Growing up we had a lot of Berenstain Bears books. I seem to remember enjoying them, but not really loving them. I do remember finding out that my Dad did not like them at all. He didn’t like how the father was portrayed. I had never thought about it before that. And I didn’t really think about it again until I became a father.
If you don’t remember the stories, here’s a brief recap. There’s some problem that the kids get into (say, eating too much junk food…). The parents decide that a change is needed, but somewhere along the way, Papa joins in on the fun and Mama ends up needing to discipline him too. Basically, Mama is always right, and always strong. Papa is an idiot and really just another kid (except with special nighttime privileges).
Anyway, I’ve thought about these books more than a few times since becoming a father. I’ve been more aware of how fathers are portrayed in our culture. The bumbling idiot is one common (and lazy) portrayal of fathers. Another is the emotionally unavailable father (with variations that include abusive, demanding, or overworked.)
I also am aware of how these popular portrayals affect the way people react to me as a father. There are two basic categories of reaction.
The first is the offering of unsolicited advice when I’m out alone with my daughter. Mostly this comes from older women, but regardless of age, it’s always women. When the little princess was very young and sleeping in her stroller I would be stopped and told that her head was leaning way over to one side. Never mind that she was facing me and I could totally see her. They would stop me to point this out, using a tone that said “I forgive your ignorance because you can’t know any better.” I’ve also received advice on her diet and wardrobe with the same tone.
This reaction is especially offensive. To presume automatically that I’m doing something wrong, without knowing anything about me or my daughter, is uncalled for. I doubt that these women are reacting specifically to me. It is more a reaction rooted in the general cultural biases about fathers.
The other kind of reaction I get comes mostly, but not exclusively from women. It’s various levels of astonishment of the novelty (in their experience) of seeing a man out and about alone with a baby. This reaction is usually unspoken. Those that do say something about it tend to offer praise. I appreciate their support, but it always feels a little strange to accept a compliment for just being a father alone. For all they know I could be a terrible father. But because I’m the primary caregiver, and also a man, they feel the need to comment on the amazing nobility of my life choices.
I think that this too is rooted in the same cultural stereotypes about fathers. Because people as involved, they feel the need to praise me. It makes me uncomfortable. I’m caring for my child, in public. Big deal. Millions have done it before me. Millions more will do it after me. I’m sure that these same strangers don’t offer giddy praise to the women they see out mothering in public.
Yes yes, I know. This is not a historically typical role for men and the recent changes in parenting roles is blah blah blah. So what? There are a lot of fathers who are good at what they do, whether they’re full-time SAHDs or not. We’re not creating some profound change in society. We’re just upsetting a lazy stereotype that creates the appearance of a change. Some fathers are amazing and involved. Some are assholes. Nothing new there.
So when you see me out and about with my little one, feel free to say hi. Ask me about her age. Comment on her cuteness. Be nice. If you feel the need to offer unsolicited advice, or have a burning desire to tell me how wonderful it is that I’m spending time with her, just keep walking.