There is a relatively infrequent occurrence that drives me to nearly apocalyptic anger when out in public, something that without fail will illicit from me a froth-filled diatribe about the perception of fathers as uninvolved or incapable: changing tables in women’s bathrooms, but not men’s.
I am far from a germaphobe; I have changed my boys on a variety of surfaces, but I must admit that I prefer to not place a changing mat on a bathroom floor while dealing with the dirty business. That many places—especially small restaurants—do not provide changing tables isn’t a big deal. It is only when this bizarre and overt display of gender inequity suddenly confronts me that I lose my composure and spit out pithy phrases about heterosexism, society facilitating the continuation of the culture of the uninvolved, clueless father and so on and so forth. I don’t raise my voice, I just engage in…well, let’s call it “passionate pontification.” Invariably my wife helps bring me down to earth by laughing a bit at my sudden verbal explosion, wholeheartedly agreeing that the situation is crap, and then gently reminding me that we both still have baby butts to change, whether on a changing table or otherwise. I then march to the bathroom to do my doody duty, all the while imagining that the manager of the establishment will meet me at the door, offer a sincere “thank you” for pointing out the inherent inequity to both fathers and mothers, and outline his/her timeline for correcting the oversight immediately. That this has yet to occur should come as no surprise.
This situation speaks to the flack Huggies generated with their recent ad capaign with a number of father bloggers. Those very capable folks have commented with far more intelligence and insight than anything I could offer at this point, so I merely wish to cite the commercials as an example of the perceived ineptitude of fathers when it comes to childcare. Turn on a television for more than a couple hours and you’re all but certain to find a dozen other examples. It seems that fathers are largely (though not exclusively) expected to be clueless, to blunder, to be the last resort babysitter and not a true parenting partner.
I think I was ignorant of this perception to some degree prior to my boys coming into the world. In my mind the world was bifurcated into involved, competent fathers and slacker jerks who didn’t do their fair share. I reserved plenty of vitriol for the latter type of father, but I guess I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that men are typically expected to fail spectacularly in their contributions to early child rearing.
This lack of awareness on my part led to one of the more harrowing, stressful situations I’ve experienced with the boys. They were about 11 weeks old. We were living in St. George, Utah at the time, a community not known for progressive attitudes (though I did see a large number of very involved fathers). We had just moved and Amanda was working away, so I took the boys with me to bargain hunt at one of my favorite discount stores for some household goods. They were breast fed at the time and had just eaten quite well, so I knew I had about two hours to complete whatever shopping I wanted to do before they needed to get back home. While debating between a mellow gray rug and a fun lime green shag, Raiden began to fuss. Then Timmy fussed. Then both cried. I shushed and rocked them, trying to make my decision quickly, but I only succeeded in quieting them a little. Like a flock of vultures crowding around a dying animal, they decended on me. Six women, ages ranging from a few years my junior to 30+ years my senior, materialized from thin air. They began the conversation by commenting on how cute the boys were (a very true statement), how brave I was to take them out solo (a comment that will always elicit an eye roll from me), the usual awkward (but completely understandable) “do twins run in your family were they natural were they early etc?” question set… And then the real discomfort began:
“So where’s mommy?” one asked while the others nodded, as if the question were a statement with which one might agree or disagree.
“At home, working away. She sometimes works very long hours while I only work 30 or so,” I responded.
They “Ohhed” at this in as neutral a tone as possible, but I could hear the judgment. Still, the conversation had been pleasant enough so I chose to ignore it. About then, Raiden began a much louder cry, one I recognized immediately. I rocked them both with a bit more vigor, something that typically soothed them. Still he persisted… And then it began:
“Oh, he wants his mommy.”
“Poor little guy is hungry. Do you have a bottle for him?”
“I bet he’s wet. Do you have a dirty diaper, little one?”
I found myself overwhelmed, flustered and downright angry. I knew Raiden’s cry very well, just as any involved parent comes to know their baby’s early forms of communication. This cry meant he was bored and needed something different. I wanted to lash out at this gaggle of ladies ogling my beautiful boys and passing judgment so casually, but I couldn’t muster sufficient energy to do the job properly. After all, I was an involved father of very young twins! I grabbed one of the rugs and placed it in the cart. I told them that I knew he had a full belly, I just changed him before I walked into the store, and that cry meant he was bored as his “I want mommy” cry was far higher pitched. As I marched up to the check stand feeling far more flustered than two crying babies would ever make me, one of the gals said something like “well, I can tell he’s still hungry.” I fumed while checking out and ignored the realization that I had forgotten toilet paper. I hurried home and, once inside, asked my wife to cuddle with me to help melt away the self-doubt those unintentionally evil women wormed into my brain. The only good to come from the situation was that their small mob forced me to make a snap decision; that inexpensive lime green rug looked fantastic in the guest bathroom.
As I cuddled with Amanda, the boys content now that they were doing something different, I began to recollect some words of wisdom from my mother. She had told me to expect this; she shared stories of being a single mom and finding heaps of scorn and very little support. Judgment was just par for the course when it came to parenthood, in her eyes, and she asked that I strive to make sure I don’t judge others for their different parenting styles unless it was obviously harmful. I try very hard to keep that in mind and I encourage everyone to do the same, but I still hold plenty of animosity for aloof fathers. These days I set aside a bit of my scorn for our social structure more generally, for things like advertisements and television shows that claim fathers are inherently inept and male bathrooms that lack facilities available in female ones. These things allow fathers to have an out, to have an excuse to be uninvolved. We shouldn’t let the deadbeats have that luxury.