I first saw signs of a glitch in my parents’ traditional parenting arrangement on Thanksgiving of 1989, when I was five. The compartmented plastic plates of the kids’ table were resplendent with gleaming quantities of two different Jell-o molds, plus canned jellied cranberries, and shreds of white meat drowning in Pepperidge Farm Turkey Gravy. My cousins and I were all slurping on orange pop out of the can, a rare treat I still associate with my Aunt Carolann*’s house.
I’m not sure why my two-year-old sister Lizzy was also given one, or deemed adequately self-sufficient to spend Thanksgiving dinner parked in a booster seat with our extended family’s under-ten set. In any case, I and my cousin Annie, four, were jazzed by her presence. That year, we weren’t the youngest at the fold-out card table, and wouldn’t be the obvious teasing targets. As soon as the grown-ups got us settled and made off with their overbrimming wine glasses, we, naturally, laid into Lizzy—our harassment tool a simple, insulting game of opposites.
Here’s how it worked: Annie would throw her skinny arm around me like an old drinking buddy and proclaim something like, “Me and Kate are beautiful and Lizzy’s ugly!” or “We’re geniuses, and Liz is dumb as a blockhead!” Then, she and I would spew bits of fried onions picked off our Aunt Mary Sue’s broccoli casserole as we cackled, Lizzy would scrunch up her red little toddler face, and I’d try to come up with an even cleverer antonym pairing.
“We’re Nintendo and Lizzy is Go Fish!”
“We’re the music on the radio, and Liz is the news!”
The latter caused Annie to howl. It made Lizzy jerk her fuzzy yellow head around in search of our mother, lost in the bottleneck of grown-ups filling their plates in the dining room. I couldn’t help noticing that she and my father maintained a wide berth, eventually settling into seats at opposite ends of the dining room table.
Annie’s next proclamation, however, jolted my attention back the kids’ table. “We’re super rich, and Lizzy’s dirt poor!” she said, toasting my can of orange carbonation with hers.
“Yeah,” I guffawed, trying to let on how confused I was by this particular put-down. “We’re brownies and hot-fudge sundaes and cinnamon rolls,” I said, stalling for inspiration, “and… Lizzy… Liz is a carrot!”
“Huh?!” squawked Annie.
The game ended after that, or at least devolved into a low-octane food fight, one that only ended once the adults reappeared and cut off our mashed potato privileges.
An hour or two later, after my parents had silently loaded Lizzy and me and our infant sister Colleen into their station wagon’s backseat menagerie of car seats, I asked what the word “rich” meant.
“Someone who has a lot of money,” Dad said.
“But then how come you always tell me the best desserts are too rich?”
“You can be rich in fat and refined sugar and carbs,” Dad explained, revving our ancient Toyota to life, “but usually, it’s used to describe someone who lives a very moneyed lifestyle.”
“Oh,” I said, picking pecan pie out of my teeth. “Are we rich?”
My passenger-seated mother, who up until that point had been silent, stiff, let out a high-pitched snort. “No, honey, we are not.”
Dad glared at her, something he’d been doing a lot of lately. Then he turned back to face me with a forced smile. “Kate-o Potato, we are rich in a lot of things, and hopefully soon, things will pan out and we’ll be rich in money, too.”
At this my mom started cackling. But unlike Annie’s and my jubilant shrieks, hers were sarcastic, under-the-breath chuckles. She laughed until her head dropped into her bony hands, and Dad’s eyes hardened into grey-blue marbles. He turned back around and gripped the steering wheel tight. I pinched Lizzy on the arm, hard, hoping our parents would re-direct their upset at me.
But, it didn’t work. And a few years later, I’d learn that shortly prior to that Thanksgiving, my mother had finally figured out why her husband, my father, had been insisting that her paychecks cover our bills and groceries, while his went into “savings”—he didn’t have a source of income. For months, he’d been getting up in the morning, donning a suit, picking up an empty briefcase, going off to God only knows where, and returning in the evening to be a Dinner-table Dad, one who grumbled about a fabricated job in magazine ad sales.
After we learned what being rich meant, my sisters and I invented a game called “Rich Lady,” a variation on “House” wherein I—the eldest and thus the Rich Lady—would lounge around sipping Martinelli’s and ordering them to draw me baths and to dunk strawberries into melted chocolate chips for me. Dad, meanwhile, had long been playing his own game of make-believe: “Dude Who Has a Job.”
