Wife on holiday. Me: alone with child. Five days in, I was feeling pretty proud of myself.
Our three-year-old son: still breathing. He’d eaten five lifetimes of two minute noodles, and more jelly snakes than I dared to count or even think about, but his heart still pumped blood to his brain. I considered this a small victory.
The house wasn’t that bad.
If my wife walked in tomorrow she’d stalk the halls, maybe make a ‘not bad’ face. She might open a few windows, air out the joint, but she wouldn’t be upset.
She’d say, ‘well done Markie, you did good’ and my little heart would swell into a goofball smile.
But my wife was not home. Not yet. She was gone and wouldn’t be back for another two days. Things weren’t bad, but they weren’t great either.
I stood staring at the dishwasher I was supposed to be emptying. A conundrum. A small plate: defiant. A square plate. The kind you might chuck a slice of cake on. A different shape from the rest. All my other plates were round. This one was square.
A staring contest with a square plate.
“Where does this square plate go?” I asked myself. “Where does it live?”
I’ve lived, breathed and shed skin in this house for two long years, but I had no idea. This square plate: an anomaly. A surprise arrival from another dimension. An existential prank.
I have no idea where to put it, so I just leave it there. That square fucking plate. It’s been through the wash cycle five times now. My plan: run that plate through the dishwasher until it disintegrates or somehow vanishes into the ether from whence it came.
Why am I like this?
Hi, my name is Mark Serrels. I’m married with two kids. I’m a competent human being. I understand laundry. I know the process. I can cook, clean, take care of myself. I can do things. Promise.
Three years ago, when my wife fell pregnant for the first time, I promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those dads.
The dad in every TV commercial you forgot to mute. Spray-and-wipe Dad, detergent Dad, I-can’t-believe-you-just-did-that Dad. Al Bundy Dad. I-stepped-on-the-LEGO-and-forgot-about-the-bath Dad. Made-Weetbix-for-dinner Dad.
Mum, back home from the shops. Just in time with her perfect hair and knowing smile. She tilts her head back, she rolls her eyes.
Buffoon dad. It’s offensive to me. It should be offensive to everyone. Buffoon dad is the product of antiquated ideas about how families should function: men belong in the workplace, women belong at home. Looking after children, going to the shops, polishing kitchen benchtops till they sparkle like *ting*.
It holds us back. It holds us all back.
Buffoon Dad: the reason my wife feels genuine anxiety about her reasonable desire to return to full-time work after giving birth to two children. The reason I feel like I should be working extra hours – away from my kids -- to ‘provide for my family’.
The reason I love the idea of being a stay-at-home Dad but wouldn’t ever truly commit to it. The reason my wife still feels the need to cook, even though she hates it and I love it. The reason I have to clumsily build IKEA furniture even though my wife would do a far better job.
We pretend we’re better than these stereotypes. We pretend we’re beyond them. We’re not. Buffoon Dad is the ghost that howls in the hall and we’re still ensnared in its tendrils.
“Why am I like this?”
That’s the question I asked myself, as I stared at the square plate I’d just run through the dishwasher for the sixth time.
Why do I still expect praise for doing the things I take for granted in my wife.
“I folded the laundry. LOVE ME.”
“I looked after the children effectively while you spent time with your friends. APPRECIATE ME.”
And my wife plays along. I am a good boy. The world spins on its axis. Buffoon Dad is status quo. Buffoon Dad is normal.
Even the words my wife uses, the words that make me radiate with pride. (“He’s such a good Dad, he helps out so much.”) It’s all part of BUFFOON DAD, because I’m playing against type. I’ve come home from my hard day’s work providing for my family and I still have time to acknowledge the children I have fathered. I have done a smidgeon more than what’s expected of me, by these gender roles that are etched in stone.
Father. Of. The. Year.
We should be better than this, and in some ways we are, but I stand here, 35 years old in the year 2016, looking at this plate. I am buffoon Dad. I don’t know where things live in my own goddamn house.
Two days later my wife will arrive home from her overseas trip, luggage in one hand, duty-free shopping in the other. I am gormless, broken and unshaven. Her hair is luminous and she looks flawless.
She wanders over to the dishwasher, picks up the square dish and, without missing a beat, places it in the cupboard, on the shelf where it belongs, where it had always belonged.
She turns back, with her tilted head and a knowing smile.