06/11/2008 05:02 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Father's Day: Desperate Housewife or Daddy Dearest?

I can tell you the last straw: I stuffed my 12-year-old son's portion of chicken pot pie in the garbage disposal when my husband wasn't looking. The next thing the kids and I knew, Dad was raging like a '50's housewife about how he was done cooking dinner every night. Let them eat Cocoa Puffs, he said. In theory, that's a plus from the kids' POV, but we knew the man in the apron with spatula raised well enough to catch his dis: "Let their teeth rot."

We had set Dad off and it was my maternal duty to reel him back and tighten the apron strings around his middle. Granted, the old man had a point. He was tired of the kids rejecting his meals, of cooking multiple dinners, of my 8-year-old daughter's tears at the prospect of beef stew. He was ticked at not knowing if we'd be home for dinner, or at the last minute after soccer practice pull into the McDonald's, or join friends at the Fireside BBQ. The only apparent difference between him and our mothers was that he was dressed like Stanley Kowalski, not Donna Reed. He was the man with the Ivy League education who could still argue Hume. And he had been, until the kids arrived, a free spirit who had never, ever wanted to be confined to schedules and plans.

As Ranald said to me, anyone in that job had the same issues. It didn't have to suck, he explained, if people behaved. (Big if!) When he was growing up and his mother cooked, his family marched into dinner at a set time. The children sat down and ate what was on the table, or they didn't eat. There was none of this negotiation at the dinner table of why can't I have chicken nuggets instead of pork chops? that pervaded our house. His mother never had to put up with that. His little sister Jenny was fussy, but if she didn't like peas no one got up and made her string beans. But what was cooked was what was served - and eaten. Or not - and the kids went hungry that night if they didn't eat their supper.

I had to pick my battles. I couldn't afford to mount a resistance against my husband's food fascism, even to remind him that Jenny slipped her peas into the flower pot when nobody was looking. I was sunk if Ranald bailed on his kitchen responsibilities. Who cooked dinner was one domestic arena I'd finally nailed down. We needed Ran to roast the beef and buy the organic milk. He was good at it. And, since he was doing the cooking - for which I was the envy of all my working women friends -- I couldn't pull out my tired Feminist Oppression Handbook to see how to handle our current domestic divide.

As I tried to finesse my husband back into the kitchen with promises that I would help out more and the kids would eat whatever lima bean pie he dished out, it struck me how the grunt work of marriage came to define us. My mother always began arguments with Dad by saying he didn't take out the trash. My mother-in-law bristled in the kitchen when her retired officer husband gave her orders on her home turf.

In working couples with kids when we parse chores, partners end up in roles we never anticipated. And that includes husbands. Ranald gravitated toward the shopping/cooking, but then he got fed up with the daily grind just the way our mothers had. In contemporary households, we develop strange hybrids. My husband's tantrum with spatula in hand is Exhibit A. When forced to expand his household responsibilities, my otherwise butch husband came to mimic his mother. And that, well, was a very good thing. Maybe he doesn't have to go so far as buy glass canisters and hand-label them "rice," "sushi rice," "brown rice," "wild rice." But, the delicate balance of working marriages only succeeds if both sides are allowed to change organically - and it helps if we encourage our husbands to get in touch with their inner (or biological) mothers.

True, I think it's kind of cute when my husband gets mad about the cooking, or that this man who never seeks approval from anybody will ask me three times if his Chicken Country Captain is good, really good. It's every bit as good as his mother's, if not better.