Before long, the moving trucks showed up to take Dad’s empty briefcase away—my father’s tenure as Traditional, All-the-Time Dad had been terminated. In exchange, my sisters and I gained one of those creatures so commonly spotted in dense metropolitan regions of the Western World, circa 1992: a Weekend Dad. The parlance, which gained steam in the early nineties thanks to Milhaus of Fox-TV’s The Simpsons, refers to the father of a child whose parents are divorced—a man who now splits custody of said child. The Weekend Dad’s skyrocketing prevalence in the U.S.—where about forty percent of kids have one—coincided with the second wave of feminism, which got underway in the late sixties, and which is credited with prompting unhappy and unfulfilled couples to just get a damn divorce already.
In such situations—at least, as was the case circa 1992—the mother takes the children during the week, while the father spends the weekend with them. He is thusly reborn, as Weekend Dad.
The custody court decided that Dad was to get us for two weekends every month. Every other Friday he made the forty-five-minute drive from his new Weekend Dad pad—a tiny apartment near downtown Chicago that shook violently every twenty minutes when the El train roared by—back to the house where he and my mother had started their family, a three-bedroom, 2.5-bath ranch home in a woodsy suburb southwest of the city.
Afterward, he’d spend weekend evenings trying to convince three children under ten of the merits of sardine sandwiches, take-out pho, and all-you-can-eat Indian buffets—never the easiest sell to palates conditioned on dinners of Kraft macaroni or Chicken McNuggets. Dad had never been any sort of cook. In fact, he was suspect of any fellow who seemed to know his way around a kitchen, flicking his wrists flamboyantly to mimic any saute-ing man-chefs he saw on TV. However, my father fancied himself a sort of foodie long before that word (which he, for the record, still thinks is for pansies), was invented.
It’s not uncommon for Weekend Dads to rent some no-frills studio or garden apartment whose sole virtue lies in its proximity to the office. Often, he doesn’t want to go home. After all, he’s not used to one that, at least five days out of the week, doesn’t count his kids.
After our workaholic mother finally kicked Dad’s dubiously employed ass out, he wrangled an actual job, another one in sales, and went to work in a downtown skyscraper. He seemed to be living fairly comfortably—upper-middle-classishly, even. He started training for 10ks, and dropping the names of exotic-sounding new restaurants he’d tried.
Dad’s somewhat highfaluting new life seemed a little bizarre, as I’d grown up knowing his as a fast-food-noshing, baseball-watching-from-the-couch type. In hindsight, I think he retaliated from the divorce by making a big show of being liberated from Mom’s tired, suburban solutions to mealtime—beef Stroganoff, potato-chip-crusted tuna casserole, and a range of other concoctions united in their requirement of a can of Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup.
Dad himself couldn’t cook anything much more complicated than toast, but he seemed determined that his new life would revolve around spice, around innovation, and around frequenting every little ethnic hole-in-the-wall. His kids, however, didn’t make the transition from the drive-thru quite so enthusiastically. Whenever we cried about a curry that was burning our eyes, or claimed raw fish gave us scary dreams, Dad would lecture us about not living our lives to the fullest, about being provincial and close-minded. Then, he’d gobble down our copious leftovers and, once we were back at his apartment, let us fill up on the only food item he routinely kept stocked: ice cream.
Afterward, he’d tuck us all into bed in the pull-out couch next to his own mattress, and stay up swigging seltzer water or O’Doul’s, and chipping away at his secondary work project. This involved creating a website that allowed people to yell at their neighbors via the anonymous broker who was him—my Weekend Dad. I think my father tried to get his mind off of the divorce not only by scouting out the spiciest take-out dishes to be found in the city of Chicago, but also throwing himself onto the ground floor of this Internet thing.
At least, that’s what I gathered, because Dad didn’t seem to enjoy being an estranged family man. He wanted us around almost all the time, seemed almost too eager to drive out from the city to catch every single tee-ball game and choir concert. While I was always overjoyed to see him at first, the fact that he’d have to head back to the city after hugging us and forcing a cordial smile for our mother always made me wish he hadn’t come. My younger sisters would sob and cling to him, making a public scene, and even I, the stoic eldest, had a hard time weathering the sight of his retreating taillights with dry eyes.
Weekdays, he would call every night at eight sharp, and we’d eagerly take turns telling him all about our days—what we’d done at school, and how band or volleyball or drama was going. I, then eight, typically spoke to him last, after he’d chatted with Colleen and Lizzy, or as he called them, “Curly and Larry.” But always, at the end of what had been a pleasant if mundane conversation, the same question would arise.
“So, Moe… what’d Mom make for dinner?”
Far too often for Dad’s liking, the answer was “caramel corn,” or “ravioli—the kind from the can.”
I remember one time, when I was eight or nine, being impressed that my mother had created a meal that was one-hundred-percent consistent in hue. It consisted of President’s Choice Deluxe Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese, paired with balls of cantaloupe, baby carrot sticks, and a side-scoop of off-brand cheese puffs from Aldi. The color-coded plating, Mom said, was unplanned, but we were delighted by the flame-colored meal—especially when she agreed to round it out with a dessert of Voortman’s Sugar-Free Orange Creme Wafers.
