When I get home, the late afternoon sun is sinking behind the houses in the neighborhood. My three children run from whatever room they're in and wrap their arms around whatever body part is available to them -- a leg, a belly, a wrist. Sometimes they meet me in the driveway --sticky faces, wide grins, open arms. It feels like Noah's head rests so much higher against my body, and even with my growing belly, his arms wrap around me. Chloe has another loose tooth. I know because she's wiggling it with her tongue and touching it with fingers decorated with blue chipped polish that I didn't paint. Sylvie is humming a song I didn't teach her.
At 4:45, I'm seeing them for the very first time apart from the 5:15 peeks I steal into their bedrooms as I prepare for the day. At 5:15, there's a rare stillness in the house. I keep the lights dim and my footsteps soft. In the darkness of the early morning, I can't really see them.
Standing at the stove, getting a steam facial from boiling pots, is the man I married 11 years ago when we were young and silly -- the one who gifts me the 5:15 quiet; the one who gets the kids dressed in the clothes I lay out (when I remember); the one who double-checks homework; the one who drops them off at school and makes sure their coats are zipped.
He smiles at me. And continues to chop or stir or plate the food.
He does all of this and works full-time from home, where he hears the patter of Sylvie's footsteps all day and tends to her demands for a snack or some crayons or another beautiful dress or her frantic, "Daddy, I need to use the potty!" He has at least 15 coats of nail polish on his toes, and pictures of the entire family on his legs, because in a pinch, he lets her decorate him with magic markers while he works.
His phone buzzes and beeps for work, and his calendar is color-coded with practices and game schedules for Noah and Chloe. He reminds me who needs to go where at what time, and together, we lace cleats or fill water bottles. We move around each other in our own choreographed dance. Right now, he leads, and I let him.
Our family dynamic shifted entirely when I went back to work in August. We survived, thrived even -- all of us from the littlest, who finally embraced potty training, to the biggest, who embraced a domestic role and, without saying a word, challenged every "dumb dad" sitcom stereotype with a laugh track.
Two weeks ago, Chloe and I saw a commercial where little foil men sprang into action to help with dinner. Sitting on the playroom couch with toy and craft carnage on every surface, I joked that we needed those little guys to come to our house.
She answered, "Yeah, they could help Daddy make dinner." And after a pause, she finished, "And help you...." Silence. Her voice trailed off, and she changed the subject. She could not recall the previous five years of her life, when I prepared every meal and zipped every coat. She couldn't see Mom refilling all the drink cups and tightening waist bands or finding new socks without bumps or singing the "Days of the Week" song until my throat burned.
Maybe I should have reminded her of all the things Mommy did and does in a day. I didn't. Maybe I should have been offended or sad. I wasn't... for long.
In college, I was burned too many times doing "group" projects by myself. I planned one too many parties on my own. My fault. Totally. I had something to prove to someone -- myself, mostly. I had this idea that asking for or accepting help was a sign of weakness. Maybe I was trying too hard to show that I didn't need saving, that I was no damsel in distress searching for a knight in shining armor to save her from anything.
I'm too tired for all of that now. I have a knight in shining armor. He's making dinner or taking Noah to hockey practice or peeling polish from his toenails. That guy has a knight in shining armor, too. It's me, the missing piece in archaic princess culture. We make it through together. We help each other.
"Help," I've learned, is not the four-letter word I thought it was -- one of the ones it's not polite to say in mixed company, the ones words we mutter under our breaths.
"Help" is definitely a four-letter word. But so is "love."