"Working at the downtown east side clinic was a walk in the park compared to being at home with the kids," I commented to someone recently, referring to my experience when Pete took parental leave a few years ago.
"Your job must not be that hard, then," he responded.
That is exactly why I think it is so valuable for fathers to experience being the primary caregiver to their children, if only for a few weeks.
When our second child was born, Pete took ten weeks of parental leave. "I'm going to take Saskia to the beach every day," he told me happily as he planned his time off.
"What about the baby?" I reminded him.
"Oh, yeah." Pete paused to consider this. "He can come along too."
I couldn't fault his ambition. I was the one who had planned to learn to play piano, take up sewing, and audit an architecture class during my first maternity leave.
After two weeks of caring for an infant and toddler, laundry, cleaning and meal preparation; of cycling through endless menial tasks, Pete began the countdown to his return to work.
"Five weeks down, five to go," he announced one night.
I did a mental calculation. "No, four down and six to go," I corrected him.
He was crestfallen.
Meanwhile, I was having a fantastic time at work. I clocked in at 8:30 and left at 4:30. It was civilized. I dealt systematically with one issue at a time. It was stimulating, an academic and clinical challenge. Every day I spent an hour eating lunch with a book in hand at a local eatery. I enjoyed the collegial atmosphere of the clinic. Nobody questioned the value of my work. And I was getting paid.
Being the one coming home to the kids, in time for dinner, gave me a new view of domestic chores. I came to greatly appreciate two things in particular: a path cleared from the front door to the kitchen, and a meal of any kind on the table. These days, I strive for that minimum, and some days I achieve it.
In many ways, Pete's stay at home wasn't comparable to my own. His was for a defined period of time, a matter of weeks. Mine is indefinite, making it more difficult to keep perspective. And postponing a career for a decade or two obviously has greater implications than a brief leave from work.
Still, those ten weeks in 2004 gave him an empathy for stay-at-home parents that only time in the trenches can.