Father Knows Best

On a recent warmish January day in Maine, after Birdie woke up from her nap, we decided to go on a walk. Before I left the house I put her in a clean diaper and a pair of warm tights, then I put on socks, a onesie, pants, a hoodie, mittens, a hat, a coat and boots. Once she was in the stroller I tucked a blanket around her, gave her a snack and made sure she had her doll and her pacifier. Then I clipped the leash on our eager dog, who had been cooped up in the house for too many days, and we headed out the door. We strolled around the streets, I stopped for a coffee and I asked Birdie to tell me about the things she saw as we walked; "Bird, Papa. Tree, car. Papa, doggy!" Anyone passing by could clearly see an effort was made to make sure that my child was dressed warmly to be outdoors. Anyone passing by could see that I didn't need help or advice or suggestions on how to parent.

But as we approached an intersection I noticed a woman walk by us and give me a funny look on her way past. I continued walking until I heard, "Excuse me, sir."  I stopped, she had turned around and was heading towards us.


“Can I just check on something," she asked and started to lean into the stroller. I turned the stroller away from her.

"No, you may not." She did anyway.

"Oh good, she is wearing a hat."

"Excuse me?"

"I just wanted to make sure she had a hat on," she told me.

“And I don’t need you to check on my kid. She is fine, I've got this."

She started to backpedal and explain, she saw me getting angry and embarrassed. She told me babies should wear hats so the heat doesn't escape from their head. I wanted to say, “No sh*t, and if she wasn't wearing boots and socks it would probably escape from her feet too." But I took a breath and told her again to please leave me alone, that I didn't need or want her help. She kept on, telling me that I am a good father, telling me that she knows I don't need her help. My hands were shaking, my dog was getting anxious, people were staring, I walked away and she kept shouting after me. I didn't want to hear her excuses for why she assumed she knew how to take better care of my own kid than I did. I didn't turn back around.

Almost every single time I step out of the house with my toddler, and/or the other children I am entrusted to care for, I am bombarded by the commentary of strangers who are not accustomed to seeing a father in an active caregiving role.

When Birdie was a tiny infant I was wearing her in a wrap while I was browsing books at a local store. She was sound asleep on my chest. There was the group of women in the shop oohing and aching from afar about how cute Birdie and then one of them finally came up to me and said, "How sweet! Giving mom the day off today?"

There was the woman at the thrift store watching Josh and me try a very cute pair of vintage shoes on Birdie's little feet, who took the shoes from our hands and tried to put them on Birdie's feet for us. She didn't even work there. When Josh told her we didn’t need help, she walked off in a huff and said, “It's not like I was going to steal her from you."

When Birdie was old enough to sit up in a shopping cart there was the time she got very fussy and I fed her a bottle while she sat buckled in the seat and I continued filling our cart with groceries until a woman came up to me and said, "Excuse me but have you ever tried holding her while you feed her?" I was incredulous. Had she actually thought that in six months of being a father I had never held my daughter while feeding her?

There was an incident at the library where a woman I had never met offered to take Birdie while I looked for something in the diaper bag. I told her thank you, but I was all set. She asked again. I told her no thank you, more firmly. When she reached out and tried to take her and insisted that I let her hold Birdie I had to get up and walk away.

There are more times than I can count when I have had to hear, "Is Daddy babysitting today?" or "Your wife is so lucky you help with the kids." I could go on, and on and on.

Then there is the flip side of the coin. For every negative story I can tell you about how I am treated while parenting in public, I could offer you a story of when I was applauded for simply living up to the bare minimum of my responsibility as a father. Changing my baby's diaper in a public park on a blanket? Hero. Wearing my baby in a carrier so she can nap in Target? Father of the year. Wiping my daughter's face after she finishes a meal? Round of applause please.

If I am sitting in a coffee shop holding my sleeping infant in my arms, enjoying a coffee and some quiet and it is likely someone will interrupt me to tell me what an amazing father I am. I can sit in that same coffee shop holding my sleeping infant in my arms, enjoying a cup of lukewarm coffee and it is just as likely that someone will interrupt me to tell me how dangerous it is to have coffee near a baby. In both scenarios I am being interrupted because many people still don't expect a father to be fulfilling the role of primary caregiver, I am out of context. I should either be working outside the home, or fumbling with the tiny creature in my arms; I certainly shouldn't be going about my day with a baby in tow as though it is completely normal. I am either a novelty or an anomaly or most likely, I am just a stand in for the real parent (mom) who has "the day off."

We need to stop acting like parenting is women's work. Not only is that demeaning and limiting fathers, but it is even more so to mothers. It is also simply not true, especially here in the year 2016. I know many moms of different varieties and I know that they also get judged for how they parent, that they are often undervalued and under-appreciated, and that they are not immune to the meddling of strangers and unwanted advice. Moms aren't asked if they are giving Daddy the day off, because the expectation is for mothers to be the default parents. Moms are also are not being placed up on pedestals for literally just being present with their children. Parents deserve respect and some actual credit for the work we do of raising these little human beings.

But the dads are out here still, more and more as times are changing and fathers are pushing to be an active presence in their children's lives. We are out here changing diapers, pushing strollers, wearing babies, shopping for groceries, feeding snacks, wiping boogers, giving baths, folding laundry, reading stories, kissing boo-boos, making bottles, and rocking our children to sleep. The stay-at-home papa life is not for everyone, and I understand that, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Being able to care for our daughter full time is the most fulfilling (and exhausting) work I have ever done. Try as I might, I can’t always let the negative attention roll off my back. It gets tiring to have to defend myself constantly as a parent, to explain and educate. Sometimes I just want to take a walk with my daughter. I work hard every single day to make sure that Birdie is happy, nourished, comfortable, engaged and well loved. So when I am out and about with my daughter, please wave and smile, tell me I have a lovely family, tell me I look like I love being a dad, tell me you've been there too and the time goes by fast, tell me to have a nice day. And please trust that I am a capable parent, trust that I know best how to care for my own child. Trust me: I’ve got this.

Posted by Stephen Stratton

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