At 12, I rode my first dirt bike.
Don’t go too far, he said as he
Helped me coordinate the clutch
And throttle and set me down
The beach. I could have turned.
In theory, it should have been easy
On a flat and empty beach,
But what does a boy with this
Kind of power for the first time
Know about turning back?
No one had explained this part,
And I just held on and kept
Twisting the throttle till
The sand seduced me,
And I helplessly sank under
A bike I had no chance of lifting.
And my angry Daedalus came stomping
Across the sand with furious reminders
That I had been warned. I had been
Told not to go too far.
And I imagine Icarus soaring higher
With no idea how to govern either
His speed or altitude—driven
By equal parts exhilaration and terror,
Waiting only for the comforting
Embrace of Poseidon,
The father who never
Lets us out of his grasp.
The father who can’t let go
And smothers us with love.
When my first son was born, his mother and I were lucky enough that we could juggle our schedules and avoid putting him in daycare. I hadn’t thought much about the role of fathers before becoming a father, but I was soon to learn the full extent of social prejudice towards dads. I think the most common complaint for nurturing fathers everywhere, whether they stay home with their children or not, is being referred to as a babysitter (for example, see here. When out and about, people would often attempt to compliment me with a cheery, “Oh, it is so nice to see dads out babysitting.” Depending on my mood, I would sometimes challenge them by asking, “Have you ever seen any moms out babysitting?” When in a less surly mood, I would say, “I’m not babysitting; these are my children!” Over the years, fathers have generally become much more involved in childcare, but too many people still diminish their role to babysitting.
In the office where I worked at the time my son was a baby, we had a dry-erase board to show where people were when out of the office. When female coworkers were out with
their children, someone would write on the board “sick daughter” or something similar. When my son was sick, I would return to find a notice proclaiming I was out “babysitting.” It didn’t seem like such a problem at first. I would just chuckle and explain that if I had a babysitter, I wouldn’t have to miss work. I would also note that babysitters get paid for their efforts, but fathering my child provided no financial rewards at all. I was trying to raise awareness of the importance of fathering, but I generally only succeeded in raising a chuckle.
I also noticed that when I went to a doctor’s visit with his mother, the doctor and nurses would speak to her even when I was closest or even when I was actually holding my son. It was clear that the mother was the default parent and the father, no matter how involved, could only provide auxiliary services. It was around this time that I read The Nurturing Fatherby Kyle Pruett. Since its publication, this book has faced some criticism but remains a groundbreaking and relevant work in fatherhood research. The book explored many facets of fathering, but the only message I saw was that fathers can do everything mothers can do, and it made me want to stay home with my son (rather, sons, as we were soon expecting our second child).
I was able to quit my job and stay home full time. My life was a mélange of celebration and condemnation. Many people would congratulate me on being in touch with my “feminine” side. Others would offer an indirect criticism with a loaded questions such as, “How does your wife feel about you staying home full time?” Or, sometimes men would say, “Oh, I wish my wife would let me do that!” I resented the implication that I was “not working,” and I further resented the implication that I was somehow taking on something easier than what my wife was doing. Any mention of this was generally met with, “Well, now you know what women have faced for centuries!” Women (and nurturing men) have suffered from bias and disrespect for centuries, but I don’t think at-home dads are the ones most in need of consciousness raising experiences.
On the other hand, I was quite lucky. I found several playgroups that welcomed me with enthusiastically open arms. I was often the only dad to be found, but I did meet a couple of other at-home dads. For the most part, the women in the group treated me like any other parent, but occasionally I had awkward conversations. One mom once asked me whether I fed my children. Given that they were strong and healthy, I thought the answer was obvious, but I guess she was asking whether someone else was feeding them for me. When I told her I did, indeed, feed my children, she replied, “With hot food?” Nope, we dads just give them cereal and cookies, of course. I let her know I cooked for my children and moved on. Fortunately, she was the exception to the rule of open and inviting moms who were happy to share childcare tips and horror stories. Other men in the eighties weren’t so lucky. A few men sued mothers-only groups for access to parenting support. All parents struggle with the pressure of parenting, and finding others for support is essential.
Dads are generally expected to be extremely proud when their sons follow in their career footsteps, and I am proud that my younger son now has children of his own and stays home to care for them. Some things have changed in the intervening years, but people still ask him whether he is “babysitting” from time to time. More fathers stay home full time now (or at least take the role of primary caregiver), so it attracts less attention. The biggest difference I notice when out with my grandchildren, though, is that almost all men’s rooms now have changing stations. Gone are the days of having to choose between changing a diaper on the floor of a public restroom or a more sanitary location in full view of the general public.
I don’t really think anyone would be surprised now to learn my son knows how to turn on the stove, but there biases against men involved with children persist in some areas. Men are still mocked for their ignorance of food, as can be seen here. Moms remain the default experts on nutrition, soothing, and health. Too many people believe that only moms know how to care for children, as seen here. Dads are recognized more for playing with their children and encouraging them to be joyful and competitive.
Life will be easier for moms and dads when the denigration of childcare ends and everyone who cares for our next generation, whether mom, dad, or an early childhood teacher, is respected and valued for their contribution to creating the next generation of nurturers, leaders, inventors, and parents. We’re doing much better, but we can aim higher still.