Whenever I run errands with our baby, Emma, and tell my wife about our encounters with strangers, she always says the same thing, "You were just a dad out on the town, weren't you?" It's not a question. It's actually the verbal equivalent of an eye roll.
My wife thinks there's a disturbing double standard when it comes to how strangers treat a dad in public with his child/children versus how they treat a mom and her brood. Everything about this theory pisses me off, in part because deep down I know it’s true. But accepting this double standard forces me to second-guess something that's so pure for me.
See, I love taking my daughter out in public. It's the closest I'll ever come to hanging around a celebrity. Strangers constantly stare, point, and approach without warning. "Look at those big, beautiful blue eyes," people will say to Emma and, I assume, Katy Perry, too.
The craziest example of was in Washington, D.C. when a group of 10-15 middle-aged Asian tourists surrounded Emma and me and started taking pictures. My initial reaction – to hold up my daughter a la The Lion King – was met with laughter and more furious photo-taking. But when I turned the tables and started snapping pictures of the group, the paparazzi moment came to an abrupt end. I never found why we were photographed. Maybe the group mistook Emma for Prince George (she didn't have a bow on) and me for the dutiful Manny. Regardless of the reason, I loved the experience.
I get so much joy from these outings with my daughter. I swell up with pride when I'm parading Emma around the supermarket or the liquor store (less competition from other cute babies) and people stop to tell me my daughter is "adorable" or "precious" or "trying to climb out of the cart." I love watching Emma take in the world from her shopping cart, beaming her gummy, Jack-O-lantern smile and waving as if she were the centerpiece of a very important parade.
But I'm a first-time dad, so I do struggle. And one thing I’ve never felt is judgment or ridicule when those struggles take place in public. From what I hear, that’s not normally the case with new moms.
When Emma starts shrieking, I never feel the collective glare of the entire place forcing me to second guess my decision to bring the damned kid out. Instead, a kind-hearted stranger almost always rushes over in an attempt to make my wailing daughter smile. When Emma starts fussing, I don't hesitate to pour some formula into a Dr. Brown's (unpaid endorsement) because I've never had to worry about strangers judging me for whipping out a bottle instead of whipping out a boob.
That’s the luxury of being a dad, of being a dude really. I’ll almost always get credit just for showing up. As unfair as it is, women are always held to a much higher standard than men, whether they’re raising children or running for President of the United States.
While I bask in Emma’s public encounters with strangers, my wife worries about every tiny move she’s made or is about to make, as if a routine trip to the store were a chess match against Bobby Fischer. Parenting judgement will happen, it’s just a question of when.
Trust me, I should be judged – harshly – for some my parenting choices.
Just last week, I rolled into the grocery story with Emma in a terribly mismatched outfit, no socks on her feet, food residue and snot forming a hard crust on her dirty, unwashed face and grubby little hands.
On this fine day, I was sporting mad scientist hair, unemployment-caliber five-o’clock shadow, a stained, moth-eaten Pearl Jam tour shirt (Yield-era), and a dirty, ill-fitting pair of sweats. The wardrobe was tied together expertly by a pair of weathered bedroom slippers I’ve owned since 1999. I looked more like Emma’s kidnapper than her loving father.
Why do I remember what I was wearing so well? Because during this particular trip, I started feeling a bit self-conscious about my choices – for myself and for Emma.
Despite our appearances, we still managed to make some friends that day. While one woman raved about Emma’s big, blue eyes, I worried she’d notice I hadn’t showered in a few days. What would my wife be doing during an interaction like this? Probably worrying about whether this stranger noticed she was giving Emma generic-brand puffs.
Meanwhile, under my watch, my daughter was happily sucking on the car keys that I'd just pulled out of the ignition of my 2005 Camry. Of course, this stranger didn’t bat an eye over it. Why would she? I'm just a dad out on the town.