About Me

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I’m a stay-at-home dad. People say all kinds of dumb things to stay-at-home dads. This blog began as a way for me to record these comments and criticize the people who said them. However, it's evolved, and I now use it to express other random thoughts on parenting, children, gender, and society. Thanks for checking it out.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Maybe We’re Not a Sports Family

“The first kid who catches one of my hits gets five bucks! Come on! Let’s go! Get out there!”

The voice was gruff and forceful. It came from a stocky man of about 40 years. Decked out in color-coordinated workout clothes, a cap and sunglasses, he was barking at his son’s baseball team, a group of boys aged 8 to 10. His son and my son are teammates. It was the end of practice on a beautiful Saturday morning, and I was pulling up to the curb to pick up my kid as this scene unfolded.

One boy took the pitcher’s mound, and the rest ran to left field, some with more enthusiasm than others. The dad stood at the plate and took a few practice swings with his bat—one of five or six bats from his personal collection that he brings to every practice. And you can bet he’s at every practice, pacing around the field, hollering at and badgering the kids. He’s not an official coach, just a passionate parent who enjoys forcing his love of the game on children.

He also enjoys telling them his stats from his own baseball-playing days, whenever and wherever those might have been. Today he was batting right-handed. He was a .271 batter from the right side, as we’d all heard about.

At previous practices, I had seen him offer candy bars for good performance, but today it was cold hard cash: five bucks for running down and catching a fly ball. The kid on the mound tossed in some pitches, and the dad socked several of them to left field. On the few that he missed, he taunted and blamed the 9-year-old pitcher.

Most of the boys scrambled and fell over each other to catch the balls and earn their reward. A couple of them, including my son, who’s 8 and is the second-smallest kid on the team, just watched in confusion. Practice was supposed to be over at this point, and it was unclear to him what was happening.

After five or six fly balls, one of the kids caught one. Great. The drill was finished and we could go home. I called my son’s name and waved him toward me.

But then, the dad switched to the other side of the plate. He’d batted .292 from the left side, if I remembered correctly, so I guess he was saving his best for last. As he started hitting balls toward right field, the boys gaped at each other, taking a moment or two to figure out what to do next.

“Hey, how come no one’s going to right?! Get over there!” the dad bellowed.

Most of the kids ran to right field. My son looked at me, looked at his teammates, looked back at me, and shrugged. I shrugged back. I briefly considered calling his name again and telling him it was time to go. After all, it was time to go. But I knew he should stay with his team and finish, even if practice was running long. He slowly followed his team, conceding to the idea that this practice might never actually end.

A few minutes later, it did end. The kids ran back in from the outfield to gather their things and go to their respective parents. The dad teased them as they passed.

“Hey, my grandma coulda caught that, by the way,” he chuckled, his smug laughter floating up, reaching around and patting him on the back. It was hard to tell whether he was giving the kids a fun lesson in the art of trash talk or if he honestly needed to get the last word in on a 9-year-old. I’m leaning toward the latter.

Where Did I Go Wrong?

As we drove home from practice, I could tell my son was blue.

“Dad, do you think I’ll get a hit?” he asked from the back seat. There were two weeks left in the season, and he was the only kid on his team who hadn’t gotten a hit yet. He was well aware that only four games remained. He was anxious and frustrated, understandably.

“I know you will, buddy,” I replied to the rearview mirror. “I can feel it.”

In truth, I wasn’t sure. It was possible he’d break through, but it seemed unlikely. He hit just fine in practice and when I pitched to him in the backyard, but during games, he turned into a nervous mess. When the pitch would come in, he’d usually jump out of the way, even if the ball was nowhere near him. Sometimes, he’d jump before it had even left the pitcher’s hand. When put in a spot where his teammates would seem perfectly relaxed, he was about to have a breakdown.

I didn’t know where things had gone wrong. My son had done well in T-ball. Of course, the ball is stationary in T-ball. After that came coach-pitch baseball, which seemed fun enough. But now the other players were pitching, and just like that, my boy was in way over his head. The jump from being an innocent 7-year-old to a grizzled 8-year-old was too much for him. Kids at this age tend to throw erratically, and there is a very real possibility of getting hit by a pitch. In fact, he had already gotten hit twice—both times in the leg. The first time it happened, he seemed completely surprised that getting hit was even a possibility. Since then, he’s been terrified of getting hit in the face or head.

I couldn’t help but think there was more I should be doing. Should I become one of those dads who makes his kid practice 14 hours a day? As I said, he was completely competent and comfortable when he practiced. His coach confirmed this. More practice couldn’t hurt, but it didn’t seem to be helping either. Should I just take him out to the backyard and pelt him with baseballs so that he’ll build up a tolerance?

Often, when you’re a parent, you get these feelings that you’re screwing up. Our kids don’t know we’re just flying by the seat of our pants, making up the rules as we go along. It’s easy to feel inadequate sometimes. But then you remind yourself that your kid is safe and clothed and well fed and generally happy and that you should give yourself a break.

While having this inner dialogue in the six-block drive from the practice field to our house, I had a moment of clarity: Maybe we’re not a sports family.

