|Image via Pixabay, because I drank mine too fast to photograph it.|
Not long ago, I had brunch with a friend and his adorable, well-behaved 4 year old son. My friend is a great dad: attentive, patient, firm, kind, and fun-loving. We were having a lovely time with our shrimp and grits and mimosas (the adults) and quesadilla and milk (the child). Every now and then, the little guy would get a little loud or whiny, par for the course with a child that age, and my friend would distract him with a joke or a question.
I was behaving as I do with other people's children. They're like cats - they have to come to you. So when the little guy wanted to tell or show me something, I was all about that, but if he was into his own thing, that was OK, too. And I certainly wasn't responsible for his behavior. Not my circus, not my monkey. Besides, it was all under control.
Eventually, of course, my friend needed to accompany his little boy to the men's room. After they left the table, I took a long sip of mimosa and was considering ordering another, only to be startled by a little old lady who was up in my grill, grinning maniacally. Confused, I smiled back. She put her hand on my arm. Why? Why with the touching? Finally, she spoke: "Your husband is a GREAT dad! You're SO lucky!" Ummmm, ok?
At this point, many evil possible responses entered my mind. For example:
- "Well, if you beat a kid enough times, he does start figuring out how to behave."
- "He's not my husband, but he IS a demon in the sack! Do you want to see my hickey? We also have matching tattoos, but I can't show you where!"
- "Oh, he's not my husband; he's a paid escort. The service sent him this morning. Do you want his business card? The kid is extra."
- "That guy? I have no IDEA who that was! He just wanted a free meal. He'll probably bring my kid back, though, right?"
- "Whose child IS that? I keep thinking someone is going to come back to claim him!"
In the end, I went with my fallback: Southern charm. "What a nice thing to say. Thank you for saying that."
Afterwards, it dawned on me. The waitstaff at the restaurant had directed all child-related questions to me. Did he want a kids' menu? Did he want crayons? Did he have food allergies? Did he need a cup with a lid and a straw? The hell if I knew! His actual parent, who did know the answers to all of those questions, didn't merit a glance. But then when my friend parented in a competent way, he suddenly deserved a goddamn medal. I have NEVER had anyone come up to me in public and tell me what a great mother I was just because I was engaging with my child over a meal and making sure he wasn't being an asshole. I know everyone meant well, but what the hell?
It speaks to the low expectations society still sets for fathers. I can't even count the commercials, articles, and jokes I've seen that portray dads as hapless goofballs who can't be expected to parent or do housework. These things are not badly intended, but they still send a message we should not want to perpetuate. Not only can fathers braid hair, prepare meals, and wipe butts; they should, as a matter of course, be expected to do so. Society makes excuses for fathers who "can't" (read: refuse to learn how to) do these things. It doesn't hold them up for the ridicule and condemnation that a mother would earn if she did the same, but it should. Similarly, when a father is simply parenting, as he should be expected to do, he doesn't deserve exceptional praise, unless you're also going to give those accolades to mothers who are doing the same things.
My ex didn't know anything about babies or children before we had Tweak and Tink. He also didn't know how to cook or clean. All matters domestic were my responsibility, not by design, but by default. I remember one Thanksgiving, leaving a relative's house to make a 4 hour drive home. I was gathering the last of our stuff, and I asked my now-ex to put Tweak, then 2, in his carseat. 10 minutes later, I was trundling out baby Tink in her bucket seat, and my mother in law came up to me, beaming. "[Ex] got Tweak in his carseat, but it wasn't easy. I think he deserves an award!" In lieu of saying something unkind, I rolled my eyes so far back into my head that I had to smack myself to get them facing forward again.
When my ex and I split, Tweak and Tink were 5 and 3. He asked for 50% custody, and I gave it to him, thinking he would change his mind within weeks, but at least in the meantime he would learn to appreciate all the things I'd been doing. It was a bumpy start for him, but I have to give him credit. He kept trying, and he asked questions, and he got better, because he didn't have a choice. Does he always parent the way I think he should? No, but he parents well enough, and I'm sure he doesn't agree with everything I do, either. We love the kids, and we show up. Everything else is details.
I'm an unapologetic feminist. Part of wanting everyone, including myself, to be treated equally is not limiting my expectations of anyone based on gender. The gay dads I know get this - they aren't making excuses, and they're not asking for a commendation; they're simply parenting. What if the term "man up" included participating in all aspects of parenting? From diaper blow-outs to tantrums to bike injuries to dance recitals to the sex talk, nobody should treat these things as optional for any parent of any gender. What if we gave equal respect to parenting no matter who was doing it? What if our children didn't see dads being expected to do or know less than moms? How might that affect them as parents, when it's their turn? How much better off would our grandchildren be? We can make it happen.