A few months ago I was at an indoor play gym – the sort of place the Pacific Northwest winter necessitates for the sanity of parents and the exercise of young ones. As is often a part of our schedule on the mornings that I spend with my one-year-old daughter, Aria, we joined forces with a mom-friend of mine, and her little one to run the Rugrats out of energy before naptime. While sitting with a group of moms chatting about the sorts of things we parents of toddlers chat about at the playground (mostly on the topic of the working boob…I got nothing) one of the moms looks towards the entrance to the play area and sees a crawling child on the ground near the cubbies. She immediately asks (aloud…and loudly), “Is there anyone with that child?!” And then declares, “Oh my god, no one is watching that child!”
This immediately stirs all the well-meaning moms in my presence into action to protect baby. I can’t really blame them. As a parent, I felt a brief moment of my own fatherly protection kicking into gear. But, as two of the moms raced to baby’s aid, the father turns around from no more than 2 feet away (where he’s briefly gathering their belongings out of the cubbies) and asks the worried looking moms, “Everything ok?”
Dad was there the whole time and baby was in a very safe and secure environment. The worried mom just didn’t see him. As she went into high gear on the perceived threats to the child’s safety she hadn’t even registered that a dad might be present. And this is the crazy thing I keep witnessing in public places, over and over again – as if dads are invisible. I see it at the playground, in the grocery store, even at the café.
Where I live there are so many dads that are engaged and present with their children – many of them stay-home dads like myself. And there is often this feeling that when you walk into a room with your child an assumption has been made that you are on a sweet little Dad-outing, perhaps while mom is at the spa. In fact, I've even heard a mother say, "Oh, John is babysitting the kids today so I can have some time to myself." Babysitting? And I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been asked (repeatedly, by the same people in our town), “And where is mommy today?” Well, working, like she is everyday! It's certainly flattering when everyone looks at you doe-eyed with your child as if to say, "Ain't that the sweetest thing you ever saw?" But, sweet as it may be, I'm the primary caregiver in our household and it bums me out to be thought of as a babysitter, just because I'm a dad. No one calls my stay-home mom-friends babysitters.
So where is the cause of this disconnect between It’s so wonderful for dads to spend time with their kids and,Dads don’t really have what it takes to look after their kids? Unarguably, there are deeply rooted stereotypes around the father’s role in the family (thank you, mid-century America) that are still being delicately disassembled, but it’s 2011 and it just doesn’t fit the times to have such broad gender-judgment about parenting abilities.
Perhaps my worldview of dads is bent drastically toward the positive by my own family examples. In the late fifties and early sixties my grandfather was what we might call a part-time stay-home dad, much like myself. He worked but spent time with my mom in the afternoons and evenings, often feeding her dinner and putting her to bed, while my grandmother ran her dance studio. Very modern for those times! And my own dad was self-employed when I was growing up, which allowed him so much time to spend with us. While a hard-working businessman and the breadwinner of the family, I remember him being very much a part of our daily upbringing from outings to the playground to diaper changes, and cooking some of the meals.