Sports Is King

Saying you’re not a sports family is a bold statement, because if you choose to not be a sports family, there’s not much left to do. OK, I take that back. There’s plenty of stuff left to do; it’s just not very popular stuff. Sports are the king of activities when you’re a kid, and it never really gets dethroned when you’re an adult. March Madness doesn’t celebrate college’s academics, and sponsors will never pay as much for a commercial during Masterpiece Theatre as they do for a Super Bowl ad. Here in America, we love ourselves some sports.

This fixation on sports is starting younger than ever. When our son was 3, people asked us, “Have you signed him up for any sports yet?” Indeed, we did sign him up for soccer when he was 3, which is to say we signed him up to run around a field in a cluster of 15 other wild, screaming 3-year-olds for 20 minutes a week. Soccer continued until he was about 6; he quit because he had never scored a goal (most of the kids hadn’t). T-ball started when he was 5. There was also a failed attempt at football sandwiched in there at some point.

That’s right, our son is only 8, and he’s already played more sports than I have at 40. And that’s nothing compared to the number of sports some of his peers play. Participation in multiple sports has become the norm. But here I am, wondering if it’s time for this three-sport athlete to hang up his cleats and call it a career. Even Bo Jackson had to admit to himself at some point that it was time to retire.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I understand the positives that organized sports can bring to a child’s life. We’ve all heard them plenty of times: teamwork, camaraderie, confidence, exercise, perseverance in the wake of failure. But to say that team sports are the only way to bring these positives into a child’s life is to ignore so many other possibilities.

If your kid is into sports, great. But I think as parents, it’s our responsibility to at least explore other options. There are scouting organizations, Boys and Girls Clubs, volunteer opportunities, youth bands, youth dance academies, youth theater programs, youth book clubs, Lego clubs—not to mention public parks, where kids are free to gather and play a pickup game of baseball or basketball any time they want. Kids can make friends, learn the importance of teamwork, build confidence, and get exercise doing any number of non-sport activities without the negatives that sports can bring—namely hyper-competitiveness, an absolute fear of failure, and a weird bravado that’s as blustering as it is easily threatened.

As Exhibit A, I present to you the dad who insulted one 9-year-old’s pitching ability and compared another 9-year-old to his grandma because he just couldn’t handle getting shown up. Will my son end up like this guy if I keep him in baseball? I doubt it. But do I want my son around this general attitude? No.

Sure, it’s just one dad. The actual coaches, for their part, were wonderful and supportive. They knew my son had a harder time than the rest, and they worked extra hard with him in the quest for that elusive hit. But as great as they were, I couldn’t stop thinking the same thought: This isn’t fun.

Isn’t it supposed to be fun?

And it was fun when my son started playing sports. That’s because he was 3, and 3-year-olds don’t know how to play a game without having fun. But now, five years later, he had become this kid who hoped his baseball games would get rained out. There was more crying than laughing, more distress than enjoyment. Taking him to games was a hassle that my wife and I took turns handling. To be plain and simple, it wasn’t fun anymore.

Maybe I haven’t gone wrong after all. Maybe sports have gone wrong.

The Fickle Finger of Failure

Last summer, we signed our son up for a weeklong improv camp. He loved it so much that he asked if he could take it again when the week was over. So, we signed him up again.

Full disclosure: Both of his parents do improv. It’s how we met. In fact, I was the teacher for his first week of improv camp, so my wife and I have a history and a love of improv that my son has always been aware of. He’s been seeing shows since he was a baby. Anyone who knows us would say, “Of course your son went to improv camp.”

When he’s on stage, I see that old familiar look that I haven’t seen since his soccer days: He’s having fun. He’s allowed to be goofy, and being goofy is closer to a kid’s natural state than being competitive. He’s allowed to jump and shout and make faces and do silly voices. He learns how to step up when it’s his turn to shine and how to step back when it’s someone else’s turn.

Most importantly, he’s allowed to fail. Failure happens all the time in improv—and in life—and that’s OK. When you fail, you correct yourself and move forward. In improv, if you’re good, you can usually milk a laugh or two out of your failure. You can fall down and get back up all in the same spectacular moment.

Let me repeat: Failure happens, and it’s OK.

Baseball is full of failure too. But in sports, by design, failure isn’t OK. That’s why they keep score. That strikeout in baseball? You feel awful when it happens. When you look around at your teammates and the crowd, no one’s laughing. There’s no way to turn that missed fly ball or booted ground ball or missed tag into a positive.

Yeah, I get it. Experiencing that pain is part of the learning process. And I’m not some overprotective, nut-job parent who thinks he can shield his kid from every painful experience for the rest of his life. But won’t my son experience plenty of pain in life without any help from baseball? He’ll lose friends, and he’ll lose romantic partners. He’s a good student, but he’s bound to fail in school eventually. Someday, he’ll screw up at work, as we’ve all done at some point.

My son has already felt pain—this is a kid who, at age 8, has attended the funerals of two grandparents, four great-grandparents, a great uncle, a great-great aunt, and some more relatives I’m probably forgetting. The pain will come, and quite a bit already has. Given all that, why would I drive him to a baseball diamond two nights a week specifically to experience more pain? Why would we go out looking for it?

Is it possible he’ll turn a corner and find success in sports? Sure. Will that success be all the more rewarding because of the failures that brought him there? Absolutely. He’s only 8, and all of those things may very well happen. Maybe for your kid, it already has, or maybe you’re recalling your own experiences with childhood sports and shaking your head, thinking that I’m a fool for giving up.

