When is a Dad Like a Unicorn?

20130126-141148.jpgA few months ago I took Little Bear in for her 9 month check-in by myself. Previously, Little Bear’s mama and I had taken her in to her doctor appointments together. The nurse doing Little Bear’s basic measurements commented that it’s rare to see a dad bringing a kid in alone. A check out person at the store started a conversation with me while Little Bear and I were grocery shopping, and upon finding out that I am a part stay at home dad, part student, part worker, exclaimed that I am making such a sacrifice for my family. Apparently it’s just marvelous that I am willing to stay home and willing to not work full time. We’re at a restaurant and Little Bear needs a new diaper, as babies do, while we were walking back to the restroom a woman leans over and tells me it’s so unique to see a father taking such interest in parenting.

These incidents are only a handful in the strange phenomena I sometimes notice when I’m out with Little Bear. I get smiles and greetings, and people (frequently people I perceive to be women) strike up conversation with me. Overall, the impression I’ve gotten is that a dad with a baby is sometimes as magical as a unicorn. I shouldn’t be surprised. As a transmasculine person, I have certainly already experienced the benefits in male privilege in places where previously I was read as female. Being a white guy with a cute baby just rakes in heteronormative bonus points.

I have to tell you, sometimes these experiences make me feel like I’m Super Dad. All the social rewards, even if they are just in the forms of smiles and short comments, sometimes go to my head. “I am amazing,” I think, “it is so impressive that I am such a great father!”

However, the fact that I am a dad taking care of his kid shouldn’t make me special. Being a dad shouldn’t mean that it’s above and beyond for me to change my kid’s diaper. It shouldn’t be unusual that I take her to a pediatrician appointment. I shouldn’t be getting extra rewards when I am doing what moms are socially expected to do.

I rarely get critiqued on my parenting by strangers, but I know that this also sometimes happens to masculine-presenting parents and caretakers. When it happens, it feels like a slap in the face. Surprisingly enough, I probably do know the best ways to soothe my kid when she’s crying. That men aren’t as perceived as competent at care-taking is just another facet of the gendered division of labor enforced by heteronormative, patriarchal norms. It’s a little exaggerated, but sometimes it seems that society sees me as above and beyond incredible for meeting my child’s basic needs, or so clueless that I should hand over my kid to someone else who hasn’t been wiping her ass for 14 months. I do want to be a fabulous dad, but not because there’s a low social hurdle.

In the meantime, Little Bear and I are going to keep taking walks, going to the store, visiting the library, and living our life. We’re going to try to not let compliments go to my head. What about you?If you are a parent or a caretaker, how have you noticed gender affecting how you are perceived in public when you are with kids? If you’re not a parent or caretaker, have you noticed any differences in how folks of different genders with kids are treated?

4 thoughts on “When is a Dad Like a Unicorn?

  1. I have totally noticed this — not necessarily with my partner’s kids (people usually think I’m the big brother…go figure) but with the kids’ dad. In my opinion, he is not such a great parent. He doesn’t play with them. They are sent to us in shoes that are 4 sizes too small and pants that are ripped and he hasn’t taken them to the dentist in over a year (yes, he has really really rad insurance that would cover that 100%). They constantly complain about how terrible life is at his house. Let’s keep in mind that they are 7 and 9 and so bed time seems like the end of the world BUT I notice he keeps them around insofar as they are beneficial to him. And oh boy were they! He gets so many accolades for bringing them around and so much praise for being a “single dad” (yeah — he’s always had an attentive and nurturing co parent). So what occurred was this extreme inflation of his skills as a parent. And what my partner experienced was terrible because how dare she leave an abusive relationship! And as a mother, it looks so bad when she “leaves her kids”…btw, she moved down the road.

    What I notice is peoples’ quick judgements about her as a mother. And because it is probably seen as rude to ask the questions, I am usually the one to field them behind closed doors. Why did she leave her kids? Why doesn’t she have custody? How could she be a good mother? She just let them leave! Would a dad get that level of interrogation? I can say with 100% certainty that he would not. And if I get permission from my partner to share her story, I do, and it sure does change peoples’ tone. So, I’m not exactly sure what is at the heart of all of this gendered nonsense, but what I can say is that it is damaging to people and to families. So, fuck assumptions and fuck the patriarchy. Let’s allow people to love and care for their little people as best they can and help them out when they need it and ask for it!!

  2. Thank you for writing this. When m was a baby, I was still very feminine presenting. M (my spouse) would get similar compliments and cooing from strangers as the ones you described. If I were alone with her and was struggling with a pushchair on/off buses or with a door, I would get looked at as if I were a failure as a ‘mother’. This happened within our families too. I had to challenge my mom and other relatives because they thought the sun shined out of M’s behind whereas everything I did (and I was the part stay-home, part-student, and part-working parent) was seen as a given and was often criticized. It drove me insane, really. It got to the point where I said to M that if he could not see and challenge his privilege as a parent, we were done. I felt that strongly about it, as a feminist. For me, it was important that he would challenge our families, friends and strangers. If I did it, it looked like ‘sour grapes’, he needed to do it for himself. Luckily he saw both the privilege and why it drove me potty, and here we still are 🙂 Interestingly, when I am with m, now being visibly genderqueer, and transmasculine presenting, people ‘she’ me a lot more. m just rolls her eyes or correct people, if she cares enough for them. To her, I am her mom and a he. There is no question, or conflict, it is who I am. Screw the world and its binaries, she is a girl and I am a fabulous boi, and her mom. Sadly, I see similar attitudes to privileging cis masculinity among some of my friends. Not that M is not fabulous, but it somewhat tiring to hear all the time what an amazing, thoughtful person he is, mostly because he happened to have been born with a penis and be a quite decent fellow. I could say more about the intersection of anglo identity and ability too, and how his visible housework (laundry, sweeping, dusting) as opposed to my invisible housework (bills, tax filing, remembering birthdays, buying gifts, planning breaks, encouraging m to have new experiences like camp) is seen and praised by others, but I will stop here 🙂 Thanks again for writing about this important topic!

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