Wednesday, June 18th, 2014
A friend of mine, an involved father in every way and a sometime stay-at-home dad, was shopping for clothes in the kids’ department of a large department store recently with his wife and two daughters. When his daughters, 8 and 5, needed to try on clothes, he did what he’d always done, and what many of us would have done—followed them into their dressing room Except this time, something different happened. A manager came and asked him to leave the dressing room area, saying there was a complaint from a mom about his presence.
My friend, shocked, complied, not wanting to make a scene at the store, though he did ask the manager what would have happened if he was a single father. She said she wasn’t personally bothered but that she was acting only on the other woman’s complaint. (Why a store manager can’t exercise judgment and must blindly comply with a complainer’s request is another story.)
That’s all the information he got, and all the information I have, but he and his wife were outraged, and so am I. Was that woman objecting because she worried something inappropriate would go on between father and child in the dressing room? That would mean she saw a father with his daughters and immediately assumed he had horrible things in mind. Or was she concerned that a man might somehow see her daughter changing clothes in her own dressing room, even though the dressing rooms were all private? Aside from the supernatural abilities that would require, this assumes he would even have interest in doing so.
What happened, it seems clear to me, is that the other woman saw an involved father enjoying time with his children—enjoying shopping for clothes with his children, which so many dads don’t (guilty as charged here)—and immediately thought, “Pervert.” And not just thought it, but acted on it.
Part of me wishes my friend fought back and stood up for himself, and by extension for all dads implicated by such treatment. But I fully understand why he chose to comply rather than have his daughters witness what would likely have been an ugly argument.
The incident remains baffling and enraging to me. Yes, the statistics on child abuse are horrifying and unacceptable and I mean in no way to be dismissive of this reality. But I fail to see how that connects to what happened in the dressing room. While not everyone has experienced humiliation on par with what happened to my friend, so many dads have had strange interactions with people when they are out and about with their kids, ones in which strangers clearly have some suspicion. In less insidious cases, it may not be suspicion of abuse, specifically, but an implication that a man’s place is at work and not home with his kids, that there is something unusual about a dad breaking traditional gender stereotypes. A stay-at-home dad I met at the Dad 2.0 Summit earlier this year talked about the questions he frequently gets from strangers about why he is at the park on a random weekday with his kids.
We hear lots of welcome support for involved dads and the amazing changes that are taking place in modern fatherhood. But we can’t ignore the inescapable fact that some people look at involved dads as weirdos—or, worse, as suspects. For shame.
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Thursday, May 15th, 2014
I am just back from five weeks of paternity leave, and now that I’ve hung up my weekday dad jeans, I thought I’d offer some reflections on my experience as a temporary stay-at-home dad with that little cutie you see in the picture (and her two bigger sisters). I started my leave when my wife returned to work after her own maternity leave, so it was a period of transition and new routines for all of us, which we’re dealing with again now that I am back at work.
The experience was, not surprisingly, as much—or more—about my older kids as it was about the baby. And that was just fine with me. It was amazing to spend the extra, relaxed time with my older kids, and I did still have plenty of bonding time with Sophia, the baby. Being able to pick up or drop off my older ones at school, or cook dinner with them, or just be around for the late-afternoon homework-dinner-bath mania was important and memorable to me, as I hope it was to them. As my leave neared an end and my 7-year-old asked if I could teach our babysitter some of the recipes we cooked for dinners, I knew it had had an impact. Same with my 3-year-old, who regularly asks in the mornings, heart-breakingly, whether we’re staying home with her, even as she sees us getting dressed and ready to leave for work.
Still, I realized I do not aspire to full-time SAHD status. While I do wish I could have more time at home with my kids and spend more of their waking hours with them, I am not the guy who would become a full-time dad if I won the lottery tomorrow. I cherish the balance in my life between home and work, kid activities and professional pursuits. Needless to say, it’s a personal choice and I mean no judgment on those who choose otherwise—quite the contrary, I love hearing about the choices so many men have made to be SAHDs—but it’s important to know what is right for you.
I was (happily) shocked at how many dads I saw out and about. I don’t remember feeling the same way the last time I took a paternity leave like this, seven years ago. My memory from then is of feeling like the only dad around during weekday work hours. Not this time: Dads—and grandpas—were present with their kids/grandkids everywhere. It was great to see and made me feel like less of an outlier.
You can’t be partly on leave and partly working. Like being “half pregnant,” it just isn’t possible. For the first half of my leave, I did a decent job of staying away from email and really unplugging, at least when I was with my kids. But when my team here at work experienced upheaval, I found myself drawn back in and wanting to be back at the office to help, and truly felt torn between work and home. It led to the more-than-a-little absurd afternoon when I dropped my oldest at gymnastics and drove on the highway for the sole purpose of getting the two younger kids to fall asleep—at which point I pulled over and called into a meeting. In the middle of the call, my 3-year-old woke up, noisily, understandably demanding to know what we were doing and when we were going home.
Life happens whether you’re on leave or not. Duh, no surprise there, but I still found myself extra resentful when my basement flooded and I needed to spend several of my precious paternity-leave days dealing with the fallout. Not that I expected all bliss and sunshine, but really? A flood? Of course, the stay-at-home parent inevitably also must take the lead on shopping, cooking, waiting home for the repairman, and all things homemaking, regardless of the fact that my leave was intended to be about spending quality time with the kids. When it came to day-to-day tasks, I was more than happy to do them, and still got plenty of great moments with the little ones. But at times, like when I was sloshing through my flooded basement, my focus had to be elsewhere temporarily.
People seem to assume I took leave for my wife, to ease her return to work. Several people made comments to this effect. But while helping her was a nice benefit, it takes a very mom-centric worldview to make the assumption that that was my primary motivation. I took this time to bond with my baby, and to prolong the time that she spends full-time with a parent before our nanny became her primary caregiver during workdays. I took the time to be a full-time parent for a short period and spend more time than I otherwise could with my older girls. I took it so that I could have some time when they, my daughters, were the center of my day. Yes, it helped my wife and put her mind at ease, but she would have been fine without my taking leave, and this was not among the top reasons I took the time off.
I am Stoller Man. Yes, it’s true: I earned a new nickname (and a new beard, but that’s a different story). Perhaps it’s my new superhero identity. It came from a moment of absent-mindedness, when I stopped at the bakery with Sophia asleep in her stroller, and in my haste to get out before she woke up, forgot my order on the counter after paying for it. I returned to find this note:
All in all, I feel like paternity leave accomplished what I wanted from it. Despite the intrusions I mentioned above, I was able to focus for this period on spending quality time with my three children in a (mostly) relaxed environment where they were my main concerns. Not to imply that it was all peace and bliss–I do have three children, after all, and we had our share of tantrums, yelling, fights, and frustration. But I wasn’t seeking some fairy-tale existence: The point was that I was there. And, of course, happy as I am to be back at work, I miss the girls during the day. When it comes to work-life balance, finding that happy medium remains an elusive goal.
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