Believe me, I’m not giving up. But as a parent, I have to be prepared for the possibility that the magical moment won’t come. That slow-motion, game-winning home run might really be something that happens only in the movies. Sports and my son might not click, and I have to be OK with that.

We Shall See

In the last four games of the season, my son’s frustration grew with each at-bat. In the final inning of his final game, he was due to bat fifth, and the reality hit me: Not only was it likely he’d finish the season without a hit, but he might actually make his team’s final out of the season. He would literally be the reason the season ended. As he stood at the plate with two kids on base, two outs, and two strikes against him, I mentally prepared the speech I would give him, reassuring him that any one of his teammates could just as easily have made the final out.

Four miraculous pitches later, he drew a walk. The knot in my stomach loosened. A couple batters after that, he came around to score. And with the next batter, the season ended. He never did get that hit.

On the ride home that night, he was mostly quiet. While we sat at a red light, I asked him if he thinks he’ll play baseball next season.

“Well, yeah,” he answered, as if it were a silly question.

“Really?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “I want to keep working to get that hit.”

Such a big part of me wants to sign him up again next year because his response was such a great answer. And if he gives the same answer when we ask him again in the spring, I suppose we will sign him up. But if it’s a repeat of this last season—if the other kids continue to improve and he can’t keep up—then what? Do we sign him up again the following season? Will he lose interest on his own, or will we have to gently push him toward losing interest?

The issue will eventually come to a head. For now, you could argue he’s learning a valuable lesson from his failures, but at some point the lesson will be over, and the failures will just be failures. We’ll have to recognize when it’s time to stop dipping our toes in everything and focus on those things he clearly has a knack and a passion for.

There’s a push and pull in the parenting world right now regarding organized activities. Is it best to sign our kids up for every sport and club and summer camp available, or is it best to say “No thanks,” and just let them be kids? Should we book them every night of the week, or should we open our children up to the grave possibility that they can be bored for five minutes and thus forced to entertain themselves?

Or is a balance possible? Should we sign them up for a few select activities that they actually enjoy and make sure to also leave them some time to be kids?

When it’s time to go to improv camp, no one has to talk our son into it. He’s also in his school drama club, which he loves. He’s learning to play the piano too, and he’s shown interest in making movies. He found our old video camera and shot a 20-minute movie that he wrote. I helped him edit it, and it was a sensational experience for both of us.

At the end of the day, my point is this: Don’t let anyone tell you what you’re supposed to be good at. You do you. The neighbor kid likes baseball? Great. Your kid likes chess? Awesome. The kid on the evening news is a basketball phenomenon? Terrific. Your kid would rather write beautiful, creative, entirely nonsensical fantasy stories and act them out in goofy voices? Perfect. Go with it.

As for our family and sports, we shall see. Walking away from something so popular won’t be easy—but it also doesn’t have to be permanent. All I can do is hope that my son grows up knowing it’s OK to do his own thing. That’s bigger than any lesson he’ll learn on the playing field.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Boys Will Be Boys: A Bunch of BS

The other day, while my son was at school, I took my two-year-old daughter down to the local community center for our weekly playgroup. While the kids played and crammed crackers into their mouths and the parents chatted and sipped coffee, I sat in my usual spot away from the group, observing everything from a distance. Once again, I was the only dad in attendance, and the moms were engaged in the same conversations they have most other weeks.

There’s one mom in particular who does a lot of the talking, and I overheard her giving a speech she’d given before. She was talking about boys, explaining to the other moms that boys are “naturally more aggressive” than girls, that rowdiness is in their DNA.

“Thats just how boys are, she said matter-of-factly. 

This indisputable truth, she argued, is why her toddler son keeps running around like a maniac, shoving other kids and destroying everything he can get his grubby little hands on. His behavior couldn’t possibly have anything to do with her parenting methods or the kid’s own individual psyche. It must be his gender.

“I mean, what can you really do?” she asked rhetorically, as her son chased after another boy, wrestled him to the ground, and snatched a toy from him.

It’s the familiar “boys will be boys” mentality, and it drives me insane. We’ve all heard it, and if you’re a parent, you’ve heard it more times than you can count. You hear it whenever two boys are beating the crap out of each other on the playground, whenever a boy refuses to share, whenever a boy enthusiastically vandalizes something.

“Boys will be boys” never refers to good behavior. Only bad. Fighting, rule-breaking, general mischief—that’s when people say “boys will be boys.” And the boys hear it. This means we’re telling our boys from day one that bad behavior is acceptable, excusable, and even expected from them. Then, of course, we become distraught when they grow up and do terrible things.


Boys will be boys, right?

Is it a stretch to say that a boy who’s allowed to pummel another boy on the playground will grow up to be a killer? Probably. After all, plenty of boys get in fights, and most grow up to be normal, well-adjusted non-killers. But what about those boys who grow up to be monsters? Was their bad behavior constantly justified when they were growing up? Was there too much condoning and not enough correcting?

It’s a chicken-or-egg situation for sure. Do we assume men are naturally more aggressive because they commit these deplorable crimes, or do men commit these deplorable crimes because we’re always telling them they’re naturally more aggressive?

I don’t know the answer. I’m not a psychologist or a criminologist. I’m merely a dad trying my best to raise a boy and a girl. I just can’t help but think that if my son hears over and over again that bad behavior is in his blood, he’ll grow up believing it. And if my daughter hears that boys are helpless to stop their natural tendency toward violence, she’ll grow up learning to accept some pretty despicable behavior from the opposite sex.

