A few years into our relationship, the man I was dating became a manny, or male nanny. He was a talented musician by trade but that didn’t always pay the bills. So after a series of jobs ranging from barista to nut shop grinder to children’s entertainer, he was hired as an after school teacher. Being the sensitive musician-type, Steve didn’t play catch or kick ball on the playground. Instead, he became the beloved teacher of the fragile young first and second graders. The pale girls and sensitive boys would sit inside on sunny days drawing flowers rather than looking for them, or reading about adventures instead of acting them out. The boys hung from his neck. The girls asked him to marry them.

I found this so charming at first. What young woman wasn’t brought up to want a boyfriend to be good with children? Then a single mother at the school, Paula, asked him to watch her first grade daughter, Grace, from the end of after school until she returned home from work. Steve, unshaven and old enough to be Grace’s dad, agreed to join the ranks of the young nannies who showed up every afternoon to pick up their charges and ferry them home to organic carrot sticks and all natural mac and cheese. For four hours a day, Steve would be a responsible manny, even as he was oblivious to the mess of dishes at our apartment we had recently started sharing.

Not long after he started the job, I found a playlist on my iTunes named for Paula. Then Steve called to say that Paula had arrived and he was about to leave – an hour later, with dinner growing cold, he still wasn’t home. He and Paula had gotten to talking. He would call Paula at work in the mornings to discuss the day’s schedule, and I would grow jealous when I heard his belly laugh from the other room. I thought only I had made Steve laugh like that. One night as we sat down to another reheated dinner I asked him, “Do I have anything to be worried about?” Why wouldn’t Steve go for the ready-made family? If he loved Grace, as I knew he did, why not love Paula too?

“Worried about what?” Steve asked.

“The playlist, the phone calls, the staying late. Should I be worried about you and Paula and Grace?” Even in my insecurity, I recognized that there would be no Paula without Grace; that this 7-year-old would have as much hold over a manny as her petite, funny, opinionated mother. He laughed and told me I had nothing to worry about. Deep down, I knew he was right. Still, I did not love sharing him with another family when I was only just starting to think about our future together. Quietly, I hoped this job would run its course like so many others had.

In the months after Steve started manny-ing he endured comments and looks from neighbors and teachers and even skepticism from our own friends. People thought he was Paula’s new lover, or even Grace’s father. Someone who had known us both for years said to me, “I’m sure Steve is great with Grace, but I would never allow a man to watch my daughter.” I was furious. Why could only women be good caregivers? Why wouldn’t a little girl – a precocious, fashion-minded, boy-crazy, wanna-be-Avril Lavigne first grader – be better for having Steve in her life?

Before I could make my friend spell out her insinuation, another friend changed the subject. She said, “I bet Steve will be a great father.” For the first time I paused and thought of Steve and myself in the role of parents. Perhaps it was the same qualities that made Steve a great manny that would complement our long-term partnership. But I was in my mid-twenties and nowhere close to wanting children. I decided I would wait and see where our relationship led.

As the year continued, Steve got used to his role keeping track of Grace’s schedule and walking her home from whatever activity the day dictated. He brought along a snack for her on karate days, and carried her hot pink backpack on his own shoulders, singing goofy songs as they walked down the sidewalk. If Paula was running late, Steve might whip up pasta and sauce for dinner, while I was cooking something more elaborate on the other side of the neighborhood for our new, later dinner hour. While I loved that he found a role that he was good at, I was also concerned that the expectations for our relationship were changing. What would happen to us if I didn’t want children right away, but Steve, more than a decade older than me, did? But even more so, I began to wonder if I should be the one who yearned to start a family – and I found myself combating my own confusion over my feelings on motherhood by criticizing Steve.

“Don’t carry her bag for her,” I lectured Steve when I met them out if my classes finished early. “You’re going to give her a second cookie?” I asked incredulously. Steve just took my suggestions with patience. “I’m still learning,” is all he would say as he accepted my critique of the very qualities in him that I loved and my friends envied.

A few months into Grace’s second grade year, I knew Steve would not have to teach after school on Columbus Day, so I suggested we go apple picking.

“Sure, but Paula already asked if I could watch Grace. It’s my first full day. Can we all go?” I grudgingly agreed.

The next day the three of us were at the orchard outside of the city. It was the first time Grace had ever gone and we filled two bags with apples, at one point diffusing a tantrum about whose bag was whose. As I walked a sniffling Grace to the women’s bathroom, hand in hand, we talked about what to do with the apples we decided we were sharing. I suggested that we would make applesauce for her mother. Grace agreed and by the end of the day, I was the one she asked to zip her coat and buckle her in the car, and instead of having Steve drop me off at home, I went back to Grace’s house to wait for Paula, peeling apples that Grace tossed into a large pot while the fruit steamed the windows.

Later Steve said, “I couldn’t have handled today without you.” I smiled and admitted, “It was kind of fun.” I found while I wasn’t ready for kids quite yet I could see myself wanting to start a family at some point. But even more so I was proud of our collective child-care skills. Steve and I were a good team. I did have it in me to wipe away tears and I finally gave Steve credit for dealing with the complexities of a now-8-year old.

Steve and I got married a few years later and Grace and Paula – and Paula’s boyfriend – all came to the wedding. By then he had helped usher Grace into a pre-teen and we knew for certain that we wanted to have a family together.

Today we have a 1-year-old named Rocco and, perhaps fittingly, Steve is a stay-at-home-dad while I work full-time. These roles didn’t come with harsh negotiation, but rather seemed to fit our partnership, honed in no small part by Grace. She taught us to communicate better as well – about the intricate details of a child’s schedule, yes, but also about our own fears and desires for the life that we are embarking on together.

Perhaps I was never worried about Steve’s abilities to manny, but was insecure about my own inclinations to care for a child. And I can thank Grace and Paula and Steve for giving me the confidence to know that I would be a good mother – and of course that Steve would be a loving and involved father. He may be the one in the trenches most days – the playmate, the chauffeur, the one packing graham crackers for a snack – while I plan meals and doctor’s appointments and pay bills, but I learned that we could those swap roles as do just as well.

Not too long ago I had to teach when Steve also had some studio work to do at home. The first person he thought to call to babysit was Grace, now a teenager. She played with Rocco while Steve worked in the next room, only summoning Steve to change a diaper. When I returned home that evening I asked Steve how Grace had done.

“Fine,” he said. “But she said she didn’t think she’d ever want to have one of her own.” I just smiled and thought, let’s just wait and see.

Suzanne Cope wrote the book Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits and the Return of Artisanal Food. She teaches writing at Manhattan College and the University of Arkansas, Monticello MFA Program. You can follow her on Twitter @locavoreincity.

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