“We had orange dinner!” I told Dad later that night over the phone. “It was awesome.”
Mom, who’d negotiated a part-time work schedule after having us, went back to full-time after Dad moved out. This meant that before boarding the early train each morning to the downtown Chicago law firm where she worked as a paralegal, she dropped us at a Presbyterian church basement that I considered the worst place on earth: day care.
At first after Dad moved out, when friends—or, more likely, their parents—asked about my parents’ divorce, the first thing I would explain was that I now had two Christmases. Unlike double Santa visits and my budding ability to get my parents to compete with each other where birthday gifts were concerned, however, day care was a spoil of divorce I never bragged about. All I ever wanted to do after school was read books and eat slices of lunchmeat ham wrapped around dill pickle spears. But at day care, I’d be forced to partake in demoralizing group games like Bombardment and Red Rover, before digging into mass-distributed snacks—typically, anemic little cups of canned fruit, drowning in corn syrup.
By the time Mom arrived to pick us up, she was always exhausted from her ten-hour work day and long commute, and would often try to convince us of how “fun” it might be to have cereal, or perhaps popcorn, for dinner. “It’ll be like a sleepover,” was her pitch. This worked for a spell. But as time went on, we grew less enthusiastic about snack-meals, and less shy about telling her that we were, well, actually hungry. Because in those days, a meal like orange dinner was a pretty elaborate production. It soon became our number-one request.
“Doesn’t she know you’re supposed to eat a goddamn rainbow of colors?” my dad grumbled over the phone, after the second or third time I’d reported just having finished orange dinner. What really set him off, though, was the night I told him we’d supped on fish sticks.
“You mean breaded pond scum? Put your mother on the phone.”
My least favorite memory from 1995 is of lying under my bed with my sisters, all three of us crowded around the hallway phone receiver, nervously wrapping its cord around our pink fingers until they were blue, and listening in as our father berated our mother about how such breaded freezer abominations contained only “trace amounts” of fish, and “more sodium than a goddamn salt lick.” I remember feeling awful for her when she burst into tears, but defensive of Dad once she started swearing back at him. I haven’t consumed a fish stick since that night.
I don’t know whether their divorce lawyers were consulted, but after that, Dad started scooping us three out of four weekends each month. I doubt the new arrangement took much convincing. Mom—red-eyed and distracted most of the time—was clearly exhausted. In any case, I found myself sharing the pull-out bed with my sisters fifty percent more frequently.
After a brief stint in the crappy apartment near the El tracks, Dad chose to really launch his new, single life, by wrangling a studio apartment in the Gold Coast Historic District of Chicago. It is not uncommon for Weekend Dads—men on their own for the first time since before they were even da,ds, dudes who have scant idea how to select or decorate an apartment—to opt for utilitarian spaces boasting impressive zip codes.
Once second only to Manhattan’s Upper East Side in terms of concentrated American wealth, the manicured streets containing the Gold Coast’s brownstone mansions and historic row houses had by 1995 become crowded with more affordable high-rises. These buildings, often stacked atop charming little 19th-century grocers and taverns, were chock-full of minuscule studios, perfectly suited for single people coveting fancy addresses.
I loved spending Weekend Dad weekends people-watching in Dad’s new neighborhood. Within his building, I spotted members of his same demographic: dumpy, middle-aged, mainly white guys strutting around with tennis rackets, with sporty dog breeds, with younger women—until suddenly one day, I’d see them with one to four squirrelly kids in tow, fighting over who got to push the elevator button. These denizens, I now realize, were textbook Metropolitan-American Weekend Dads, men released from the shackles of matrimony and propelled back into the dating pool for the first time in years—perhaps since their Army days, since college, maybe since high school.
The Metropolitan-American Weekend Dad is typically graying or balding, and frequently rocks a little beer gut. There’s a good chance he has little semblance of a working kitchen in his tiny little Weekend Dad pad. In any case, he prefers to sup at trendy urban restaurants that make him feel hip, that vindicate his sudden disdain for suburban living—a sentiment that conveniently tends to accompany his exile from Naperville, or Westchester County, or Granada Hills.
But also, he’s now scouting for places to take dates. Because as soon as he gets that paunch down, he’s gonna hit the singles scene and blossom into the playboy he always knew he had in him. Divorce, in all likelihood, wasn’t fun for the Metropolitan-American Weekend Dad, but at least it came with the implicit assurance that he would be able to see new people naked before he died. Thus, the Metropolitan-American Weekend Dad’s recreational pursuits often involve NordicTrack purchases, or sudden but all-consuming passions for jogging, for boxing gyms, for touch football pick-up leagues and, circa 1994, for the hot new craze that was in-line rollerblading.