That leads me to my next example, from a few weeks ago, when my daughter and I were at an indoor playground (a common thing in our cold climate). She was at the top of a slide, getting ready to go down, when a boy who was about the same age elbowed her out of the way and went down the slide ahead of her. I wasn’t all that upset by the kid’s actions, because these things happen all the time with little kids. What I took issue with was the mom’s reaction. She simply laughed, shook her head, and said, “Typical boy!” Not a word to her son—just vindication of his bad behavior.

What if her kid were a girl? Would she have called her a “typical girl”? Or would she have done something? And if she says “typical boy” when her son is two, will she still say it when he’s three? What about when he’s six? Ten? Fifteen? Twenty? In other words, when can that kid and his mom stop using “typical boy” as a defense?

Most of us learn at some point that, as adults, we can’t shove people out of our way at work or at the grocery store, no matter how much we might want to. The key words there are “most of us.” Some people never learn this, and if violent crime statistics are any indication, those people are far more likely to be men. So, why wait to teach our boys that this behavior is unacceptable? Why not teach it from the very beginning, like we do with girls? Sure, two-year-olds will still push and shove and be difficult, but if that behavior is left uncorrected—if it’s met with a shoulder shrug instead of a negative consequence—it will only continue and be harder to correct in the future.

I know it’s easy for me to sit here and talk like I have all the answers, as if raising a child is simple. I don’t mean to come off that way. No parent can tell another parent how to raise their kids. If you insist on perpetuating the “boys will be boys” mentality with your own children, I can’t force you to change. I can, however, ask you to not say it around my kids, because it’s not in line with what my wife and I are trying to teach them.

I can also challenge you to pause the next time your son pushes, shoves, hits, punches, kicks, or tackles another child and ask yourself the following question: If I don’t step in and stop my son now, when will I? At what age should he learn that boys aren’t entitled to violence and aggression just because they’re boys? Or—and maybe this is the better question—at what age will I as an adult learn that?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Papa Murphy’s: Dad-Shaming at 425 Degrees

Some encouraging ads have popped up in the last few years that show dads taking more active roles with their kids and around the house. A couple years ago, Tide made a commercial that showed a dad doing laundry and playing with his daughter. Kellogg’s presented a dad serving breakfast to his kids. And Campbell’s is currently running a brilliant spot that shows two dads enjoying a bowl of Star Wars soup with their son.

Papa Murphy’s decided to jump on the bandwagon, only they completely screwed it up. Their commercial, which can be viewed here, starts out all right, showing a loving father doing what loving fathers do: playing dress-up with his daughters. Then, it quickly takes an awful, poorly calculated turn.

The voiceover asks all the ladies in the house if the men they married have become big, soft “un-bold” wusses who do terrible things like interact with their children or express their fatherly devotion by engaging in active play. Our guy grows increasingly sad and helpless with each shot. His wife, who’s been watching all this, becomes distressed, realizing that her once-immature, sports-loving, beer-guzzling husband has become what no woman in her right mind would want: a devoted father!

So, into the kitchen she goes. Like any good wife, she makes her damn husband some damn dinner so that he can feel like a man again. She slides a nasty looking and nastier sounding Papa Murphy’s Frank's RedHot Buffalo Chicken Pizza into the oven before it’s too late. Next, we see that husband of hers doing what men were meant to do, watching football, eating pizza, and grunting like an enthusiastic ape. Rejoice! This man is BOLD again!

As is the case with a lot TV ads, there’s a 30-second version and a 15-second version. If you catch the longer version, you’ll see that, at the end of the commercial, this poor sucker’s daughters are still painting his toenails, and we’re reminded that this guy isn’t so bold after all. Even Papa Murphy isn’t a miracle worker, and this fella is still stuck with two adorable, healthy daughters who admire him. What a sap! Am I right, bros?

Could it be? Did I marry one of those "good guys"?
It’s hard to tell which part of the commercial I hate the most. Is it the look of boredom and defeat on the dad’s face as his daughters show him how much they love him? The horror on the wife’s face when she recognizes what’s become of her man? The idea that it’s every wife’s job to “re-bold” her husband, whatever the hell that means? The suggestion that Buffalo sauce is manlier than fatherhood?

The reception in social media has been overwhelming, and not in the way Papa Murphy’s was hoping for, I assume. It’s been said that any publicity is good publicity, but when your customers are saying things like, “I’ll never buy another one of your products again,” it’s hard to see the silver lining. Papa Murphy’s has clearly failed.

Here are some reactions on Twitter:

@LauraKeeney: “Re-bold your man”? @papamurphys thinks dads lose manhood by playing with daughters. I don’t understand how ads like this get made. #NFL

@KellyDiels: That Papa Murphy’s “re-bold your man” commercial is some sexist bullshit.

@wilder_timothy: Nothing better than appealing to crappy male stereotypes and glorifying uninvolved fathers <3 Thanks, Papa Murphy’s

And here are few of the many, many posts customers are putting on Papa Murphy’s Facebook page:

Love your product, hate your latest commercial. A father engaging in imaginative play with his daughters is NOT an issue. I’m appalled that you would air such a sexist, misogynistic, and outdated idea. Please stop airing the commercial and find a different way to promote your new flavor.

