“Here, this is for mommy to wash,” says the daycare worker, as she hands me my daughter, Adélie’s, soiled pants.
I take them cautiously with two fingers — tong s tyle — and scoop Adélie up with my spare arm. I look at the daycare worker with a face normally reserved for people who unnecessarily brush up against me in public, but I don’t say anything. I should, but I don’t.
I’d love to see the look on my wife’s face if I ever came home, threw some soiled clothes at her feet and said, smiling, “Here, Liz — the lady at daycare says that you need to wash these!” That smile would be wiped off my face pretty quickly.
Instead, I go to the basement and throw them into the wash myself. Then I make supper. (I’m a saint, I know.)
A few weeks later, as I wander the grocery store with Adélie, and I sense a presence lingering behind us. Adélie’s face grows dark, and she grips my hands tightly. My heart sinks — I know immediately what it is. An older lady, taken by my baby’s radiant beau ty, is looming in for some unwelcome ooohing, aaahing and cheek pinching.
“Giving Mommy a break today?” she says.
“I suppose so,” I say.
“It’s nice when we can give Mommy a break,” she says. “It’s a hard thing, being a mommy.”
It’s the kind of thing I’ve been hearing since the day Adélie was born, more than two years ago. It’s the reason Mother’s Day is a breakfast-in-bed kind of day, while Father’s Day is a make-your-own-darn-breakfast kind of day.
I’ll always be treated like a second-class citizen in my daughter’s life by some people. It doesn’t seem to matter that Liz isn’t actually the poor put-upon wife, and I’m not the goofy, irresponsible freeloader with a man cold and a beer gut. (Well…the beer gut part may apply. OK, Liz may contest the man cold part, too.) I do laundry, I’m up at night when Adélie’s sick, and I cook most meals. I’m the face at daycare. I’m an equal partner in this partnership, and Liz would tell you the same.
I decide to take action. It starts with our bedtime books, which seem to all be written for moms. “Your mommy loves you,” they say. “Get ready, here come Mommy’s kisses!” they warn. By reading these books to Adélie, it’s like I’m telling her that women are mothers filled with hugs, and dads are aloof men with yellow hats who’ll steal you from your home and put you in a zoo.
I soon find myself substituting “daddy” for “mommy” when I read to Adélie, but after a particularly gruelling and confusing reading of Love You Forever, where I’m switching mother for father, father for mother, baby boy for baby girl and baby girl for baby boy, all the while hoping Adélie is too tired to notice, I decide enough is enough. I can’t single-handedly change the way our society sees (and enforces!) gender roles. It’s too entrenched, and, too often, people say things to justify the way they’re raised or the way things are in their own relationships. They mean no harm; but they do cause it. All I can do is set a good example for Adélie, show her what a dad can be, and put things right when I can.
So the next time the daycare worker hands me a soiled pair of purple jeggings, I’ll thank her and tell her that I’m going to take them home right away. To wash. Myself.
Then I’ll turn around, put on my yellow hat, and walk proudly out the door.
A version of this article appeared in our June 2013 issue with the headline “Dad’s lib,” p. 58.