Normally, for a week-long vacation, I’d buy ten to twelve books. I’d read them all, too, and sometimes more. This past summer I had two months off and I bought about a dozen books. I read five of them.
It’s not that the other books weren’t good. This summer I became a father and when my wife Diane went back to work, I took over as primary caregiver for our two-month-old son Jonathan. I figured that, while the baby napped, I could take care of the house and squeeze in some reading.
Soon I found that I had to change my expectations. Where once I read chapters in a day, I now read pages. A load of laundry was seldom finished the same day it was started and loading the dishwasher took hours.
Since housework isn’t number one on my fun-things-to-do list, I didn’t mind much. I spent my days playing with the baby, or taking him for walks. Every so often, Jonathan would take a catnap and I’d read a little or do some housework. Before long, we settled into a routine.
Gradually, my fears about my capabilities as a parent disappeared. I developed the ability to tell which cry meant “I’m hungry” and which meant “Dad, please change my diaper, I’m uncomfortable.” Also, I learned that adeptness at changing diapers can, like other skills, be acquired through practice. I also discovered what most mothers already know: it’s easier to watch TV than to read a book while feeding a baby. The TV schedules were committed to memory and He-man, the Thundercats, and Beaver Cleaver kept me entertained while Jonathan guzzled down his formula.
The best times of all were those right after Jonathan had eaten, when he was relatively alert and content. I spent hours watching him discover the world around him. I’ll never forget the look of surprise on his face when he realized that the funny thing waving in front of his eyes was his own hand, or the look of triumph the first time he swung that hand out and grabbed the afghan on the sofa.
It was in the grocery store that I first began to notice people’s reactions to us. They seemed uncomfortable with the idea of a man taking care of an infant. When my wife was with us, other women would stop us to ask about the baby, but when Jonathan and I went alone, no one ever stopped us.
At the doctor’s office, questions about the baby’s behavior were invariably addressed to my wife. Even relatives who knew that I was caring for Jonathan asked Diane how he was doing and left me out of the conversation.
In our neighborhood are several groups of mothers whose children play together. They carpool together, have coffee in the afternoons together, and provide each other with support and friendship. I met several of these mothers when Jonathan and I were out walking. They all seemed hesitant about talking with me and I was never invited to any of the “get togethers.” My offers of coffee or soda were never accepted. It seems that, while men were out creating the “old boy network” in business, women were creating the “mom network” at home and it’s just as hard for a nurturing father to break into the “mom network” as it is for a businesswoman to break into the “old boy network.”
Two months after my wife went back to work, the school year started for me. My mother watches Jonathan for me while I attend classes. Something she once said illustrates the different attitudes toward male and female parents. She asked me how Diane was handling being at work away from her baby. I answered that she was doing about as well as I was being in school away from mine. “Don’t be silly,” my mother said. “It’s not the same for a man.”
She’s not alone in that belief, and I’m not alone in refuting it. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates than in only 1% of the 25 million families in the United States is the father the primary caregiver (Trafford, 1987, p. 13). In a Washington Post article, Abigail Trafford (1987) interviewed David Frank, who detailed a series of experiences similar to mine (p. 12). Robert D. Reed (1987), who spent a year as a male nanny and is now a social worker for the Children’s Aid Society in New York, wrote in American Baby magazine, “What I find exasperating about the job is not the lack of leisure time but the stigma attached to it. My parents are having conniptions, and my peers are baffled” (p. 28).
Dr. Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center, studied 17 families in which the mother and father reversed their traditional roles. When asked if the “mothering” job was really different for men than for women, he replied, “Not radically. The fathers would say, “This can be so boring. My mind is sleeping’ – the things we’ve heard from young mothers for years. This has more to do with the job than with gender” (Trafford, 1987, p. 14). Further, when Dr. Pruett was asked what surprised him most in the study, he answered, “How profoundly moved the fathers were by the experience. They changed as men – and as human beings. It surprised me to see how available they were to the complexity of the role” (Trafford, 1987, p. 14).
So it seems that there is very little real difference between men and women in the nurturing role. After all, don’t babies evoke some parental response in almost any adult? As for me, the warm playtimes I’ve shared with Jonathan and the chance to be a bigger part of his life than my traditional role calls for, these outweigh the funny looks I get in grocery stores.
Reed, Robert D. (1987, June). My life as a male nanny. American Baby, 28.
Trafford, A. (1987, April 28). Fathers raising kids – what happens when mom goes to work and dad stays home. The Washington Post, pp. 12-16.