Once I started spending most of my free time with my own Metropolitan-American Weekend Dad, life got kind of exotic. I finally figured out how to stand up on rollerblades, and my threshold for spicy foods improved. I got used to Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and falafel, started craving Panang curry and sashimi, and gained real appreciation for people like Dad, people with non-pedestrian tastes. Rather than shoveling down casserole leftovers in front of Full House and Family Matters reruns like we would in the suburbs, we were whisked to artisanal noodle shops, to charming Greek tavernas, to gourmet burger joints, and to Dad’s neighborhood’s many authentic Italian trattorias. It’s worth noting that at one of these Lizzy, then six, put a red pepper flake in her eye and had to be rushed into the men’s room, so that Dad could dig it out without disturbing our bougie co-diners.
“You’re gonna be the coolest damn kid in the fourth grade after spending all this time in the city,” Dad told me one time, after persuading me to taste caviar by explaining that Tom Hanks had downed the pink jelly globlets in Big. I didn’t have the heart to tell him how elementary school social ecology actually worked; namely, that a willingness to ingest fish eggs never bought anyone entree into any “cool” groups,—that neither would my peers be impressed by my newfound affinity for pad see ewe or yakisoba. Also, my sophisticated new palate was not currying favor with my mother once the weekend ended and we were shuttled back to suburbia—where I was getting increasingly uppity about her iceberg wedges and macaroni concoctions.
The Weekday Mom in the split-custody equation is almost assuredly screwed, for at least a period of time. This is because the Weekend Dad typically takes pride in being seen as the fun, cool parent. I know that’s how I came to see mine. While Weekday Mom is charged with homework enforcement, with carpools, with fielding calls from peeved teachers, Weekend Dad gets to let the kids sleep in before carting them off to parks, to roller rinks, to movies, to Chinese buffets, and to places where dessert masquerades as brunch fare.
My Weekend Dad had Cranberries and Collective Soul CDs blasting in his black Nissan Altima, or as he called it, “The Batmobile.” While his chariot was nothing fancy, it was infinitely more appealing than my mother’s minivan. Often, during Batmobile trips back from the city, my Weekend Dad would stop for ice cream cones at a place just down the street from my Weekday Mom’s. I’d bet my second Christmas that after his kids, this shoppe was what Dad missed most about suburbia. In a nod to hetero-normative parenting roles circa 1996, Weekend Dad would often shoot us a playful wink and make us promise not to tell our mother that he’d bought us double scoops, but a half-hour prior to dinnertime at her house.
“I tell you,” my mother muttered one night as she stirred orange powder into yet another boiling pot of tube-lets, “it is a man’s world out there.” She hadn’t even changed out of her pantsuit yet. I remember being consumed with disdain for her recent bout of experimentation with blond hair dye. She didn’t even look like a mother anymore.
“Mom we’re actually kind of sick of orange dinner,” I said, slurping from a snack-sized cup of Jell-o I’d found in the fridge. “Do you have to make everything from a mix?”
Mom narrowed her eyes at me. I told her I could see her roots. “I’m saving those for your sisters’ lunches,” she said, ignoring me and snatching the jello from my hand. “But I’m glad to see you’re somehow not above eating macerated cow’s toenails.”
My mother had always been a trim, busy woman, but since the divorce, she’d grown bony and wan, and somewhat lethargic. Her eyes were looking increasingly bloodshot and, even though she promised she’d sworn off smoking long before we were born, I’d found cigarette ash in the bathroom adjacent to her master bedroom. Not that she slept all that often in the chamber that had been hers and Dad’s for fourteen years. Come ten or eleven o’clock, she often passed out on the couch in the family room, figuring that way, she’d wake up in the event that one of us woke up and tried to go do “kitchen science”—melting Jolly Ranchers or marshmallows in the microwave. At the time, I wished more than anything that she’d act more like my classmates’ pie-baking, field-trip-chaperoning mothers. Of course, she was clearly overtired, overworked, and depressed.
For a little while, she’d dated an old college flame, a hotel manager named Ed Mardquardt (MART•KWART). Ed was tall and blond and sweet, thoroughly Nordic and gentle—traits that stood out in our chaotic Irish-Catholic household. He’d come over bearing Teddy bears and Necco wafers, always willing to play card games with us long into the night. Afterward, Mom would tuck him into bed on the couch—I guess she didn’t want us to see her shacking with another Ed (our Weekend Dad’s first name) in the master bedroom. I assume they courted less monastically during the many weekends we were away.
