Dads as fashion accessory

Why are dads invisible? As I sit here and watch two couples with children—the moms are pleasantly chatting with each other while the fathers are quietly sitting, one tending the children the other reading a paper—I am struck by how the dads occupy this strange, quasi-invisible space. They could have stayed home with their children, allowing the moms to have a child-free rendez-vous. Yet the moms clearly dragged the dads and kids along. As if the moms are complete when seen in public with dad and children. Sort of family as accessory.

This trend to accessorize with fellow progenitor and progeny repeats itself in a quick google search. The terms “main line dad” returns five hits. The terms “main line moms” returns about 27,000, everything from main line moms who run personal-family blogs, to main line mom facebook pages, to YouTube videos. As in the case before me now, in many of these pages and blogs, dads play a supporting role. The dads are mentioned at key moments to fill out the mom’s image. They are posed with the kids in idealized scenes. Like an expensive handbag, Coco Chanel sunglasses, or a venti-half-caff-soy-no-foam Starbucks latte, dads are an essential accoutrement for the well dressed main line mom.

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Organizing the class’s holiday party

Today my son’s class had its holiday celebration. As the classroom parent representative, I was in charge of organizing it and arranging to get a class gift. Not a terribly onerous set of tasks: a handful of emails asking others to bring in some food or beverage, reminding parents when and where the even would occur, and asking for donations for the gift. The most difficult and time consuming part was finding a local store that sold maps and globes.

I did nothing beyond what countless mothers have done year in and year out. Yet for some reason nearly every person approached me and thanked me profusely for going to so much effort, as if I had orchestrated a pull-out from Iraq, in just 10 days and with only 10 gallons of fuel in my three-passenger Cessna.

Let me be clear, I appreciate the recognition, as anybody who has worked to organize an event would. Sadly, however, their compliments highlight a disturbing inequity: women are expected to be capable parents while men are expected to fall short.

Michael Chabon points out in his essay “William and I” that it is generally pretty easy to be a dad:

The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low. One day a few years back I took my youngest son to the market around the corner from our house in Berkeley, California, a town where, in my estimation, fathers generally do a passable job, with some fathers having been known to go a little overboard. I was holding my twenty-month-old in one arm and unloading the shopping cart onto the checkout counter with the other. I don’t remember what I was thinking about at the time, but it is as likely to have been the original 1979 jingle for Honey Nut Cheerios or nothing at all as it was the needs, demands, or ineffable wonder of my son. I wan’t quite sure why the woman in line behind us—when I became aware of her—kept beaming so fondly in our direction. She had on rainbow leggings, and I thought she might be a little crazy and therefore fond of everyone.
“You are such a good dad,” she said finally. “I can tell.”
I looked at my son. He was chewing on the paper coating of a wire twist tie. A choking hazard, without a doubt; the wire could have pierced his lip or tongue. His hairstyle tended to the cartoonier pole of the Woodstock-Einstein continuum. His face was probably a tad on the smudgy side. Dirty, even. One might have been tempted to employ the word crust.1

There is a double standard here. Again, as Chabon remarked, for a mom to elicit such an observation from a complete stranger is nearly impossible. Yet as long a dad isn’t actively harming his child, he is a good father. Chabon acknowledges that double standard and, further, confesses his occasional gratitude for it. He also admits that he works really hard at being a father, not so he can be complimented but so he can enjoy the intimacy that comes being a good father.

What Chabon doesn’t explore is the way that such compliments reinforce the assumption that men continue to fail at parenting. By virtue of our Y chromosome, we are somehow deficient in the parenting department. Society doesn’t expect too much from us, as if we are some real-life Lennie Small—feeble minded and inherently a risk to our child. If through some stroke of luck and rare alignment of the planets we haven’t yet hurt our child, we need to be complimented, to be told we are succeeding at being a parent, to be encouraged to stay the course and remain diligent lest we lose our concentration and like some bad re-enactment of “Raising Arizona,” we leave Nathan Junior on top of the car as we drive off. That probably won’t happen.

Please don’t see me as ungrateful for the thanks so generously expressed. I greatly appreciate the gratitude. But please keep it in line with what you would say to a woman. Not just because it is fair to mothers, but because it is fair to fathers too.

Notes—

1From Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs, 11–12.

Co-opting “Main Line Dads”

I started this blog a year ago to provide a space for some of the fathers in the area to arrange for outings, to arrange the ubiquitous “playdate,” and to point to events and activities that might interest local dads. After a faltering start, the blog died. In large part because I didn’t have the energy and in part because I was using the telephone to arrange outings and events with my father friends.

I have decided to try to use this blog for something entirely different: as a space to talk about what it means for me to be a dad out here on the Main Line, and what I see other Main Line dads doing. While I suspect that many of my experiences here will be specific to the Main Line, I hope that some will be sufficiently general to interest people beyond the immediate vicinity.

There will be no shortage of sarcasm and cynicism, and perhaps a bit of pessimism wrapped up in platitudes and banalities. If you take parenting so seriously that joking about it, pointing out its drawbacks and disadvantages, or generally making fun of the entire project upsets you, you might look elsewhere. If despite knowing that this is a calamitous enterprise—for you and your progeny—you remain committed to it, then stick around. You might just find something amusing here.