Subtle differences

Originally Posted on September 12, 2011

I’ve been at this single dad thing now for going on three months and noticed a couple of interesting things. While we live in a day and age where the notion of a “family” could mean a mom and a dad, two dads or moms, or a single parent, either male or female, I find that for the latter group there are a number of subtle realities that fall short of our Western society’s supposed endorsement of single parents as a category.

What do I mean by that? Basically, we aren’t programmed to look at a single parent as a normal thing at all, especially if that single parent is a male. An example: I took the kids to the mall on my own on Saturday. I couldn’t tell you how much attention that garnered us. It was all of the positive variety, meaning all the looks from lovable grannies were of the kind of “aw, that dad is giving mommy the day off and taking the kids out.” It put me in a completely undeserved positive light, and the kids were perhaps seen as having this super dad who cared oh so much for them and his his wife. A nice idea, but not quite the case.

That’s a positive example. A less than positive one would be that, at the same mall or really any public gathering place where bathrooms are present, I have yet to find a single men’s loo with a baby changing station in it. Some malls, like the Pavilion and Gateway have family loos, which include the same sort of changing stations as the one seen at the top of this post. I’ve never seen a single one of these in any men’s loo anywhere in this country.

What is the subtle message being transmitted here to the men of South Africa? This is apparently not the province of men, this business of changing nappies. Men are apparently never expected to either take their kids out on their own nor change a nappy ever, at least not in a public setting. The picture at the top was taken at a McDonald’s somewhere in the States. I wonder if the McD’s here has one… but then, why on earth would I want to take my kids there?! That “food” of theres is, to put it kindly, food in name only. But we won’t go there today. Maybe someday I’ll let rip on the golden arches. But I love that they include baby changers in the men’s loo. It might be their single redeeming quality.

It makes me sad that, taken together, these two observations reveal some of what white South Africa expects of it’s men: go to work, pay the bills, and play with the kids… at home. If a nappy needs changing, leave it to the women. C’mon guys… really? I want to take my kids out to public places, but what do I do when Sophie fills her britches?

Maybe I should just start changing her right out in front of everyone, out in the open. That might get them moving on those changing stations.

Returning to the first observation, why is it so surprising to see a father taking his kids out on his own? No one would bat an eye if they saw a mom on her own at the shops with a gaggle of kids swinging off of her. Must be that dad is at work, and mom’s just gotta buy stuff. No one minds that. But there have been times when I’ve taken the kids to the shops during the week at around 3pm to pick up a few things, and I get the funniest looks then. It’s as if they’re thinking “must be one of those new-fangled families where the mom is making all the cash.” It’s a weird sort of passing of judgment on my manhood. Mr. Mom or something. Must not be clever enough to hold down a real job. Shame.

I don’t really mind that too much either. The assumptions don’t affect me directly because those folks have no idea about our reality. But it surprises me how these roles are so very entrenched in the collective psyche out here. I can’t say I noticed it in the States, but then I held down the “real” job once Seanie was born. If by real job you mean being one of the millions of unhappy cubicle dwellers manacled to a headset fielding the inane complaints of disgruntled customers. But if I think about it… yes, it’s present there too. The sort of passive approval that would come during casual conversation: what do you do? I work a job I hate to feed my family. Nice one. So do I.

So the man works, and the woman rears the babies. It’s a matter of teamwork. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. As something of a latent traditionalist, I think it’s better to have at least one parent at home for the kids when they’re done with school just to give them a sense of stability. So I’m not bashing on dads for having a 9 to 5. Far from it.

But for a while out here, Janie had the real job and I was minding the children. That was from March of this year until Janie passed away in June. In a sense, I had some on-the-job training to prepare me for this next phase of life. I wasn’t really looking out for the looks then, but I see them all the time now. Maybe I’m hyper sensitive.

Thing is, I don’t think I am. Men really aren’t expected to get to down and dirty with their kids. Men aren’t expected to get up with the kids at night. They aren’t expected to go to parent-teacher meetings. It’s okay to go to kids events, especially if it’s sports since that’s manly. But don’t bother offering to change a nappy at the Spur because there isn’t even a changing station in the loo.

This isn’t an indictment of South African dads or men but rather of an unchallenged status quo that is predicated on an outdated and ignorant understanding of what it means to be a man and a father. Just because you don’t have a womb to push a kid through or breasts to feed the baby doesn’t mean you don’t participate in every other aspect of parenting with the same commitment and devotion as the moms. The fact that our society doesn’t offer the sort of cultural cues like a changing table in the men’s loo just serves to reinforce that notion.

But I guess that’s why moms get flowers on Mothers Day and dads get ties on their official holiday. Flowers symbolize beauty, grace and life, everything a traditional concept of motherhood embodies. Ties symbolize work.

It is my opinion that dads are losing out on so much because of this mindset. The really sad thing about unchallenged roles is that they are taken to be both good and normal, and that anything that is outside of those kinds of social mores are seen as a threat to the whole way of doing things. The sense of being nurtured by a parent is built over years through the little things like changing nappies and giving baths, making lunches and wiping away the tears in the middle of the night, helping with homework and talking to the teacher, washing clothes and changing the bed, helping the kids in and out of their clothes, taking them to the loo, taking them to the doctor and giving them their muthi so that they feel better, bandaging their owies and kissing away the pain. Moms do all of this stuff, all of it. Dads can’t expect to have that kind of tight bond just by spending a little time with the kids on the weekend.

And sadly, I get the feeling our society doesn’t expect them to. We perpetuate the notion that it’s okay for kids to have the tighter bond with their mothers. I definitely never did much of any of the above while Janie was around. Now I do it all. With Seanie being three and Sophie two, the bond we will form from here on out will be much more of the “maternal” kind, and I am actually thankful for that. As the remaining parent, the fact that I now do all the nurturing gives them the chance to form at least one very strong bond with a parent. I am now mom and dad. I play both roles. I couldn’t be happier, given the circumstances. And I feel sad for men who don’t have this and feel as though something like this is either unmanly or impossible. It is my firm belief that if men participate equally (as possible) in all the little nurturing activities that take place daily when rearing children, the bond formed there would be an awful lot stronger than what society passively intimates is the “proper” relationship between a father and his children.

I think that is a worthwhile project to pursue.

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