Though there’s a seismic shift underway, the world of parenting is still ruled by mothers. So upon introducing myself to a mom in a child-focused environment, I try to quickly and gracefully communicate three things.
One: I am there with my child. “That’s my son Zephyr over there climbing up the slide.”
Two: I am married. “My wife is at Pilates, so I’m getting some quality father-son time in.”
Three: My family is my top priority. “Indie – that’s my wife – and I finally had the opportunity to enjoy our first date night of 2015 this last week. It was nice to be out, but we missed the little guy, so to make it up to him we’re all going to the National Museum of Natural History this weekend.”
You may be wondering why I go through this elaborate procedure. I quickly let mothers know this information because I don’t want them to think I’m an interloper with an ulterior motive. It may sound like I’m going overboard, but women find few things more disconcerting than a seemingly unattached man in a kid-centric situation who either doesn’t have a little one, seems to be on the prowl for dating prospects or resents the time he is spending with his child.
I have found that there is still some suspicion of men in settings that were once the uncontested sole domain of mothers. To be fair, if men were spotted in those situations in times past, their intentions were rightfully suspect. I understand that fathers who take an equal – if not greater – role than their spouses in raising their child are a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the Western world. We are still in the minority in the larger parenting pool.
When I was growing up in the ’70s, it would have been highly unusual for my father to take me to the playground by himself on the weekend and he was rarely, if ever, the one to oversee my after-school activities. (To his credit, he regularly took me fishing, on woodland hikes and to the comic book store.) My mother, a full-time stay-at-home parent, handled those duties. My father was the sole breadwinner, so he often worked remotely for weeks on end. When he was home, his time was generally his own.
Over the course of just a few decades, many parenting arrangements have changed – in some cases radically. Despite these developments in the distribution of labor and familial structures, a vestigial mindset surrounding the former paradigm remains. To some, the fact that fathers are now the ones picking up their children from daycare and school, trundling them to activities of every stripe and checking in with their various caregivers to ensure that all is as it should be, is odd. And so here we dads are, co-headlining what was once a mom-only show.
In these settings – playgrounds, doctors’ offices, Giggle outlets, daycare – I don’t want to be the one who doesn’t belong or is seen as a trespasser on the sacred grounds of motherhood. I simply want to be regarded as a parent. Having encountered my fair share of wariness in these traditionally mothers-only settings, I try to diffuse the underlying tension immediately.
Usually, I don’t have the luxury of time, which is why I weave in my trifecta of factoids at the beginning of every conversation with a seemingly anxious or curious mother: I have a child, I’m married, my family tops my list of priorities.
For example, when I take my son to the playground, there are usually more solo mothers than solo fathers on hand with their children. I like to chat with them while I’m pushing Zephyr on the swing or monitoring him as he runs around the playhouse. I find it’s a good way to glean parenting tips, revel in the joy and hilariousness of having a little one or – gasp! – indulge in the rare the luxury of having a conversation with a fellow adult that doesn’t revolve around children.
I’ll admit I don’t like being seen as the bad guy in most situations in life. So if I can’t immediately break the ice and convince a mother I’m not a bizarre element, I find that I spend the remaining time at the playground studiously avoiding them. I’ll feel like a failure for being unable to bond with another parent or assure them I wasn’t worthy of the stranger danger siren going off in their head.
Thankfully, there is more time to work with in other situations, so I don’t need to offer up my one-two-three factoid blitzkrieg. When I first started picking up my then three-month-old son at daycare, I often arrived to find a room full of women openly breastfeeding their children. I’m a strong believer in and proponent of the practice, so it wasn’t disconcerting – in theory. In practice, I felt uncomfortable as the only person with their shirt still all the way on. It was like showing up at a fancy restaurant in worn jeans and a t-shirt. I just didn’t fit in.
Despite my internal awkwardness, I wanted to get to know my fellow daycare parents better and pick their brains. So I tried my best to start conversations while keeping my eyes respectfully focused above the neck, no matter how many acrobatics the baby did in their lap or tried engaging with me.
At first, I could tell the mothers were a little uncertain about having me in their midst. Answers were short and feeding sessions seemed to be abbreviated. I absolutely understood their hesitation, so I initially kept my interactions brief and didn’t linger. Learning every mother and child’s name and keeping track of their developmental milestones was helpful in establishing rapport. So was the fact that I was there most evenings of the week, a constant presence in the life my son.
It took a couple of months, but I finally felt like I had scaled the invisible wall between us when I found I could sit down with the nursing mothers to talk about parenting issues or life beyond our little ones. Now I consider many of these mothers my dear friends. They have been an enormous source of support and knowledge for me as I grow as a parent.
After many solo sojourns with my son in traditionally mom-ruled environments, I’ve become more relaxed about integrating myself. Hopefully my ease makes it easier for mothers to see that I’m just another parent trying to do the best he can for his child.
So, moms, the next time you see a dad waiting for his little one at the bottom of the slide, sitting beside them while waiting for the pediatrician or getting their bag together at daycare, make the extra effort to let him know that it’s nice to see him there. I know he’ll appreciate being made welcome in what was once only your world.
Martell is the author of several books, including his most recent: Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. He tweets @nevinmartell.
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