“I am not showering in this,” Katie said, coming out of the bathroom of my one-bedroom apartment in Delaware. We’d been dating long distance, and she’d come down from Massachusetts to celebrate my birthday.
Just off the plane, she was perturbed to discover a standing pool of murky water in the bathtub. When I told her that I’d been showering in ankle-deep water for the last five months — it was a slow drain! — she almost broke up with me.
A long night ensued. I got some Liquid Plumr, we went to the movies to let the chemicals work their magic and came back to find … ankle-deep water in the tub. It turned out that for almost half a year the bathtub drain had been all but closed, and that’s what saved our relationship: I wasn’t so disgusting that I’d necessarily caused the pool of murky water; I was just disgusting enough to ignore it.
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That was 10 years ago. Five years ago, we were married. In the vows I wrote for that day, I told Katie, “You make me a better person.”
Sappy? Sure. True? Indisputably.
And these days—in the age of dual incomes and his-and-hers guilt—we all need to be the best people we can be.
Still, it often seems like "almost perfect" moms like my wife, busy juggling work and home, beat themselves up while bearing more of the brunt. So here is my effort to balance the scales and lay bare the travails of a modern-day family.
As you'll see, we struggle to do all the right things financially. And I, an "almost perfect dad," don't always measure up as a perfect "co-parent" either. Unfortunately, as a recent Pew Research Report points out, I'm in good company: While husbands and fathers now spend more time caring for children and doing household chores, we still lag behind, doing nine hours of housework to our spouses' 16.
But I'm working on it. That, and these other four key areas of our almost-perfect lives.
Not bad: As you can tell, I had lots of room for improvement. The funny thing is, I’d tidied before Katie's arrival that birthday weekend. My mattress on the floor had new sheets, I’d gotten rid of the pizza boxes and fast-food wrappers, and if I’d owned a vacuum, I would have used it.
These days, vacuuming is my household chore, as is the laundry. The machines are in the basement, four floors below our condo. That arrangement concerned Katie before we bought the place, which is when I promised I’d always do the laundry. And I do, mostly … at least until Katie gets fed up with the piled-high hamper. Or if it doesn’t occur to me to vacuum for three weeks, she takes up the Hoover herself.
Could be better: Setting weekly reminders on my smartphone could help me stay on top of the laundry and vacuuming. The tough one: to stop leaving dishes to “soak” in the sink. Whenever I do, I come back to find Katie scrubbing away.
Not bad: When Katie and I started dating, I weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 270 pounds. I drank up to four liters of diet soda a day. I never exercised. (If you’re beginning to wonder what she saw in me, what took you so long?)
I now weigh 205. The (free) calorie-counting app on my iPhone has a lot to do with that. (I use LoseIt!.) I haven’t had a Diet Coke in more than two years. I still don’t exercise, but since we live in Cambridge, Mass., and I use public transportation to get to work, I walk a lot more.
Could be better: Although I’ve kicked diet soda, my caffeine addiction rages on. I drink the equivalent of a couple of pots of coffee a day. On the one hand, I’m not drinking a bunch of different chemicals, each with 37 letters in their names; but I’m still drinking a lot of caffeine, which The Mayo Clinic says can cause insomnia, upset stomach and nervousness.
In 18 years the average sticker price for a single year of private-college tuition could be as high as $130,428.
Lately, at Katie's suggestion, I've been sticking to a weekly budget intended to cut my caffeine intake and help the household budget: no more than $22 per week on cafe/restaurant-bought coffee.
Saving for College
Not bad: Four months ago, our daughter became eligible for the city-run preschool down the street. This cut our day care costs almost in half. We put the savings into a 529 plan—something we’d been meaning to open ever since she was born. We contribute $600 a month to a Utah Educational Savings Plan, since we live in a state that doesn’t offer tax benefits for making 529 contributions.
Could be better: We can’t get too proud of ourselves. According to Kal Chany, author of “Paying for College Without Going Broke,” in 18 years the average sticker price for a single year of private-college tuition could be as high as $130,428, which is more than half a million dollars for all four years.
[lv_share_bricks]Annie will be going to Harvard (I assume) in a little over 15 years. If we were to maintain these contributions until she’s a freshman, and the investments appreciate 6% a year, we’ll have a little more than one year’s worth of tuition. To pay for the whole shebang, we need to sock away about double what we are per month. While we can't swing that now, it's a goal, and if our daughter Annie has to pay a portion of it, it gives us an opportunity to teach her how to handle a budget and pay off loans.
Spending Time With the Kid
Not bad: Our daughter is adorable. Highly verbal and more than a little precocious, she’s completely enamored of princesses and ballerinas and pink and purple ruffles. They’re not the interests we tried to steer her toward, but it’s fun to see her enthusiasm—and my teaching schedule permits me to see a lot more of it than a more conventional 9-to-5 job might.
Just because I might be available for a few more trips to the playground than some dads doesn’t mean I’m always there. Like anyone else, I fall victim to the siren song of the smartphone.
Could be better: Putting the phone away and playing (expletive deleted) Candy Land or sitting through another godforsaken tea party is part of being a parent—and, joking aside, it does allow me to enjoy my daughter in her early years. But that’s not to say that parents don’t also need …
Time Away From the Kid
Not bad: Our daughter is also incorrigible. Sometimes, a parent needs a break from the high-pitched, keening whine of the three-year-old, just so he or she can think straight. Katie doesn’t work on Fridays, so she gets some time to do errands and other catch-up work while Annie’s at school. On Saturday mornings, I get to write while Katie takes our burgeoning ballerina to her dance class. And that means that “time away” is time for each of us to be away from our daughter—not time spent together away from the kid.
Could be better: Date nights take a lot more planning—and money—than they used to. Only within the last year have I stopped suggesting, on a random Friday afternoon, that Katie and I should go to the movies that night. Katie’s inevitable response—“Did you get a baby-sitter?”—snaps me back pretty quickly. Especially when I also remember how much more expensive date night is because of it.
Back to the smartphone: Why not set a reminder for every two weeks: “Find babysitter/make dinner reservations”? While we’re at it, why don’t I set up a “date fund” in my online banking account and make automatic contributions to it every week or so?
Katie hates it when I say, as I did above, that it’s hard to guess what she saw in me. It makes me look unconfident (which I often am), and, I think, casts her as some sort of sucker. She’s not a sucker. Still, while nobody’s perfect, I think it’s safe to say that when we met, I was less perfect than most. What she saw in me then was potential.
All these years later, I'm still trying fulfill it.
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Sebastian Stockman has written for The Atlantic.com, The Kansas City Star and other publications. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife and daughter.