Based purely on your “de-bolded man” commercial, I will never purchase your product again. It sends the message that there is something wrong with a man who enjoys playing with his daughters, and that it’s something which needs to be fixed. Why? Does a man playing dress up threaten his manhood? Does it threaten yours? Clearly you are out of touch.

If you find nothing wrong with the “bold” pizza commercials, why do you keep deleting posts about people’s disappointment in the ad?

I am so very disappointed that the cheese bread changed at my Papa Murphy’s. I liked the round bread and now a VERY thick rectangle is the choice. I will not return to the store. Why was it changed???

Clearly, the decision-makers at Papa Murphy’s are screwing up left and right. Their marketing department, their cheese bread department … in light of such passionate consumer feedback, you have to believe heads are gonna roll.

For Papa Murphy’s part, they’ve been replying to some of the negative posts with a predictable half-apology:

Thank you for taking the time to provide feedback. Our recent Buffalo Chicken Pizza commercial was intended to show the bold flavor of the new pizza in a fun and humorous way, showcasing a family dynamic in a light-hearted manner. We apologize for any offense this advertisement may have caused as that was not our intention.

As for me, I’ve never bought a Papa Murphy’s pizza. Until now, I had nothing against the company. But after seeing this ad, I can safely say I’m now devoted to being a lifelong noncustomer. It won’t be easy, but I’ll somehow figure out a way to reclaim that boldness I lose every time I play with my children. Maybe I’ll skip a few showers or get a new pickup truck or go strangle a wild animal with my bare hands. Or I’ll ignore my kids, like Papa Murphy’s suggests.

Better yet, I’ll ignore Papa Murphy’s. Ignore their ads, ignore their stores, ignore their ludicrously thick rectangular cheese bread. I invite everyone else to do the same. Let’s see how bold Papa Murphy’s feels when it looks at its falling profits and realizes that running such a sexist, backward ad, no matter how “light-hearted” they think it is, has consequences.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mother's Day: The Morning After

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. People love Mother’s Day. Every restaurant in town that offers brunch was packed, every flower shop was bustling, and every social media site was clogged with sentimental photos of kids alongside their dear, beloved mothers. According to USFlag.org, you’re supposed to fly the American Flag in your front yard on Mother’s Day, putting it right up there with Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Washington’s Birthday, Lincoln’s Birthday, and Easter Sunday, the celebration of the heavenly ascension of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I’m telling you—people love Mother’s Day. Father’s Day, absent from the flag-flying list, has never achieved that level of reverence.

It makes sense, I suppose. We expect so much of moms that it’s only natural that we make such a big deal out of their day. When my mom was around, I certainly celebrated it without question. However, a recent comment from a friend made me realize I’ve developed a different point of view on Mother’s Day, that I’ve gained a new perspective since becoming a parent and witnessing other people my age become parents. Something about the day has become unsettling to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until now.

I was working late Saturday night, the night before Mother’s Day, and I ran into this lady I know. I’m a comedian, so I almost always work Saturday nights, and I usually (despite my best intentions) end up staying out with friends until bar time. She’s a comedian too, and she’s a mom. When she saw me, she said, “How are you going to do it tomorrow morning?”

“Do what?” I responded.

“Don’t you have to get up tomorrow? It’s Mother’s Day. Don’t you have to make breakfast and take care of the kids?” she asked, as if I should be at home, rehearsing my omelet flipping technique in preparation for the big morning.

I explained to her that I’m up with the kids most mornings, making breakfast and getting them ready for the day, often after a late night at work. Although Sunday is usually the one day a week I get to sleep in (my wife’s day is Saturday), I wasn’t sure how we were going to handle Mother’s Day. If I had to get up, no big deal.

She seemed surprised by the idea that I make breakfast for my family. “Oh!” she exclaimed, impressed and confused at the same time.

And then it occurred to me: Mother’s Day is the only day of the year I’m expected to do anything. The other 364 days, in most people’s eyes, I’m free to sleep in without judgment. But what if my wife sleeps in on any day other than Mother’s Day? Well, that makes her selfish and lazy. She should be up and about, feeding kids, scrubbing floors, and packing lunches. If she doesn’t like it, too bad. She’ll get her annual day off the next time the second Sunday in May rolls around.
Sorry, moms, but your day is over. Back to work!

Because of that, I’m not so sure I like Mother’s Day. Please don’t take that to mean I don’t like moms. I love moms, which is why I’m not so sure I like Mother’s Day—at least not the way we celebrate it. It’s a giant reminder of how shitty we are to our moms every other day of the year. I’m not saying you, the person reading this right now, is shitty to your mom. I’m saying we, as a culture, are shitty to moms. And that’s why we feel the need to continue observing Mother’s Day. It’s a celebration of how much suffering our moms put up with, orchestrated by the people who caused the suffering in the first place.

Here’s an idea: Maybe if we didn’t demand that moms handle 90% of the parenting duties, maybe if we didn’t stick them with all the household chores, maybe if we would remove the enormous pressure to be super-human that we saddle them with, maybe if we didn't penalize them financially for pausing their careers so that they can create life, maybe if we provided adequate and universal prenatal and neonatal care—then maybe we wouldn’t need a day to praise them and all that they do. We pile all these burdens on our moms, buy them chocolates once a year, and then go back to burdening them the next day.

