You’ve probably heard the phrase “driving while black,” which refers to a perception that black drivers are more likely to be stopped by cops. This was whispered in the African-American community for years before it broke out into the wider cultural conversation and was gradually validated by empirical studies.
Similarly, stay-at-home dads have whispered for years about feeling unfairly targeted for "parenting while male," and recently their concerns have started to get mainstream attention. In last week's Wall Street Journal, Free-Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy explored what happens when “when almost any man who has anything to do with a child can find himself suspected of being a creep.”
I spotted the column in a tweet from the redoubtable DadLabs. I replied: “I was once asked to leave a playground by a grandmother. I wonder how many guys have had that experience?” DadLabs tweeted back: “Most? Or faced playdate discrimination of one kind or another? #dadsnotpervs.”
This little twitter exchange echoes less-public discussion I’ve heard many times at gatherings of fathers: that they are often made to feel like outsiders at parks, playgrounds, and situations where most of the other parents are moms or grandmoms—and that their participation in playgroups or classes is sometimes rejected.
Atrocity stories circulate, but how widespread are actual "parenting while male" experiences, really? To start to get the answer, on Monday I created this survey, which as of this morning had been taken by 74 guys—60 percent of whom spend 31 or more hours a week taking care of a child. Here are the results so far:
- Three men—4.5% of the participants who answered this question—said that they had been asked to leave a playground by a caregiver.
- Twenty-four percent said that they had been refused entry to a gathering of parents and children.
- Fifty-five percent said that their parenting skills had been criticized or corrected in a public setting.
- Fifty-eight percent of participants felt that this criticism or exclusion occurred on the grounds that they are male.
- Twenty-eight percent of participants reported that they had experienced these incidents on five or more occasions.
At the end of the survey, I asked how experiences of criticism or exclusion shaped their attitudes and behavior. Many reported feeling hurt or resentful, but then getting over it and moving forward with their lives:
"At first I was a little indignant. As someone who was forced into being the primary caregiver role, my confidence was already shot from losing my job, and so to have other mothers correcting me or looking at me crossways was an extra gut-punch. At some point, though, I realized being a full-time father was my role and that's what my wife and kids needed more so than a paycheck. Once I reached this mindset, what other mothers thought of me didn't matter any more. I just did the best I could, and tried to be as charming as possible. In a way, it turned the tables because most of these mothers had insecurities of their own in their role, and to come across a dad who seemed to be handling full-time parenting just fine, I think made them feel threatened.”However, a majority reported permanent changes in their day-to-day behavior and feelings as caregivers:
“In our neighborhood, people occasionally offering my wife and I unsequestered (and unwanted) advise [sic] pertaining to parenting. It generally annoys or perplexes me, but I don't believe that it has changed my behavior or attitudes, except to wonder about cultural differences to parenting and advise giving.”
“I am very reluctant to put myself out there to groups of moms with their kids. I often let my sons go and play with kids at the park and I will stand on the periphery as the other moms talk. I often feel excluded and thus am more reserved.”Some participants did not did not hear outright comments, but modified their behavior based on ambient fears about men on playgrounds:
“It certainly made me feel excluded, possibly looked-down-upon. The strange thing was that each time such criticism or behavior was couched in such a way that it excused itself. 'Of course, it's better for the children for a mother to do these things' was one comment I remember, delivered with a short, self-conscious, judgmental laugh. As though it were self-evident that I wasn't the best choice to take care of my daughters.”
“I currently tend to be more on guard, and intervene between my child and another child in a public setting. This is due to twice where an unknown parent in a public playground setting has confronted me as a parent on my child's play being unsafe or rough.”
“I avoided events/organized activities that were dominated by stay at home moms.”
“Makes me instantly defensive, so after the first incident or two, even if the comments weren't made because I was male, I probably assumed the worst and reacted as if they were.”
“I was playing t-ball with my son and a couple of other toddlers on the playground and my own wife (who arrived after I'd been there for an hour or so) pointed out that I should be careful about touching the other kids when helping them hit the ball. That surprised me, as it hadn't previously occurred to me that anybody would think it was an issue. Now I am much more self-conscious about it and try to remember to ask parents' permission in similar situations. Which is annoying.”
“I don't think I've ever been excluded from a play situation as a dad. I have had odd experiences - the mist [sic] salient here us that I've had young children who were strangers to me approach me at the playground and climb into my lab. That made me distinctly uncomfortable - I actually went and found the mom and told her about it, both to give her a heads up as to what her kid was doing with men she didn't know and also to protect myself.”It’s important to emphasize that a minority of respondents did not report any kind of overt discriminatory behavior:
“After 14 years of being a father, 11 of them as primary caregiver, I have never been asked to leave a setting nor been criticized. While I may have been ignored by the moms a few times, that is not the norm.”A few respondents felt that the discrimination had a basis in reality:
“I have never felt excluded from a playground or other public setting, nor a playgroup. All group activities related to my childrens [sic] school and peer group have been supportive of involved fathers. I have received a couple of comments about parenting choices - one was probably not without reason (I was distracting my toddler with a bottle of eyedrops and got ‘It's medicine, not a toy.’) but I found the delivery and attitude to be rude. I have never felt that the comments were made with an ‘incompetent dad’ attitude, but were specific to the action that was being criticized.”
“No change - I understand that women may not feel comfortable with a 'random guy' at the playgroup. It sucks, but I wasn't doing anything wrong so I didn't feel like changing. Plus, it's a little hard changing being a guy.”For others, discrimination provoked them to try to build a community of fathers:
“Nobody wants unattached, creepy dudes hanging around playgrounds.”
“I've never been explicitly excluded because I was a male. Criticism based on my gender only prompted me to write about being a SAHD and to make connections and build community with other like-minded parents.”
“I am very confident in the way that I parent, so I was not affected by nannies questioning my skills. Men are specifically excluded from the local mothers' group, so it wasn't personal. I did work with a friend to start a dads' group in our city.”
There was another type of response: some dads used the experience as a way to understand the experiences of others. As one guy put it, “It made me sympathetic for the bias that others feel from white men.” Nearly all of the respondents identified themselves as “white” (obviously a limitation of this survey; I plan to do something later that casts a wider net) and so I think it’s fair to say that in many cases these men were experiencing social discrimination for the first time in their lives.I have many thoughts about the context and how to interpret these results, but first I'd like to have a discussion. Please share your reactions, thoughts, and experiences in the comments, and invite others to join the conversation through your own blogs and social media.