While it’s never not weird to witness a parent in dating mode, we liked Ed Mardquardt—there was nothing for a kid not to like—but before long, we were cackling uncontrollably every time we saw the guy—pointing and shrieking at the mere sight of poor Ed. He’d walk in the door and right away, we’d be rolling on the floor, making disgusting digestive noises with our mouths. When Mom finally got wind of the reasoning for our sudden shift in reception, she started swearing, and yelling more loudly than I’d heard her carry on since the final days of the divorce.
“That Goddamn, immature, son-of-a-bitch!” she said, referring to the other Ed in her life.
See, our father had found out about their courtship, and the weekend prior, had shared with us his little nickname for Mom’s new boyfriend, which we found nothing short of delightful: Ed FARTquardt.
While I believe my Weekend Dad objectively recognized that his former marriage had problems of the irreparable variety, and while he seemed truly excited to be dating again, to be pursuing women younger and more impressionable than she who was the embittered mother of his children, he did not stomach Mom’s dating life. From what I could tell, the mere thought of any potential father-figures hanging around us during the week took some real getting used to for him.
In the mid-nineties, men were still markedly less likely than women to seek out therapy to sort out their own emotional issues, or even to discuss much about their feelings. I don’t think my father had any opportunities to talk through his myriad hangups at the time—starting with his seeming inability to focus on anything other than that fact that some handsome, fit guy was making his ex-wife smile, or, worse, pushing his kids on the backyard swing-set he’d built himself.
Ed Marquardt didn’t stick around for long. After a few months of dating Mom, his company transferred him to a hotel in California, and he and she decided to just go back to being friends. She stayed single for a while, but then, around when I started fifth grade, took up with a quiet engineer named Tim McCarthy, who had grown up in her same South Side parish. Thing is, Dad grew up in that same neighborhood, too, and he did not find it at all inappropriate to hint at this poor guy’s skeletons, in the presence of his kids.
“Tim still not believe in Christmas?” he asked us one weekend, during a carriage ride through North Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile” in all its lit-up, December 1996 glory. “That guy always acted so high-and-mighty about consumerism”—here Dad paused to make flamboyant air quotes—“and all the ‘evils of capitalism’ crap.”
Christmas came, however, and Tim brought us presents and even drank egg nog under the tree with us. After which, Dad drew out the bigger, more bitter Weekend Dad guns.
“I’ll be frank; Tim’s a strange guy,” he said during our next drive north to the Gold Coast. “Gets pretty dark after a few drinks. Just ask him his thoughts on trickle-down economics.”
Children of divorce are notorious for being people-pleasing doormats. And the Ed Mardquardt ordeal had left me with a sense, if only on a subconscious level, that while Dad was acting out, he was also in pain. I learned to act sympathetic toward him, to laugh at his Mom’s-boyfriend-bashing jokes, but to take most of what he said with a grain of salt as big as the wasabi peas he kept in the Batmobile’s glove compartment.
Anyhow, by the time I reached middle school, Dad was making his own rounds on the dating circuit. But rather than taking up with steady girlfriends—women he might actually introduce us to—he’d dangle what seemed like dozens of lady names, dropping tiny little details about the great dates he was always going on.
“This nice lady Betty—she has this long red hair—is an amazing cook. Had me over the other night for homemade quiche Lorraine.”
Yawning when he arrived to pick us up, he might explain that he’d been up late the night before, that some gal named Dana had insisted he take her dancing. I, meanwhile, would try not to think about the hardcover sex book I’d found while rooting through his bookshelves the weekend before.
Once our father got into the swing of post-domesticated married life and learned his way around the trendy North Side of Chicago, he really seemed to settle into Weekend Dad-hood—which, in many ways, functions as a second adolescence.
“I think I have to break up with that nice blond lady Diane,” he told us one night over dim sum in Chinatown, as if we would’ve possibly had any context for some person in his life named Diane. “She wants me to propose.”
This upset eight-year-old Colleen, who dropped her chopsticks (Dad never let us use forks at Asian joints) and proclaimed that she wanted to marry our father. “I thought you said you were gonna marry Michael Jordan,” Dad said, waving the waitress over for another round of pork buns.
This caused Lizzy, aged nine, to roll her eyes, but I did what tended to do anytime I felt Dad was confiding in me—solemnly nodded, as if I understood exactly what it was like for some stranger to suddenly start trying to lock things down.
Dad may not have been ready to settle down, but after a couple years with the admittedly boring Tim McCarthy, Mom got swept off her sensible pumps by a salesman and fellow divorcee named Redmond O’Brien. Redmond was in his fifties, and distinguished-looking in sharp, tailored suits. He liked to cap his silver hair in expensive-looking fedoras. He had two kids from his first marriage, but they were all grown up and living on their own, which I guess made him a Weekend Dad Emeritus.