It’s supposed to warm my heart when I hear a mom on Mother’s Day say, “My kids made me breakfast this morning, and my husband did the laundry! I’m so #blessed!” Truth be told, that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Look how excited you are that someone toasted a frozen waffle for you. You call yourself blessed because the people you live with cleaned their own damn clothes—in other words, they acted like considerate human beings. If your family wants to show you how much they love you, how about they make you breakfast and do the laundry next Sunday too? Or on a random Thursday in September? Or, I don’t know, how about every day? You know, like you do for them.

So there’s my problem with Mother’s Day: One day of extreme, planned appreciation is supposed to balance out all the other days we take moms for granted.

Starting today, the day after Mother’s Day, let’s treat moms better. Let’s show them we love them not one day a year, but every day of the year. Let’s do the dishes, wash the clothes, and vacuum the crumbs out of the sofa (after all, we put them there). Instead of applauding moms for doing all the things we selfishly demand that they do, let's stop demanding that they do to them.

Let's make Mother's Day a celebration of our love for mothers, not a recognition of everything we make them put up with.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

“Do You Help Your Wife With the Cleaning and Stuff?”

Not long ago, I was at Target with my 1-year-old daughter. It was our weekly trip to spend ridiculous amounts of money on diapers, baby food, a wide array of kid-friendly crackers, too many paper towels, and maybe—if there’s room in the budget—one or two items for me. We were in the checkout line, and the cordial, clueless employee started chatting it up with me.
Noticing the small child and assorted groceries in my cart, she asked with a smile, “Are you a stay-at-home dad?”
“Yep,” I said, wondering to myself whether she asks moms the same question.
“Aw, that’s so cute!”
I smiled and gave a polite, fake laugh. As I’ve pointed out before, I don’t think it’s particularly cute that I care for my kids, but whatever. No point in making this lady feel bad. Target management had already required her to wear a “New Team Member” nametag, and that’s embarrassing enough.
But then she kept on yammering.
“So, do you help your wife with the cleaning and stuff?”
At that point, I looked around for a hidden camera. I had met this lady 15 seconds ago, and she had already said three blog-worthy things to me. Was this some kind of a prank? It’s like she had read my blog and was trying to provoke me. Maybe she wanted to get mentioned. If so, it was working.
“I do the cleaning,” I replied. “I don’t really call it ‘helping.’ It’s my job. I’m the stay-at-home parent.”
“Oh! That’s great!” she said, wide-eyed. “Do you want a handle for your toilet paper?” Then she made stupid faces at my daughter and continued ringing me up.
I hope I got through to her, at least a little. That word—“help”—bothers me, and anything I can do to stop its widespread use is a step in the right direction.
I’ve heard it a lot since I started the stay-at-home thing. Someone once asked me if I “help with laundry.” When people hear that I cook dinner most nights, I’ve been told, “That’s so nice of you to help your wife like that.” It reminds me of when my 5-year-old “helps” me shovel snow, which is to say he scoops one small shovelful and then just jumps around making snow angels. I call him “Daddy’s helper” because it’s cute (there’s that other word the Target lady used), not because he’s actually helping.
Why is it “helping” when men do the housework? When I was single and lived alone, I did my own laundry and washed my own dishes all the time. Whom was I helping back then?
When I moved in with a woman, did it immediately become her job to clean my skivvies for me? If that’s the case, someone tell her, because I can count on one hand the number of times she’s done my laundry in seven years of marriage. (Full disclaimer: Because of my OCD, I pretty much have to do my own laundry. If I let someone else do it, they might fold it all wrong.)
I’m not helping my wife when I clean the house, anymore than she’s helping me when she goes to work every day. Using the word “help” implies that the cleaning is rightfully her job, and that the breadwinning is mine. That it’s not my responsibility as a grown man to scrub the toilet once a week, and that she really shouldn’t have a career that can support a family.
We’re married, we own a home, and we decided for some reason to have two money-sucking, attention-demanding, mess-making, beautiful, wonderful, glorious children. All of the responsibilities associated with those endeavors are shared responsibilities. They don’t belong to one of us or the other. I mow the lawn and iron the clothes. My wife bathes the kids and cleans the gutters. We both work and earn money.
The majority of the housework falls on my shoulders, and it should. After all, she works full-time, and I work part-time. It seems like a no-brainer, and it works for us. That’s not to say we enjoy it all the time or never quibble over who’s busier, but simply that we recognize things need to get done and don’t much care which one of us does them.
I know it’s not my place to tell anyone how to run their household. The traditional arrangement—man go hunting, woman go to river and beat clothes on rock—works for plenty of families, no matter how disturbingly outdated it seems to me. To ask everyone to abandon that and embrace a world in which we all rake leaves and pay mortgages and bake quiches and wipe babies’ asses, regardless of our preconceived notions about gender, is asking a lot.
So let’s start slow, by simply correcting Target employees. And by recognizing nobody should feel forced to do anything because of what is or isn’t between his or her legs. If you want to do it the old way, go ahead. It’s none of my business. Just don’t refer to me as my wife’s “helper” if you happen to notice me cleaning my own damn house.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Silence

About a mile from our house, there’s a community center that offers playgroups several days a week. Before my son was in school, I took him there often, and now I take my 1-year-old daughter. It’s close, it’s cheap, and it provides valuable socialization for my daycare-less kids.

