I wash a lot of dishes at my family reunions.
It’s only fair. My aunt Nancy makes (or organizes) almost all the food. My Aunt Terry spends the after-dinner hour watching all the kids as they play in the yard. And my dad needs a break after four months of being the main dishwasher in my house.
So, along with a few of my cousins, I wash dishes. Or I dry dishes. Or I put away dishes. I don’t mind it at all because the kids can’t bug me if I’m washing dishes and because I get to hang out with my cousins.
My cousins are all so different from each other. We vote differently, pray differently, think about world issues differently. But we all come together after dinner and talk about life while we wash dishes, and in those moments, I remember that we are a lot alike.
One evening over the holidays, I was drying dishes as my cousin Carl washed them. We chatted with our other cousins and other young people our age who were there – some directly related to us and some more distant relatives (the Clarks have an expansive view of family.) Anyway, one of the women there was holding her infant baby, and apologized that she wasn’t able to help. “Please, Stephanie,” I said, “do not apologize. Here’s the deal: in our family, you don’t have to do any work around this house for one year after a birth or a death. That’s just the rule.”
“That’s right,” Carl said.
I mean, it’s not like we actually sat down and wrote out this rule. But it seems to be how things go. If you’re nursing a baby or holding a crying kid on your lap, it’s time for someone else to do the work. And if you lost someone, you get to sit on the couch and have other people surround you for that year of grief. Obviously we know that things don’t magically get easier at the year mark, but it’s at least an acknowledgement that when big things happen, we try and make space for them as a family.
Stephanie smiled, and we chatted for a while. She isn’t a cousin of mine, but she’s my cousin’s sister-in-law from the other side of their family (remember: Clark family = expansive view of family) and we know each other fairly well. I told her I was taking a short vacation by myself for New Years, and she smiled. “I need the break,” I said.
“I bet,” she replied. “I know it must be a ton of work to do everything by yourself.”
“It is,” I said, “even with my dad around.”
“Of course it is,” she said. “Even with your dad around helping, a lot of the work is still all on you. Because you have to make all the major decisions.”
I could have hugged her. “Yes!” I said. “That’s what’s so hard about being a single parent. My dad does so much, but he doesn’t do the emotional work of decision-making. And that’s exhausting in a way that’s hard to fully describe.”
My dad washes a lot of dishes at home. He picks my kids up at school. He helps them with their homework. But he doesn’t decide if Austin gets to play two sports or just stick to one, and he doesn’t organize the carpools needed for the games. He doesn’t decide how much to save for Claire’s future and he doesn’t help her navigate the world of 5th grade friendships. He doesn’t decide if Tommy needs extra help with his reading and he doesn’t figure out when he needs new shoes. He helps so much with the logistics of my life, but the emotional weight of my kids’ future is on me. And me alone.
I didn’t say all this, of course, but I didn’t really need to. I could tell she got it. “It’s just really hard to be a single parent,” I said, simply.
“I get that,” Stephanie said. “Even if you met someone, it’s not like that person would start making decisions for your kids. It would still always be on you.”
I told her I really appreciated that she could understand the hard parts of my life that sometimes other people overlook. Every once in a while, one of my married friends says, “I wish I had a Grandpa Tom to help!” I always smile and agree that he’s great, but a huge part of me wants to say, “you have a husband and a father to your kids. That’s so much better in ways I can’t fully explain.”
But I think this is the crux of it: my dad is not my partner. I mean, my dad is so great. He washes more dishes than any other grandfather I know. He loves his grandkids and cares for them more than almost anyone else his age. But he is not my kids’ father. And so, when it comes to all of the emotional decision-making, he defers to me. As he should.
But that is a huge weight on me. A weight that will always be there, no matter how much help anyone else provides. No matter if I get remarried. No matter if my dad cleans the entire kitchen after dinner. No matter if I hire a babysitter to give me (and my dad) a break.
Nope – no matter what, this emotional weight is all on me.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the help my dad gives me. He is wonderful. But I also appreciated that someone recognized how hard life still is for me, even with all the help.
That night, as Carl and I finished the dishes, my aunt Nancy came in the kitchen. Another cousin of mine had packaged up all the leftovers, and we asked Nancy what to do with them. She directed us to give them out to different family members, and then started the dishwasher and assigned two other cousins to break down the folding tables. I went to tend to my children, and when I got downstairs, everyone was gone. Everyone except Nancy, who was in the kitchen, looking through the pantry for supplies for the next day. On the counter was a list of people coming for the next big gathering a few days later, sorted into “definitely coming” and “maybe coming” categories. A short list of things to get at the store also sat on the counter. I watched Nancy search through the cabinet for the cereal Tommy likes, and set it on the counter for the next morning.
There she was, doing the emotional work of keeping our reunions going. “Thanks for washing the dishes,” she said to me.
“You’re welcome,” I said. “Thanks for doing everything else!”
She smiled, and we chatted for a while. “I’m glad you’re getting a break next week,” she said.
“Me too,” I said. “Me too.”