Redmond fell hard for Mom. She was almost forty when he took up with her, but still, he liked to stare across our kitchen table like she was just the most exquisite thing to ever prep open-faced tuna salad bagel sandwiches for supper. On weekends we were at Dad’s, he liked to whisk her off on upper-middle-aged destination pilgrimages to Sedona and Santa Fe, or to the chicer lakefront resort towns of Wisconsin. They’d return all laughter and affection, maybe toting a bag of crystals or cheese curds they’d picked up for us.
Weekdays when he was at our house, Redmond unapologetically shacked in the master bedroom. He would spend his evenings crafting elaborate sauces and roux and slow-cooker stews from scratch, all while sipping from tinkling little glasses of what I’d later learn was twenty- or sixty- or sometimes even hundred-year-old Scotch.
After Dad finally met Redmond during one Friday afternoon pickup, he spent the entire ride into the city guffawing, while repeating our future stepfather’s first name over and over again. “RED-mond,” he squealed, in as effeminate of a voice as he could muster. “I’m RED-mond! Does my safari coat match my little chapeau?”
My sisters found this hilarious, and over time, seemed to internalize the anti-Redmond sentiment, growing sullen and abrasive during the week. I just pretended to laugh along. I was well into middle school, a time when kids really embrace derisive use of the term “faggot,” and I recognized Dad’s behavior as classic gay-shaming. Not that Redmond was gay—one only had to be present whenever my mother debuted her new Brooks Brothers skirt suits to know that. But if there was one thing my fashion-fearing, ruddy-complexioned father could never fathom, it was why any red-blooded man would deign to get manicures or comb his hair—or worse, prove himself to be of any use whatsoever in the kitchen.
When Dad found out Redmond had, to our delight, slow-cooked a four-meat red sauce to accompany his homemade rigatoni, he immediately took us out to Chicago’s checker-tableclothed Little Italy neighborhood, where we sat next to shifty-eyed mafioso types, and where Dad lectured us about the importance of authenticity in marinara sauce.
Things only got worse once Redmond moved in with us, put a ring on our mother’s finger and, to our greatest delight, adopted Boomer, a sweet, sleek black lab.
“Guess RED-man needed the perfect accessory for all his little Eddie Bauer outfits,” Dad quipped after meeting the perennially tail-wagging Boomer. Early into his Weekend Dad-hood, Dad had tried to woo us with an adopted cat we collectively named White Sox, but he ended up giving it away to some woman in his building the weekend after we met it, claiming some previously unbeknownst fur allergy. Likewise, Dad soon developed a bizarre aversion to poor Boomer, who always greeted him at Mom’s front door as she did everyone, with an abundance of enthusiasm and dopey smiles.
“Hey there, Oprah,” he said, dropping us off one weekend soon after Mom and Redmond’s spring-of-1997 wedding. “Looks like you’ve put on a few pounds there.”
My mother, normally a less than confrontational woman, overheard, and stormed into the vestibule to tell him to get the fuck out, that he couldn’t be in her house if he was going to stand there fat-shaming and insulting Oprah, women, and worst of all, her dear dog.
Colleen started sobbing, clinging to Dad’s leg, and neither she nor Lizzy would speak to Mom for the rest of the night. While it ranked as one of the most uncomfortable episodes of my young life, I remember feeling proud of my mother and protective of Boomer. But after Dad retreated, I could hardly stomach the coq au’ vin Redmond had made for dinner. This, however, could also have had something to do with the fact Dad had been taking us out for secret ice cream cones more often than ever.
Weekend Dads may get to slip into the “fun parent” role, but if and when their kids’ mother remarries, the children automatically gain a new weekday father figure. And while Weekend Dad is obviously the biological dad, he’s suddenly, in terms of hours-spent-in-a-fatherly-role, very much second fiddle.
Right around the time Mom married Redmond, Dad settled down, too, with a city planner named Wendy. Dad and Wendy bought a place in a residential neighborhood on the North Side, a family-centric but still somewhat gritty area where Dad didn’t have to entirely eat the many suburb-bashing words he’d dispensed since being banished from Palos Park, Illinois. We liked Wendy, largely because she insisted that they adopt a big fluffy Belgian sheepdog, but also because her favorite thing to do was to bake.
Our initial baking session with Wendy marked the first time I understood that the creation of desserts need not involve a cardboard box featuring a comic sans quote from a Doughboy instructing, “Just add oil and eggs!” Redmond may have revolutionized dinnertime at Weekday Mom’s house, but he was all about complex bases and rare ingredients—stuff it was hard to appreciate at eight, nine, and twelve years old. We’d never seen him assemble a three-tiered chocolate cake, or embark on a cherry-picking day trip to Michigan in service of a crumble. He’d never taken us to stand in a long line to meet Martha Stewart at the Chicago Botanical Gardens, or awoken us with the sizzle of homemade pancake batter hitting bespoke griddle. Certainly no one in our lives had ever suggested that we bake an elaborate gingerbread village and spend most of winter break decorating it.