The community center is where I’ve met about 90% of the men and women (mostly women) in my network of stay-at-home parents. It’s also where I’ve encountered countless absurd comments that could inspire legions of blog posts. But that’s not what I’m going to write about today. Rather, I’m going to write about the painful lack of absurd comments—or any comments, for that matter. I’m going to write about silence. Undisguised, unmistakable silence.

It happens all the time. There I am, the dad, walking into the playgroup room with a child in my arm and a diaper bag over my shoulder. There she is, some random mom, sitting at the snack table, reading a magazine or looking at her phone, glancing at her kid every once in a while. I nod and say hello as I enter. She gives a polite smile and, without a word, goes back to what she was doing.

OK, I think. Not everyone has to jump out of their seats at the sight of another parent. She’s here to sit for a while and let her kid play, just like I am. Like I said, it’s the kids who are there to socialize, not the parents.

So we sit in silence for a few minutes. Then, in walks another mom with her kid. And another with her kids. And another. They greet each other, they settle in, their kids play. The buzz of conversation slowly begins, and soon the room is humming with children frolicking and moms chatting and laughing about bedtimes, feeding routines and discipline strategies. Some of them clearly know each other, but others are definitely strangers, as I overhear several introductions. (“I’m Katie, and this is my daughter Indigo.” “Hi, Katie. I’m Sarah, and this is Maxton.”)

Wait a minute, I think. What’s happening? I thought the lady reading the magazine just wasn’t social, and now she’s yammering on with two other women about the best overnight diapers and which brand of sippy cup is BPA-free. And there I sit, in a chair designed for a 3-year-old, looking like the new kid in school. Or just the kid everyone avoids because he always smells like cat pee.

I realize it takes time to be accepted into any new group. That’s cool. And, to be clear, I’ve met plenty of personable moms who have accepted me immediately. As for the ones who don’t, I’m a big boy and I can take it. It’s just that it fascinates me how blatant it can sometimes be.

For instance, some moms were sitting around one week talking about laundry detergent. I know it sounds cliché, but I speak the truth. When moms get together—the moms I witness anyway—they talk about laundry detergent and baby shampoo. I’m all for breaking down stereotypes (that’s the whole point of this blog), but damned if I don’t overhear a conversation about which brand of cleanser won’t scratch the bathtub or some such domestic matter every time I show up to playgroup. It’s like being on the other side of the glass during a Procter & Gamble focus group.

This particular week, as I said, it was laundry detergent. Do you pay the extra money for name brand, or is the store brand just as good? Liquid or powder? Scented or unscented? And don’t even get me started on dryer sheets.

I sat in my seat apart from the group, listening for a few minutes before weighing in. I figured, if they won’t ask for my opinion, I’ll take the initiative and offer it unsolicited. Then they’ll see I’m one of them, and I’ll be accepted.

“My son has eczema,” I said. “So we’ve switched to unscented everything.”

They all stopped speaking and turned to look at me.

“Unscented body wash, unscented detergent, unscented dryer sheets,” I continued. “We use All Free Clear. It works just as well, and his skin has really improved.”

There was a moment of silence from both sides. Probably a second or two, but it seemed like much longer. Then, slowly, they all turned back to one another, shook off whatever it was that had just happened, and picked up their discussion where they had left off.

And that was that. My attempt to join the party had failed. They carried on conversing, and I went back to keeping my mouth shut.

About a half hour later, I discovered that my contribution to the laundry detergent forum did break the ice a bit. As I was preparing to leave, a mom who was packing up her stuff alongside me started making some chit-chat.

“So you, like, do the laundry and stuff?” she asked.

“Yeah, I do,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said, clearly interested but not really knowing what else to say.

Silence followed as we zipped shut our diaper bags and grabbed our kids.

“OK, have a good day then,” I said. And we parted ways.

Another playgroup, another hour of awkward silence, I thought on my way home. As I considered this lady’s question, however, it occurred to me that I had stumbled on a possible revelation. Maybe I had an answer as to why these moms don’t include me in their domestic discussions.

See, I assume all stay-at-home parents do the bulk of the housework. They’re the ones home during the day, so it just makes sense that they would handle the laundry, grocery shopping, and what not. But, if this lady’s question is any indication, these moms assume I don’t do these things. “So you, like, do the laundry and stuff?” the lady had asked. The notion had never occurred to her, so she didn’t even think to include me in the discussion.

These moms weren’t necessarily ignoring me because I gave them the creeps (although I still kept that open as a possibility); they were ignoring me because they figured I wouldn’t have any interest or input in what they were talking about. It’s akin to a bunch of men sitting around talking about football while ignoring the one or two women in the room.

As anyone with a partially open mind can understand, that’s not really fair. Still, it happens to both sexes all the time. Just as some men assume sports talk is a boys-only club, certain women assume child-rearing chat is girls-only territory, and they’re protective of it. No boys allowed.

To a certain extent, I’ve got it coming. Everyone knows sexism almost always hurts women, not men. Women are the ones who get talked down to by mechanics. They’re the ones whose gender is used as an insult—nobody ever disparages a kid by saying, “You throw like a boy.” They’re the ones who—in 2014, for god’s sake—get paid 77 cents to the man’s dollar for doing the same damn job.

