Sunday, October 11, 2009

In The Company of Moms - Part 2 of 2

[Transcript -- Session #4: Stay-at-Home Dad A]

: So then what happened?

A: So I'm sitting with Spot back in the corner at parent-tot, and he wants to read, so we pull out a Barney book, Barney's on the farm, lots of pull-up flaps, he loves it, we read it like four or five times whenever we go there. So I'm getting into the pig, the cow, the ducks, all that, and one by one a few other toddlers make there way over to where we're sitting, like the way the ducks on a pond figure out who is tossing out the breadcrumbs and assemble until they're in a naval formation coming your way.

So then I'm reading Barney to two, then three little kids plus Spot, all girls, and we're hanging out. It suddenly strikes me that Hey, this is what the teacher usually does, but the teacher is over on the other side of the room, standing next to the empty easels, the vacant sandbox, talking to 3 or 4 moms.

Q: What are they talking about?

A: I don't know, I can't hear. I'd guess it's the stuff they usually talk about. I call it "boob talk". I can't really participate, although I know what they're talking about. I mean, I was with my wife the whole time that stuff was going on, I understand what boobs are for and how sometimes they work and sometimes they don't work. I like boobs as much as the next guy. But I can't talk about boobs. Certainly not the way they talk about them, and not with Spot hanging around.

Or they might be talking about their husbands. Joking about how their husbands spend all Sunday watching the game, or maybe complaining a little bit about how they are always the ones who are doing all the laundry. I'm like, then why did you marry such losers? This is the 21st century, people. But you know, that's not polite, so I sit in the corner and read books to their kids while they kvetch.

Q: How does that make you feel?

A: I kind of like it. I like kids. I'm a teacher, always have been. It keeps you young. It's a beautiful thing, really, to read to kids. But it weirds out some of the moms, clearly, when I do it.

Q: How so?

A: Well, I have this image in my head, or it's more like say there's this screen behind me, and on it is projected my real life, my secret life. And what you see is the parking lot behind the school, where my white, 1989 Ford Econoline van is parked with the engine running, because that way it will be easier for me to abduct all these little girls and drive off onto the set of America's Most Wanted.

That's what the other moms see when they look over at our little reading group.

Q: How do you know that's what they see?

A: Well, not all of them, but I'm pretty sure that's what a lot of them instinctively feel. But I mean, it's [deleted] 9AM in the [deleted] morning, I haven't shaved, I'm strung out just like everyone else, and I'm there with my 2.5 year old son, the last [deleted] thing I'm thinking about is sex with anyone, OK? And I don't drive a Ford Econoline van with plywood bolted over the windows, in case anyone is wondering.

Q: This really strikes a nerve with you.

A: Of course. Jesus. So we'll be reading for about 2 or 3 minutes, then a mom will notice her little girl is over with Spot -- now we've moved on to a counting book from the Natural History Museum, How many mummies are on this page? How many dinosaurs are on that page? that sort of thing -- and Mom Q notices her kid is not at the easel or at the sandbox, and so calls to her: "Sally, do you want to come over and paint at the easel?" which really means, "Can you please leave that pervert and come over to where I can see you?" And Sally is like, "Forget that, mom, cause this is where the action is," and so Mom Q kind of sashays over to about 6 feet away and pulls out a firetruck to tempt Sally away from the danger.

Q: Do you do anything to reassure these mothers that you are not the kind of person they may be worried about? Think about it from their perspective: the media is bombarding them with stories of abducted children, child abuse, horrible stories on TV every night.

A: Yeah, sure. I need to reach out. I try. But then I run into the other problem. The "pack problem". I've thought about this a lot. As soon as they have kids, most moms want to form a tribe with other moms. It's a way to get some sense of orientation when you're going through all this stuff you've never gone through before. I understand that. The thing is, when you form tribes, there's a danger of being tribal. So you have more and more dads, who don't form tribes, and they're trying to engage with all these moms, who do form tribes, and it's like a big culture clash.

Q: Can you give me an example of how this tribalism affects you?

A: Well, it doesn't just affect me, it can affect other moms, too. I've seen that. In fact, if you're a man, you're kind of spared, because you have this other universe you live in, where you really don't give a flying [deleted] what the local mom-pack might think about this or that, who packs the best lunches and all that [deleted]. But the other moms, especially the young ones, they don't have that luxury. If they're not "in" the pack, then they're on an ice floe with a starving polar bear drifting out to sea, and it's mighty tough place to be.

But say you get a brave mom, a real Independent, and she's like, Oh, that dad in the corner, he must feel left out. She then faces the following dilemma. She thinks:

I'd like to be nice to him, because he's being nice to my daughter, thereby freeing me up for boob talk with the other moms over by the sandbox, and of course I am motivated by real and genuine and profound feminine sympathy for another human being ...

... but then a sudden tribal signal scrambles these intentions and she makes the following social calculus:

But if I go over there, he may take it the wrong way and think I'm flirting with him, that I'm being a coquette, yes a coquette, over animal crackers and grape juice and the amorous fragrance of Purell hand sanitizer. Because that's how men are, they see everything that way, but also because I'd kind of like that, actually, because it would be nice for an impartial outsider to make me feel attractive at this stage of my life, plus all this constant baby care is a drag and I need an escape. But in reality the problem is not what HE will think, it's what the TRIBE will think if I do go over there, because if the tribe thinks I'm being a coquette, even if I haven't the least flirtatious intention, then I might be branded with the Scarlet Letter, led out to the town square and shamed on the scaffold, kicked off the island as it were, which means of course that this poor mom -- me -- will then have no one to sit next to at the playground except the nannies, and I don't speak Polish.

And that would be hell, pure hell. And so I'm not going to go talk to him, she thinks.

Q: Do you feel sympathy for her?

A: In a way, yes. These moms, they're nice people. I meet them one-on-one on the outside and it's like we're best friends. Hey, how's Baby Julius doing? Great, how's little Esmerelda? But on the inside, it's like a street gang or something. Even if they like you, they have to focus their energy on maintaining their rank in the gang. Chatting-up stay-at-home dads at parent tot class gets them zero cred with the tribe. Zilch.

It's like I'm a Pacific island and they are Britain and France fighting over who gets Samoa and who gets Fiji. I just smile and keep planting my yams while they work it out.

Q: We're out of time.

[End of session]


Kathi said...

We usually try to embrace the Dads who come to our homeschool group because we don't get that many Dads who come.

But, this makes me think back to last week. We had a Dad come. I think he played catch with his son for a while then sat in the back and watched the kid's presentations. I don't know how many Moms approached him. I admit that I didn't.

Damn it!

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Fantastic, Chicago pop. Thanks for the post.

craig said...

I may not be a stay-at-home dad but b/c of my wife's work schedule, I find myself in frequent awkward social situations as the lone dad at our local park or library. I can completely relate.

Anonymous said...

Gee, got to this late. As a SAHD of 17 years I can tell you that this looms as a huge challenge to any dad. As time goes on this sucks your spirt dry like nothing else. Though these dads haven't felt it yet there is a corollary. As you do this longer and longer and learn more about children and learn the, for lack of a better term, tricks of the trade, against all reason you opinion never means anything. Mothers of one year olds will nervously ask the advise of the mothers of three year olds. If I offer an opinion I just get a bewildered look.

It turns out that old fashioned intestinal fortitude is the key to doing this.