It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m watching the clock, waiting for my ex-husband to bring our daughter home from a fun-filled morning. What started with him picking her up for weekly dance lessons quickly expanded to an impromptu visit to the park and a quick stop at the toy store, followed by ice cream. And though part of me is happy that he’s spending so much quality time with our daughter, another part is shocked at how much he has changed since our marriage ended. In the blink of an eye, he went from barely lifting a finger as a parent to donning a cape and calling himself “Superdad.” Where was this guy during my marriage?
In every relationship, there is a division of labour, and it’s true that sometimes the child-raising duties just land more on one parent than the other. When it came to my marriage, it was less of a division of labour and more of a division of expectations. Somehow, the question of how we would raise our daughter never came up. Instead, it increasingly became clear that my ex-husband expected me to take care of all the day-to-day activities.
But that’s not to say that he didn’t have opinions—these were his specialty. If I didn’t get a chance to brush her hair, he’d tell me that people would think we were neglecting her. If we skipped a swimming class, we were depriving her of a crucial life skill. If I was sick and too exhausted to sit with her while she fell asleep, then we had screwed up as parents by not making her cry it out as a toddler. But at no point did he take on the responsibility of getting the hairbrush, wrangling her into a bathing suit or trading in his TV time for storybook time. He would just shake his head at me and lament that we needed to be better parents.
At first, his reasons for insisting that I take on so much responsibility were disguised as compliments. I was more patient than he was at bedtime, playdates were a good opportunity for me to get to know other moms, and little kids want their moms when they’re sick so I should be the one to stay home from work. I was better at all those things, his reasoning went, so it just made sense for me to do them. I didn’t argue. Like many working moms, I felt guilty for not being home during the day, so it seemed like the least I could do.
But as my daughter got older, the list kept growing. More and more activities seemed to fall on my shoulders because, well, he decided they were my responsibility. I knew that if I didn’t do them, no one would. And parenting wasn’t the only place where we clashed: In every aspect of our marriage, it seemed that no matter what I did or how hard I tried, it was never good enough. After 15 years together, we made the difficult decision to split up.
Our daughter was six years old when we separated, and at that point he had never taken her to a playdate, birthday party or dance lesson. He had never been to the doctor, dentist or optometrist with her. And when it came to things like getting her ready for school trips, booking summer camps or shopping for shoes, clothes, toys and books, forget about it.
But somehow that all changed in the year after our marriage ended—it’s as if he became a contestant for Dad of the Year. Now, he takes her on playdates every weekend that she is with him, and he jumps at the chance to take her to appointments. He leaves work early to attend her school events, and they’ve signed up for father-daughter art classes together. He even took her on a trip to Canada’s Wonderland over the Christmas break—just the two of them. He says his life now is all about being the best father he can possibly be.
I can’t say for sure what caused this change in him. I know that both of us feel guilty that our daughter will not grow up in a home with both her parents. And now that we’ve split custody, the time we spend with her feels even more precious. Maybe now he realizes how incredible it is to spend time with his daughter. Or maybe he is trying to show me up and prove to everyone that he is the better parent. Whatever his reasons are, I’ll admit that I’m a little bitter about the sudden change in him. Why didn’t he do even a quarter of those things when we were together? When we were married, he flat out refused to help, yet now he has boundless enthusiasm for daddy-daughter time.
Sometimes I worry that this change won’t last and the “old” him will return. Sometimes he asks me to take her on a Friday night during his week because he has plans with friends or he texts me to say that he won’t be picking her up tonight after all. Sometimes he doesn’t answer her phone calls. Every time I see that hurt look in her eyes or the slump in her shoulders, I want to yell into his voicemail that he can’t be Father of the Year one day and not the next. But with my daughter looking on, I just hang up quietly. Then I give her a hug and reassure her that her daddy loves her and we move on.
With all this parenting baggage between us, it can be challenging to put on a happy face when my daughter tells me, yet again, about her amazing daddy. On the bad days, I’ve found myself in tears because nothing I do seems to be good enough, while my ex is busy patting himself on the back for being an awesome parent. But I know I have to make this the best relationship it can possibly be. I have to share her excitement when her daddy suggests a wonderful new trip that I would love to take her on myself. I have to be happy for her when he tells me that it’s his turn to spend time with her at the school party after I just spent days hunting down the costume she wanted to wear. More and more, I find myself having to cheer him on because whenever I see the joy that lights up her face, I know that, Mother of the Year or not, I’m doing the right thing. My issues with her father are just that: my issues.
When my daughter eventually walks in the door, she is beaming—it’s been another fun day with her dad. I have to remind myself that I can’t control whether this change in him will be permanent or not, but the longer it lasts, the happier I am. When he texts me to ask if I mind him dropping our daughter off an hour later than planned so they can stop for hot chocolate, I can honestly respond that I think it’s a great idea.
This article was originally published online in March 2019.