Thank you, random stranger

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.

20 thoughts on “Thank you, random stranger

  1. Do you think in a year or so Critter will hear that stranger and say something about having two dads instead of the mom being referred to? I would really love to see a 5 year old put someone in check?
  2. I have friends who’ve adopted children from other countries; the often receive similar inquiry.

    There are, as children age, other awkward questions. One being, “So do you have a girlfriend?” to a boy, or “boyfriend,” to a girl; the presumption being they’re heterosexual. Why would we presume that, and not find a politer way to actually ask if they’re in some sort of relationship that thrills them; teen love (and teen lust) is quite thrilling, after all.

    Thanks for helping us forge new, and better manners, Doc.

    And thank you, too, for bringing up Connor Williams’s post at TDB; it was fantastic, and I regretted comments here were not open. (I’m particular about where I comment on the internet. TDB is not a comfortable, safe, place.)

    • I was presented with just such a situation this past weekend while attending a wedding. A friend of a friend, who I know decently well, was in attendance. I was 99% sure that the gentlemen was gay, but couldn’t say with absolute certainty because it had been some time since I had seen him. Additionally, he is rather “fabulous” (he literally works for a website called fab.com), so the risk of being presumptuous about his sexuality was high. And the gentleman is a kind, caring individual who I would never seek to offend.

      As we were catching up, discussing all that has transpired since we last came together, I struggled with how to ask about his relationship status. Until, duh, I realized I could simply ask, “Are you seeing anyone?”

      I guess this isn’t perfect… it might assume that the person isn’t seeing several someones or hasn’t vowed off partnering entirely… but was far better than going the, “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” route.

  3. I’ve been pondering what to say about Conor’s excellent piece, but hadn’t much to add. I’ve also been fortunate enough that I haven’t yet been confronted with the sorts of things that you and he talks about. It can think of a few reasons for this, ranging from the Arapahoan culture (we’ll see what happens when we get to Queenland) to the fact that I don’t go out a lot with the baby.

    (Also, obviously, the fact that we’re of the same ethnicity helps. The brother of a friend back home is white, married a black woman, and is the primary caregiver of their “non-white” children. He gets the police called on him regularly.)

    But overall, friends and strangers have been remarkably supportive. Even when I say that I intend to be the stay-at-home dad. I feel very grateful for this. The worst that I’ve seen has actually been online. One from a guy who said to me, pretty straight-out, that the world would be a lot better if there were fewer “men” like me. Something about testosterone levels dropping when men change diapers or something. I found it more funny than offensive. Some stray comments from women online cut a little bit more, but they’re rare enough that I feel like I can dismiss them.

    • “The brother of a friend back home is white, married a black woman, and is the primary caregiver of their “non-white” children. He gets the police called on him regularly”

      … oh, my god. I’m not certain I could take that (and I’ve been on jobs where getting the cops called was rather frequent. It’s different when it’s your own kids).

  4. “Must be Mom’s day off.”

    I’d have replied with, “Were you such a pisspoor parent that you’ve never wanted to take your children outside simply for the joy of being with them??”

  5. Today, Zazzy returns to work. I will be home, alone, with Mayonnaise for the bulk of the rest of the summer (he’ll spend a few days here and there in childcare). I haven’t yet read Conor’s piece, but clearly must. I have every intention of remaining a productive member of this family beyond providing care, which will mean trips to the grocery store, hardware store, and the like, all with him in tow. I’ve built up a decent callous around presumptuous comments about men as caregivers, a necessary task when you are a male early childhood educator, but I imagine there being a different level of blood boiling that arises when it is one’s old child, and even more so if you throw assumptions about sexual orientation and the like into the mix.
  6. Having just read the piece… wow… how fantastic. Conor, I hope you happen upon here to see the praise I’m sure you’ll receive.

    In reading it, I was reminded of a story that a friend told about his own adventures in fathering. He was running to the local warehouse store for a couple small items with his 10-month-old daughter. He had her in the stroller since he didn’t have much to grab. However, reports were coming in about Hurricane Sandy and he noticed the bottled water section being raided and figured he ought to grab some. Now, my friend is a strong guy, but pushing the stroller and lugging a case of water bottles was too tall an order. Going back to the car to return the stroller and situate his daughter in a cart seemed needlessly difficult. So, instead, he grabbed one of the extra wide carts, lifted the entire stroller into it, secured it with the cases of water bottles, and proceeded to the register. It was a rather ingenious solution… the type that I struggle to think even his high intelligent and competent wife would have arrived it. But when he arrived at the register, the check out woman simply said, “Your wife isn’t with you today, is she?” So rather than being celebrated for the unique gifts he brought to the table as a parent, he was derided.