Wendy had never been married before. She was a few years younger than our mother, but as my maternal grandmother pointed out, looked kind of like a mousier, flatter-haired version of her. Wendy turned out to be as dedicated of a cook as she was a baker—one who would never dream of touching any sort of pre-prepared mix. She subscribed to Living and Saveur and Gourmet (RIP), and loved making elaborate lasagnas and frittatas. Even though her meals were delicious, I missed going out for spicy Asian food on the regular. I missed all the people-watching, all the excitement of the Weekend Dad pad. I suppose what I probably missed the most was having the full attention of our father—not to mention all the free time he’d had to bowl and blade and beach and brunch. Now that he was a homeowner again, a significant portion of the weekend had to be spent mowing lawn and fixing leaks.
To my fish stick-bashing father’s delight, Wendy was deeply concerned about the evils of preservatives and chemical additives and aspartame and corn syrup (this was rare circa 1992), but as we soon learned, she wasn’t all that tactful about it. She could be downright passive-aggressive at Thanksgiving dinners at Aunt Carolann’s house, filling her plate with nothing but un-gravy’d white meat, and later faking barf noises in the car while recounting all the “fake” and thus “disgusting” ingredients necessary to produce Aunt Mary Sue’s green bean casserole, or our grandma’s famous carrot Jell-o mold. Dad, who’d happily scarfed all of the above for as long as I’d known him, was always in hearty agreement with Wendy. So, I went along with it, too, feigning sympathetic revulsion—until my mother became a target. Indeed, it didn’t take long for Wendy to intuit that her willingness and ability to lovingly produce elaborate homemade meals gave her a real edge against Mom.
“I just can’t fathom feeding a person red dye #40, or worse, yellow dye #12,” she’d mutter, crinkling her nose after Lizzy or Colleen accidentally mentioned the Kraft Taco Pasta Toss or Hamburger Helper Pizza Bake our mother had made while Redmond was out of town on business. I’d seethe silently, and make a mental note not to eat whatever chili or pie Wendy was planning, or at the very least, to not compliment her on it. Come dinnertime, I might regale Dad and Wendy with a story about something funny Mom had done, or a cool family vacation she and Redmond were planning.
Wendy and Dad soon joined an organic food co-op, took up long-distance cycling and, unbeknownst to us at the time, got married at City Hall, claiming they meant to tell us later, when they could have a proper ceremony, one starring us as flower girls. Dad and Wendy’s flower-strewn real wedding never happened, and I’m still not sure why they kept their union hidden for several months. Something tells me they panicked and tied the knot as soon as she became pregnant with my baby half-brother, Mick. After all, Dad was from a Catholic parish neighborhood, and old, South Side Chicago values die hard.
The thing about the Metropolitan-American Weekend Dad is, he has a relatively brief shelf life. Eventually, his kids get too old to keep coming by on weekends. Either that, or he finds himself folded into a new family, with another lease on traditional fatherhood.
In Dad’s case, both happened. Right before I started high school—a time when I became too busy with studying and extracurriculars to trek to the city and back almost every weekend—Mick was born. The stream of tasty takeout just about stopped altogether, as did the home-cooking extravaganzas.
Weekends, like all times at Dad and Wendy’s house, were spent tending to the colicky Mick. Before long, milk and organic baby goo were about the only items to be found in their fridge.
We loved our worm-looking little brother, couldn’t get enough of his gurgles and smiles and baby hats, but his presence made it next to impossible to get a good meal around Dad’s house. Redmond, meanwhile, had purchased a backyard smoker and an espresso machine, and soon fine-tuned his ability to blanket foam over the perfect cappuccino. As the nascent caffeine addict in my adolescent self saw things, Mom’s house was the place to take oneself seriously, to subsist on a never-ending supply of gourmet olives and cured, smoked salmon. I was proud of how far our orange brick ranch house had come since the days of fish sticks.
Wendy and Dad, however, seemed to be regressing before our eyes, and at an alarming rate. On one rare weekend visit, after baby Mick had grown old enough to stomach actual food, I was shocked to find soda in the fridge—albeit some foreign-looking organic kind—and to see Wendy at the stove, stirring yellow powder into a pot of familiar-looking tube-lets.
“Are we having macaroni for dinner?” I asked, incredulous and a little hopeful.
“We’ll have to see if there are any leftovers,” she said. “There are some sandwich fixings in the fridge for you guys.”
