Walking down the street the other day, a couple of older-ish women started cackling and hollering in my direction. Took a couple of seconds to realize that they were laughing at my son, who had dressed himself in bright orange shorts, a crimson hat, and a faded red (dare I say vintage?) Mr. Happy tee-shirt. Didn’t strike me as the peak of hilarity, but these ladies thought it a hoot. “Looks like Mommy wasn’t home this morning, huh?” one called at me. “You got the day off or something, Dad?”
“I’m with him every day, actually,” I said.
“Oh, is that right?” one said. “Good for you, good for you.”
But the way they kept laughing sent a different message.
Felix looked up at me, confused. “What are they saying, Daddy? Why are they laughing.”
“They think your outfit is cute,” I told him. “Just do what I’m doing: smile and keep going.”
Just when you least expect it: pow! There it is. People see a guy with his child and brands him incompetent, the second-string player who comes in when mom is down for the count, the guy with the good intentions who doesn’t really know what he’s doing, the butt of the joke. Laugh if you must, ladies, but I find it a tired, lame punchline.
I’m not saying that their prejudice (because that’s what it is) ruins my day, but it’s unpleasant. Especially now that Felix is old enough to be aware of it, and be implicated in it. Though he pedaled on past those ladies, he could have asked me more about their antics, and I’d have told him the truth: they’re laughing at you because of your outfit, which they feel (for reasons I don’t know) is ridiculous or inappropriate. Really, it’s their mockery that’s ridiculous and inappropriate. No one likes to be laughed at, and adults shouldn’t be busting on little kids. Especially not ones they don’t know.
A few days prior to that incident, a friend forwarded me Tom Stocky’s Facebook post about paternity leave, which addresses just what I experienced (and have experienced before, I should note). Stocky is a Facebook employee who took advantage of the company’s paid paternity leave (awesome for offering it, Facebook!). On the eve of his leave ending, he wrote a short essay slash long status update which then made the rounds of the social networking site. In a subsequent appearance on Good Morning America (which you can see via The Huffington Post), he said: “There are insanely low expectations for being a dad. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh that’s so great that you’re bringing you daughter to the grocery store!’ And then I was like, ‘Well, of course I am.'” As if he would just leave her alone untended.
In his Facebook post, Stocky writes about how sometimes these low expectations came across in the form of back-handed compliments. He was told, “Your wife must work so hard. That’s great that you’re able to pick up the slack,” and then wonders, “Has someone ever said that to a woman?”
I’ve been lucky, and not had to deal with a lot of this stuff to my face. Perhaps because I live in Brooklyn, where dads pushing strollers are an everyday occurrence, so common that two dads passing one another in transit don’t even necessarily nod hello at one another. We’re not a rare breed. Still, on weekdays, the numbers of dads on the playground are significantly smaller then the number of moms, and both are outranked by the armies of nannies. (Things change on weekends, when dads are often equal to if not greater than moms.)
Stay-at-home dads and dads in general still deal with mockery and negative stereotypes all the time. This is why it’s so important for corporations and media to better reflect the reality — dads are no less and no more as competent, committed, and caring as moms. People are people, and parents are parents, you know?
Felix and I will survive. As I wrote earlier this week, at some point he’ll learn that people are not always nice, and the price of marching to your own beat is standing out and drawing attention to yourself, both positive and negative. For better or worse, his skin with thicken. It’s a sad part of growing up.
As for me, I’ve developed a tough hide from years of going my own way. Besides, primary caregivers have always had to be tough, and they’ve historically been under appreciated. It’s part of the job description.
But take my advice: Whether talking to a dad or a mom, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.