, my office was located in their school. This was intentional and allowed me to see them during the day, to get to know their friends and teachers, and to share time in the car together.
On the other hand, it speaks volumes about my presumed (and actual) role as the default parent. As I write this, I am in hour three of a fifteen hour flight to Australia for work. True to default parent form, I left detailed instructions for my nanny and husband, along with an envelope with exact change to pay for soccer club and two wrapped birthday presents. This is more support than either one of them needs.
Some days, I respond to these questions with a simple, warm, honest answer, "My kids are fine, thanks." Other days, I give people a blank stare, say I really don't know... and that I hope they aren't playing with the neighbors' lion again.
My husband is looking forward to a weekend of parenting without me. There will be trips for shwarma and orange soda and late night movie sessions, things to which I would normally object.
I mentioned the inevitable "What did you do with the children?" question to a friend who is a single father and regular at the conferences I attend. He looked surprised, borderline wounded. No one asks him about his kids when he travels. Like me, he talks and writes about his children quite a lot. And, if we're going to check privilege, I have a live-in spouse and a live-in nanny, plus a network of friends who like to offer things like casseroles to my husband when I am out of town. My friend, the single dad, has few of these advantages and relies on his mother to pitch in with the kids when he travels.
Like most other default parents, I make the playdates, check the homework, schedule the violin lessons, make sure their shoes are the right size and their school uniforms don't have holes (until May and then I really don't care), and I am usually ready to dash out of work when the nurse calls. I also give myself and my husband a pass on a lot of things. I don't attend coffee mornings at school, information "evenings" for school trips that are held at 3:00 p.m., or sports days. If I can read what's presented in an email or if I will spend more time socializing with other parents, rather than engaging with my children, you won't find me there. And I ask each teacher to make sure I get an easy costume when it comes time for school assemblies. I am grateful for each and every narrator, scientist, or explorer role my child has been given over "Tiger #3."
My husband never asked me to be the default parent. Like most other couples, we slid into it. I took a long maternity leave and went back to work part-time. I gradually added more responsibilities at work without curtailing any at home. At the same time, I have not sought to add responsibilities outside of work. I am simply more tired mom than tiger mom. I don't have time to be a helicopter mom. My kids play rugby, which I chose because they have only one practice a week and my husband can take them, so I am not a soccer mom. I'm not a Pintrest mom. I'm not the scout leader. I am not the class rep. I don't volunteer to teach Sunday school. I am hoping that all of this will add up to something "free range" that will be good for my children in the long run.
I can't claim to always balance work and family. I am surprised when I hear a working mom say, "I am a mom first." She has clearly figured out something I have not. Minute to minute, who I am changes. I am not a mom first when I am negotiating a contract. And I am not an Innovation Leader first when I am making brownies with my 8 year old. My life, like the lives of most people -- men and women, people with and without children, is fully out of balance. It is also full of the joy of doing something I love for a living, and full of the joy of raising two precious boys.
So, when you want to make conversation with me, just ask how I am doing. The chances are, I will mention my kids. And maybe even the lion next door.