I would never have thought to call myself a stay-at-home dad.
First of all, to me that implies (fairly or unfairly, accurately or not) a man who takes care of his kids rather than working outside the home. I have a full-time job. However, one of the many things I loved about my current job and a major selling point when I took it was how very flexible my employer was about hours and working around his employees’ family needs. So I only work three long days a week, which gives me four days at home (most weeks) with my family.
Also, I am loath to imply that I do the bulk of the child-rearing. In truth, both the Better Half and I have arranged our vocational commitments such that we have a pretty even share of looking after the kids. Things feel equitable to me, with neither of us being the one who “stays” at home.
But man, could I relate to Conor’s fantastic piece over at The Daily Beast about being a caretaker dad. (If you haven’t read it, it’s really worth your time.) This part rang so, so true:
She was smiling as she shook her head at my crying daughter, but her tone was pure sneer: “Does Mom know that Dad has you out in this heat?”
Then she looked at me. “It’s too hot for an infant to be outside today.”
It was hot. Probably 85 degrees in the sun. I involuntarily put my hand to my daughter’s head as I took stock of my critic.
The contrast between our appearances was stark. She was free of children. She was dressed like she’d just come from the office, with a leather bag slung over one shoulder of a dark, formal suit, and an iPhone in her hand. Enormous sunglasses obscured much of her face—but not her condescension.
In my case it was cold, not heat. A random woman approached me in the parking lot of a local shopping mall and, smiling, commented that my son’s feet must be cold because he wasn’t wearing shoes or socks. Of course, explaining that little delighted my son more at that age than removing his shoes and socks at any opportunity was exactly what I wanted to be doing at that moment. But of course I felt compelled to mutter something defensive, because God forbid some woman in a parking lot feel like she could judge my parenting skills.
These issues have been on my mind since reading Conor’s piece a few days ago. And they were on my mind this morning as I took the kiddos for a walk.
Sunday is the Better Half’s major work day, and one of the days when I provide pretty much all the childcare. This time of year southern Maine is glorious, and the Critter tends to get antsy if he gets cooped up too long. (He whines about being made to leave the house, but clearly enjoys himself when he makes it outdoors. This morning’s object of fascination? A bower of sea roses buzzing with bumblebees.) So, as is my habit, I put the Squirrel in the Ergo and hustled the Critter out the door and off we went to some nearby woods to explore.
It was in the woods, as I tried to determine how much solo exploring to allow my son before I went trotting after him, that we passed a group of walkers on a path, headed in the opposite direction. At their rear walked a man with a dog, who (upon spying us three) said (almost as if on cue) “Must be mom’s day off.”
How bloody insightful.
Let us leave aside the teeth-clenchingly aggravating thought that a dad would be looking after his kids only as some kind of one-off. Let us leave aside the idea that a mother not looking after her kids must be enjoying a day “off” from her work. Let us leave aside the presumptuous notion that commenting about another’s family is an enjoyable way of engaging in conversation with a total stranger.
Let’s just focus on the fact that there is no “mom” who would be taking a “day off” in our family. What my kids have is two dads. But thanks for the assumptions, random guy!
One of the things a same-sex couple is going to have to accept when they decide to have children is that their family structure will not be normative. Most parenting couples comprise a father and a mother. (Let me reassure anyone experiencing palpitations out there that I have exactly zero desire to change that fact.) Finding depictions of families like yours in books or television shows for kids will be a challenge, and it’s best to understand that challenge from the very beginning.
I don’t expect TV shows or children’s books or movies to stop depicting mommy/daddy dyads as the norm. It would be ridiculous to do otherwise. But what do I feel entitled to expect?
That random strangers not offer unsolicited commentary about gendered parenting roles when I’m out for a walk with my children.
Here’s my advice for anyone who cares to listen to it — when encountering a young family that does not comport in any way with your standard picture of what a young family usually looks like, be it gender or race or traditional role that seems out of whack, you have two totally OK things to say:
1) “You have beautiful children.” Even though I am pretty convinced that my kids are aces, I’ll never object to being told so, even by total strangers. This seems a safe bet across the board, if you feel compelled to say something. Which bring us to acceptable alternative…
2) Nothing. If you feel like asking about a child’s seemingly incongruous ethnicity, or a parent’s assuming a caregiving role you’re not familiar with, or maybe two parents who look suspiciously like they are the same gender, but aren’t sure how to say what’s on your mind the very best way, my advice would be to say nothing at all. Not a blessed word.
Because wrangling two small children along a wooded path is really challenge enough, thanks all the same. Your smug aside isn’t helpful. It does not amuse me, but rather makes me hope you will turn your ankle on an unseen root.
Anyone who opts to become a parent has to be prepared for challenges, both foreseen and totally out of the blue. Those whose families deviate in some way with the norm can expect to draw notice that would otherwise pass them by. Perhaps it cannot be helped. But rearing kids is easily the most important thing I have ever chosen to do, and I am doing my damnedest to do it right. And I’d be happy to be spared the tin-eared comments of people who think they have some insight into how families are supposed to function.