Falling from grace is so easy to do – especially when you’re a dad.

On mornings when time and weather permit, I pack my 23-month-old son, Zephyr, into his stroller and walk him to his daycare center that’s about a mile from our house. Our route winds through a residential neighborhood and by two schools, so we pass kids on their way to homeroom, parents hustling sleepy children out the door, commuters heading to work and a litany of ridiculously peppy joggers.

Although my coffee has yet to work its magic, I always try to be outgoing and engaging. At 7 a.m., this usually translates into a mumbled “Morning” and a smile that showcases unbrushed teeth. Not that it matters. No one is looking at or listening to me.

My son doesn’t require caffeine and I’m in charge of making sure his teeth are glistening white before he leaves the house. He greets people like he’s the miniature mayor of the neighborhood, waving and offering up jolly greetings in his little voice to everyone and their dog. Passersby usually stop to chat and offer up compliments, “He’s so cute and so polite. Nice job, Dad.” They beam at me, making me feel as if I’m the best father in the world. By the time I drop him off, I’m convinced I’m able to install car seats without watching an instructional video seven times on YouTube, change a diaper in two-seconds-flat and make dinner for my family while blindfolded.

Those empowering feelings of parental invincibility are quickly demolished on the walk home. What had been my greatest strength is suddenly my greatest weakness. It turns out that the only superpower I have now is the ability to create instant, overwhelming awkwardness. A father pushing his little boy in a stroller is a charming sight. Some random dude pushing an empty stroller? Well, that’s just plain weird.

The reactions vary, but none are positive. Adding insult to injury, there is an absolute lack of compliments. Some people immediately look away, probably assuming I’m working through some post-partum depression that therapy clearly hasn’t been able to help (yes, male PPD is a thing). Others still look at me, their expressions swerving between pity and fear as they mentally calculate how much their home price will fall if it turns out I’m the new neighbor.

Braver pedestrians try to make a joke out of the empty stroller, usually offering up a line like, “I think you forgot something.” I want to play along, so I’ll usually come to an abrupt halt and run around to the front of the stroller to gape dumbfounded at the passenger-less seat. “Oh, crap. My wife is going to be so angry with me when I get home,” I’ll say while wringing my hands. Maybe my delivery is too dry, because people don’t seem to understand I’m kidding. The one guy who did laugh at my over the top pantomime did so in the same breath that he took off sprinting down the block.

One day as I passed by one of the schools, a bus monitor, who I’d seen several times before, gave me the strangest look. His expression seemed to say, “I should probably call the police, because this guy is clearly off his rocker.” I couldn’t help myself. I had to stop.

“I promise you I have a kid,” I told him as earnestly as possible. “I just dropped him off at daycare.”

A look of relief washed across his face, replacing the wariness. “I’ve been wondering,” he said. “I didn’t know what to make of you. I did think you were a little crazy.”

We talked for a while until I was pretty sure he decided I wasn’t completely bonkers, then parted ways.

A few days later, I was strolling with my son to daycare and a car pulled up next to us. It had tinted windows and I could hear vintage soul music gently pulsing from the interior. Suddenly, the window rolled down and the bus monitor poked his head out.

“He exists!” he exclaimed, pointing at Zephyr, who immediately gave responded with a little wave and a “Hello.”

In that moment, I felt better for all the weird looks I’d gotten and strange interactions. Finally, at least one person believed I was sane – and that’s all I needed.

Grace reattained! For a moment, anyway.

Nevin Martell is a freelance writer, author and dad with a stroller. And a kid. He tweets @nevinmartell.

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