Some real talk about sexism and fatherhood

I’m a college-educated, straight, white man, so it’s honestly not often that I feel demeaned or diminished by someone I’ve never met solely because of their assumptions about who I am. Here is a story, though, of how one fun day out with my son was spoiled by the casual comments of a bystander.

Recently, we had our first warm day in Indianapolis in weeks. So, I happily threw some pants and a hat on Emerson and strapped him in to the stroller for our first venture into the outside world on our own. Naturally, our impromptu neighborhood walk accidentally took us to the Starbucks down the road, and then, with Emerson deciding it was nap time, to the nearby Taco Bell to risk a quick lunch. We were having a blast.

Like any proud new parent, I documented every step for social media.

As I passed by what looked like a middle-aged woman sitting with her husband and adult son, she awwwed and asked “Are you having a daddy–baby day?” Before I could answer, she added “It’s really cute!”

I was immediately bothered. It’s a seemingly innocuous thing for one stranger to say to another, but there are so many judgments and stereotypes wrapped up in it that I feel immediately uncomfortable, and my whole outing seemed tainted. Emerson and I are not having “a daddy–baby day,” at least not in the sense that she seemed to intend the phrase—as if a father and a baby out in the world together alone in the middle of the day on a weekday means there must be some mother back at home, who had foisted the child on her husband for a day so she could be getting a well-deserved nap or bubble bath. Would she have started a conversation with a mom and baby in a similar way? Essentially, the presumption is that a mom is, by default, the active, competent parent, while the dad, even one who is clearly engaged in the act of capably parenting his child, is merely babysitting the child for mom.

I mumbled something quickly about how I was actually on paternity leave, but fled before this could become a full-fledged awkward conversation.

Much like how pregnancy is often taken by strangers as a license to invade personal space or ignore social cues, I have experienced similar behaviors towards me whenever I am a dad with a baby in tow. I can’t take my son to a restaurant bathroom for a diaper changing without getting coos, approving nods, or comments from most of the women I pass. These are clearly all well-meaning, but no one ever bothers to consider whether the person they are directing this attention toward is an introvert.

I charitably assume that these people must think they are encouraging what they see as an engaged father. Similarly, almost every time I have reason to tell a woman—and this is exclusively from women—that I am on paternity leave for a few months, there is invariably some comment along the lines of “That’s so wonderful that you’re doing that!” How many of the moms out there have been congratulated on going on maternity leave after the birth of their child? (“You’re such a good mom for taking maternity leave!” said no one, ever.) Rather than validating me, these conversations usually have the effect of reinforcing sexist societal norms about parenting, making me feel like an oddity and a subject of curiosity for making the choice to share parenting responsibilities as equally as possible with my wife. Actually, my wife should be applauded for her maternity leave. It is legitimately hard work to be a newborn baby’s sole source of food, comfort, and attention all day long, and if more men attempted the task, there would be more empathy from them for mothers—and less of these guys. Which can only be good for a marriage, by the way. I am just as proud of mom for going back to work, setting an example for her sons for how a woman can choose to be an accomplished working professional.

What message are the women like the one in Taco Bell sending to their husbands and sons when they call another man “cute” for caring for his child, making assumptions about who is the primary caretaker based on gender? It seems to me like, even though she is praising, she is still signaling to the other men that I am the cultural deviant, and what I am doing is not to be expected. I find interactions like the one with the Taco Bell lady especially weird because they come from women themselves, in the same way that I would feel uncomfortable if a female coworker complimented me for accepting equal pay as her. These comments neither normalize the activity, nor address the underlying cultural problems that cause the gender imbalance in parenting burdens to begin with. When it comes to fatherhood, the expectations still seem to be pretty low, which sets parenting apart from other areas, such as income, where such inequalities are not so overtly tolerated.

Personally, I believe that if you got to know me—and saw how I can make Emerson smile big by making a goofy face, or how his mom and I have a loving ritual of throwing dirty diapers at each other, or if you just followed me on Facebook—you’d think I am a cute daddy, and justifiably so. But I don’t think there is anything cute or commendable about simply parenting while male. Just as modern racism is more about institutions than bad guys in white hoods, systemic gender bias is not just about macho men with prejudices in positions of power. It is also about the subtle and unconscious ways that fair-minded people create and reinforce gender roles, making decisions like taking paternity leave, which deviate the prevailing norms, seem eccentric rather than expected. I take pride in my eccentricity when it comes to being a grammar nerd or a total geek, but there is something about being considered eccentric for being an equal parent that is deeply unsettling. In fact, I am taking a paternity leave, and being a proud and doting dad while mom works not just because it’s fun and rewarding, but also because I want to give my son, through the choices I make and the actions I take, something I never had growing up: a positive male role model.