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The woman doesn't want perfume for Mother's Day. Nor lingerie. Nor jewelry. She is too practical for the peignoir that graces the newspaper ad that lies between us as we fly from west to east, from work to home.

What she would like for Mother's Day, she says, is a bridge. Something sturdy to span the gap that has eroded between herself and her husband, the mother and father of their children. A bridge for what she has come to call the guilt gap.My companion says that in many ways the differences between her and her husband are personal. He regards the children as sturdy. She regards them as fragile. He sees their problems as potholes they will ride around. She sees them as early warning signs of a possible collapse.

But she also calculates that these personal differences run along gender lines. The guilt gap may be narrower than before. But it most often has mothers on one side and fathers on the other.

Mothering and parenting are not yet, not quite, the same. Indeed, the parent who reads the children most closely often finds herself faced with dozens of small choices that add up.

In the case of my companion, one of these choices was the task that took her away from home and deposited her beside me on this flight. Another was the job she declined because it meant nights. A third and fourth and fifth were decisions about how to spend time as a couple or a family.

So for this, her 10th Mother's Day, she would like that bridge over the guilt gap. She wants them on the same track.

But which track would she choose? I ask my fellow traveler: Does she worry too much about the children or he too little? Does she want to cross to his side or get him to cross to hers? She isn't certain. But as we talk, it seems to both of us, that in these past decades mothers have gone the furthest in the movement from a double standard to a single standard.

In households with double standards of cleanliness, she says, it is easier to drift to an equal standard of messiness. In households with his and her standards of what children need, I reply, it is easier to drift to a single standard of letting go.

The result, we both calculate, has been a net loss in housework and a net loss in caretaking. But there is a difference between kids and dustballs. You cannot do an occasional full-tilt spring parenting job.

So the question is how "parents" can become more like mothers.

But this is what many mothers want for their day and for their life. They want men to pick up more than the laundry. To pick up more of the anxiety and stretch it across the gap that still separates husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. We have finally come to that bridge. Now, to cross it.