One thing women have on men, however, is parenting. Moms, not dads, are still seen as the family nurturers. They’re the experts in raising children and managing households. So I can imagine their confusion and possible resentment when I strut in, trying to talk about unscented laundry detergent. Men have taken away enough from women over the years, and here I am trying to horn in on something they’re universally seen as better at.

Ah, the hell with it. Maybe I’m over-thinking this. Maybe I really do just give them the creeps. I suppose the next time I go to a playgroup, I should wear pants.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Tale of Two Old Ladies

As I go through my daily adventures as a stay-at-home dad, I regularly field odd looks and dumb questions from a vast array of people. Young, old, man, woman, parent, nonparent, seemingly intelligent, obviously dimwitted—they’re all capable of the unintentional insult. But the demographic that seems to notice me and other daytime dads the most would have to be senior women. The surprise, the judgment, the genuine confusion, the “Giving your wife a break today?” questions—they seem to come from older ladies more than any other group.

It makes sense, I guess. When I’m out food shopping with one or both of my kids in the middle of the day, it’s probably a jarring image for the sixty-plus female crowd. Thirty, forty, fifty years ago, when they were parents of toddlers, this was their territory. There wasn’t a man to be seen in these parts. While today’s retail aisles are still populated by more moms than dads, the tide is slowly turning, and I suppose the old guardians of the grocery store are the ones most likely to take notice.


Three of those fingers are
pointing right back at you,
you crusty old bird.
I’ll give you a couple examples, one that reinforced my general disapproval of the human race and one that might just be enough to convince me to give everyone another chance.

I took my son, who was two at the time, to an indoor playground for a morning of chaos and germ trading. If you’re a parent, you know the kind of place I’m talking about. You go there when it’s too cold or rainy to play outside or when you’ve run out of other ideas. You pay admission, you take off your shoes, and there are a variety of slides, half-broken toys, and overpriced snacks. The kids run amuck, simultaneously dazed and squealing from their steady diets of Ritalin and Twizzlers, while their parents wander around, staring at their smartphones. Not my favorite place in the world, but for $8, it’s not a bad way to spend a half day and let the boy burn off some energy.

At the end of this particular half day, when I told my son it was time to go, I was met with some resistance. Kids hate to leave a place when they’re having fun, and if there’s anyone in the world harder to reason with with than a two-year-old, it’s an exhausted two-year-old who’s approaching naptime. I gave him a five-minute warning, but when he didn’t make his way to the exit himself, I did what you do next in these situations: I lifted him off the floor myself, securing as many of his flailing arms and legs as possible.

As I raised him toward my face, he let out a horrible, high-pitched, ear-piercing yelp. An octave higher and it would have been detectable only by dogs.

“Whoa!” I reacted. “What’s with the screaming?” It was a rhetorical question; I didn’t really expect my two-year-old to answer me.

Then, from behind, I felt a boney old hand on my shoulder. It was some kid’s grandma, attempting to assuage my anxiety. In a calming voice, she said, “Noises like that are perfectly normal for children that age.”

Huh? She was talking to me as if I’d never dealt with a two-year-old before. As if this was my first day on the job. As if, because I’m a dad, I needed some guidance.

“Oh, I know,” I replied, nodding.

She gave me a reassuring smile and another pat on the shoulder, and then she went back to practice her obviously superior caregiving with her dirty little grandkids.

As with any such instance, this could simply be a case of my misinterpreting things. Maybe I’m looking for subtle sexism in every interaction, so I’m bound to see it even when it’s not there. Perhaps this lady would have said the same thing to a mom in the same situation, and I’m just paranoid.

But you know what they say: sometimes a little paranoia is just sound thinking. I’ve gotten “the look” before. Plenty of times. And I might seem like some crazy guy who thinks everyone is out to get him when I say old ladies look at me differently from how they look at moms, but I know it’s true at least part of the time.

I know this, because one old lady actually said it.

We were at the post office on a Tuesday morning, my son and I. We had stopped there on our way to story time at the library, so it must have been about ten a.m. I held my son in one arm and handed our package to the postal worker with the other. My son was helping push the buttons on the credit card machine, as he likes to do, when I noticed an old lady watching us and smiling. I smiled back.

Then, she spoke, and it’s something I’ll never forget.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said slowly, “that we’re starting to see more men doing so many of the things only women used to do.”

“Thank you,” I replied. And I meant it. “Thank you” is something we say a dozen times a day, but we don’t often mean it; we’re just being polite. This time, it was sincere. That lady made my day.

I didn’t think there was anything particularly mom-like about what I was doing that morning. I was just mailing a package with my son. But it was ten a.m. on a Tuesday, and I was ably handling a two-year-old in public, and that was enough for this old lady to take notice. As I said before, I have to remember that when she was my age, she probably didn’t see such things.

The fact that she was embracing this change made me want to hug her. She “got it.” In one sentence, she acknowledged that roles are shifting, she approved of it, and she delighted in it. She didn’t make me feel unwelcome or inept. On the contrary, she made me feel warm and fuzzy, right there at the post office.

It’s almost enough to make a grump like me find a restored faith in humankind. I walked into library story time with my head held high that morning, and there may have even been a skip in my step. I felt I had broken through some sort of societal wall. It was a victory.

Then, of course, five minutes in, some grandma at the library noticed me and chuckled. “Uh oh!” she said, “Dad’s in charge today!”

And just like that, I was put right back in my place as the untrusted outsider. Thanks, lady. For a moment there, I was feeling good about the world.