In the recycling bin next to said refrigerator, I spied a Kraft-shaped box featuring a cartoon rabbit. Aha. Annie’s Homegrown Organic Macaroni & Cheese, I knew was targeted to parents who buy into the au naturel lifestyle. I plucked it out of the trash and marched over to Wendy.
“Isn’t this just boxed food from a mix?” I, then a cynical fourteen-year-old, asked Wendy. “Don’t you feel greenwashed?”
“Listen, I really don’t have time for this,” she said, gesturing toward the wall-mounted monitor, suddenly broadcasting Mick’s baby babbles. “And I certainly never see you taking any initiative in the kitchen.”
I had no retort to this, for it was and still is true—if cooking is any sort of hereditary skill, my genetics and I are plumb out of luck. So, I just stood there smirking. Wendy, meanwhile, took the Annie’s box from my hand.
“Get out of here, and go take the recycling to the curb.”
By the time I crept back in, craving the sticky gooiness of prepared Mac ’n Cheese, Mick had been retrieved from his basinet and, from his high chair, was decorating the wall with orange noodle elbows. Dad had scooped what remained from the stovetop onto his own plate. Next to this steaming, cheddar-hued mound, he’d dumped a handful of dried apricots from the co-op and, on a napkin next to his plate, I spied the crusty remains of what he must have been noshing on while waiting for Mick to give up on the Macaroni—nine-grain toast, slathered in organic marmalade.
Yes, he was supping on orange dinner. And, seated next to him, so was Wendy.
I considered calling them out, cracking some joke about the full-circle triumph of the pumpkin-hued meal. But, I was struck by the dark circles under both their eyes, the ways in which they’d somehow grown both paunchier and bonier, and infinitely more beleaguered, since I’d last seen them. I sensed that it wouldn’t behoove me to stir the pot, so to speak, and opted to let them get back to the task of raising the kid I so adored, and hold off on eating until it was time for Dad to drop my sisters and me back off at Mom’s.
On the way, Dad didn’t stop for caramel gelato at the usual old-fashioned ice cream shoppe, but rather pulled over for soft-serve cones at McDonald’s. “Do me a favor and don’t tell Wendy about this,” he muttered, distributing identical white swirls of air, cream, and pre-mixed powder.
Once we arrived in Palos Park, however, I became glad we hadn’t filled up on real ice cream. Sweet smells of basil, spliced with red pepper, filled the ranch house. Mom and Redmond, it turned out, had spent the weekend taking a Southeast Asian cooking class with their gourmet club.
As the years went on, Mom and Redmond would behave increasingly like Viagra commercial actors circa 1999—taking up kayaking and snowshoeing, spontaneously going parasailing in Hawaii, and whipping up batch after batch of sidebars for cocktail picnics. Mom eventually switched careers, started sleeping and smiling and eating more, and once the curtains had closed on the nineties, went gluten-free, ending the stream of macaroni bakes and cereal dinners altogether.
That night, however, we all gobbled up better spicy rice noodles than I’d had since the height of Dad’s Weekend Dad-hood. They were delectable, and Mom loved them, too. I remember the budding feminist in me feeling buoyed by her apparent mastery of the bona fides I’d only ever associated with the Weekend Dad high life. I must have just started reading women’s magazines, because I remember thinking, proudly, She’s having it all.
Don’t get me wrong—the Metropolitan-American Weekend Dad is a super-awesome fun guy. At least, mine was. In some ways I miss those days, when weekends were all about new adventures, fun, and delicious excitement. In trying to maximize the little time they have to spend with their kids, Weekend Dads perhaps tend to go a little overboard. My own father probably felt guilty for missing out on so much of the heavy lifting of our childhood. Perhaps he was competing for memories, worried we would remember him less vividly, given the fact that our time spent with him was proportionally scant.
If he could cram enough museum trips and ice cream and games of catch into the weekend, all that fatherliness just might propel us through the father-less week. If everything we tasted with him was new and different, exciting and sophisticated, then his time with us, perhaps, would count for more, nourish us better. If life is a meal, Weekend Dad weekends, for many kids, become a decadent dessert—excessive, exciting, inventive, nutrient-deficient, and ultimately unsustainable. It’s why my own childhood memories of weekends, circa 1992 at least, run bitter, albeit plenty sweet, too.
* Some names in this essay have been changed
Katie O’Reilly is the adventure + lifestyle editor for Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club. She’s based in Berkeley, California, but regularly makes pizza pilgrimages back to her native Chicago. She holds a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her essays appear in Vela, Narratively, the James Franco Review, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, Bitch, Runner’s World, and other places. This is her first of hopefully many forays into food writing—and ideally helps get child-of-divorce writing out of her system. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @katieowrites