For anyone who remembers the film Independence Day, there’s a scene where Will Smith flies a tiny speck of a spacecraft into the mothership and as he passes deeper into the bowels of this cavernous vessel we discover that he’s surrounded by countless armies of terrifying, merciless aliens, as far as the eye can see. That’s pretty much what it’s like for any man who ever has to enter the playground at pick-up time.
I’m not saying mothers are terrifying, merciless aliens, but the response to a man’s presence in the playground is generally greeted with a similar level of suspicion. Being a stay-at-home dad is a bit like being guilty of a crime you’ve never committed. We’re the coffee fondant in a bag of Revels. I’ve spoken to other fathers and they feel similarly. Of course, being men, we don’t bond over this experience. We don’t clump together in one corner of the playground against the rampaging hordes like a scene from Zulu. We share a couple of lines of dialogue, discover we don’t support the same football team, acknowledge we have nothing in common (other than a scrotum), and then we never speak again; merely nodding each day like gentlemen. Then, we try to remain as still as possible because like the T-Rex, a mother can only spot you if you move.
Whenever I tell anyone that I’m the work-at-home dad, the response is invariably “oh, that must be nice” or “lucky you”. Which is strange, because the response to a mother is usually “that must be hard work.” And I totally understand. Because it is hard work. It’s incredibly hard work. Emotionally and physically. And only through my own experiences do I realise this. It’s what has made me truly appreciate my own mother, or my sister (who has three children, which is more hands than I have and therefore a logistical nightmare as far as I can tell, especially when crossing roads). Except, the implication is that it’s clearly not hard work for dads. Because we sit in front of the television, a beer in one hand, the remote in the other, while our children are in the back garden riding a magic unicorn and being entertained by fairies doing Riverdance. Or, even worse, the implication is that it’s not hard work, because we just don’t care.
I was in the supermarket recently, pushing my son in the buggy, and a delightful lady behind the counter peered at him and said “so how come you’re with your daddy today?” At which point, if he’d been smarter, he’d have said “because I spend every day with daddy. Because we’re not living in the Victorian ages. Oh, and by the way, you do know they abolished slavery and man landed on the moon?” But no, he just held up his Peppa Pig toy and said “piggy” which didn’t do either of us any favours.
This odd double standard is no more in evidence than at the aforementioned school pick-up. The fact that I’m in a playground to pick up my 5 year old daughter with a 2 year old son trailing me should be sufficient evidence that I’m a dab hand at this parenting lark. That it’s not completely new territory. However, I do get the sense that my son is watched like a hawk by other parents, fearful that I’m not quite up to the task. Certainly, in a way that no other mother would experience.
Let me give an example. There is a ramp in the playground. No higher than 5 inches off the ground. Every day that I have collected my daughter from school for the past year, or thereabouts, my son has considered it an absolute necessity to climb to the top of this gargantuan ramp and take a death-defying leap. Every day. That huge, yawning, 5 inch drop. A bit bigger than the height of a baked bean can. And every day he leaps to his near-certain death with the same careless joy, god love him. There is nothing in my life that I do so frequently and with the same level of enjoyment (no making up your own jokes), so I envy him this unmitigated pleasure. I know, in the unlikely event he hurts himself, he’ll jump right back up and do it again. Because … well, simply because I spend more time with him and therefore know him better than any other human being, bar none.
But here’s the thing. While their little angels run around the playground, bulldozing everything in sight, beating each other to a pulp, running, jumping, bullying, teasing, stabbing, shooting, decapitating, disemboweling, committing acts of patricide, setting fire to small animals – or, in one particular case that never seems to raise a single eyebrow, one child regularly parks his scooter by literally launching this five-kilo hunk of sharp metal through the air and over the heads of the other children, only pure chance preventing it from cracking a skull and releasing gelatinous brain matter, while the mother looks on and laughs, every, single, time – while all that is going on, the absolute second I turn my back on my son and he has taken that first tentative half-step up the ramp, there will always be a mother or mother’s mother darting towards me, desperate to warn me of my son’s impending doom, her voice full of censure at my negligence with words like “You should keep an eye on him.”
And that stings. I know their hearts are in the right place, but the implication is one of fecklessness. Of disengagement. The suggestion is that as a man I can only get emotionally engaged by videos of J-Lo or Mad Max and that as a father, I am a lesser parent, with a dangerously laissez faire approach to parenting. In truth, I’m a pathetic excuse of a man where my children are concerned. I worry about them every waking moment; and quite a few sleeping ones. If I’m walking home with them and they’re two steps behind me, I’ll look back every second or so because I’ve convinced myself that in those two seconds, a car is going to whizz by, snatch them up and by the time I look round again, they’ll have vanished, never to be seen again. Which, it would appear, is what’s fully expected of me because, as a man-parent, I am apparently little more than a ball-scratching oaf (granted, the other 95% of the time that’s true). The only reason for this view is that as a father, there is the immediate implication that I am less able.
The fact is, times have changed. I’d never belittle the pain and exhaustion that my wife has experienced as a mother. There are elements of parenthood where the strain and responsibility will always fall on the mother and she will always have to endure certain unpleasantness. Consummation, for starters. Nevertheless, in the long-term, many fathers are just as involved and adept at parenting, but we still seem to live in a comic book world that views every dad as a cross between Homer Simpson and Harry Wormwood.
In the meantime, I can only dream of a time when the wives will be out hunting antelopes, and us men will be sat at home, breast-feeding our babies. And I can tell you, if any son-of-a-bitch raises an eyebrow and tells this man he can’t get his capacious and hairy boobs out in public, I will kick his ass.
(As a side note, my favourite part of this blog was that, as I added the photo of Homer, my son, who was sitting on my lap, pointed to the screen and shouted “It’s granddad!”)