    I don’t think it is enough to say that men can be just as competent caregivers as women. Often times, be it a function of socialization, biology, or some combination therein, men offer a different form of caregiving then women. Not better, not worse, but along certain dimensions… different. And children who get to experience variety in the care provided, I sincerely believe are greatly benefited. Mayonnaise will benefit from Zazzy’s thoughtful and caring tough. He will benefit from my adventurousness. He will doubley benefit from experiencing both and the balance between the two.

    This article here touches on this: http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/06/the-distinct-positive-impact-of-a-good-dad/276874/

    I recognize there is a bit of painting with broad brush strokes here, which is not my intent. There is great variety in parenting styles within the genders, such that a child with same sex parents who has the opportunity to receive care from both will similarly benefit. Moreso, what I hope to emphasize and what I think Conor and this link point to is that we ought not look at dads as trying to be moms… the Mr. Mom meme… but should recognize the unique value of dads.

  7. that random people will comment on how one takes care of kids is one of those things. i never get too much of it (because i look scary) but my wife generally gets a few here and there. i think she’s remarkably thin-skinned on the subject – which is my general verdict on conor’s piece as well – but it is still fairly rude to interject rather pointed criticisms, especially if the child is having some kind of meltdown. if the parent is attending to the issue rather than letting them run wild, then you gotta kinda let it go.

    when the tiny terror was tinier and less radicalized i did occasionally get a patronizing “oh isn’t that unique, a man is caring for a baby!” but they tended to be older and i guess it was more novel? that sounds a bit like a facebook defense of paula deen for my tastes but we do live in an area with a lot of immigrant communities of varying degrees of assimilation into american norms, etc etc and so forth. it was better than the ancient greek woman on the block who insisted that my son was “too pretty for boy”. what do you say to someone who went to high school with zeus?

    on the other hand, random strangers also bestow compliments at a very high rate as well. so i tend to think it washes out. one of the nice things about nyc is that people generally leave you alone, even (or especially) if you’re on fire. kids break down that barrier, which is mostly ok, or reasonable, or at least to be expected.

    it’s one of those things i dread about moving to america, as that is apparently a thing in that place.

  8. Something to chew on, that might help blunt the comment from the random stranger and the assumption about you and you Other Half:

    I’m constantly amazed by the compliments I get for being “such a good dad”. At no time in our partnership have I ever thought “Hmm.. what I can do to really impress Mrs. Teacher and show what a great dad I am to our kids?” Usually it’s more a thought of “Hmm… what do I need to do?”

    But in contrast I’ve met many many women over the last 5 years who have repeatedly said “If it’s not baseball/football/fishing/hobby for ‘boys’ my husband wants nothing to do with her/him. He just comes home from work and goes out to his garage/ down to his workshop/ out with his friends.”

    In one sense the idea that you’re even involved in the parenting, as a male, could be seen as a compliment. It’s a sad statement about the ~other~ men in the world, but hey, if they wanna make me look good, who am I to argue?

    • I’m constantly amazed by the compliments I get for being “such a good dad”.

      At the other end of the age spectrum, last week was my annual trip to my mother’s to play handyman/driver/whatever. I was amazed at how many people exclaimed, “What a good son!” when they found out. Same sort of thing, I suppose — the idea of the son being involved at all in caring for an elderly parent seems foreign to so many people.

      • I believe it is Chris Rock who has a bit about black dads getting praised simply for doing what they’re supposed to do, because the expectations are so low.
  9. I’ve gotten the occasional comment from people, usually about temperature related issues. In my adopted homeland, people wear down jackets, hats, gloves, and scarves when it is 40 degrees out. I don’t think that’s necessarily gendered.

    The “mom’s day off” thing is a different issue, and one that doesn’t surprise me at all. Unbelievable.

  10. For much of my son’s life, particularly the early years, I was a single parent (his mom’s involvement has waxed and waned for most of that time). The reactions I got from being out with a child were almost always positive, though often almost overly so. For example, it was not uncommon for me to hear, “You are really good with him” from a stranger on a bus or in a restaurant, something I doubt they’d have said to a mother. I also got a lot of, “It’s so nice to see a father who is so close to his child,” which is obviously not the sort of thing mothers often get. I don’t recall ever getting criticisms, though… well, except from my mother, but she’s Italian, so its in her nature to tell people what to do with their kids.
  11. That random strangers not offer unsolicited commentary about gendered parenting roles when I’m out for a walk with my children.

    I’m not really down with random strangers offering unsolicited commentary about parenting, generally.

    Let me put it this way… I’m not one to use intentionally inflammatory language in an attempt to derail a conversation, but when someone sees fit to impose themselves upon me with unsolicited expertise, one of two things better be true…

    They better really be offering seriously expert expertise, or
    They’d better be prepared for some intentionally inflammatory language.

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